nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity- Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

At the end of last month, I started veering into reading slump territory. Nothing too bad, just…nothing sounded good. I browsed my own shelves, poked through my TBR, checked out a few book blogs…

Nothing. My brain just wasn’t having it.

So I decided to hit up the library in hopes of stumbling upon something that spoke to me, and on the New Books shelf, a hefty, bright yellow tome jumped out: Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi (Tarcherperigee, 2019). At first, I wondered if I were up to the task, but once I flipped through the book and noted its bright photographs and short interviews with people from all walks of life, I knew I had to read this.

High school friends Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi came to the realization while still in high school that they’d never been taught anything about race by their school. Understandably disturbed by this, they set out together to not only educate themselves, via mentors and a diverse reading list, but to educate others. They gave TED talks, they wrote a textbook, they founded the CHOOSE Org, and they set out during their gap year between high school and college to travel through all fifty states, interviewing people of all races and ages, about their experience with race- their own and others’- racial education, racism, and more.

Each section has a loose theme, beginning with a piece of writing from Guo and Vulchi, who are both inquisitive and wise beyond their years. They’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know or understand something; instead, they search boldly for answers in a way that gives me such hope for the future if these are the women who will one day take the reins of our country. In their travels, they interview people of all races and mixed races, straight people, gay people, transgender people, people from various religions and ethnic groups. Each interview is rife with information on racial literacy, defining terms the reader may not be familiar with in an effort to better educate their audience. If, like so many of us (myself included), you didn’t receive much or any education in racial matters when you were growing up, Tell Me Who You Are is an amazing place to start.

What a deeply fascinating book. I grew up in a very white town, settled mainly by Scandinavians and Germans, and far enough from the city and boring enough that it stayed that way until very recently, so I received very, very little education in the way of race when I was young. It’s because of books like this, and diverse fiction, and making friends with different racial and religious backgrounds, and following people of color online that I’ve been able to broaden my understanding when it comes to racial literacy. Guo and Vulchi’s interviews bring to light the many facets of race and racism; it’s a deeply educational book that still manages to entertain by presenting each interview in a conversational style, almost as though the reader is listening to a trusted friend divulge their deepest thoughts. What can so often be a heavy topic to read about is really brought to life here in a creative and thoughtful way. As I turned the pages, moving from an interview with a Native American man to a native Hawaiian to a Mexican woman to a white man to a black woman, I marveled over the beauty of our world and mourned that in 2019, we still struggle so hard to open our minds and understand each other. Tell Me Who You Are is a strong, bold step towards that better understanding.

At my library, Tell Me Who You Are is shelved in the Adult Nonfiction section, but I hope a copy makes its way to the teen nonfiction shelves as well. This is brilliant writing and a brilliant project undertaken by teenagers and should be readily available to teens in the space they most frequent. It introduced me to new concepts of racial literacy (I still feel like I don’t *quite* understand positionality), a deeper understanding of what counts as cultural appropriation, the struggles of the disabled to get around in New York City (you’d think that with a city that big and that diverse, they’d do a better job, and you would be wrong; 80% of subway stops are inaccessible to people with a disability), and the concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma. I really appreciated their attention to Native people; I’m aware that my reading lacks indigenous voices and that’s something I’d like to focus on a little more in the future.

Tell Me Who You Are is a cornucopia of experiences by a gorgeous mosaic of people and voices, one that serves to expand the mind of the reader if you’re willing to shut up, silence your own voice for a moment, and let it. This would be an impressive and captivating book by any author, but the fact that it was put together by two young women just out of high school also puts it in the category of an incredible accomplishment and a work of art. The world definitely needs more young leaders like Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, and I’d be thrilled if my daughter grew up with their intelligence, their curiosity, their drive, and their commitment to making the world a more racially literate and understanding place.

As a brief aside, there are a few negative reviews for this book on Goodreads that illustrate the deep need for this book’s existence. Don’t let those reviews color your opinion; instead, think of those opinions as what marginalized people are up against, and use Tell Me Who You Are to educate yourself in such a way that you’ll never sound like the people who wrote those reviews. (Criticism of the book is perfectly acceptable; whining, “WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE MEN???” in regards to a book on racial literacy is ludicrous. There are nine bazillion other books about white men published and readily available on store and library shelves every year; not everything is about white men, nor does it need to be.)

Visit Choose Org’s website here.

memoir · nonfiction

When I Was White: A Memoir- Sarah Valentine

I love a good memoir. I love hearing a person’s own life stories, what they experienced and lived through from the life-changing to the mundane, from tales of growing up in unusual families to recountings of world travels and religious experiences, I’m here for it all. That’s why When I Was White: A Memoir by Sarah Valentine (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) leaped out at me from the New Books shelf last week. ‘What a provocative title,’ I thought, and after reading the inside flap, the book went into my stack.

Sarah Valentine (née Dunn; she explains her name change later on in the book, and it’s not due to marriage) was born the oldest of three children in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Growing up, her darker skin and frizzy hair were often the subject of questions or half-kidding jokes about the milkman, but Sarah accepted her family’s insistence that she was white, no matter what that nagging feeling in her gut told her. It’s only in her late twenties that she learns that she’s not, in fact, entirely white, that her family has been lying to her all these years, and that in doing so, they’ve denied her a huge portion of her identity. Sarah must then learn to carve out a place for herself as a black woman after having thought of herself as white from birth and restructure her relationship with the family who withheld- and is still withholding- the truth from her for so long.

(Content warnings exist in this book for racism, including racist remarks, and multiple stories of rape and sexual assault.)

Whoa. What an entire bombshell to have dropped on you- even if it’s something you had maybe-sort-of-somewhat suspected, having your racial identity and sense of self upended like that is huge. Finding out that half of you, genetically, has a history and a story that you’ve been denied is obviously life-changing in so many ways, and reading how Ms. Valentine navigated this rupture in her life was deeply intriguing. While this isn’t as immediately shocking as Tara Westover’s Educated, it’s still in the same category of memoirs whose central stories include abrupt realizations about one’s family of origin. Yet despite the book centering on racial issues, readers of every race need only to have undergone major life changes or a betrayal by a loved one in order to be able to relate to her family’s- in particular, her mother’s- duplicity. How deeply painful this must have been; my heart broke over and over for Sarah and what she missed out on as a child: the celebration of who she was in her entirety. Instead, her family, even her extended family, was complicit in suppressing a huge part of her, insisting that she was something else completely, and that what she- and others- were seeing was wrong. A famiy gaslighting, if you will.

Her mother’s outright racism, on display multiple times through the book, was stomach-turning to read, especially her casual dismissal of racism as “something that affects so few people,” so thus it’s not really a problem. (This is basically the theme song of casual racists everywhere, isn’t it? *sigh*) I’m not unaware of racism as a major, major problem- I’ve encountered it in my own family of origin and do my best to counter it when I do- but there’s something so very stark seeing it right there on the page and knowing that this came from the mouth of a parent who knew exactly what made up half of their child. I’m by no means a perfect parent (FAR, FAAAAAAAAAAR from it!), but we owe it to our children to move past our own crap attitudes and personal problems in order to bring them our best, instead of weighing them down with everything we refuse to deal with, and Ms. Dunn’s mother very obviously hadn’t done that, which may have been a product of her time (she may have had other issues; the phrase ‘personality disorder’ is tossed around multiple times, although there’s never a formal diagnosis). Her parents were mostly decent, however, and gave her and her brothers a good (for the most part) childhood, giving her a strong foundation on which to build her adult life.

Despite the trauma she’s been through, Ms. Dunn has emerged a compelling, interesting person with an incredible drive and dedication. She graduated with a PhD in Russian literature (yes, she speaks Russian, along with multiple other Slavic languages; she mentions she gets asked this all the time, although no one asks this from her white colleagues. I’d be the nerd asking anyone who mentioned studying Russian literature, because I’m so fascinated by foreign-to-me languages and so deeply impressed by those who speak them, especially those who didn’t grow up speaking them. I KNOW exactly how much work that is!), translates poetry, teaches language classes, she’s a writer, she’s lived multiple places and traveled widely. How lucky her students are, to learn from such an impressive woman!

If you’re looking for a memoir in which everything is tied up nicely with a pretty bow at the end, this isn’t the book for you. While Ms. Dunn does write of the journey of attempting to discover her biological father, When I Was White is more about her discovering her sense of self as a woman of mixed race, when the knowledge of being both black and white- instead of just white- had been denied to her her entire life. If you’re interested in books of self-discovery and growth, however, you’ll find satisfaction in these pages.

Visit Sarah Valentine’s page at MacMillan Publishers.