[Hear Me Out] What Do I Mean When I Talk About Reading Diverse Books As A Diverse Reader?

4 smiling people--Asian man, Latina or Indigenous woman, Black woman and Black, mixed or Arab man--stand in a row, wearing colorful shirts that spell out the word TEAM

I get asked a lot of questions about this blog/book portal. No, wait–I don’t get asked a lot of questions. What I actually do is field a lot of random assumptions about what Equal Opportunity Reader is, who I am, what I think, and what my political stances may or may not be. I don’t love explaining myself, especially on the internet, because herre bee trollz and I can’t bee bothered. However, I also don’t love being misunderstood, so I suppose it’s time to pull bits of my process from my brain and lay it out for perusal.

I got a couple of messages lately. One of them asked me why I never critique literature from an “anti-racist” perspective.

sigh

I feel like I’ve blogged about this before, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of the concept of anti-racism or the work of Dr Ibram X Kendi and other scholars who champion it. However, I personally am more interested in whatever comes after anti-racism. I think it shows the lack of imagination in our culture that the best community response we have against racism right now is not another, positively defined, self-contained constructive thing–it’s just being actively against racism. “Anti-racism” says to me that our culture is still so backwards and still so centered on white supremacy as a foundation that we can’t imagine a solution right now that actually removes it entirely–only shifts it semantically. I’m not going to get into that any deeper at the moment, but I will reiterate I’m personally, academically and socially much more interested in what happens after anti-racism. It’s kind of like how for years everyone was talking about 1st and 3rd world countries, then developed and developing countries, but now because we have worked our way up to more equity based frameworks we’re using more accurate and egalitarian nomenclature like the minority and majority world. I hope and think that we’re going to arrive at better terminology than racist and anti-racist that is also more personally relatable soon, and I’m okay with waiting it out. I’m looking beyond anti-racism and I think it would be a little ingenuine for me to try and review books through that lens, no matter how popular the term is.

The other email I recently got simply demanded to know, “Why aren’t you speaking truth, Black woman! Where is your voice!?”

Okay. First of all, fool, I have a name. It’s Mel. Writing to folks and calling them by their demographic is not the flex you think it is. (Especially when you do not belong to the same demographic.)

Secondly, I am speaking. My voice is right here. Why aren’t you listening? Is it because I’m not saying the things you expect? Is it because I’m not saying the things that you want me to say? Is it because I’m not expressing everything from a framework of misery and you can only imagine Black women as perpetually oppressed and upset and downtrodden because that is how you feel about us? Is it because I read romance and repost memes making fun of old white classicists, which somehow doesn’t fit the narrative that as a Black woman who reads I should be sitting somewhere with a battered, tearstained copy of The Bluest Eye, weeping while I proclaim that I am Pecola and Pecola is meeeeeee

Whatever, man. I read The Bluest Eye when I was 18 and got that all mostly out of my system back then. I find it interesting that even in the midst of #blackgirlmagic and “listen to Black women” t-shirts and so on, there’s still a very critical lack of recognition of our basic humanity and right to evolve and grow, even from the people who claim to be our allies and advocates. It’s strange how that filters down to even the books I chose to read. Something I constantly see as a Black woman with opinions on the internet is that people tend to think that I am stuck at the same state of understanding of Black women and our world as they are–yet these are people who just realized that Black women are real people three years ago. Miss me with that. I’m grown and while I’m not the smartest person in the world, I’m also not dumb enough to allow myself to get stuck at a single stage of development because it somehow defines my Blackness in other people’s eyes. 

I suppose I should say I don’t get e-mails like this often–ever, really, although I have occasionally fielded similar criticisms from non-Black, non-white people in real life. This was a rare, one-off annoying message and I honestly expected far worse than this–I’m a 40 year Black lady, 100% average in every way, short afro, brown skin, wide nose. I’m fully aware that I operate in a body, a culture, and in spaces and times where people are often going to pack whatever I say or do into their existing stereotypes and projections–even when they think they’re on my side. I’m not only talking about racists–I find that everyone stereotypes Black women, even other Black women. Frankly, I don’t want to spend my energy convincing people of who or what I am or what I believe–you either get it or you don’t, and if you need me to aggressively shout about myself and what I do at you to be interested–you aren’t my audience, and that’s really okay.

But that said, I didn’t realize when I first started Equal Opportunity Reader that a lot of people would assume that I was either a nice Black lady trying to educate the masses on diversity or Madame Coon McShuckinJive, Corporate Sellout. The latter is laughable. My bank accounts aren’t fat enough, my white friends are all a little scared of me when I start to talk about race, and my last name isn’t Owens. But the former could stand some addressing.

If you’re hanging around the blog, the FB, the IG or elsewhere  and you happen to learn some things, cool. But while I recognize that Equal Opportunity Reader has some educational components, that’s not my primary goal. I’m not really trying to teach a course on diverse literature or anything like that. I’m  also not really trying to have the same liberal arts 101 conversations on race, class, gender, sexuality, disability and so on that the rest of the social justice internet seems to be constantly having.  First of all, I don’t want to, and second of all (and more importantly), I don’t want to. That should be good enough, right?

Of course, it’s not good enough, so let me also say that I’m also not an activist and I didn’t start this site as a social justice project. Okay, let me clarify–I’m not a literary activist. I have been and am involved with activism and education, and in fact, all of my day jobs post 2006 or so have been actively engaged with community work in some way. However, I developed my politics and my sense of social justice long before social media activism and the way that people engage with this work generationally is very different. I learned social justice because I love people. I don’t always like people, but I love people and my lifestyle and choices are hopefully constructed in relational ways and centered on the actual living realities of people and the incredible sanctity, vulnerability and unpredictable nature of the human spirit and how that plays out in our interactions with each other.

What I’m trying to say is that I became involved in activism, politics and social justice because I loved people, not because I thought it made me ‘right’. There’s a huge focus on being ‘right’ in activism right now, and while I think that’s a net positive, it’s not necessarily how I think or how I work. I can’t really engage helpfully with the school of thought that operates in a perform-proclaim mindset. By that, I mean the habit of announcing you belong to a group that you believe is right and then performing the behaviors that create in group belonging and cohesion within that group with little to no accounting for organic relationship with others outside of these obligatory “right” behaviors. Again, there are positive aspects to this. If that’s how you get down, well, a house is built of many different bricks and we’re all needed. I’m just saying I came to the world of social justice a little differently and that approach does not work for me. Some of its ramifications are frankly off-putting. It’s what leads to people sending me demanding emails addressing me as “Black woman” and requiring ‘right’ behavior while ignoring the fact that my lived reality is right behavior. I’m not performing Black womanhood for internet approval, I AM Black womanhood in reality. 

I’m getting kind of far afield into the nerd stuff here, but I’m saying all of this for a reason. I think there are a lot of online spaces that engage with education, with anti-racism, with social justice and with broader thinking on race and diversity and difference. I think these sites are critical and interesting and in many ways necessary, but I also notice that a lot of them either are made as a continual, angry, reflexive response to various supremacies or they seem to exist to teach people who are unlearning things like white supremacy, homophobia, ableism etc. Again, all of that is fine, it’s just not my ministry. 

I feel as though all of this leads to a standard where people of “difference”–I say that because I can’t think of a better umbrella term for people who are not white, who are not men, who are not straight, who are not cis, who are not able-bodied, etc. and ‘minority’ is a stupid term to me because it’s just bad math–I feel as though this emphasis on reacting and teaching in our own self-defining spaces is actually pretty harmful. From the perspective of a bibliophile, I think it’s interesting that we are often reading each other through a literary or media analysis lens that defaults the white gaze. By this I don’t only mean the obvious. I also mean that whiteness always seems to function as an intermediary between for example, Black people and Asian people. We talk about each other in terms of how systemic white racism has taught us to see each other, ignoring the fact that many of our relationships and cultural links were forged outside of that. (It’s like Grace Lee Boggs never existed or something.) Transness is looked at through the lens of cisness, disability through the lens of ability, poverty through wealth, womanhood through manhood. All of this is counterproductive.

Not everyone does this and we should, of course, all try to do quite a bit better. We’re allowed to look at each other through our own cultural and experiential lenses and that shouldn’t be remarkable in any way. We are allowed to be our own defaults and define ourselves. We’re allowed to look at each other in solidarity, not competition. We can, and ideally we should approach others on their own terms, seeing everyone as their own self-contained normals, not using whiteness, cisness, straightness, maleness, middle-class-ness or anything else as some sort of othering yardstick. We’re smarter than that. You’re smarter than that, and more empathetic, too.

This applies to every cultural and social interaction but since this is a book blog, let me bring this back to land in the library. So, I’m a cis-straight, more or less able-bodied, not-particularly-interested-in-defining-myself-beyond-that Black American lady. I read books by South Asian women. I read books by Arab men. I read books by Deaf white women. I read books by Latinx lesbian abuse survivors. I read books in translation by authors from all over the world. I read books by other Black women. I read them all from my own cultural and social perspective, with the intention of understanding other people’s perspectives as their own discreet self-defined things not dependent on the opinions of the mainstream, and SO SHOULD YOU. That’s what I am consciously doing, and it’s what I want to encourage others to do as well.

I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that white supremacy and American imperialism and wild capitalism have not in any way influenced my or your development or education. But I’ve been out of formal education for much longer than I was in at this point, and to assume that a person stops learning anything at all when they receive a diploma is really kind of jarring. I mean, if that’s how you live, sure, but…um…did you see where I typed that you’re smarter than that? I meant it.    

I’ve been pitching a lot of reviews and short essays about reading and books and literacy to various bookish outlets lately and I often submit my work involving writers who are not also Black women–partially because I think a lot of my writing on those authors is better, frankly, but also because I notice that the trend now is to have reviews written by #ownvoices or white people. At best these are white people who have a marker of difference when seen through a certain lens–so a trans white woman or a disabled white man, for example. Equal Opportunity Reader started as (and is still primarily) a Bookstagram and there are a startling amount of creators there who have massive followings based on the gimmick of being cis-straight-able white people who regularly acknowledge that other types people also exist and write books. I think what these creators do is great but it’s clear from IG and other spaces that the odds are stacked in favor of “minorities” who review and think about literature about themselves in the context of literature by cis-straight-able white people or in favor of those same white people who are doing the magnificent favor of noticing that most of the world is not them.  I don’t mean that to sound bitter. I’m just pointing out that there seems to be very little open space for those of us who are not identified with “standard” demographics to talk about the fact that we experience the world and have globalized points of view outside of that very narrow imposed lens. (Think of the perspective of a Nigerian in China, a gay disabled Mormon man in Florida, a neuroatypical British Filipina in Saudi Arabia, an Anishinaabe in Ghana.)

The messaging being given by the current trends is really a softer, gentler, more woke version of the idea that everything still exists in contrast to whiteness, straightness, able-bodied-ness, neurotypicality and so on. We can talk about ourselves. White people can talk about themselves and us. But the idea that a Black woman might have something of value to say about a book by an East Asian woman, that my cultural and social foundation has something of real value to say about hers and hers about mine without using colonial whiteness as an intermediary is still seen as largely unrelatable in some ways and unmarketable in others. That blows my mind, because this is basic empathy and cultural competence for beginners. Imagine empathy being unrelatable and unmarketable!

I constantly say and write and even have on a shirt that “I am my own normal”. We are all our own normal and part of that normality is trusting our understanding of the world beyond us through our own context and not just through a lens of normality that we are educated and pressured to use. Once you get to a certain point of thinking–and I can’t say this for everyone, I’m really just talking from my own experiences as a Black woman here although friends and colleagues in different demographics have expressed versions of this–but once you get to a certain point of development socially and intellectually in this world that sees so many of us as somehow lacking or abnormal, you either internalize that outside perception so deeply that it warps you in irretrievable and ultimately soul destroying ways or you begin to normalize yourself and create your own lens. That doesn’t mean the outside perceptions disappear, it simply means you develop a sense of inner value and the freedom to see yourself as a very ordinary and acceptable part of the wider world rather than as a broken, defective or undesirable oddity.

But look, we all know this already, right? We’re readers. We’ve been developing our own understandings of things since we first got a library card, right? My point is that if we really do believe that there is something beyond simply “anti-racism” and if we really are looking at the world globally, it’s important to live and behave as though while racism, colonialism, human tribalism and the prejudices and oppression that they bring influence every corner of the globe to some extent, they do not have to be the only or primary way we see the world. We don’t have to see the whole world as a thought exercise consisting of “us and regular white dudes”. We don’t have to restrict our reading to books by us or books by white dudes unless that’s what we want to do. I think there’s something very useful and very central to un-colonizing minds and removing supremacist thinking in reading works from a variety of other backgrounds that don’t fit the supremacist lens because then you SEE how these plagues of isms and oppression and colonial thinking have wounded everyone and how tightly our liberations–in big and small ways, from the books we read to the governments we make–are bound up together.  You also see that we are not collectively or individually defined by our oppressions, not entirely. We all have joy. I think it is important to recognize that joy is a part of the universal human condition and see that and acknowledge that and empathize with that in each other. I think it’s very easy to see everyone as an oppressor or the oppressed but the natural state of humankind is not that sort of sorrow–it’s joy. It’s togetherness. It’s creating the beauty that is human culture and expressing that because we are our own normals

That, I guess, is what the point of this blog is. I feel like it’s a small thing for me to be a Black lady in the world drinking words not only from the wells I’ve been told are for me but sampling entire oceans. It’s a small thing, but if we all learn to look at everyone on their own terms and form our own personal sense of empathy through books, it could be a bigger one. This is one of my ways of practicing something I believe is true–that true equity and empathy lie in learning to relate to each other through shared perspectives, not through application of warped outside narratives.

But hey, what do I know. The truth is, I’m a regular person who likes reading a lot, is too stubborn to accept limits and spends way too much time on the internet, which is why I’ll end this here for now. Peace and joy to you, fellow readers. Go and read something good. 

(This is where I have to obligatorily tell you that this blog has affiliate relationships and if you click and purchase anything from a link here, a commission will be paid. If you’d rather not click around a bunch, check out the whole Equal Opportunity Bookshop, and its booklists showcasing human diversity.)

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