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!

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

This work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, written in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Samori, is a treatise on his experience as a Black man in America.  What Coates is doing here is what so many Black parents in America have needed to do:  encourage their children to be cautious in order to preserve the sanctity and safety of their Black bodies.   As he states on page 129-130, “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body.  … already you have expectations,…  survival and safety are not enough.”  And “What I am saying is that it does not all belong to you, that the beauty in you is not strictly yours and is largely the result of enjoying an abnormal amount of security in your black body.”  He is sharing his own past struggles as well as those around him, in order to communicate his concern for his son’s safety, while also communicating generally the plight of living in a body of color in this country.

Unless you have been living under a proverbial rock over the last few months, you have to be aware of the uncovering of the ongoing racism that we have been seeing in our country.  I say uncovering because the racism is not new – no, it has been going on since White men arrived on these lands–  but it’s once again being exposed for what it is on a national level.  While I rarely quote in this blog, I find that Coates’ words are far more poetic and useful than my own here.  He says, on page 17,  for example, “To be black… was to be naked before the elements of the world…  the nakedness is the correct and intended result of the policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”  This, I believe, says it all.  This is the institutionalized, ratified, codified racist structure upon which our country was built.  It began with the enslavement of a people, evolved into a Jim Crow structure and now exists in the form of a criminal “justice” system that is an entirely purposeful perpetration of a racist segregation of people based on the color of their skin.  It’s all the same thing.

And it is our obligation to blow this apart.

I’m still struggling with how we, as individuals can make a difference, but the very first step is understanding how deeply entrenched the problem is.  This takes looking both inward at our own implicit biases, which we all have, and examining the structural racism upon which our country has been erected.  Understanding the deeply rooted fear of a child for his own bodily security, and then as he grows, for the safety of his peers and then for the safety of his children, as Coates relays here, gives an up-close-and-personal view of what it is like to live in his skin.  We feel his terror and we feel his rage over having to feel that terror.  This is where we start.

The more I read, the more I understand how little I know.

 

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.

 

Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

What would it be like to quit your job and spend a year studying wine?  No, I mean, really studying it – not just drinking it.  Learning how to appreciate the various aromas, textures, degrees of alcohol, tannins, and acidity and be able to blind taste them and name the grape, the label and the year it was made without peeking at the label!  What might it be like to hang with the sommeliers of New York’s finest restaurants to learn what is considered important in the service of these wines?  Or to research where all these crazy, lofty ways of describing wines came from.  Well, Bianca Bosker has done this and she’s been kind enough to share her journey with us in the pages of Cork Dork.

In her quest to become a sommelier, Bosker smells everything in her kitchen in her home and in her city.  She insinuates herself in the world of the sommelier by befriending a top somm who brings her to blind tastings and allows her to witness the training that each somm puts themself through.  Trailing other waiters, working in a wine cellar in a restaurant, getting to taste a vast quantity of fancy and less than fancy wines, Bosker widens her scope of experience very quickly.  She travels around the country and around the world in this quest, visiting restaurants, vineyards, and scientists who help her understand how she can best go about understanding and perfecting her art.

What makes a good wine good?  What makes a good sommelier good?  What makes a good wine description good?  These are questions she seeks to answer during the course of the book and she seeks out answers from many different sources.  Throughout the whole time, she is studying and practicing and honing her tasting and olfactory skills, trying to prep for the certification exam.  And while she learns, so do we, as she sketches out for us her findings.

I do have to confess, that I do think some of the descriptions are bullshit, as she even cops to; however, I do respect the devotion and the obsession that the sommelier does have to go through to become certified in this field.  And now I have a newfound appreciation of exactly what that entails!

Becoming Eve by Abby Stein

Born to what was considered a royal Hasidic family —  a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov — Abby Stein was raised as a boy in one of the most gender-segregated societies on earth.  From an early age, she knew she was a girl and when she, at the age of 4 years, expressed this to her mother, she was given the very clear message that this was never to be spoken about again.  Throughout her childhood, she rebelled, against god, against her restrictive society, and against a world that did not allow her to be herself.

This memoir was so detailed and heartfelt – until it wasn’t.  We hear about every moment in Abby’s early life.  Her journey from one yeshiva to the next, from one rebellion to the next.  There are very intimate passages, revealing her first love for a young man who is obviously struggling with his own sexuality.  This episode is quite tenderly written and the reader feels such empathy for these two who cannot pursue their love in the restrictive society in which the two “boys” live.   We hear about the details of the study in which Abby immerses herself, how she advocated to learn about law and ultimately about mysticism.  And some of the details about Hasidic life are quite interesting.  And we hear about her marriage to Fraidy, which is actually quite sweet and hopeful, to some degree.

But suddenly, when she describes Fraidy giving birth to their son, and all of a sudden, it is as if she drops off a cliff and, POOF! she is a woman.  There is little to no mention of how she disengages from her prior life, with the exception of an epilogue, which tells only of how she tells her father she is a woman. We do not hear about her connection with her child, we do not hear about she experiences the transition from her insular world of Hasidism to the outer world, we do not hear about much of anything else.  This I find unbelievably disappointing and a sorely missed opportunity.  After hearing so much detail, the absence of detail is astounding.

I did learn from this book, but I was disappointed by the ending.  On the other hand, I do hope that Abby finds peace with her family and can connect with them.  She obviously loves them dearly and they do her.  I hope they can find a way to see that she is exactly who she always was.

 

 

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

funnyinfarsi

It is hard enough to be a seven year old girl, navigating family, friends, and school.  But in 1972, a little girl named Firoozeh had to navigate a move from Iran to a suburb of LA, where she did not know the language, was not familiar with the food, did not have the extended family around for support, and had to function as her mother’s interpreter as well as find her own way.  Fortunately for her, her intelligence, her family’s support (mostly!), and probably most importantly, her humor, enabled her to adapt and do so very successfully.  This book is essentially a collection of her memories of growing up in this colorful family challenged by the immigrant experience of balancing their own culture and tradition with integrating into the society into which they’ve landed.

First, I have to say that this was a good, light distraction from the other reading I’ve had to do these past 2 weeks!  If you’ve been like me, you’ve done more reading about viruses and epidemiology and how pandemics can be mitigated in the past 2 weeks than you’ve ever had in your life – even if you’re in Public Health.  So I am thankful that I’ve had something like this to alleviate the anxiety that all of that other reading has caused.  I implore you to use this time for more solitary reading — it will be therapeutic for you and it will socially distance you from others, helping to mitigate the spread of this awful coronavirus.

As a memoir, this book was amusing and entertaining to a point, but, I believe, a missed opportunity.  Dumas did enrich her stories with the rich flavors and aromas of Iranian cuisines, ceremonial customs, and, in particular, her father’s often comical and endearing personality quirks.  And we did get a sense of the warm acceptance into the community her family experienced in 1972, which contrasted drastically with the reception she received when they returned just after Iranian Revolution and the American hostage situation. But other vignettes, such as those about her father’s fascination with Denny’s Restaurant or her uncle’s dieting fads were much less engaging.  While an opening into her culture was an opportunity, peeking through a curtain into their family secrets felt almost voyeuristic.

This was less a memoir than a collection of short stories.  As such, it was entertaining enough, but did get a bit old after a bit.

Not a “Must Read” but good for a few chuckles.

 

 

 

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…!

 

 

The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

body not apology

In this book, borne of her movement and website of the same name, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist and poet, propels the argument that our society has constructed systems which have forced most of us to apologize for the bodies that we live in.  Because we may not live in the body of the selected ideal of our time – whether because of our weight, our skin color, our ability, our gender identity, or any other identity – we are often made to feel less-than by the world around us, perpetuated by our own voices inside.  And for this we feel shame, we shrink away, we deny ourselves experiences that might actually give us joy.  In this book, Taylor seeks to provide the reader with tools to combat the external and internal pressures that we feel, in order to achieve “radical self-love,” that innocent, basic love for our bodies that we were all born with.

I think this is an important book to read, for anyone who has ever experienced discomfort in their body.  And honestly – who hasn’t???  It is delivered honestly, compellingly, and with a sensitivity to anyone of any identity who might be reading the book.  There is some sprinkling of her own journey, but she also derived quite a bit from others as well, which I appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the section on the “Body Shame Profit Complex” (LOVE this name) and actually wish there had been more on this.  This refers to the advertising industry which has allied with all the other companies that make billions of dollars on our attempts to improve the defects we perceive in our bodies – everything from make up to anti-aging creams to the diet industry.  Think about it – how much do you spend on these types of items each year?  I know I contribute to this complex on a regular basis.

I think this book differs from others in that it is not trying to teach new behaviors, nor self-acceptance, but rather self-love — which is different.  It hits deeper and is more sustainable if done properly and consistently and it also requires forgiveness and “grace” for the moments when you slip.

One soft criticism of the book that I have is that I believe it needed more vignettes, more stories about people to illustrate the concepts.  There are so many important ideas that are proposed here, and I think they are easy to read through quickly and potentially gloss over.  Occasionally, Taylor does provide examples of what she means to say with the use of  narratives, such as that of a young girl who is taunted for the bald spots on her head.  This is such a vivid image and becomes so starkly etched in the mind of the reader.  I wish she’d done this more often, so that more arguments would be similarly strengthened.

I think it will take awhile for me to fully digest all of the ideas proposed here.

I’d love to hear from others who have read it!

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro, an author of both fiction and memoirs, has agreed to her husband’s request to both send off their saliva specimens to Ancestry.com – quite on a lark.  Just a curiosity – something she could have just as easily decided not to do.  The results, however, turned her world upside down.  This is her true story of the fallout from that single decision.

Spoiler alert:  If you don’t want to know anything more and you might read this book, please don’t read on.

What Shapiro learns is that her father is actually not her biological father.  The person she felt closest to, proudest of, particularly with regard to her heritage – as he’d come from a line of well-respected, learned, Orthodox rabbis – was actually not related to her biologically.  On the other hand, the mother with whom she had a strained, even fearful relationship, was.  And this rocked her world.

While I cannot fully relate to the situation, I have to admit that I had a hard time completely sympathizing with the author. Yes, this must have been a shock and yes, it must have thrown her.  But when she repeatedly referred to this as a “trauma,” I could not help feeling as if this was melodramatic.  The word, trauma, I believe, has become so over-used that its potency has become diluted.  Her year of worrying about her son with a near-fatal disease – THAT was traumatic, I’m sure.  This discovery about her father, I do not think rises to the level of trauma.  And while I agree, to live in a family with secrets was not ideal, it was certainly not uncommon at that time.  The 1950’s and 1960’s were fraught with a different philosophy about what was appropriate to discuss with children.  To apply today’s standards to what was standard then is unfair.

I also thought that this story might have been told in a much shorter format – such as an article in the New Yorker, for example.  As a full-length memoir, it was somewhat drawn out and sometimes actually dull. I was waiting for something truly extraordinary to happen and it did not.  What did begin to capture my interest was her discussion about the Farris clinic, the infertility clinic in Philadelphia where her mother was inseminated.  The doctor went rogue, was practicing without a license, and inventing new techniques in infertility treatments.  Some were actual advancements and some were truly unethical and this would have been fascinating to explore further.  Unfortunately, there was only limited exploration of this clinic and details were doled out sparingly.  This is where I was hoping the story would lead.

All in all, I was left somewhat disappointed.  I’m curious to hear what others think…!

 

 

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!