I have written a lot about running and exercise because, much like Rio Silvestri in Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, running is a way of getting out of my head. It is a way of coping with anxiety and depression. But working out is something I had to learn to enjoy. Before running and becoming a gym rat, I was an avid reader. Television and movies were in the mix too, because I was growing up in a small town and those things were how I was able to escape rural life and experience different lives in other parts of the world. I lived vicariously through them.
I also find it satisfying to log things that I have finished, which is why I love Goodreads. Every time I finish a book, I go online to log it. I read 59 books last year–a mix of physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks–and when I heard about the project Books Are Not a Luxury, I was interested. I have been struggling a lot with the recent presidential election and am still struggling with the best ways to process and respond to what that means for me as a person who works in (1) a nonprofit that (2) focuses on education and (3) where we work with low income, first generation students who are often (4) people of color and also sometimes dealing with (5) being undocumented. If the project could help me learn more about different perspectives it could inform my work and also help me work through a lot of questions I have about what Donald Trump’s America might mean for the work that I do and the students I work with.
The first book was Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith, and it was a good place to start. At the end of last year, I read books that focused on the experience of people dealing with either being undocumented or who had family members who were undocumented. This book, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, addresses what it is like to be a young, black man in America. I highly recommend both.
What I like about Mychal Denzel Smith’s book is that it shows the evolution of thought about identity, which you don’t often see let along in a single book. It was helpful because I am also going through a similar process so the parallel is both important in that Smith acknowledging his blind spots also allowed me to realize and admit to my own in a way that helped me focus less on guilt over past mistakes and more on doing better–and constantly circling back to check that I am not lapsing back into old habits. He writes: “It speaks to how deeply ingrained bigotry can become and why vigilant self-reflection is needed to undo those lessons.”
The other thing that is nice about the way he examines his evolution of thought and recognition that in advocating against racism, he was fighting against bigotry that primarily aligned with his identity which was not just black but also straight and male. Realizing that, he was able to correct and expand the definition to include others that he previously did not include in that original definition.
I appreciate his candor on these things because, frankly, I am tired of people who feel they are so certain of the “right” way to do something and who shout down or dismiss people who don’t agree with them. As both a woman and as a person who goes to church, I feel like it is hard to speak about those things because I am not doing them “right” according to people who are really loud on the subject. Add to that the fact that I work with people of color, but am a white lady, there is a lot of anxiety about whether I am the right person to do the work that I’m doing or what right I have to speak up about something like religion* while I am living with a man that I am not married to and have for years, much to the chagrin of my parents.
* a religious view that is very liberal and focuses more on the idea of service, humility and helping others instead of a highly rule-based system that seems to take a lot of joy in judging and pointing out people who do not follow those rules.
So, seeing Smith talk about making mistakes of omission or depicting moments when a teacher challenges him, pokes him in the shoulder and causes him to rethink his approach to things is important. Because it allows that we will naturally have biases we aren’t always aware of. We will have blind spots or find ourselves in a situation where we don’t behave perfectly and that the important thing is not that we lose all right to then be advocates but that we learn from them and we do better.
Smith’s book in some ways was my introduction to my own blind spots. I have for the most part moved past the idea that as a white lady I am not the right person or the most qualified to do the work that I do. I work with students and with others who work with students. I have figured some things out from experience and making mistakes. I handle things differently than I did when I first started working with Upward Bound years ago. I might not be the ideal person–because I did have a very different experience with education and school and family than many of the students that I work with–but I am qualified because I care about and believe in teenagers and their potential. Just actually giving a shit about teenagers is not a guaranteed quality you will find in everyone who works with teenagers. I generally like them and enjoy working with them. I want to help, and I try to give them accurate information and help them navigate the educational system. I will not always be perfect, but I try to be honest and to give a shit and treat them with respect.
The first week and the first month and maybe the first semester I taught high school, I was not sure I had any right to do the job of teaching in a highly diverse school working with predominately low income students. Now, I am more aware of the things that make me a good fit for the job, but I had to work through some doubts and insecurities.
What Smith’s book did help me see is that for all that I thought I had figured some things out, I also was ignorant of a lot of the realities of what it means to be a person of color. Smith talks several times about how he never believed he would make it to his 20s in a society where so many black men are killed at a young age. I have taught many young, black men who were brilliant and curious and funny and I always believed they had bright futures ahead. I never considered that they might not have believed they would live to see 29.
I also never realized that some of my students were undocumented. I advised them to research and think about colleges and never had any idea that their legal status would be a hurdle they would have to figure out before they could go to their dream school. All of this is just ignorance on my part. I’ve learned more, and then I’ve (hoefully) done better.
“Check your privilege” is an annoying saying to me. Not because I think that it is not true, but because I think it is an easy thing that people say to others that often is only useful if it gets unpacked, and all too often in my experience, it is tossed off as a catchphrase rather than treated as a moment to examine power dynamics at play. Reading Smith’s book, I became much more aware of things I have not had to consider an that I have therefore not considered in dealing with others. That realization will make me better as a person and better at my job.
Finally, I don’t want to make it seem like this book is a heady examination of philosophies. It is highly readable and often times reminds me of Chuck Klosterman’s pop culture writing in that it takes something familiar and fun. He talks about being influenced by The Boondocks (a show I also think is brilliant) and Dave Chappelle. Both of those things often make me uncomfortable or make me pause and, in a sense, check my privilege, while also making me laugh. He talks a lot about hip hop, which is something I sometimes wrote off as being sexist (one of Smith’s occasional blind spots), but that also gave me a list of artists and songs to check out. He tells stories that are engaging and funny. It is an enjoyable read, which might sound dismissive, but honestly I feel it is important to say this book made me think a lot but didn’t feel like homework. I actually think that is a huge reason to check this book out.
Finally, I was all pumped up to check out the next book in the Books are Not a Luxury list, and then Betsy DeVos was nominated as Secretary of Education, and I started watching the Senate confirmation hearings and I experienced an existential crisis about what it means to work in education and how students and public schools might be impacted, and then I read the synopsis of the next book–a work of fiction–and it contained the sentence: “Dead girl, dead son. The son did it…” and I knew I had to sit this one out.
I intend to follow the spirit of the project and read diverse books and diverse authors more in 2017, but I also have to nourish my soul. That’s why I’ve loved books–the can teach me things. I learn all kinds of stuff from books–but they can also be reassuring, comforting, and a source of escapism. So, I am reading things like the NPR article Schools Can Save Lives and cozy mysteries and books about science and trying to hold all of these different ideas in my head as we head into a new year.