Following repetitive police brutality and a spotlight on the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few months, anti-racist reading lists popped up across news outlets as one of many recommended actions toward becoming an anti-racist. These reading lists often share books focused on understanding white supremacy and privilege. But one thing the BLM movement continues to make clear is that it is not enough to simply be “not racist.” Instead, one must be anti-racist.
The term “anti-racist” is loaded, but it mostly has to do with the fact that allyship must be more of a verb than a noun. The allyship of anti-racism implies ongoing and meaningful action toward dismantling racism and supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Therefore, an anti-racist reading list is meant to provide a list of books to read that will educate readers on race relations.
Although anti-racist reading lists are published with the best intentions, they have become part of a broader system which generalizes and compartmentalizes Black authorship into perpetual voices of trauma and pain. Rarely do the books listed support the overlooked stories of Black joy, love or success without mandating a hardship among it. Instead, author L.L. McKinney writes that the overwhelming message from publishers to Black authors, and Black people in general, is that their stories are worth little if they are not “bleed[ing] on the page” for everyone to see. This fetishization of Black trauma is echoed in the lack of recognition for Black roles other than slaves or nannies, the trending of white savior movies on Netflix and the grossly republished videos of police murdering Black men on social media.
In looking at the books on these lists, one can question what the qualifications are to become an “anti-racist” novel. Must Black authors “bleed on the page,” as McKinney writes, or can they write happily about race and culture? Also, what does it mean when a white woman’s book tops these lists? Whereas some books may show up every so often on an anti-racist reading list, Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” appears across the board. DiAngelo describes “White Fragility” as a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” DiAngelo encourages an embrace of discomfort when discussing whiteness in all its privilege.
In one book review, author and sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson claims DiAngelo “joins the front ranks of white anti-racist thinkers,” calling “White Fragility” a “truly generative idea.” However, people of color have confronted white denial for hundreds of years. This type of review begs the question: is anti-racist work only generative when it is made by and for white people?
While there is something undeniably admirable about DiAngelo’s intense examination of whiteness, to say “White Fragility” is a generative idea ignores centuries of white guilt, and suggests that only through DiAngelo’s work can we now fully understand long-standing patterns of deflection. Though DiAngelo may have evoked a pedagogical breakthrough for many white readers, this discussion altogether was not unique for people of color prior to its publishing.
Additionally, despite DiAngelo’s desire for white people to reflect inward on their own supremacist behaviors, Black professors like John McWhorter at Columbia University feel as if she herself speaks over Black people throughout the entirety of her book. McWhorter specifically highlights DiAngelo’s claims that “when white women cry upon being called racists, Black people are reminded of white women crying as they lied about being raped by Black men eons ago. But how would she know?”
As a white woman, DiAngelo makes broad claims about Black experience. It is important to note that rather than liken two situations, DiAngelo’s word choice directly states that Black people indeed react how she says they do. Yet to repeat McWhorter’s blunt statement, as a white woman, how would DiAngelo know? And what qualifies her to speak on Black experience this way?
None of this is to discourage white educators or white people from discussing whiteness or even the concept of white fragility. Rather, it should again highlight what exactly anti-racist novels are meant to do. To go back to my earlier statement, it seems as if anti-racist reading lists are meant to provide a list of books to read — an action — in order to educate readers on race — a solution, or the start of one. It is a naive promise of allyship to suggest that reading one book can alleviate centuries of white supremacy, and it is, as told by Melissa Phruksachart, the literature of white liberalism. Literature that yet again makes anti-racism a privileged and noteworthy task for elites who want to emphasize their presence in the fight against white supremacy in a fit of performance while expelling Black voices from the conversation.
This type of literature necessitates pedagogy from all Black novels, creating what Lauren Michele Jackson calls an irresponsible approach to literature which reinforces the idea that “Black writers are just a means for white people to be better at being white people.” It is disrespectful to all Black authors to continue placing their work into that which is anti-racist and that which is not, and it stems from what still appears to be a misunderstanding of race relations. Jackson notes the presence of Toni Morrison’s novel, “The Bluest Eye,” on anti-racist reading lists to explain that the novel has to do with racism in that racism is everywhere — the environment, for starters. Yet all of Morrison’s artistry is lost when one simply reads “The Bluest Eye,” a novel centered on a young Black girl’s understanding of racialized beauty, in an attempt to examine and alleviate their own inner biases.
The Black authorship behind books on these lists is illustrious, laudable and before anything, worthwhile. The challenge is to view them as such without describing their worth in terms of whiteness — more specifically the benefits that white people get when reading this book. If one truly wants to engage in allyship, they can learn to appreciate Black art outside of the confines of anti-racism and white fragility. Learn to diversify your bookshelf not only with stories of struggle, but of joy. Success. Love. Black literature should be appreciated in its artistry and its Blackness — not one removed from the other.
Kaitlyn Liu is a junior majoring in English.