Three OwnVoices Reads Helping Me on My Antiracist Journey

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Hi! My name is Sarah, and I’m on a journey to become a better Antiracist.
I’m not an expert. I am learning.

Have you ever heard or read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s moving walkway theory? “I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt…Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around…But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively antiracist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.” (SourceWhere are you on the moving walkway?

My own background in racial literacy is a story for another day, but I want to be completely honest here – I am at the beginning of my real antiracist work. I have spent the majority of my adult life sitting comfortably on the moving walkway blaming people moving in the racist direction, curiously watching those moving in the antiracist direction, and doing little to no meaningful work myself. I knew that I wanted to understand racism, to do better and be better, but didn’t really know how to start. Like so many well meaning white people, I assumed that being kind and staying in my own lane was the best move: and my own experiences, biases, and insecurities were at the center at everything I did.

In December, I was lucky enough to listen and learn as a guest at the NAIS People of Color Conference in Seattle, Washington. The conference was a paradigm shift for me. With the help of a team of experts, I dipped my toe into the racist history of the United States, our education system, and the many programs and thought processes that have benefited me throughout my life. I listened, bewildered, to people of color discuss experiences I could never even have imagined. And I gathered with other White educators who, further along in their work, could give me targeted feedback on the misguided steps I have taken, and how to backtrack and begin correctly.

Now that I know better, I can do better. And I can do my part in helping other White people to do better, too. I left the People of Color Conference with a notebook filled with reflections and notes, including a long list of resources to help me do the real work to begin my antiracist journey. (This work is a common theme on my more casual, stream-of-consciousness Instagram account, if you’d like to follow along).

I am not qualified in any way to teach or lead in antiracist work. I want to be open about my journey because it sometimes seems like all of the conversations are for experts – and when everyone else feels miles ahead, it can make it really intimidating to take the first step. I hope to amplify the voices of leaders in the field, especially leaders of color, and share the OwnVoices resources that are helping me to be better (unfamiliar with the phrase OwnVoices? It’s incredibly important. Learn more about it here, directly from the creator of the phrase). If you’re interested, I’d love for you to join me as I learn.

Here are three books, suggested by the experts at the 2019 People of Color Conference that have helped me recently:

Waking Up White, by Debby Irving

If you’re White like me, you might be surprised to learn that it’s impossible for you to do meaningful and impactful antiracist work until you fully understand your own cultural identity and the impact that it has had on your life, even if (especially if!) you’ve never noticed it. This was one of the biggest themes that I encountered at PoCC, and it’s all over my notes – I cannot even begin to understand race and the implications it has had for people of color until I understand the impact that my whiteness has had on me.

The title, Waking Up White, describes Ms. Irving’s experience in waking up one day to realize for the first time that her whiteness, while mostly unseen and unconsidered, has been the deciding factor in most of her life. In the memoir, she discusses her immense discomfort in coming to terms with her own racial and cultural identity, the many ways that she was doing harm when her intent was to do good, and the steps she is taking to learn how to be better. Waking Up White is very similar to my own story (I’m still waking up!), which makes it very uncomfortable to read; but I’ve learned that discomfort means I’m on the right track. I think this one is a must-read for anyone looking to set a strong foundation for lifelong antiracist work. I’ve skipped ahead before, thinking that my own whiteness had nothing to do with racism – I was wrong. White readers, this is our first step.

While it is written by a White woman, Waking Up White is an OwnVoices text – Irving is detailing her own story as a White person considering her personal cultural identity, not attempting to tell anyone else’s story.


Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Did the direct and clear image of the moving walkway at the beginning of this post grab your attention and give you an “ah-hah!” moment, like it did for me? Then join me in saying a thank you for Beverly Daniel Tatum’s generous and incredibly impactful writing. Described as a “bestselling book on the psychology of racism”, Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria took a million of the questions that I was too afraid to ask (or didn’t even know I had) and laid the answers out in a miraculously clear and beginner-friendly way. Racism, biases, and prejudices are thoughts before they can become actions, and Doctor Tatum does the difficult work of tackling racism from the inside out. I was especially thankful for the preface update in this twentieth anniversary edition, which gave a modern history of racism in America, openly countering the “but racism doesn’t exist anymore” argument commonly overheard in predominantly White discussions.

There is so much information in this book, it’s really best to tackle it little by little with a highlighter and a notebook – I originally started it as an audiobook and realized quickly that it required more detailed attention. For most of the text, I listened to the audiobook (read by the author, who does an incredible job) while following along in my own copy of the paperback. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria is not for educators, as the title may suggest, but for any person looking to learn about the history and psychology that has made it possible for racism to still have such a startling impact in America today.


New Kid, by Jerry Craft

If you read the publisher’s description of New Kid, it says that it’s for readers ages eight and up, but I pass this one along to adults even more often than I give it to kids. Here’s a part of the description from my Best of 2019 post: “New Kid is the story of Jordan, one of the only students of color at his prestigious private school. The groundbreaking graphic novel follows the budding artist as he travels every day, both physically and emotionally, from his home in Washington Heights to Riverdale Academy Day School and back again. Jordan’s classmates and teachers have no idea of the impact of their words and actions on Jordan’s health and well-being; and in the same breath, Jordan learns that his own assumptions and behaviors don’t always have the results that he intended.”

I think that one of the reasons that it’s so hard for White people, especially working with children, to see the impact of the racism around us is because we are insulated from the impact. That’s one of the many reasons that New Kid is so incredible – it gives us a peek into the mind of a student of color as he goes through everyday interactions with the White people in his school community, allowing us to see intent vs. impact playing out in real time. Author Jerry Craft has given an invaluable gift to White adults with New Kid. If you’re not feeling up to a hefty nonfiction text yet, maybe start with this graphic novel. Hopefully, it will light a spark that will push you to keep going.


Next up, I’m reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. I hope to share my reflections as I go, and add it to my next antiracist reads post.

What books have helped you in your antiracist work? Where are you in your journey? How has your experience been? I’d love to hear from you and share in this work together.

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