The older I get the more I try to be purposeful and intentional. I need a reason for doing, thinking, or saying something. A few years ago, I decided to implement a would-be annual theme for my reading life. Something like a word or idea to focus on throughout the year and to find books that would assist in learning about it. The first year, I decided on diversity. This may have been a response to the #oscarssowhite issue. I was thinking how easy it is to see the whitewashing in that medium. You look at a cast and see only white people, that’s an obvious issue. Unless you’re not looking for it, which is a larger problem; not being aware. This happens everywhere, though; that’s not a uniquely Hollywood problem. In my reading, I tried for a whole year to make every other book I read a book by a person of color. The issue I ran into at first, was that the books I was most excited to read were by white people. Every time, by default, I wanted to just read books that were by white authors. That is what is advertised. That’s what I was hearing about. That’s what my friends were reading. I didn’t set out to only read white people, of course not. But many a time I’d look at my nightstand, and the stacks of books there for instant reading were all white authors. Diversity was a decision I had to think about and make sure I was putting into my reading life. It was not there naturally, but I wanted it to be. I just needed to pay more attention, to not ignore the issues of the day, and to be part of a solution.
Let me just say that this idea is a complicated one. There are two main reasons for reading. One is to find yourself; the other is to learn. Since I’m a 20-something year old woman, finding her career path, identity, and place in the world, I should be reading books about 20-somethings doing the same. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book by a young, white lady, about a young, white lady, written for a young, white lady. That’s me. A huge part of reading is finding yourself on the page. Seeing someone who looks and thinks and acts like you do. When you find an idea that you thought was only in your head there on paper, exactly as you think it, that’s incredible. That is why people read! We can find help in books with those ideas that are dark, bad, off, or just hard to articulate. Sometimes we find it, written down by an author or spoken by a character. It is an incredible feeling to be seen and to be understood.
**THIS IS WHY REPRESENTATION IS IMPORTANT. IT IS IMPORTANT FOR PEOPLE OF ALL RACES, CLASSES, SEXUAL ORIENTATIONS, TO SEE THEMSELVES REFLECTED IN ART, MEDIA, AND CULTURE. This feeling of seeing yourself is important to discovering yourself and your place in the world. Everyone deserves that. Representation matters. Big time.
So that’s one side of the coin: finding yourself, being able to relate. I get to read books by white people and enjoy them. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Everyone should be allowed to consume and enjoy what they like and especially not to be made to feel bad for enjoying it. The other great thing about reading, though, is learning. If you’re not poor, didn’t grow up in the Midwest, never had a sibling, never went to Paris, you can read about it. You can learn about history, science, how to knit, about any President’s childhood, how to be a vegetarian, and basically anything else from a book. As a white gal who often, and clearly sometimes only, read books about other white gals, I felt the need to shake it up. Calling myself educated and curious didn’t hold up unless I was being curious and educating myself on something I saw as an issue. So, I worked on it. I read (and loved) things I never would have thought to read had I not been focusing on it. This is the thing I discovered, I could relate to and love stories about people who were different than myself. Yeah, duh!!!
Just because I didn’t go to an all-black church or grow up in Korea or immigrate from Nigeria doesn’t mean I can’t love and relate, and especially learn from people who have lived those things. In reading more things outside my immediate realm of understanding, I saw how much is out there that I just don’t get; all the nuances of other cultures and people. It was humbling. My way is not the only way nor is it the best way to live. I learned a lot, but also saw how the human condition is endlessly relatable. There are so many more things that bind us rather than separate us. And if you’re not reading diversely because you think those stories aren’t for you, you’re wrong. You may be so surprised to learn what you can relate to. And if you don’t actually relate, you’re still learning something new. Still getting outside your own world. If you are only ever reading things with people who look and think like you, you are only ever getting your own opinions regurgitated back to you. That’s not learning. You’re missing half the point of reading. By all means, enjoy what you enjoy and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. But also, try to learn how other people live and work and eat. That’s a good experience too. There’s just so much out there that you’re not seeing if you’re only seeing yourself.
The next year my theme was feminism. I followed along with Emma Watson’s book club, Our Shared Shelf, I attended my first march, I saw Wonder Woman at a females-only screening, and I got a pussy hat. It was a good year. I had a lot of the same revelations as I did in my year of reading diversely. There’s just so much I did not know, so much I was unaware of. That quote about being outraged proved to be true. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Diversity and feminism really go hand in hand. I’m not talking rich, white lady feminism. I’m not talking about watching one female stand up and calling yourself cultured or woke. I’m talking about really taking all women forward. I was talking about diversity and feminism once and a friend said something like, “Well, yeah it’s easy for you. You’re white. Black woman don’t have your privilege. They talk like you’re talking, no one will listen. They get shut down, shut out, ignored, or worse. You have money, you have a job, you’re safe. People who aren’t safe can’t afford to talk like that.” And at first, I was offended. I was thinking, “Hey, I’m trying to help here. I’m not part of the problem. I am above the problem. I am the solution!” But really, what had I done yet, except get on a soap box and go to one march? I had read more, sure. What had that done though? Did I donate money? No. Call my representative? No. What did I do? Talk about myself and build myself up, is what I did.
So I went to another protest, one demanding that a confederate statue being taken down. I held two book exchange parties (one on diversity, one on feminism) to bring people together and talk about things that don’t often get talked about. We all brought books on the topic at hand and exchanged them to help each other learn. I continue to talk about both these topics, all the time. But I’m also continuing to learn and to grow in other ways. I think the main thing my attitude was giving off when my friend called me out, was that I’d already solved the problem. I read some stuff and all of a sudden diversity was a non-issue. I don’t want to give off that vibe. I’m not stopping at one year of diversity and then never thinking about it again. I’m not stopping at one protest, or at protests in general. BUT it is up to me, as an educated person who cares, to continue to prove that.
That is definitely something I have come to discover a step further – that you must always be seeking knowledge. I came across a feminist in the beginning of the feminism year that I loved. Her book made me laugh out loud until I was red in the face. Then I heard something really negative she said sort of making fun of Middle-Eastern women. I felt betrayed. I thought she was here for the cause. And I loved so much of her book and what she stood for. Then it hit me. All your faves are problematic. HP Lovecraft was a raging racist. Hemingway, huge womanizer and drunk. Even the founder of the beloved Ikea had ties to the Nazi party. You can’t read one book, watch one show, or identify with one person and say that you understand the cause. One woman is not the face of feminism. One man is not the voice of black people in America. There’s no way one person can know everything or be expected to account for every nuance of a movement. This is why it must be constant and we must be vigilant. We must always be learning and taking advice and calls to action from more than one source. If a source you’ve come to love has a downfall, fill that void with someone else who is better in that area. Constantly be seeking the best so you can make educated and informed decisions. Drop idols when you need to, when they disappoint too much. Just don’t drop the movement. I didn’t leave diversity in 2016 and feminism in 2017. I will continue to care and talk about both of those things. I don’t think that I fixed the problem of diversity in 2016, nor understood everything that goes into it in one year. But it was a good starting point. I began paying more attention. I started to care and I will continue to do both. Though my yearly themes will change, the idea of always growing and the need to learn more will not. I do think I need to be more humble, so I welcome any and all advice. Leave tips and advice in the comments along with any links to materials or TED Talks or new books about either of my previous themes.
Side note: I wish I had the idea to write on themes when I was actually living my previous ones. I will definitely be writing on this year’s theme, beauty. Will try for a few posts, seasonally. Stay tuned 😊