On the White impulse to try reading our way out of being a dick

Speaking as someone who just read The Skin We’re In and has How to be Antiracist on the go, this all hits home. Learning is hard in part because so much of it involves making mistakes over and over.

There is a long tradition of white people thinking they can read their way out of trouble. Examples abound, from sentimental novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)—which engaged white antebellum readers through appeals to sympathy and Christian sentiment—to sociological readings of race novels by mid-twentieth-century middlebrow book clubs, the formation of “U.S. ethnic lit” during the canon wars of the 1980s and ’90s, and the explosion of “global literature” in recent decades. As Jodi Melamed noted almost ten years ago in Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (2011), “The idea that literature has something to do with antiracism and being a good person has entered into the self-care of elites, who have learned to see themselves as part of a multinational group of enlightened multicultural global citizens.”

It comes as little surprise, then, that antiracist reading lists are proliferating like weeds in the wake of the 2020 uprisings, sending antiracism books to the tops of the best-seller charts. This is the literature of white liberalism.

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