If you’re white, it can be all too easy to normalize your whiteness. The powers that be put whiteness at the dead center of our politics and culture—think about how often white people are framed as the real Americans or the most meaningful voters in our politics—and you, a white person, could go through your life thinking that’s an accurate reflection of the world around you. It’s not. But it’s on us white people to try to undo that in our own lives, and culture can be a key part of that, a way to stretch beyond simple opposition to overt racism or dutiful nods to diversity.
Let’s be clear here that structural racism is far more important than whether you as an individual white person personally listen to or watch or read culture produced by people of color. But the two issues aren’t completely detached, either. For one thing, there are industries involved here. According to a recent analysis, 95% of fiction published by the top U.S. publishers between 1950 and 2018 was by white authors, and it wasn’t just the early years of that sample skewing things: 89% of the books published in 2018 were by white authors. Unless you think that writing skill is that unevenly distributed, there’s a racist imbalance within the industry that you can help do something about by eliminating the “we just publish what sells” excuses.
In the movie industry, diversity is improving in front of the cameras, but not so much in writing and directing roles. That can lead to situations like the one actor Leonard Roberts recently wrote about in Variety, in which the diversity of the cast on the television show Heroes did not translate to equity. Roberts, as a Black man, saw his role diminished and his voice unheard, and was ultimately fired because his white female costar refused to be professional, let alone decent, about working with him, and the producers chose her over him.
On an individual level, how do you know where structural racism is erasing vast swaths of life in the U.S. from your view if you don’t look? Nonfiction is of course invaluable here, but many of us take in more art and culture, and the latter can offer shades of feeling and experience that nonfiction won’t. (You can also try talking to your nonwhite friends, but you’re going to want to be really careful not to force them to be your teacher and absorb your ignorance out of friendship. Also, your specific Black or Brown friends do not speak for all Black or Brown people. Neither does any given book or movie or other work of art, but you can check out a lot of those.)
So, white people: What books by people of color have you read in the past year? What movies have you seen? What music have you listened to?
This year the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic and the election, as well as a case of shingles that robbed me of a month or so of reading time, reshaped this list. For much of the year, at the end of a day of reading and writing about the news, I just didn’t have the mental space for many nonfiction books.
All this said, let me be clear: These are books I like or at least value, even if they’re difficult. I’m not suggesting that white people read books by people of color as a dreadful chore. I’m suggesting that other white people, too, can go out and find books (or movies, or music) that you like that will provide you with a lens onto how the world you inhabit is shaped by your whiteness. Now, if you can’t find any art or culture created by people who aren’t just like you that you enjoy, that might be a conversation to have with yourself.
As an additional note, I’ve often written about my love of romance novels. I’m so glad to see them increasingly getting recognition as something other than not just a guilty pleasure but a shameful one. Five of the books here—Farrah Rochon’s The Boyfriend Project, Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man, Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral, Jasmine Guillory’s Party of Two, and Sonali Dev’s Recipe for Persuasion were on NPR’s best books of 2020 list, and Courtney Milan’s The Duke Who Didn’t was a New York Times notable book.
Books I read:
- Michele Harper, The Beauty in Breaking. Harper weaves together her family story—from her father’s abuse to her divorce—with lessons learned, and taught if anyone is willing to listen, as a Black emergency room doctor. For a sample of the book’s power, check out this short piece by Harper.
- Dawn Marie Dow, Mothering While Black. This book expands on Unequal Childhoods, Annette Lareau’s classic of sociology of the family, to consider more deeply how Black women conceive of and practice motherhood.
- Farrah Rochon, The Boyfriend Project and Huddle with Me Tonight and Field of Pleasure and I’ll Catch You
- Courtney Milan, The Duke Who Didn’t. As The New York Times put it, “By turns consciously tender and fiercely witty, this is an unalloyed charmer about Chloe Fong, a stubborn Chinese-British sauce maker, and Jeremy Yu, the half-Chinese Duke of Lansing, who’s head over heels for her, but can’t seem to say so.” Milan is also one of the authors who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for groups doing field organizing in the Georgia Senate runoffs, so, you know, buy her books!
- Alyssa Cole, How to Catch a Queen and When No One is Watching and The A.I. Who Loved Me and Be Not Afraid and Agnes Moor’s Wild Knight. When No One is Watching represents a shift from romance to thriller for Cole, a book sometimes described as Get Out meets Rear Window. As someone who doesn’t read a lot of thrillers, it was too stressful for me to finish in the run-up to the elections, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to it after the compelling early chapters. How to Catch a Queen is a spinoff of Cole’s Reluctant Royals series, which produced the New York Times notable book A Princess in Theory in 2018. Cole joined Milan as one of the Romancing the Runoff organizers, so again, buy her books.
- Sonali Dev, Recipe for Persuasion. The word “persuasion” in the title is a direct nod to Jane Austen’s book of that title, as is the book’s plot. It’s an homage without being derivative, and a lovely book about family and heritage as well as romance.
- Alisha Rai, The Right Swipe and Girl Gone Viral
- Adriana Herrera, Mangoes and Mistletoe and Here to Stay and American Fairytale and American Dreamer and American Sweethearts and American Love Story
- Tomi Adeyemi, Children of Blood and Bone
- Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi and There’s Something about Sweetie and 10 Things I Hate about Pinky and Of Curses and Kisses. The first three titles are young adult romances about navigating life, love, and parental expectations as an Indian American teenager.
- Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
- Vanessa Riley, A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby
- Jasmine Guillory, Party of Two. Guillory’s earlier The Proposal remains my favorite of her books, but I will always look forward to a new book from this author.
- Ruby Lang, House Rules
- Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
- Mia Sosa, The Worst Best Man. Per NPR, “a salty-sweet delight.” Indeed—and with lots of amazing food descriptions, salty-sweet is apt in more ways than one.
- Melissa Blue, Grumpy Jake
- Farah Heron, The Chai Factor
- Rebekah Weatherspoon, Xeni. Weatherspoon runs the valuable resource WOC in Romance.
- Sherry Thomas, A Study in Scarlet Women and The Luckiest Lady in London and Beguiling the Beauty
- Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, Big Friendship
- Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
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