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2 Summer Reads for your Anti-racism Journey

I’ve recently read three books which have helped me to become aware of my privilege. They can help us recognize how white privilege has shaped social structures, opportunities, and hopes – not only for white people, but for people of colour, as well. This post will comment on two of them; the third will be in the next post. I'd like to invite you along on my anti-racism journey—maybe these posts will remind you of the beginnings of your own journey...or maybe they will encourage you to pick up one of these books and get started.

Maybe these posts will remind you of the beginnings of your own journey...or maybe they will encourage you to pick up one of these books and get started.

From Laughing to Sensing: Just last week, Trevor Noah was just named “Comedy Person of the Year” at the 2017 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. The Daily Show offers him the opportunity to comment – with his remarkably insightful, wry, and outrageously funny wit – on all matter of current issues. Many probably know he was born and raised in South Africa, during the heyday of the apartheid system; fewer will realize that his conception and birth were against the law at the time. His 2016 book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, chronicles his growing-up years. Within 10 days of publication, it became a New York Times #1 bestseller. It is uproariously funny and honest, all while exposing apartheid’s horrific effects.   

When Trevor was born (in 1984), South African law forbade blacks and Europeans to have intercourse. His mother was Xhosa, his father Swiss. Trevor lays out in comedic and hilarious detail how this affected his early life. His mother had to keep him from being “discovered” by the apartheid regime, and her family treated him differently (because he was half-white!). Trevor recounts how his mother’s faith shaped Sundays (with insightful comments about the services attended weekly at white, “colored,” and black churches) and the way she raised him. She made sure that Trevor had lots of books to read; he omnivorously devoured them all. But he found ways to navigate the apartheid system, too, and much of this delightful book details the antics he and his friends engaged in as they grew up. Yet lingering behind – indeed, shaping -- all this were the ubiquitous strictures of the apartheid regime. Without intending this memoir of his youth to be an assessment of racially stratified society in his homeland, Trevor’s comments and observations point out the many ways people who were not “white” faced obstacles piled upon prohibitions erected over prejudice in the entirety of their existence.

It is uproariously funny and honest, all while exposing apartheid’s horrific effects.

You can read Born a Crime for the simple delight of a well-told tale, but you won’t be able to escape the long shadows of the apartheid system which always favored whites and repressed everyone else. Reading what Trevor and other non-whites experienced under apartheid will help us white folks in North America recognize that apartheid was, to be sure, different from – but not other than – what white privilege has built on this continent. This book moved me from laughing to sensing – sensing what “others,” those outside the privileged group, face daily.

From Sensing to Seeing: Debby Irving’s 2014 book, Waking Up White – and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, is her account of coming to sense white privilege and growing to see its ubiquitous effects. This is also a “growing up” tale, not so much a recounting of her childhood (although that is part) as of the painful process of becoming aware (as an experienced adult) of her white privilege, on through the difficult steps she had to take to learn to deal with it, both for herself and for non-whites. There is not much humor in this book, except for the points where she realizes how clueless she had been about something (her own white privilege) which non-white “others” confront constantly.

Unquestionably, the author grew up in a situation of privilege. As a child sheltered from the rest of the world, though, she never recognized that, even though she knew there were others “less fortunate” (as she put it). Moved by genuine concern for them, she worked diligently for several years to give them opportunities to better themselves, but her efforts proved frustratingly and mind-bogglingly ineffectual. Seeking to learn better how to help, she signed up for courses about social challenges, only to discover that she, too, had a “race” (and not just others); that while she and her family might talk about race once a month, her mature fellow students from Latino and African American families talked about it every day. She came, slowly, to see that she and others (white, like her) enjoyed the benefits of a socio-political-economic structure set up by “her kind” to benefit “her kind” – that is, other white people.

Debby Irving's book drew me along on this journey from sensing to seeing.

She wrote this book as a journal of her own development, in 46 short chapters with reflection/discussion questions to help her readers ponder the ways privilege influences and sub-consciously shapes us. This book has been used often since its publication as a way for individuals or groups to wrestle with white privilege, to help them see it in places and ways they could not suspect, but which their African American neighbors see with utter clarity.

Debby Irving’s book recounts her movement from sensing a need to seeing the problem –in herself, not others; in her white privilege that skews life for people of colour in North America. Her book drew me along on this journey from sensing to seeing.

If you want to start wrestling with the white privilege you have taken for granted all your life, read these two books. The first will take you on a funny but thought-provoking trip from laughing to sensing. The second will draw you in on an enlightening but challenging movement from sensing to seeing. But brace yourself: you’ll need a safety belt fastened for the third book. 

This post is the 2nd of three from Jim--watch for the third one soon, as well as a response piece from a friend. You can find the first piece here


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