On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, at a time when many African Americans were still overwhelmed, outraged, and grieving the unjustified and race-based killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. At the same time, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) were also grappling with the deadly effects of the COVID-19 virus disproportionately ravaging their communities.
I was personally feeling overloaded and frustrated when I began to receive requests on my personal social media pages to recommend books that could be used to explain current events to young, white children. Because I understood that people were asking me for help as a librarian, and not as their Black friend, I did not completely ignore the requests for my emotional labor during this difficult time. Still, I didn’t have the bandwidth to provide individual readers’ advisory. So I reverted back to what I do best: being a librarian.
As a way to channel my own fear and anxiety about the state of the world I created the website Anti-Racism Resources for All Ages. At this moment in history, there are literally hundreds of reading lists floating around with the goal of espousing anti-racism, Black history, and issues of social justice. Of the almost 200 resources featured on the site, I did not search for any of them—all of them came across my social media feeds.
After organizing the site, I set it live, and shared the resource page on social media with the following message:
This project emerged out of the pain and frustration associated with the back-to-back deaths of #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor and #AhmaudArbery in 2020. We must do better as a global society! #BlackLivesMatter.
This list is not a panacea. This compilation of resources is JUST A STARTING POINT to encourage people to do their own work and have their own hard conversations.
Do the Work
Why is this list not a panacea? Because just reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist or Robin Di’Angelo’s White Fragility will not make you anti-racist. If it did, we all could have been anti-racists years ago.
Just reading without acknowledging the historical context and your own personal experience is merely indulging a trendy topic, or assuaging your guilt. Just reading allows you to check a box and say “all done, I’m anti-racist!” or “not all white people do that,” or “not all cops are bad.”
Just reading gives you the false confidence to doubt your BIPOC colleagues, instead of accepting the painful truths about their experiences. Just reading absolves you from doing the real work, and allows you to perhaps even resent or discount the hard work BIPOC are doing to safeguard their existence.
Just reading is not engaging or absorbing the key points and demands of anti-racism. Just reading encourages performative gestures of outrage and solidarity, and perpetuates the actual problem of systemic oppression. Just reading allows you to remain emotional about racism. As author Nathan Rutstein says, “prejudice is the emotional commitment to ignorance.”
To be sure, reading is an an important first step. Anti-racism is a long game. Instead of just reading, I want to challenge you to go the distance. I want you to do the real work of becoming anti-racist. I want you to commit to being teachable. To acknowledge that you’re not always right. We all have room to grow, change, and do better. Anti-racism requires risk, vulnerability, and accountability. But it also brings whole new levels of understanding and empathy.
So, how to approach the hard work of becoming anti-racist? I suggest viewing your anti-racist journey in three stages:
The first is critical self-reflection. This is where the book lists, and close readings collected on the Anti-Racism Resources for All Ages page come in to play. Strive to become culturally competent. Work to become comfortable with being uncomfortable with your various privileges (including white privilege) and implicit biases. Make a concerted effort to be a better listener. And believe the marginalized when they alert you to abuse, microaggressions, and other mistreatment.
Second, is achieving critical consciousness. With your new awareness and understanding, learn about the systemic inequities that continue to plague our society. Things like redlining, medical apartheid, classism, whiteness, coded language, and many other inequities continue to have a stronghold on how people are socialized and lead their lives. In order to become anti-racist we first have to do the work of recognizing the internalized racism and white supremacy that beget racist thoughts and behavior. As author and activist Ally Henny says, “saying you’re sorry only puts a band-aid on the cut. You need to examine why you picked up the sword in the first place.”
Third, is action and advocacy. Anti-racism is about action, and enacting your critical consciousness. This is the part where you engage in tangible, community-based actions. This is where you create a plan to become a better citizen and ally. This is the part where you help change the world.
A Collective Effort
The first stage outlined above is more of an individual reflective process. The latter two stages bring you into conversation and collaboration with others who can further your education, and engage with you as you aspire to social justice action and advocacy.
Don’t get discouraged along the way. The anti-racism process is ongoing and dynamic, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all. Your path to anti-racism may not match that of your co-worker, your spouse, or your children. It may change and evolve over time. And you will make mistakes along the way. That’s okay—the important thing is to assess, regroup, and begin again.
And finally, a personal plea: please use your voices and power to amplify the voices of those who would not ordinarily have the opportunity to share their perspectives. Don’t let your passion die when the current anti-racism bookclub trend begins to fade. We’re all in this together. And anti-racism can only succeed and be sustainable when it’s a collective effort.
Nicole A. Cooke is the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an Associate Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, at the University of South Carolina. Her research and teaching interests include equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in librarianship, critical cultural information studies, human information behavior, and fake news consumption and resistance.