Between Virginia's parade of blackface-wearing public officials and Liam Neeson's admission that he sought to kill a "black bastard" almost at random after a friend was raped, white people have done their best to mar the first week of 2019's edition of Black History Month. And of course the white people at the heart of these stories all insist, heartily and without irony, that they are not racist.
"I'm not racist." Think about that statement. On what planet do you get to be the final arbiter of your own racism? Racism is not an individual choice; it is systemic. Every white person I know — yes, myself included, obviously — has behaved in a racist manner, or said something racist, or committed a racist action. Racism is not who you are, it's the culture you simmer in, and it's the choices you make within that culture. When you are accused of racism, the best first action is not to insist upon your own lack of racism; it is to shut the hell up and listen.
Last night's edition of the Reading Through It Book Club discussed Jabari Asim's beautifully written collection of essays, We Can't Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival. Thanks to slick roads and skittish Seattle drivers, we were a small group — and, as it happens, we were a group entirely made up of white people. Of course we discussed the complexity of that situation: it felt problematic for a group of white folks to sit around and talk about a book that talked so honestly about the Black experience in America.
But, really, what would have been a better option for us to take? Would it be better for us to not discuss the book? That doesn't seem right. It's important for white people to discuss race and racism amongst ourselves, isn't it? To call our white friends out when we see racism, and to embark on the difficult conversations when they're necessary?
There was much to discuss in Asim's book. The essays are not just gorgeously written; Asim placed them perfectly in relation to each other. The first essay is about the importance of truth and the lies people tell; it immediately framed Asim as someone who cares deeply about honesty. The second essay is about the pleasures of strutting, of feeling comfortable and happy in your own body, and the joy that Asim takes in lyrically describing his own tendency to strut is infectious.
We were all moved by Asim's writing. We all took something away from the book and wanted to read more by him. We wanted to place the book in the hands of the white people who needed to read it. We wanted to talk about the book with our neighbors, and to take Asim's words to heart. We were a small group, and we barely scratched the surface of what Asim had to say. But we showed up, and we talked, and we listened to what he had to say, and we tried to recognize our own place inside that terrible mess of a system. It's not enough, but it is a step forward.
The next Reading Through It Book Club will convene at Third Place Books Seward Park to discuss Seattle author Martha Brockenbrough's biography of Donald Trump, Unpresidented. Brockenbrough will be in attendance at the next meeting on March 6th at 7 pm. The reading is free to attend and Unpresidented is now 20% off at Third Place Books.