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So You Want to Be Woke: A Reading Guide for White People

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Mya Nunnally

Staff Writer

Having loved books since the age of four, Mya is a writer and poet who looks to explore the complexities of life through language. They attend Barnard College of Columbia University with their kitten, Ramen. Their reviews of independent literature can be found at Foreword Reviews. When they aren't writing or reading, they're playing video games with strong female characters. Twitter: @literallymya Blog:

So you just realized that we’re a nation with a crapton of unresolved issues that still plague whole populations of people to this day? You might be asking yourself: “What can I do?”

This is a question that people ask me often (though not often enough) about how they can help combat racial inequality. While the answer varies depending on who you talk to, a central component always seems to be “educate yourself.” Books about race are usually well-researched, powerful tools in the war against racism. Also be sure to check out BookRiot’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist Reader”!

What follows is a collection of just some of the works that offer enlightenment in the complex world of racial issues. And it also has limits, being primarily focused on American authors and issues. So, remember that this is just a starting point for one’s racial education. Let’s begin!

So you want to be woke: a reading guide for white people.   race | activism | book lists | guides for activism | how to talk about race

where to start

books about raceso you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo

We’ve all seen a conversation about race go wrong. People hurt each other’s feelings, overlook experiences. Sometimes people don’t possess enough information to actually have the discussion in the first place. It ends in tears, or a screaming match.

But it doesn’t have to. Ijeoma Oluo offers straightforward solutions to these divides and inspires everyone to have difficult, crucial discussions. She answers the questions you’re afraid to ask, and does it beautifully.

books about racehow to be less stupid about race by crystal M. fleming

“Not all white people.” “All lives matter.” “I don’t see color.” These are statements that often mean well, but often derail a larger conversation that needs to be had. Fleming takes a no-BS approach to the ridiculous proverbs that plague common racial rhetoric. She expertly breaks down why these sayings are useless and ineffective. Plus, the writing is exquisite. Every line is a mic drop. Paired with Oluo’s book above, these will get you understanding a lot in a little bit of time.

bad feminist by roxane gay

As you’ll soon learn, oppression is always intersectional. Race, class, and gender intersect in various forms, creating various affects. Roxane Gay’s collection of essays offers a simple introduction to this concept. Her essay on The Help, a much beloved book but an unfortunately ignorant one, will have you seeing everything differently.

books about racebetween the world and me by ta-nehisi coates

If you haven’t heard of this one, you must have been living under a rock. Ta-Nehisi Coates (pronounced Ta-Na-Ha-See) blew the world away with this memoir. Critics fawned over Coates’s beautiful writing, a literary style that brings eloquence to a subject many have trouble writing about. I’ve had non-black people read this and literally say, “Oh. I get it now.” So, explore this portrait of Black America. This is required reading for everyone.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander’s book revolves around her central claim: the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow. While to some it may seem melodramatic, Alexander quickly offers foolproof evidence, testimony, and data to support her thesis. The statistics in this book will make you furious, and passionate about prison reform (or abolition). For example: “75% of people in state prison for drug conviction are people of color, although blacks and whites see and use drugs at roughly the same rate. In New York State, 94% of those imprisoned for a drug offense are people of color.” Yikes.

the fundamental texts

books about raceThis Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color

This is a feminist anthology. What is it doing here, you might ask? Well, on your journey to wokeness you will soon come to know that all struggles are intersectional. That is, they exist at intersections with each other. For example, a black woman’s oppression is much different from a black man’s, or a white woman’s. Why? Because they exist at the intersection of racism and sexism. These writings, which explores queer, gender, race, and class theory, are the backbone of much modern discussion. It also includes well-known names like Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa.

Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa

Which brings me to Borderlands/La Frontera, a semi-autobiographical work from Anzaldúa. She discusses her life growing up on the Mexico/Texas border as Chicana (or Mexican woman or girl), and how colonialism, homophobia, and patriarchy influenced her. Anzaldúa also writes in many variations of English and Spanish, deliberately invoking her common theme of hybridization. This a masterful work, and important more than 30 years later.

books about racethe Autobiography of Malcolm X by malcolm x and alex haley

If you haven’t heard of this one…well, we have a lot more work to do than I thought. This, from one of the most influential Black activists of all time, is something you will not forget. There is so much here, from the chilling premonition that Malcolm believed he would “die by violence,” to endless mic drops like this: “this was my first lesson about gambling: if you see somebody winning all the time, he isn’t gambling, he’s cheating.”

research and evidence to supplement your discussions

The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee

Asian Americans swung from being interned in work camps to being named “the model minority” within a few decades. How did this happen, and why? Erika Lee offers a comprehensive history of Asian immigrants to America, one we rarely learn in school. Lee offers powerful lines like, “[as the ]first immigrants to be excluded from the United States, Asians became the first undocumented immigrants,” sharply rewriting our narrative of history with a single sentence.

books about raceghosts in the schoolyard by Eve L. Ewing

Schools are nearly as segregated now as they were in the 1960s. How is that possible, you wonder? Well, racism of course. It rears its ugly head in the form of school closings, gerrymandering, and neglect. This book will break your heart as it details everything from a hunger strike to stop a school from closing to parents fighting for their child’s right to learn. Although this book focuses on Chicago, the poster child for racist schooling systems, this is an issue everywhere. Unfortunately, schools have always been a breeding ground for racism.

White Kids by Margaret A. Hagerman

Many sociology books discuss the struggles of children of color in an attempt to educate. This is, of course, crucial. But what’s often left out is the study of white children. These are the children who will go on to become voices against racism or voices reproducing it. Therefore, they are important subjects as we study how racism lives on today. Much of the prejudice in this book, explicit or implicit, revolves around schools. White parents choose the “best” schools, which, whether they admit it or not, have mostly white, affluent children. Besides this, there is so much more to learn from this text. When it comes to books about race, this is a must read.

books about racestamped from the beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

This National Book Award winner stamps out (heh) the notion of a post-racial society with its history of racist ideas. Racist ideas, this book argues, evolve into different language as other language becomes politically incorrect. And, you guessed it, it has evolved into the year 2018, where it is alive and well. In addition, Kendi suggests that racism did not grow from “ignorance” but malicious, intelligent minds. These minds knew that they would land on top if they pushed others to the bottom. This is surely an insidious idea, but a well-supported one, as seen in the text.

The Politics of the Veil by Joan Scott

Finally, a book that takes place outside of America. I know these books about race are very America-centric, but I find when just beginning to study, it’s easier to learn about your own country. Yet, the politics in this book most certainly affect us here as well. In 2004, France banned obvious religious items. This was a thinly veiled (HA!) attempt to oppress the growing Muslim community in France. The Politics of the Veil destroys this ban, offering nuanced debate against Islamophobia in the West.

books about raceLies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

Ready for your mind to get blown? Helen Keller and Martin Luther King Jr. were socialists. Most people knew the world wasn’t flat when Columbus “discovered” America. And Lincoln was a racist.

Okay, so maybe you already knew all that. But the point is, a lot of people don’t. The American education system fails so completely in historical study, and Loewen points it out in a scathing indictment. Not only does it isolate students of color, it romanticizes history and sets up American heroes as gods capable of no wrong.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by dee brown

In line with the last entry, it’s important to know how badly Native Americans have been treated in this country to reckon with the past. (And it’s important to learn about how they are treated now, which isn’t that great either.) This is a thorough discussion of the history of Native Americans in the late 19th century. A history that should disturb you, but hopefully illuminate any misinformation you’ve consumed throughout your years in American schooling.

what books about race have woken you up?

I hope this list was helpful, and that you begin (or continue) your journey of anti-racist thought! Share with us what books about race have helped you understand as well.