A crash course in understanding racism
An essay on the possibilities and limitations of self-help books for anti-racism reading
“Go to the literature,” the writer Joan Didion reminds herself when she’s trying to make sense of her life after her partner dies. If I remember correctly, this was a thing her mother would advise her to do when she didn’t understand something.
In all my years of working with books, thinking about books and reading and writing about books, I have never seen as many requests and as many recommendations for books to read on a particular topic as I did during June and July of 2020. People were suddenly begging for books – rather than just the daily news – to make proper sense of racism.
It required video footage of a man slowly being strangled by a policeman in broad daylight for this new thirst for books to take hold.
In the week George Floyd was murdered – weeks after Collins Khosa was killed by soldiers in Alexandra – my children’s social media feeds were full of white friends expressing shock and horror. And making all kinds of rookie anti-racist mistakes, hurling themselves enthusiastically and with good intention into a fray they really didn’t seem to have a clue about.
“How do they not know?” my kids asked. How do people not know about police brutality, and about the social systems that allow that brutality to be unleashed mainly on some kinds of people in service of other kinds of people?
There is so much to know about racism and there is so much ignorance. Where does one begin with white moral outrage that is only ignited in 2020?
The same week, I had to have yet another difficult conversation with a member of my extended family about something they posted on social media. They care about me, about having a relationship with me, but apparently, they care more about posting something that says #whitelivesmatter. Decades of trying to have discussions with them, of anger and fighting, of making boundaries, of trying to explain other ways of seeing the world, have meant nothing to them except that I’m a pain in their arse. I asked them to remove their post.
“You’ve already defriended me. What do you care what I post?” was the response. I care because it is racist. I care because it represents a world view I find abominable.
“I don’t believe that you or anyone can consider me a racist,” they said. “It simply isn’t true.”
Very soon, I noticed my Instagram flooded with what can only be described as life hacks for white people to understand racism. Succinct and written in the edgy, confrontational way of memes, they were very often composed by black women. Black women were doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to white ignorance – or white disingenuousness. Black women do a lot of heavy lifting, period.
One of those women is Layla Saad. Two years ago, she ran a free month-long Instagram challenge which allowed participants to think about white supremacy. Not the men-in-pointy-white-hats kind of white supremacy from the Southern United States. Or the shaven-headed-swastika-tattoo white supremacy of the early 21st century in Europe. Or the safari-suit-knee-socks-and-moustaches white supremacy of 1970s South Africa. Just your average I’ll-kill-you-with-my-ignorance white supremacy.
Within six months, 80,000 people had downloaded her Me and White Supremacy Workbook and it has now been published. It offers to take readers “through a journey of understanding their white privilege and participations in white supremacy, so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on black, indigenous and people of color, and in turn, help other white people do better, too”.
When the sudden demand for books on racism in the first week in June skyrocketed, I wondered whether people were craving some sort of racism crash course and whether such a thing could be made.
Saad’s book seems to be that. It’s a workbook. Everyone loves a workbook, right? How to become effective through practising seven particular habits, or to become an artist through daily dedication to creative exercises, or how to live in the now, be more organised, or make money like a rich dad. Perhaps it is possible to become racism-stain-free in four weeks.
If you do Saad’s workbook, you’re not going to come out of it cleansed, purified and beautifully anti-racist, with a licence to show for your trouble. In fact, if you haven’t spent your life reading widely – if Saad’s really is your first exposure to black thinking on racism – you’ll probably come away shaken. Her questions require painful reckonings with the self. Our psychic structures, whether they concern intimate questions of pain from our families, or from trauma, or broader structural questions of social suffering, are built for defence. No one likes to turn over a rock which they know might hide a scorpion.
There were 173 reviews of the book on Goodreads and the book’s average rating came to 4.39 out of five when I last looked, in spite of a few one-star reviews from people who, one can see, are not ready to engage with the material.
Anti-racism is life work. And it’s hard. Some days you will want to imagine the problems you know exist do not. Some days you will not have the energy to work against the impulses of the training you received at the knee of a racist system designed for you to never doubt that you have an edge over people whose skins are darker than yours. Some days you will, irrationally, want to forego all pleasure. Some days are so beautiful, you will forget everything and the smell of narcissus in winter will strike you through with a pleasant paralysis. You will always fall short. You will likely embarrass yourself.
I worked through Me and White Supremacy. I was more interested to see what work Saad proposes one does, than to have a crash course myself. I have been “going to the literature” since my teens and I am reasonably au fait with the language of anti-racism, so I did not expect that it would make me as uncomfortable as it did. I did not expect that I would wake up in the night and think about racism then too. I didn’t expect memories of stupid things I’ve said or done or thought to come floating up from god-knows-where.
When you’ve been to the literature, your mind is full of lines that crowd into your daily life and your other reading. A line from a poem by Thabo Jijana came to me on one of the days I worked on Saad’s book: “In this our beggarly world, there is hardly incentive to lead/a just life.”
On another day: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better,” something Maya Angelou was supposed to have said, though I’ve not been able to find a source for that.
I thought about how shame is always a feature of racism conversations and how nauseating and paralysing people find shame, and I remembered Mary Oliver’s words: “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
I thought about Tony Hoagland’s poem Gorgon. The poem’s about death, but good lines lend themselves to multiple situations. He writes: “Your job is not to conquer it; … //Your job is to be kind/Your job is to watch and take notes//Your job is to not be turned into a stone”.
I thought about Adrienne Rich’s meditation about honourable relationships: “An honorable human relationship… is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying for both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”
And I thought, finally, about James Baldwin saying: “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
It was also Baldwin’s habit to go to the literature.
He said: “It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who are alive, or who have ever been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.” DM/MC/ML