So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Yesterday, I went on a long drive with my son to visit my parents, whom I’d not seen since the outbreak of the pandemic.  We’d planned to visit them outdoors, for a backyard hangout just for a couple of hours.  I knew my son would be up for it, as he loves going for long car rides – any excuse to hang out, relax and listen to music together, and he’s on board.  But I couldn’t help thinking throughout the ride about a personal experience shared by Ijeoma Oluo, here in this book, So You Want to Talk About Race.   She described, in vivid detail, the terror of having been targeted by a police officer for “speeding” – she was driving in a car with her 2 brothers (all are black) going ONE mile per hour – yes, ONE!- over the speed limit.  She described to the reader that she and other black drivers can never relax when driving, never fully experience pleasure when driving, on the highway or anywhere, because of the constant fear that hovers over them.  Lurking behind every corner, behind every tree, could be the next random police stop we all hear about, almost on a daily basis, that have notoriously ended up in unwarranted arrests, violence, and even death, without any repercussion to the police responsible.  I realized, yesterday, how I have taken that right to drive so for granted.

So You Want to Talk About Race is yet another outstanding guide which delves into the difficult topic of race and racism.  In this very accessible, well-thought-out book, Oluo neatly explains a wide variety of relevant and complicated topics such as the one described above. She covers many relevant areas, including intersectionality, the school-to-prison pipeline, cultural appropriation, and the model minority myth, to name a few.   Oluo very generously shares with the reader many deeply personal experiences of racism such as the one described above, which give those of us who don’t walk around in skin of color a window into what that is like.  And while I know I will never know exactly what it feels like, I will continue to try to understand, so that I can be as much of an ally as possible.

One topic that Oluo touches on that I have not seen covered in other books I’ve read is “tone policing.”  This refers to the criticism of the angry tone that folks may take when calling out racism and other acts of hate.  I am sure I have been guilty of this myself and am so appreciative of having been made aware of it.  Of course folks are angry!  Of course they are sick of dealing with this! I do not have the right to complain about my discomfort with that.

Again, I also appreciate that book ended on a positive note.  The final chapter is about what we can do to fight racism, what steps we can take to undermine the structures in our country that have supported white supremacy.  It is one thing to learn and to empathize, but  it is so much more to act.  We must do what we can, even in small steps, to help move society forward.

I thank Oluo for this iconic book.  I am sure it was painful to write, but it is a compelling springboard for deep discussion about this urgent topic.

Let’s all keep talking about race. So that hopefully we won’t have to.

 

 

 

How to Be Less Stupid About Race by Crystal M Fleming

Although systemic racism has existed throughout our history, the COVID pandemic has unveiled a razor-sharp light on its ugly face for all to see.   The pandemic has unleashed an enormously disproportionate toll on black and brown communities, in terms of illness and of deaths, because of the underlying vulnerabilities in housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice, and economic resources — present because of decades of institutionally sanctioned denial of resources to these communities.   The good news is that it has thrust these issues to the forefront of our national conversation, and has inspired uprising and protest against the institutions that support and perpetuate the injustices,  particularly within the criminal justice system, which is the most urgent.  In support of this effort to undo racism, it is urgent for us to educate ourselves on this topic of racism, because especially we white folks really are particularly stupid when it comes to race.

Dr. Fleming, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stonybrook University, is probably one of the best authorities on race and racism.  She has studied this topic at Harvard and then additionally in France as she researched their history of colonialism and oppression.  More importantly, after returning to the US and exploring broader theories on racism, beyond the more patriarchal and, really, white perspective she’d received in the ivory tower, she learned how deeply rooted racism was in this country.  She learned how white supremacist ideas underlie every aspect of our nation, from the laws to the economy, and from education to the health care and housing systems.  And she has, so fortunately for us, translated her learning into this extremely accessible, heart-warmingly honest book.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve been trying to do this work.  I’ve been trying to read as much as I can about racism and antiracism to try to open my brain to all that I’ve been oblivious to over most of my life.   It is hard and uncomfortable, but it is urgent and necessary and, in fact, vital if we even hope to move on and build an antiracist society.  And those with the power, those of us who are seen as white, are the ones who need to do this work.

Why do I like this book so much?  I love Fleming’s voice.  She deftly combines a deeply personal account of her own journey to becoming an active antiracist with frequent injections of scholarly notations and historical perspective.  She is unique in that she adds an entire chapter on black women’s and women of color’s issues, which differ further from those of just general people of color.   In addition, hearing her views on Barack Obama was quite interesting to me as well – but I will not give up any spoilers, by telling you what those views were.  Finally, I love that Fleming gives constructive suggestions on what to do, steps forward, on working on becoming more antiracist.  This work is ever-continuing and ever-evolving and not formulaic – it may be very different and very personal to each of us.  But her suggestions are topical and relevant and are informed by her research and experience.

I am on a mission to listen, to learn and hopefully to change.

I will continue to read other books on this topic, of course, but so far,  this is “the” book.  If you’re going to read only one – it might be this one.

A MUST-READ!

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Amma is anxious.  Tonight is the opening of her newest play, and although she’s been doing this for years, she’s never before opened in the National Theatre.  This feels so much more colossal, so more auspicious than anything else she’s undertaken.  She thinks back to her modest beginnings, when she partnered with Dominique, an independent, creative woman like herself with ambitious dreams and a personality to match.  And she thinks about all the people who will be there for her.  And we will meet many of these people as the book unfolds, and we will hear each of their stories unwind through the pages as they all wind back to Amma.

Everything about this book is unique.

The writing is almost without punctuation, written as if it is one, very long, run-on, but poetic sentence.  However, it is divided by starting new lines,

very

strategically.

While I admit this took a bit of getting used to at first, I found it worked – and actually made the writing extremely powerful.

Most of the characters are women of color, often of mixed heritage, and often identify as LGBTQI – and each is given a deeply vivid story to tell.  While most experience racism of some kind, they confront it in many different ways, and most finding a way to either rise above or cut right through.  There are many characters – and to be honest, I did find it sometimes hard to keep track of them all – but each had her/their beauty, each was sympathetic in some way, and each was was someone you came to think of as an actual, tactile person.

It is easy to see how this book won the Booker Prize in 2019, as it is beautifully composed, with gorgeous characters and with a memorable round of stories to tell.  It will keep you glued and it will warm your heart.

I”ve got another MUST READ for you!

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

The 1920’s may have been “roarin'” for some, but it didn’t take the stock market crash to bring financial despair to Gertrude and her girls. No, she had that thrust upon her much earlier, with the boll weevil devastation of her husband’s cotton crops a year earlier and his drowning himself in alcohol for comfort.   Now, all she can do to save her four daughters from abject starvation, is to leave them with others until she comes up with an urgent action plan.  As she enacts her plan, and without meaning to, she draws in the support of two other women, Oretta and Annie, who are confronting their own, shared, past.  Very quickly, she finds herself slowly enabling them to be strengthened by her evolving strength.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is engaging from the very first words.  What is most magnetic are the characters – they are so beautiful and private,  vulnerable and proud – they pull you right in.  You just wish for the opportunity sit with each one, to drink sweet tea and to talk for hours.  Oretta, especially.  Oretta has worked for Annie all her life, as has her own mother.   She is kind, gentle, compassionate and wise, and has had losses and loves that have shaped her.   She is the person who would take in a young, sick child,  a perfect stranger, and care for her as her own.

There are so many layers tucked into the pages of this work of historical fiction, which make it so strong.  Layers of plot lines, layers of personality traits to each of the characters, even layers of voices.  I am in awe at the ability of a writer to incorporate all of this into a novel without it saddling the novel with sagging detail.  This one moves quickly, keeps the reader always engaged, and leaves you wanting more time with it.

Although this is a painful story and the details are difficult, I very highly recommend this book – and give it a rare MUST READ!

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.  Many books have taught me this, but few as starkly as this one.  And in this moment in our history, I feel it is imperative for all white folks to be reading books like this one – at the very least this one.  Because racism is our problem.

Robin DiAngelo,  through trainings and lectures on racism and working with people of color, has helped both herself and many others become aware of the phenomenon of white fragility.  Because the power of white folks over black folks is so fundamental to the structure of our society, white folks have the luxury of being able to tune it out while black folks cannot.  What DiAngelo focuses on in this book is the responsibility of us white folks to do our own work and to take responsibility for our own part in the perpetuation of this power differential, which is racism.

One of the first steps is to separate the notion that being racist or committing racist acts falls into the binary of the good/bad person.  As DiAngelo points out, our images of racists are generally from the 1960’s, when we see white people brutally attacking black people, and we equate all racist acts with those people.  On the other hand, we have to realize that we as white folks inadvertently commit acts of racism frequently, and while our intentions may not be bad or hurtful, it does not mitigate the fact that the impact of our actions or words may still be.  This does not make us bad people – but it does make us racists and it does still mean we’ve committed racist acts.  We are still responsible for having committed them and are still responsible for changing our behavior and avoiding these acts in the future.

What are we to do?  As I am continuing to learn here, we are responsible to learn about the history of racism, the systemic ways in which white folks have had power over black folks since 1619 in the U.S., and how we need to get over ourselves.  We have to learn to let down our defenses, be open to criticism, and be curious and honest about learning how to be better and more just.  It’s not about being nicer, but more sensitive and responsive to the other.  As DiAngelo states in the book: “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them.”  And this is hard.  We will make mistakes.  But if we don’t try, we will not make any progress toward achieving a more equitable space for others and a more just society.

And everybody benefits from a just society.

Let this book be the beginning of our work.

 

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama.  And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.

I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American.  Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough.  Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others.  This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color.  Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.

I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time.  He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice.  He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).

I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial.  Especially in an important book such as this one.

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

P.S.  It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has.  There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power.  If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!

 

 

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

For anyone who is in therapy, has contemplated therapy, knows someone in therapy, or should be in therapy – and yes, that’s everyone! — this is a great book!

Lori Gottlieb, a therapist who has come to being so by way of having been a screenwriter, a medical student and a journalist, gives a thoughtful account of her experience of going through a sudden, devastating breakup which rocks her world.  Feeling like she’s been blindsided, she seeks out the comfort of a therapist, Wendell (not his real name) whom she expects will join her in her rage against “Boyfriend” who has deserted her after seeming to be committed to their relationship for the past 2 years.  What she receives instead surprises her and gives her space to peer inside and in fact,  find genuine growth and much deeper comfort and understanding than she’d imagined.

A number of people recommended this book to me and I began it reluctantly.  Because of what I do everyday, I thought it might not be the escape that I love books to be.  To my surprise, though, it was exactly that.   Gottlieb is a gifted storyteller and weaves her own story with those of some of her clients.  As she begins to unveil her own journey, she also draws parallels with those of a few of her clients and we come to know and appreciate each of them as they too peel off the layers of their own defenses. We learn some of the terms of the trade, and how therapy works, in a sense — how she gives and takes, as a therapist who is in therapy, and how even if she is a therapist, it is hard to see your own defenses at play.    And she does all of this with kindness and humor.

This is an extremely engaging read – a true story that reads like a novel.  Be ready to laugh and to cry and to seriously think about going into therapy if you aren’t in therapy already!

 

Health Justice Now by Timothy Faust

In this book, Timothy Faust surgically cuts through the complicated mess of the American health care system, gives his diagnosis and prescription for a solution:  a single payer system.  In an acerbically articulate and well-researched argument, he outlines the defects in our current systems, which are many.  The ways in which the insurance companies overcharge and deny their customers, the ways in which hospitals and pharmaceutical companies play the system to reap enormous profits at the expense of patients and patient care, and the ways in which even public insurance programs are fallible are all explained in full. And Faust also broadens the definition of health care to include those factors that contribute to one’s health, such as housing, food, poverty, environmental safety, etc. that are often systemically limited by race, gender, class, and ability.  HIs answer?  The single payer.  A single payer system pays for all, regardless of race, gender, class or ability and pays for all needs.  In this scenario, primary care is accessible to all, so that health care is accessed early, when disease may be either preventable or caught early enough to be inexpensive or less expensive to treat.  It makes sense.  And while those who profit from the insurance fraud game and the pharmaceutical industry sham will fight tooth and nail and lobby with every dollar you spend on your medications, it really would bring health care to all and make it the right it should be and not the privilege it has become in our country.

I think this is a timely and crucial reading for us all at this moment in our country, when we are about to embark on the next presidential election, when many of the democratic candidates are supporting a singe payer system.  I think it is incumbent upon us all to learn why this might be a good thing for our country and how this actually might be the only equitable way to provide health care.  I think we have to move away from seeing health care as a commodity and see it as our obligation as humans to care for one another, to allow for the dignity of others, no matter what their medical (or financial!!) situation is.

That said, I do think the tone of the writing might be a bit too angry.  While I agree with all that he’s written here, and I’m probably as angry as he is, I worry that his tone might be too polarizing – a problem that has plagued dialogue in this country on both sides.  If we are to speak to each other, we need to temper ourselves just a bit, in order to open up and let others in.  There are many solid arguments in this text and I worry that someone might not appreciate them because they’ve been alienated by the outright hostility toward the establishment.  Again, I agree with the author in his opinion, but if I didn’t, I might be put off.

I think this is an essential text in this political moment.  it’s dense, it’s not a fun read, but it’s our obligation as American citizens to open our minds and our hearts to learning how we might provide health care to everyone in this country.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For anyone who has ever loved rock music, in all its crazy glory, I give you Daisy Jones and the Six. Written, cleverly, like a Rolling Stone interview, the story chronicles the accidental marriage of Daisy Jones, a gorgeous, lonely, and gifted child of LA in the 60’s with the band, The Six, originally from the East Coast and starting to hit it big.  The personalities, the alliances, the drugs, the romance, the challenges and the drama – it’s all there in an exquisitely crafted story of their rise to fame, fortune and ultimately the realization of some painful truths.

This is just an incredibly fun book to read.  The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with such vulnerability and warmth that you fall in love with them every bit as much as they are falling in love with each other.  The band feels so real.  You almost remember the songs they sing, as if they are hidden somewhere in your brain and not something you’re reading for the first time.  And the ego clashes are reminiscent of every band that Rolling Stone has probably ever interviewed, but are still somehow interesting because we are meeting them behind stage, unplugged, often unmoored and raw.

The idea of writing this story as an interview is brilliant.  My first inclination toward it was, honestly, reluctant.  I thought it might actually get old quick.  But it works!  it actually feels so honest and somehow more powerful, with the narrative coming from each of the characters themselves.  It is quite an unusual technique.

You will laugh, you might cry – but you will absolutely love Daisy Jones and the Six!

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

This is the third in this delightful series about the exploits of Don Tillman, who has found the love of his life – Rosie – married her, and is now raising their “result,” Hudson.  As Rosie has now been offered a position in their native Australia, they have uprooted 11-year-old Hudson and are trying to help him adjust to the transition.  Because Hudson is definitely a creature of habit, he is not very happy with the change and he is letting Don and Rosie know it.  And so are his teachers.  And the school principal.  As a professional crisis for Don leads him to change his work schedule and focus, he opts to spend more time with Hudson to support him with the adjustment.  This process leads both Don and Hudson down a road to self-discovery that is truly life-changing for both of them.

I love the writing for its voice.  The author creates the most endearing character in Don, even as Don verbalizes little directly of his own emotions.  Don’s utter honesty and kindness are reflected in the things he says and does for those around him and the reactions he elicits are often surprise and wonder., even as people see him as different.  He struggles to fit in with those who are “neurotypical” (not autistic) and wants his son to fit in as well in order to avoid the difficulties Don has had to contend with. In this and many other ways, he demonstrates that he deeply feels compassion and empathy, even if he misses other more subtle social cues.

Clearly, the author,  with the assistance of his wife (a psychologist), has made a statement here in this novel in support of those in the autism community.  Apparently there are differing opinions on how to approach children with autism –whether to teach them skills to integrate more into the neurotypical community or to allow them to be as they are (and obviously to reach out to the general public and educate us more on acceptance, which should be happening anyway).  I imagine this must be a painfully difficult decision for some parents, who want to spare a child’s suffering (these children are often bullied because they are different) but also allow a child to see that they are loved for who they are, no matter what.  I believe this book gives a lot of insight into both the challenges and the capabilities of those with autism and one turns the final pages feeling strongly allied with this community.

I also love the not-so-subtle shout out in support of vaccinations.  There is a very strong statement countering the absolutely unsubstantiated idea that vaccines cause autism.  This idea was started by an unethical researcher in England years ago who was later found to have fudged his data in order to be published.  But the damage was done.  He’s created a community of people who believe in conspiracy theories about vaccines that are just untrue.  Vaccines save lives.  Period.

I love all of the Rosie books – and this one is another great one!  Definitely read it!