Reading Helped Me Overcome A Racist Upbringing

My father once looked me straight in the eye and said this: “If you ever bring home a black man, I will kill you, kill him, and then kill myself.” He wouldn’t have had the stomach to go through with it, but don’t think it was an empty threat; he meant every ugly word of what he said to me. I was maybe twelve when we had this heartwarming chat.

I should have been screwed when it comes to racial sensitivity. The staggering amount of misinformation, the racial slurs thrown around our house freely, and the total lack of any other parentage or familial influence probably would have turned me into a carbon copy of my dad (and his dad, and probably his dad) if it weren’t for one factor: I was a reader.

Being a reader meant that I had outside influence where very little would otherwise have existed. I grew up in a town that was over 90% white and could probably count the number of African-Americans I met in the eighteen years before I went to college on two hands. Through books, though, I met a lot of people that I never would have met in person; more importantly, I saw struggles that I never would have experienced in my own body.

Jessi Ramsey was a Token Black Character in the otherwise white Baby-Sitters Club world, but in elementary school, she was most of the diversity that I knew. She not only showed me the right way to behave toward people of color (accepting them is awesome, being racist is horrible and ignorant), but she also showed me that people of color really are just as human as I am.

Probably you’re all “duh, OF COURSE THEY ARE OMG” but, check it: I was 9 years old and had been taught something different all my life by a parent. This was revolutionary information for me, information that I’m thankful to have received early enough that it made a difference.

Other books opened my eyes to things that I never would have worked out on my own. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and found out that there were a lot of white folks who treated black people really badly. I got a little older and read Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright. Reading their experiences offset the lies my father told me. These books proved that he lied.

I still grapple with my own ignorance every day. I still grapple with the blinding force of privilege. Being a reader hasn’t cured me of all of the ill effects of growing up in a system that is fundamentally weighted toward white people and in a home where white supremacy wasn’t even attempted to be veiled. What has happened, what reading literature has been proven to help do, is that my empathy has increased. I’m able to see that, often, what I directly experience doesn’t reflect everyone’s reality. I’m able to see that my reality has blind spots and that I need to gain information through many different avenues.

This? Is why I think it’s vital that we fight for diverse literature in schools. When the book-banning folks come out, it’s so often to shut down a person belonging to a minority group speaking about experiences that make people uncomfortable. Of course we are uncomfortable. We are complicit. It takes discomfort to impel change.

Not all kids will get a real picture of the world at home; I certainly didn’t. Those kids may go on to be the next generation of oppressors, having been taught lies that cause them to see minorities as subhuman, unless they have outside influences to show them otherwise. It matters that they read books by African-Americans, by women, by LGBT authors. It matters that they gain empathy and experience others’ lives.

It matters that they become uncomfortable enough to change.

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