Impactful books about race
August 10, 2020 6:51 PM   Subscribe

Hey y'all, I'm a white person looking for more books to read about racial justice. What books have you read that most impacted the way you think about race or gave you important ideas or perspectives that you use often?

Tell me about books that challenged you, made you think in new ways, or gave you new information. Or tell me about a book that you think white people should read. And please tell me WHY you recommend the book or HOW it affected you! Thinking mostly about anti-Black racism, but I'm also very ignorant about racism against other groups, especially indigenous peoples, so feel free to recommend books about that as well.

posted by switcheroo to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
be very wary of any recommendations written by white people!

This Bridge Called My Back - collection of work by radical women of color. poetry, prose, non-fiction, a classic in forming intersectional analysis.
Zami A New Spelling of my name by Audre Lorde - Audre tells her story with conviction and courage. I came away with a greater empathy for Black women
M Archive by Alexis Pauline Gumbs - one of the most profound texts I've ever read. I don't know how to describe it other than the literal truth. Alexis Pauline Gumbs says "we must love fat Black women and in doing so we love the earth." I can't recommend this book enough
Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington - I'm in medicine so this one hit particularly close to home. Maybe you've heard of Tuskegee but this dives into the bowels of medical experimentation on Black people throughout history
Fearing the Black Body: the racial origins of fatphobia by Sabrina Strings - weaves together intersecting oppressions - fatness, Blackness, womanness - I found it really illuminating
posted by allymusiqua at 7:31 PM on August 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

Citizen by Claudia Rankine finally helped me viscerally get microaggressions.

White Rage by Carol Anderson is a pretty implacable look at our own history without spending any time on why whites are so violent.
posted by frumiousb at 7:59 PM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've read several lately since many public libraries have extra 'copies' of eBooks available right now along with reading lists (for example). How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi has been by far my favorite. I liked it because it's both a nice summation of where we as a society are with race today while also feeling like it contains actionable suggestions. I'm reading it as part of a book-club through work, and I find that being able to discuss the chapters with others helps (although it was so good I didn't stick to reading a chapter a week and binged it over a couple of evenings).
posted by togdon at 8:26 PM on August 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Good Talk by Mira Jacob
posted by bookmammal at 8:48 PM on August 10, 2020

Settlers was an incredible read from the pretty far left side of the spectrum, super informative about how race has factored into labor and the whole creation of America. It affected me a lot because it really drove home the rationale for settlers to come to this country, and how core subjugation and theft are to America's history.
posted by tmcw at 9:22 PM on August 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm someone in your position and I've been reading Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. I was aware to a certain extent of the information in the book, but the way she explains things and adds tons of good data has changed how I think — and I'm only halfway through!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:51 PM on August 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Austin Channing Brown's "I'm Still Here." It's more memoir than textbooky, and spending time with the author's thoughts really helped me recognize dignity as kind of a personal lodestone for thinking about racism and our society's approaches to "diversity."
posted by snerson at 6:53 AM on August 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's been a lot of pushback against White Fragility, and it should absolutely not be the beginning and end of your reading list. But it IS important for white people to understand and confront their own white feelings and white experiences. Sometimes resources written by white people and aimed at white people are worth putting into the mix. There's a lot of homework and internal processing white people can and should be doing with each other and not offloading onto Black people or other people of color. AND ALSO we should be reading and listening to and following all the great resources produced by Black people and other people of color.

Yes, you should read White Fragility with a gimlet eye, but it helped me understand my own defensiveness and begin to tackle those feelings in appropriate spaces. It's very easy to jump into the work and think you're being an ally and then question publicly everything that Black leadership says. To avoid doing that you have to work on understanding what your whiteness is and what it will drive you to do. Another great resource (this one written by a Black woman) is Learning to Be White by Thandeka, but I think it's valuable to deconstruct whiteness from both perspectives.

I think there's also value to be had in the old reliable Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, though there are probably more recent and more focused histories if you are just looking at race.
posted by rikschell at 8:03 AM on August 11, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo gave me a lot of scripts for pushing back against racist ideas and talking points.
posted by gaspode at 8:27 AM on August 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

The New Jim Crow
posted by kerf at 9:25 AM on August 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I am a white archivist who has often assumed I know more about history than I actually do by virtue of my job. But every time I pick up a book that specifically deals with the racial history of the US I always learn something new. I think it's really important to read as much history as you can, because so many of the current struggles of today have echoes in the past. For example, what to do about police brutality is not at all the "newest" front in activism, how to respond to police brutality has been a recurring struggle and knowing how past activists wanted to confront this - via direct action or electoral means or other methods - is really helpful to contextualizing today's protests.

Here are a handful of books that have radically shaped my historical understanding of US racism:

Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns really helped me understand the impact of the Great Migration on both a micro and macro level.

Barbara Ransby's Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement is a biography of Ella Baker who was arguably one of the United State's most effective organizers of the 20th century. It is a great window not only into her life but also the tensions between charismastic top-down leadership embodied in groups like the Martin Luther King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the bottom-up grassroots organizing from groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Charles Dew's Apostles of Disunion is a good introduction into how the movement for secession in the antebellum period was specifically organized around preserving slavery. I read this book while I was in Louisiana so I could better argue against Confederate apologists clinging to the historical fallacy that secession was about "states' rights." (Related: if you want a one-volume history of the US Civil War that touches more on the social forces and slavery and less on battlefield scenes, James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is the best one I've read)

Janet Mock's Redefining Realness helped me gain some very basic understanding of the struggles of trans women of color.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's How We Get Free is a great recent update to the Combahee River Collective manifesto. The collective was a group of Black feminist socialists in the 1970s that were really ahead of their time, and basically laid out a vision for a world in which anti-Black racism, patriarchy, and capitalism would have to be abolished to achieve freedom and liberation for all peoples.

Anna Clark's The Poisoned City is a good account of the lead poisoning of Flint's water system. A good account of how environmental racism and capital flight can be a deadly combination for communities of color.

Angela Davis's Are Prisons Obsolete? is an excellent short and readable introduction to the idea of prison abolition. I had been a skeptic on this topic in the past, and this book has really helped nudge me along towards thinking we have to figure out how to do this.

I also think it's really important to have an analysis of how power and economic inequality exacerbates and depends on white supremacy. Although neither of the following are explicitly about race, I use ideas from them all the time for this kind of understanding: Virginia Eubanks's Automating Inequality (how automated systems and tech profile low-income people), Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine (how politicians and capitalists use the cover of disasters to force unpopular decisions), and Anand Giridharadas's Winners Take All (how philanthropists are positioned as the only people who can solve the problems caused by income inequality).
posted by mostly vowels at 10:01 AM on August 11, 2020 [5 favorites]

Dorothy Roberts's Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty was the most formative book of my early twenties. The concept of reproductive freedom, and its long history, expanded my horizons and set the foundation for me to demand an intersectional approach from any intellectual framework claiming to speak to any sort of liberty. It also provided some of the clearest examples of racialized criminalization that I use for explanatory purposes these days. There's an updated 2014 edition of this book, and I can't imagine that it's grown any less relevant in the meantime.

Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism sticks with me and continues to be challenging. This text really pissed off my (well-meaning, liberal) white classmates in the mid-00s, who were unable to parse it as anything but white-blaming and reinforcing victimhood. I found it to be a very intentional, very provoking, and very imaginative text that taught me to deeply consider political strategies--what they reinforce, what they undermine--and to consider strategies as a dialogue. "The Space Traders" is probably the capstone and biggest legacy of this book, but I think its significance comes through strongest in context.

I read Ruha Benjamin's Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code only earlier this year, but it's been influential in how I've thought about technology and society since, and I'm looking forward to re-reading it soon. One of the most exciting theoretical frameworks Benjamin introduced me to was the idea of race as technology.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 2:08 PM on August 11, 2020

If you haven't already, I'd make sure to read some of the 1960s classics, especially The Autobiography of Malcolm X and anything by Martin Luther King Jr, such as Stride Toward Freedom, the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, or Why We Can't Wait. Malcolm X's book is particularly vivid and accessible, probably because he had a novelist's help (Alex Haley).
posted by zompist at 3:08 PM on August 11, 2020

If you find it helpful to build racial analysis through examining history:

Women Race and Class has stuck with me for the 20 years or so since I read it. As a white feminist, I found it very educational to see the context for how feminist ideas were formed in relationship to African American abolitionist struggles. It permanently changed my perspective and it's very accessible too.

I recently finished The Condemnation of Blackness, an exhaustive history of the creation of the myth of Black criminality. I got a better understanding of the function this myth serves, and the ways Black academics, journalists and advocates have battled this concept.
posted by latkes at 10:45 AM on August 12, 2020

For a British context:

Afua Hirsch Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

The blurb captures the why well:

You’re British. Your parents are British. You were raised in Britain. Your partner, your children, and most of your friends are British.

So why do people keep asking you where you are from?

Brit(ish) is about a search for identity. It is about the everyday racism that plagues British society. It is about our awkward, troubled relationship with our history. It is about why liberal attempts to be "color-blind" have caused more problems than they have solved. It is about why we continue to avoid talking about race.

Akala Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire

Dispels the notion of a "colour blind" and "post-racial" British society thoroughly. As a teacher, it's made me question interactions I've witnessed or been part of. Very powerful and an assertive eye-opener.
posted by mkdirusername at 11:09 AM on August 12, 2020

Song of Solomon
The Bluest Eye
Sister, Outsider
Killing the Black Body
The Wretched of the Earth
Black Skin, White Masks
A Street in Bronzeville
Invisible Man
Are Prisons Obsolete?
The Nickel Boys
Scenes of Subjection
Warmth of Other Suns
The New Jim Crow
For Colored Girls
The Colored Museum

It is hard for me to articulate the profound ways in which these texts (among many others) have shaped my understanding of the mechanics of racism in America, but I will simply say that reading poetry, prose and drama by and for Black people has in general given me a much keener vision of my blind spots than like, any "you're racist, here is how to knock it off" late capitalist corporatist instruction manual.
posted by athirstforsalt at 3:22 PM on August 14, 2020

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