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  • Writer's pictureColin Phelan

Reading Books: Feel, neurologically, their pain and constant fear.

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Coming from a white person –

Educating through books is important. As I just read a recentNotre Dame Magazine Article, I couldn’t help but consider what is going on around me, in my country. A few days ago, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis Police Officer. Chaos has ensued, both on the ground in Minneapolis and elsewhere, and online, on social media.

I find some of the uproar on social media particularly upsetting, specifically that coming from white people posting and sharing a myriad of anti-racism kits and white-privilege briefings. On one end, these postings are informative and helpful, and I am by no means criticizing the people who are posting and/or reading these materials. Reading and sharing these materials is better than reading nothing.

However, our quick sharing and consumption of these materials may do little good in the long run. We have short attention spans in this country, if that isn’t already well established. To myself and my white friends: if you want to be an ally -- if you want to help combat racism -- on top of engaging in dialogue, you should read; read literature.

Our brains are malleable, and as this recent, well-wrought ND magazine article points out, reading not only improves brain function and expands our constrained attention spans, but also increases empathy; in turn, reading can be a means of combatting racism by understanding what it feels like to be black in this country and to further educate the white reader of his/her own privilege.

As this recent article also pointed out, “Reading is powerful medicine, but it’s slow medicine. OR: Reading is powerful medicine because it is slow medicine.”

Calling Minneapolis PD, financial donations, and reading these informant materials may yield some change. But in order to address an institutional problem, one in which our brains have been programed in, we must actively try and shape our brains with forms of slow, powerful medicine. Speaking with a black friend about his/her experiences and these problems is certainly a viable and productive method; yet, a book carries with it details that can’t be explained and/or meditated on in a 25 minute conversation. Especially if read by an engaged, willing reader, a novel will encourage an individual to grapple with complex situations and hopefully, improve their empathy. Be willing. Enter the book, meditate on the book, dream on the book: you will feel, at least to some extent, how it feels for black people to be incessantly subordinated in this country.

As a second article I recently read also pointed out, in the United States many people are political “hobbyists.” The author, who referenced a study about digital social movements, concluded that “online outfits hardly ever build structure that have a lasting impact in the real world.” These political hobbyists, he says, “are Americans who post avidly online about social matter like racial equality, but do nothing practical to follow up offline.”

Once again, these postings and the massive digital mobilization I have seen may be productive and may inspire institutional change; to some extent, this mobilization has already been productive, as Derek Chauvin has been arrested. But we have all seen a similar narrative before: with racial inequality, with climate change, with women’s rights. An especially noteworthy event occurs, and so follows the uproar; the posts and the retweets saturate our feeds. These movements fade. But between today’s (May 30th) frustration over George Floyd (among others) and events of the past, racial oppression in America had never taken a back-seat; digitally, most white people had.

Reading a book is harder than posting or reading a list online; do both. While some self-proclaimed or self-understood allies may be at someone’s neck – someone who has not posted or shared something online, for being supposedly disengaged -- we must remind ourselves that productive change, that change from within, takes time. Memorizing a list of ways white people are privileged: that list won’t be remembered, and even if it is, is understanding white privilege the ability to regurgitate the ways a white person is privileged? I don’t think so. Memorizing the ways white people are privileged doesn’t help white people understand how they are privileged.

I am white and I too have a long way to improve. I will never understand the intense oppression that my black peers face every day. Dialogue is necessary, but especially in our present, semi-quarantined world, reading books for 10+, 20+, 30+ hours -- with supplemental reflection – can be extremely productive. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes; feel, neurologically, their pain and constant fear.

In addition to engaging in dialogue, that’s what I plan to do in the meantime. As a white person, I am challenging myself to read. Reading is already hard in our quick-fix-world; reading about race, especially when you’re white, may be harder. While many people may not have the time to commit to a long-novel, or two, or three, if your family’s economic situation affords you such time, you should make it happen.

For references I point to most especially memoirs or works of fiction. While non-fiction can be productive and informative, if we (white people) want to understand what it is like to be black – to live in someone else’s shoes – fiction or memoir will prove most effective. And to borrow another idea from this ND article, let’s change our brains. If we can do so, we may improve our empathy, as to can better understand what it is like to be black in America; we can help institute lasting change.

When the digital world enters its next radio silence on this topic, be a person who still carves time into his/her day, everyday, to read books that concern race. Set long term goals. Suffer, through books, not for one day, or two, or three, but for weeks, months, years; suffer in-step with our black peers. Racism is institutional, which at its core means that it has been built up and propagated over time, with structure. To combat this structure requires a combination of activism – the present activism I point to above, the present mobilization and postings – but also a slow-burning, changing of our mindset and our understanding of reality.

Of course, feel free to email me if you’d like to have a dialogue.

References made in article:

Beth Ann Fennelly. “What Good is Literature? Empathy is an endangered virtue these days. Its well-being could be revived by the simple act of reading about others.” Notre Dame Magazine, Spring 2020:

“Civil Rights: Attention deficit disorder” The Economist. Volume 435, no. 9195, May 23rd-29th2020: 18-19

Here is one literary reference I’ve found extremely helpful:

Frantz Fanon helped me better understand racial power structures. Although Fanon’s writings concerned the French Colonial Algerian independence struggle in the 1960s, the situation he describes is all too analogous to that in the United States. For me, reading the final chapter of “The Wretched of the Earth,” was transformative, and its of no surprise that Fanon’s writings later inspired MLK and others fighting for black equality in the U.S. Put simply, Fanon maps out how racial power structures operate. If you have time, read… Add it to your list. I read it a bit ago but I plan to read it again. The first half or so is pretty dense, but I found the end of this chapter revelatory, a keen explanation for why these structures were — and in our context, are — in place, and how these structures manifest themselves

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