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Do the Work: 20 Books That Can Help You Understand Racism

As protests against police brutality escalate, be an ally and educate yourself about the realities faced by people of color.
by Carrie M. King | Jun 3 2020

At the time of writing, protests across the US against the police killing of George Floyd have stretched into their eighth heartbreaking day. For white people in the US and around the world, it can be hard to know how to best support the protestors and to be an actual ally, not just a performative one. Beyond donating (find a list of relevant local organizations here) and volunteering with campaign groups, one of the most important things you can do is to inform yourself and open up to the reality of experiences you have been privileged enough not to live.

These protests and the news cycles that surround them will pass, but the systemic injustices and violence that spurred them will endure. That’s why it’s crucial that white people do the work themselves and seek to become more informed and, as a result, better citizens, better allies, better people.

Do not ask a person of color to explain the situation to you, now or ever. Instead, seek out online videos of Jane Elliott, the creator of the Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise to get a sense of the arbitrary nature of racism on which so much of modern society is built. Then, I recommend you read some—or all—of the following books by Black authors which can help you understand the historic and contemporary struggles that come with being a person of color. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will hopefully provide you with a solid foundation for building your knowledge further. I would also recommend checking out this list of anti-racism resources that was compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein in May 2020.

1. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation traces historic and contemporary devastation caused by racism and structural inequality and lays out the argument for how the modern mass movement has the potential to have a lasting impact.

2. Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad

Released just this year, Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is intended as a guidebook for white people who want to deepen their understanding of racism and become anti-racist allies. Saad also published another really useful book list in The Guardian which you can use as a reference.

3. When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

Cofounder of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist is essential reading for understanding the reality and impact of racism, structural inequality, and police brutality in the US. This 2017 publication is a compelling mix of personal anecdotes and shocking statistics.

4. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Drawing his title from a Richard Wright poem about a Black man who discovers a lynching and becomes paralysed with fear, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote this 2015 open letter to his son about the realities of being Black in America. It won the 2015 National Book Award, was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer and came in at number 7 on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.

5. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

On the other side of the pond, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race tackles the often dismissed problem of racism in Britain. This book aims to provide a productive starting point for conversations about race, class, and white privilege in the UK and examines the complexities of Black British history.

6. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Released just last year, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist explores the societal roots of racism and inequality, offering his own experience as well as political and historical insights that illuminate the tangled modern status quo. For anyone who really cares about social justice, the author offers a way to begin affecting change in a deeply unfair world.

7. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Now ten years old, The New Jim Crow is sadly not any less relevant to 2020 readers. Author Michelle Alexander investigates discrimination in the US, the so-called War on Drugs, and the flawed justice system where racial bias, both conscious and unconscious, has led to mass incarceration of African-Americans.

8. Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Though Britain has an extremely ethnically diverse population, British national identity has remained quite homogenous. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) explores the tensions between racial identity, national identity and the history of immigration to the UK.

9. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

Malcolm X Day just passed us by on May 19th commemorating the life of one of America’s most influential civil rights activists. As the title suggests, this book is an autobiography of the fascinating life of Malcolm X, based on extensive interviews with his ghostwriter, Alex Haley.

10. Bunk by Kevin Young

The phenomenon of the hoax is inextricably linked to racial stereotypes throughout American history. In Bunk, Kevin Young explains how this is the case and how hoaxes have evolved throughout the 20th century into the 21st, morphing into fake news in a post-fact world.

11. Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Racism has been a part of the American society since the foundation of the state but Stamped from the Beginning casts a clear eye over the modern history of racism in the United States with a particular look at how the campaigns and administrations of Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton had a deep negative impact on America’s Black community.

12. Black and British by David Olusoga

While British history is often whitewashed, in reality there have been Black people living in Britain since the days of the Roman empire. In this deeply moving and fascinating read, David Olusoga examines Black Britishness, and the long-standing relationship Britain has had with Africa and the Caribbean, often through colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

13. Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks

Prolific feminist author, intellectual, and social activist bell hooks examines the uniquely difficult position women of color hold in the United States. Throughout all of history’s social movements, racism and sexism have converged to render Black women the lowest status of any group in America. The book takes its title from a speech delivered by Sojourner Truth in 1851.

14. Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

The War on Drugs which was started in the ‘70s in the US might have just as easily been a war on Black Americans. Drug and gun legislation has shaped policing methods and targeting of crime in Black communities and has contributed to the current state of mass incarceration.

15. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Daily Show host, Trevor Noah, was born in apartheid-era South Africa and in this autobiography, he shares stories of his childhood and adolescence as a person of mixed heritage before and after 1993 when apartheid was officially dismantled.

16. This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins shares her experiences as a Black woman living in modern America. The book deftly demonstrates how Black women have been marginalized, even within movements such as feminism that purport to be a tide to lift all boats.

17. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Take a walk through the American criminal justice system of the 1980s to gain a better understanding of how a system designed to safeguard rights and individuals became a tool to mistreat and abuse the most vulnerable members of society. Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

18. We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A book that gains more relevance with every passing day, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power reflects on the Obama administration, the aftermath of the first Black presidency, and racism and white supremacy throughout American history.

19. Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom

This book of essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom draws on the author’s experiences and those of others as African-American women to shine a light on the many paradoxes of modern America. With smart, sharp prose, McMillan Cottom dissects a range of topics such as politics, beauty, and capitalism.

20. The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, Lara Love Hardin

Wrongly convicted of two murders, the only crimes Anthony Ray Hinton committed were being poor and Black. Acquitted after nearly thirty years in solitary confinement on death row, in this book he shares his experiences of the mental and emotional torture he endured, and how he came through it all with an overwhelming wealth of compassion, forgiveness, and hope.

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