What Have White People Learned From All Their Black Lives Matter Reading?

Two years after George Floyd's death, Habiba Katsha speaks to white people about what they've read – and learned.
These books hit the bestsellers list in June 2020 ... what happened next?
Amazon / HuffPost
These books hit the bestsellers list in June 2020 ... what happened next?

Wednesday May 25 marks two years since the death of George Floyd. The 46-year old African American man was arrested and killed after police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. This came only months after the killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

As well as prompting a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests, Floyd’s death reignited conversations about race all around the world. Arguably, the pandemic had a part to play in this, as lockdown forced white people to sit and watch what police brutality can do to Black people in real time. Millions of white people around the world started showing their support by “doing the work”

Part of doing this apparent work has been donating money to Black advocacy organisations and listening to Black people’s experiences, but a major part was white people educating themselves about race through their own reading.

During the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, books such as How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo jumped into the Amazon bestseller lists – not just for books about race or social justice, but overall.

In the UK, Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first black British author to top the British book charts when her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, jumped 155 places in the paperback non-fiction list in a week.

None of these books were newly published in 2020 (in fact they all came out the previous year), but their sales highlight that white people were willing to learn.

Two years on, I was interested to follow up. Did people actually read the books they bought? And if so, what did they learn and has the work continued?

Wanting to find out more, I did a call out on Twitter and Instagram. I wasn’t that surprised when I didn’t get many responses. But given I have more than 12,000 followers on Twitter and 2000 on Instagram, I still found the silence telling.

It’s hard being vulnerable, of course, especially on social media, but have people digested all their anti-racism reading lists or do some consider buying and reading the books job done? Below, we hear from five white people who were willing to share what they’ve read in the past two two years – and how it’s changed the way they see race and racism.

‘White voices are not needed in every conversation’

Inês Mendonça, 26, a writer from Portugal had a “decent understanding” of race and racism before George Floyd’s death, but wanted to learn more.

“I remember the death of Trayvon Martin and how that made me look at the treatment of Black people in America,” she tells HuffPost UK. Mendonça read a lot of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison during university, she says, but after Floyd’s death her reading focused on police abolition.

“I researched a lot of Angela Davis’s work to learn more about police brutality,” she says. “When people started talking about abolition, I genuinely had no idea about what that could look like. I grew up never being scared of the police. I learned about things like redlining, the 13th amendment in the US and food deserts happening in areas where mostly Black people live.”

Her biggest takeaway? “It became so much clearer to me how endemic racism is in every aspect of society and it became so much clearer to me that Black people live in fear every day that something like what happened to George Floyd will happen to someone they love.”

Mendonça has learned to listen more and talk less. “White voices are not needed in every conversation. You want to know why XYZ is problematic? Pretty sure a quick Google search can help you do that... I also want to be told when I’m doing something wrong or have someone challenge my beliefs.”

‘Capitalist systems promote inaction on racism’

Will*, 34, a researcher from the North of England, grew up in a rural area that had a large white population so race was an abstract concept in his early years. “That being said my parents were active in the Anti-Nazi League, so I’ve always been made aware of the injustice caused by racism,” he says.

“Before George Floyd’s death and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, my focus was more on the negative effects on society that come from inequalities based on social class.”

He has read Don’t Touch My Hair and What White People Can Do Next, both by Emma Dabiri, as well as The Good Immigrant anthology, edited by Nikesh Shukla. “I learned a lot about the roots of the concept of race and racism that emerged from colonialism and the slave trade,” Will says of this reading.

“Probably most importantly for me, I’ve learned more about the ways that capitalist systems promote inaction on racism – like advertising campaigns from companies which pander to anti-racist sentiments but who profit from exploitation. I’ve also engaged much more with intersectional theory as an explanation for our deeply unequal society.”

Now that race and racism come up more in conversations with friends and family, he tries to recommend the books he’s read to others who want to learn, too.

“I’ve also tried to apply some of what I’ve learned to my work where I research inequalities in health outcomes,” he adds. “I’ve taken part in action within my union to demand more equal pay and conditions because my area of work (like most) privileges middle-class, white males.”

‘Dismantling white supremacy has to start with ourselves’

Emma*, a 34-year old teacher from Scotland, read What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri and the Me and White Supremacy workbook by Layla F Saad. She set up a group of friends and acquaintances to work through each chapter and share their learnings and reflections – as Saad suggests.

“Me and White Supremacy was one of the most challenging and impactful books I’ve ever read,” Emma tells me. “It made me realise that despite all the things I believed and was trying to do to challenge racism, I had never stopped to consider or unpack how growing up in a white supremacist society in Britain had affected me.”

She adds: “I learned that dismantling white supremacy has to start with ourselves, internally, and I’m going to keep working on that. It was deeply revelatory about how much of a grasp white supremacy had on my mind despite all my knowledge. Ultimately, it was a really transformative experience.”

Since reading these books, Emma says she’s getting more comfortable with discomfort and interrogating her own emotions and assumptions. “It’s made me really check myself and also definitely become a more active ally – both in terms of emailing MPs and calling out racism when I see it.”

‘I realised how severe the consequences of racism are’

Sally*, a 65-year-old author, says that while she understood a “fair amount about race” before Floyd’s killing, she wasn’t aware of “just how bad” things were. “His death and the Black Lives Matter movement helped me understand how badly Black people are still being treated,” she says.

She has since read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. “Both authors are female and I thought their writing was meaningful, raw and full of personal experiences,” says Sally.

“It helped me understand better the difficulties like job searching or renting a flat or buying something I’d have no problems with. The books also taught me to listen to what’s being said, not assume I know how it feels. I realised how severe the consequences of racism are and that I need to do more to help.”

‘We need to keep the important conversations going’

Micro-aggressions were something that Sam*, 24, who works in marketing, knew existed but couldn’t articulate. As well as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, the Londoner’s recent reading list has included Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala and Black and British: A Short Essential History by David Olusoga.

“I realised with some shame that there had actually been instances in the past where I might have been the aggressor due to my own ignorance,” she admits. “I realised that there was a lot of unlearning to do in my everyday language.”

Sam feels her eyes have been opened. “I’m actively trying to combat my own prejudices. Going forward, I try to have very open discussions with my friends and family on a regular basis about race to end any sense of stigma and keep the important conversations going.”

She has also written to local schools about the curriculum. “I truly feel (especially in Britain) that an understanding of the history of Empire and how so many cultures came to be here is so significant in understanding why the interplay between race and class is as it is in Britain today.”

*Some names have been changed and surnames omitted for anonymity.

It’s gratifying to see some white people have become allies to Black people and started unlearning racist ideologies, but there’s still so much work to do.

In the past week, we’ve heard about Raheem Bailey being racially and physically abused in school with little help from school authorities, to the point where he lost a finger fleeing his bullies.

Earlier this year, the horrifying story of Child Q came to light in a safeguarding report: a 15-year-old school girl who was strip-searched by police without her parent’s consent or any supervision, because she apparently smelt like cannabis. She was traumatised.

Two reports in as many days this week highlight once again that Black women feel unsafe during pregnancy (and are still four times more likely to die in childbirth). Women reported discrimination and very patchy antenatal, labour and postnatal maternity care, according to Five X More research.

And the whole country still remembers in the aftermath of the Euros last year the abuse that England football players Marcus Rashford, Jordan Sancho and Bukayo Saka received on social media – the torrent of racist slurs and monkey emojis. Unfortunately, this list can go on and on.

If you haven’t started doing the reading, it’s not too late, but it can’t stop with education. We need action and we need individuals and the government to step up and prove to us that Black lives truly do matter.

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