Our Reading Lives

Reading Through My White Privilege

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Ellison Langford

Staff Writer

Ellison is a freelance writer and former quidditch player in Gainesville Fla. Right now, she's probably procrastinating over working on her book draft about women’s experiences in defense production during World War II. Follow her on Twitter @_ellison.

I am a nerd to the core. Textbook square. I cook healthy on the reg– green veggies with every meal– because it’s good for me, but it’s also what I like to eat. Because I’m a dork. My reading habits follow a similar pattern. I LOVE YA, but whenever I find myself taking a lot of YA books out of the library, I try to intersperse them with more challenging “grown-up” books. I probably need to see a professional about all this regimentation.

And, as a well-educated white woman from a wealthy background, who intends to be a good intersectional feminist, I try to read books that are “good” for me. Even if they don’t always make for the most comfortable experiences. Like that week I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

That is a hard book for a Diet Coke drinking white girl to read.

Invisble man ralph ellisonBut if it’s that hard for me to read about it, I can only imagine how hard it is to live that way. The anger and pain that permeates the book is no undercurrent. The pages are practically aflame with rage. The narrator’s voice is so demanding, it feels as if you’re listening to an audiobook.

I almost had to take a breath, and nudge myself to pick it back up every time I sat down with a free moment. It made me uncomfortable. And white people don’t like to be uncomfortable. Why do you think we’ve spent the entirety of history making everyone else do our work?

But this kind of reading is essential. The only way I can attempt to understand how unfair systems (that I benefit from) oppress others, is to seek out stories that illustrate that oppression. It is impossible to eradicate injustice if you refuse to educate yourself about it. It’s an uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary process. People write stories about “ugly” circumstances because they are real, and, what’s more, they affect real people. And it’s not fair to pass them over just because I’d rather read the Harry Potter series all the way through again for the dozenth time.

I can rail from dawn until dusk about the lecherous way White Male Authors write female characters, but my voice is nothing more than the fetid stench from a white-washed grave, if I refuse to engage with anything that forces me to confront my own privilege.


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