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!

 

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.

 

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!

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!

 

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be depressed or to have a panic attack – read this book.  In it, Matt Haig shares his experience with depression and anxiety and invites you straight into his brain.  You sit there with him at the brink of suicide,  you hold your breath as he wrestles with his demons and you ache with his pain. He chronicles his years of experiencing depression and anxiety and actually comes to a sort of peace with it, ultimately, seeming to acknowledge that it has led him to feel things more deeply in both directions, whether toward pain or toward joy.

I think this is an important book to read.  While nothing can ever really give anyone a perfect picture of what it feels like to have depression – and I’m sure it feels different for each individual who experiences it – this does, I believe, give a vivid, repetitive, and detailed description.  There are analogies, lists, comparisons, images, and examples of ways in which the author’s life was impaired by his illness that go beyond what most expect from what we think of depression.  His was particularly severe.

And I think it’s important that we as members of our society, such as it is today, familiarize ourselves as much as possible with the symptoms of depression and anxiety because it is, sadly,  so prevalent.  We need to be aware of how severe it can be, how invisible it can be, and how crippling it can be.  We also must learn how to help someone who is suffering with it.  There are suggestions in this book, which are quite helpful.

On the negative side, I believe this book was not well edited.  I found t grammatically lazy, somewhat repetitive, and missing large chunks of the story.  How does Matt actually get better?  Just time?   When does he get married?  And where do the two kids come in?  What role do his parents play really in his recovery?  There is so much that is glossed over  How has he been able to write through the depression?  What does he write about?

I like the philosophical tangents – there is a great amount of wisdom and helpful advice for others with depression and anxiety and for those who may be around those who suffer.  And I do think this book is an important read.  I wish the actual writing  had been given a bit more attention…

Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield AND Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole

These two complementary books are revolutionary in their importance.  Dieting and dieting culture has overtaken most developed countries and has become a billion dollar industry.  Most importantly, however, it has probably been what has contributed most to what is known today as the “obesity epidemic” among health care providers, and yet, what do most health care providers prescribe as an antidote?  More diets!

The newest and best science is pointing toward the fact that diets cause more harm than good, and just about every diet counts.  Whenever you tell someone not to eat something, what does that person then, instinctively crave?  Whatever it is you’ve forbidden them, of course!  And after restricting whatever it is you’re restricting – calories, carbs, fat – it doesn’t really matter – after losing weight, the body seeks to regain the weight, by doing whatever it takes.  So people tend to regain the weight, plus!  And yo-yoing is worse for you than just being a bit overweight, in terms of causing more inflammation and heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and the unwanted health consequences of the overweight in the first place.

Because let’s face it, if we’d just accept ourselves in the less-than-“Twiggy”-as-ideal-bodies, we’d not have to worry about the dieting.  Our priority should really be about health.  And if it’s really and truly about health, then we’d throw away the scales and talk about fruits and vegetables and whole foods and exercise and that would be that.  We’d not be supporting Weight Watchers, and NutriSystem, and Jenny Craig and all the others who are making millions and preying on those of us who have fallen for these very smart business models.

So what do these books say?  Basically, that we were born with the internal cues that tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full and we have to try to reach back in to find those signals and respond again to them.  To do this, we must trust that our bodies are really good at this and it’s ok to respond to them, even if they sometimes tell us that it’s ok to have a slice of cake because it looks delicious and we love this kind of cake and even if they tell us not to finish everything on our plate because we’re actually full.  The books also encourage movement of any kind, not just punishing workouts at a gym and give guidance on how to avoid emotional eating which many find quite challenging.  And they also encourage one to dig deep and find a way to care for oneself – that is, to carve out time to really see to one’s own needs that are being superficially cared for by food but that if tended to more deeply, then food won’t need to serve as a pacifier.

I think that almost every woman I’ve met has dieted at some point in her life.  So many would find either of these interesting and helpful.

Let’s try to move our conversations away from how we look to what we can achieve!!

The Telomere Effect by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel

telomere effect

This is science at its most glorious.  What these two brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning researchers manage to do between the covers of these non-fiction pages is to bring their crucial medical findings from their laboratory into your home.  And what they’ve found is how to keep yourself healthier, longer.

The telomere is a part of the chromosome that is involved in the aging process.  In short, the telomere is to the chromosome as the aglet is to the shoelace – it functions to protect the chromosome from wear and tear.  As one ages, one’s telomeres become shorter and less effective.  When this occurs one becomes more prone to inflammatory conditions, infections, and even death.

So what do we do about this?  Fortunately, the doctors provide a great deal of research that shows that if we take care of ourselves, eat healthfully, sleep well, and so on, we can improve the condition of our telomeres.  So what is the value of this?  Is this not intuitive?

Well, no, it’s not.  So many give up and say that genetics predetermine how long they will live and how long they will remain healthy and it doesn’t matter what we do in the meantime.  This research shows how and why it actually does matter how we care for ourselves – how mindful we are, how we exercise, how we sleep – it all matters.

And one very striking takeaway:  How one approaches stressors has an impact on one’s telomeres.  If you feel oppressed by your stressors and maintain a negative attitude, you will have shorter telomeres; however, if you view stressors as “challenges”and keep a can-do attitude instead, your telomeres will be longer and more robust.  It will even help you look younger!

This is a fascinating read that is full of science, but made accessible by excellent, clear, vey understandable writing.  Highly recommend!!

The Forever Letter by Elana Zaiman

forever letter

Rarely have I had the opportunity to review a book written by someone I know – what an intimidating responsibility this is.  Lucky for me, I found this book by Elana Zaiman – a woman I grew up with and whose path randomly crossed mine so many times over the years – very engaging and helpful.  So much so, that I’m contemplating writing a few Forever Letters of my own.

The “forever letter” is an outgrowth of the ethical will, a will or letter that expresses your thoughts, wishes, stories, or apologies to anyone of significance in your life.  Elana’s rationale is that when you put pen to paper,  you can pour out your heart, but at the same time think through exactly what you want to say to a special person in your life.  Many of us can write things we cannot say – whether they sound too corny or make us cry too much or feel too awkward – and sometimes we feel the other person may not be able to hear what we have to say directly from us without reading it in a letter.   In addition, having something written allows for someone to potentially keep it with them long after you are gone.

Elana has traveled around the country,  giving workshops on this subject and peppers each chapter with anecdotes about individuals grappling with the complex issues these letters raise.  How do I transmit to my children the values I hold dear without leaving too restrictive a “commandment” when I die?  How can I express anger at a parent for their absence but not sever a tie with them?  Is it too late to apologize to my sibling after all these years?  There is a lot of emotional baggage that is dragged out of storage when you are talking about these types of letters and writing them, actually putting these feelings into words that are permanent can have lasting effects.  This must be done very thoughtfully.  And each chapter is therefore written with this in mind, giving examples and prompts and guidelines to encourage the writer to be reflective and mindful, but also loving and honest in the writing of these letters.

Elana includes a lot of personal vignettes, her own forever letter that she received from her father that triggered her understanding of the impact of these letters, and her forever letter to her own son.  These are powerful and allow us into her life in a very intimate way.  She shares her own vulnerabilities – mistakes and successes – and allows us to see her not just as a rabbi, spiritual leader, and speaker, but as a human being with a deep emotional life and normal human frailties.  Likewise, she emphasizes that these are components of the best forever letters.

If you are contemplating such a letter – or if you’ve never heard of one! –  this is a compelling book for you to read!