In the months following the murder of George Floyd, The New York Times bestseller list was full of non-fiction books about race and racism. Bookstores had a hard time keeping titles in stock. Library systems released unlimited copies of books like “How to Be An Antiracist” and “White Fragility” in order to increase access. Book studies and book clubs launched in congregations and in neighborhoods, reading those and other similar titles. Even though it felt like a hopeful sign of change, I was certain that we were not going to read our way out of racism in the U.S.
Reading about racism doesn’t build all of the spiritual or social muscles we need to transform the world into a more just and loving place. The heart-centered work of antiracist practice includes empathy as a key component. Empathy is best cultivated in the context of trusted and accountable relationships. The challenge is, those take time and we don’t all have the same opportunities to build such relationships. You may be wondering: If I’m not in a trusted relationship with people of color, does that mean I can’t be an antiracist? Nope. Antiracist practice is not contingent on being in a racially diverse community. We all have a role to play in dismantling the systems, sentiments, and somatics of racism.
One way I’ve expanded my practice of empathy is through—wait for it—reading. Yes, I did just say that we can’t read our way out of racism AND that books can be helpful. Unlike reading about racism, reading fiction and memoirs by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) authors provides a window into lived experiences we may not share. Through story, we have the chance to glimpse the everyday lives, loves, and longings of people of different races. Reading also gives us access to the interior lives of characters in ways that broaden our horizons without asking more emotional labor of BIPOC people we may know in real life.
I thought about this recently as I read a book called “Real Men Knit” by Kwana Jackson. It was a cute love story centered on a yarn store in Harlem where the family that owned the store and building were trying to figure out what to do after the matriarch’s passing. On the surface, it was pretty light and fluffy, but as I read it, I was invited into deeper themes of cross-racial adoption, gentrification, and the Black community. It was a surprising source of heart-centered antiracist practice. But in reflecting on this, fiction has often expanded my heart and mind in ways I didn’t predict; I think of the heart-wrenching science fiction of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” and the light-hearted Indian American take on Jane Austen in “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” by Sonali Dev as a couple other examples. Reading fiction is not a substitute for trusted relationships, but it can be an effective warm-up for the hard work of relationships.
Other books that I’ve read or that have been recommended to me that I believe will help build empathy with BIPOC communities are:
Shadowshaper Trilogy by Daniel José Older
The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Binti: The Complete Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor
“They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei
“American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang
“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner
“Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year” by Linda LeGarde Grover
“The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdrich
“There There” by Tommy Orange
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford
“The Leavers” by Lisa Ko
“The Book of Lost Saints” by Daniel José Older
What fiction or memoirs have expanded your heart and mind? Who are your favorite BIPOC authors? May 2022 be the year you find a new book by a BIPOC author that broadens your horizons and helps you get in your empathy warm-up reps.
Rev. Dana Neuhauser is the racial justice organizer for the Minnesota Conference and the minister of public witness at New City Church in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church