Book Club: This is why I’m reading ‘How to Be An Antiracist,’ and why you need to engage with black culture
Editor’s note: This monthly-ish column by the Vail Daily’s entertainment editor will discuss what she’s reading currently and how it affects her life.
Add to cart: “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Why? Because I need to read it. Not because it’s a New York Times Bestseller, but because I need to comprehend.
My cousin Josh Russell started a Facebook Messenger group with members of my extended family, some of whom I’m not sure I’ve ever met. His opening message announced that he wanted to start a family book club, and the first title would be “How To Be an Antiracist.”
Many of the group members are outspoken liberals, but Josh said anyone could join, as long as all participants “follow some basic rules of civility, self-reflection and openness to ideas and discussion.”
A majority of my extended family holds conservative views, some with more unbecoming zeal than others. There are liberal pockets, and some see each other more than others. I’m not sure if we’ve ever had a large, extended conversation like this before. We’re only in the beginning stages, but it feels very big.
Nearly all of these group members are white. We all acknowledge that we have privilege because of the color of our skin. And we all acknowledge that we have taken it for granted by staying silent and allowing prejudice to be perpetuated. We have been complicit in racism, and it’s past time for us to change that.
I’m reading Kendi’s book and starting conversations because I believe in justice, equality and peace for all people. This is not my politics talking. This is my conscience, my compassion and my humanity. I urge you to think about racism in the same way: it’s not a partisan issue, it’s a human rights issue.
Some of you may disagree with me. I’m not here to force you to agree with me, but if you are white, I am here to encourage you, nay, implore you to consume diverse media and entertainment.
And maybe seeing life through another’s eyes will help you realize that racism cannot continue.
Start with something simple. Just observe.
Go look at your “Continue watching” queue on Netflix. How many of the characters staring back at you are white? Look at the books on your shelf. How many of them have white authors? Depending on what genres of music you like, your Spotify or Apple Music algorithms may show you more black and brown faces. But still: think seriously. Chances are, much of the entertainment you enjoy is created by people who look like you.
I can see it in my queues.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are able to identify with characters and use their experiences to make sense of our own lives. While we can all identify with something of a general human experience, problems arise when we only learn to empathize with people who look like us. Since people of color are underrepresented in the media, it’s easy to overlook their work and continue on with the same stuff we’ve always enjoyed.
It’s time to stop doing that. It’s time to broaden our horizons beyond what’s familiar and comfortable to us. I’ve always been interested in diverse perspectives: titles like “The Color Purple,” “The Help,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Joy Luck Club” and more colored my adolescent bookshelf. But now I am committing to engaging with black culture across media — books, TV, movies, music and art — consistently and completely. You should do the same.
Recent years have seen increased people of color representation in media. Movies like “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Get Out” were some of the biggest splashes in a pool of recent films praised for showcasing talent from people of color in leading roles and high-level production. Disney’s “Moana” and “Coco” celebrate multicultural traditions and challenges in kid-friendly formats. Hip-hop has had an undeniably huge impact on fashion and youth culture.
It’s great that these opportunities exist now, but merely their existence isn’t enough. It’s much more important to interact with these expressions and attempt to mentally and emotionally conceptualize the people of color’s experience.
We are what we eat, and the same goes for the media we consume. We’re able to learn a lot about a person based on their media diet: we’d say someone who reads Bleacher Report and watches Fox Sports One has different interests than someone who reads the New York Times Arts section and watches “The Crown.”
That same principle applies to engaging with the experience of people of color. If white people consume diverse media, we’re seeing another’s experience through their eyes. We will never truly understand what it means to be a black American, but we can develop a sense of compassion for their struggles. And we can show our friends of different races that we are allies.
Being an ally is about earning respect from the black community by making active choices and active efforts to support the fight for equality. It’s important to do that work, to educate ourselves on serious notes by reading texts like “How to Be An Antiracist” and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
But it’s also important to make active choices when we decompress.
It’s important to watch those black-led TV shows and movies, read books by black authors and listen to music by black artists. It’s important to celebrate black achievements, especially knowing that so much of American culture is based in black tradition.
Most importantly, we can use diverse media to cultivate our social intelligence. We have the time, the resources and the platforms to empathize with the black experience.
Hashtagging, signing petitions, challenging friends to “match me” and maybe picking up some literature isn’t enough. Those things can be valuable, but genuine interest and consistency is superior to a drive-by fling with antiracism. The turtle beat the hare.
We can’t let this momentum phase out like the HIIT workouts we do in our living rooms between Twitter scroll sessions.
There is no excuse any more.
Add these to your list
Here are four diverse stories I’m currently engaging with, if you’re looking for a place to start.
“Empire,” a TV show about a New York record label and the family at its center. The show weaves themes including crime, disease, sexuality and more with a bangin’ soundtrack that’s executive produced by Timbaland. It’s available for streaming on Hulu.
“13th,” a Netflix documentary that reframes popular American history narratives by outlining how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution led to mass black incarceration.
“This Is How You Lose Her,” a collection of short stories about lost love by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz. The stories center around a young man named Yunior and capture Latin American culture between his disenchanted musings.
“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the Nickelodeon show recently added to Netflix, handles pan-Asian perspectives, cultures, artistic styles and dark subject matter with care, precision and a sense of magic that’s both tranquil and turbulent.
Casey Russell is the arts & entertainment editor and would like to thank her cousins Josh and Allison for their help and commitment. Contact her at email@example.com.