Examining My White Privilege Through Literature

I have never had trouble finding myself represented in literature. From children’s classics and picture books to YA on the shelf, I’ve always been able to find people who look and sound like me.

And, despite being 22, I never questioned that, really interrogated it, until a few months ago. Of course, I’d read books from people of other races, genders, and sexualities, but I’d never realised that the books I see on the front pages of websites and the lists on blogs are often by white people.

My university has a programme called “decolonising the curriculum” which means that I have been reading far more widely than ever since I joined in first year. It’s no secret that the British education system is overwhelmingly white and oppressive, so, disgustingly, it was new for me to be reading books by a more diverse range of authors. I also read books that I may never otherwise have picked up, such as Citizen by Claudia Rankin (I took out my hatred of the module I had to read this for on this book, but I want to get a new copy soon).

But even though my university reading list was relatively mixed, my own, personal reading was not. I often read from bestseller lists, pick up books that do the rounds on Instagram, and when hunting for a general book, I chose from what is prominently on the table in front of me. And, you guessed it, the book industry shuns those who are not white. And yet, despite my university reading, despite the fact I was reading more widely both fictionally and non-fictionally, I never bothered to examine myself. Isn’t that ignorant? It’s not that I actively didn’t choose BAME authors or only wanted to read white authors, I just didn’t check myself, I didn’t think and actually understand what I was being fed by the media and the systematic racism in the bookish communities. And that was wrong.

I’ve had the privilege throughout my life of never being underrepresented, never even questioning who the authors are when I read a novel. Studying literature might mean I interrogate the work itself, but I’ve never thought so hard about where a novel comes from.

This year, I started creating a bookish spreadsheet. After the protests that have been happening recently, I added a column to my spreadsheet where I mark on if the books are by someone Black or a minority ethnic (BAME).

Out of 71 books, 11 are by BAME people.

That means that 15% of the books I read are by BAME people. Around 14% of the UK population are non-White, so whilst my reading may reflect the population, it does not reflect the world. Not only that, but I should still be reading from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds.

On the Twittersphere, authors, publishers, and book lovers have been interrogating the racism ingrained in the world of literature, and I have interrogated myself too. I am ashamed that I never even thought to consider this. I am sorry for the fact, too.

But there’s no point in being sorry. Sorry doesn’t change anything. We can say sorry, sure, but then we have to move forward and evaluate how we are going to solve the issue that was caused, that I have indirectly helped to cause. I can’t go back in time, but I can impact the future.

I cannot protest because in the time of COVID I am fearful for the keyworker children I look after. I cannot write powerful speeches or do beautiful drawings. Most of my indoor, non-work time is spent with some text or other in hand, or talking about some text or other on the internet. So, in order to do better, I am prevailing to read more books by BAME people in the future. Some of my favourite books by BAME people I’ve ever read are The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and there are hundreds and thousands of texts by non-white people all over the world that I have never bothered to go in search of.

If you, like me, are white, then it is your job to help equalise our world. Black Lives Matter. When I have a BAME child in my class, I never want them to be unable to find themselves on the bookshelves while white kids are hidden behind piles. It is our job to work together and decolonise our book lists, and you can start by buying and interacting with (reviews, blog posts, Tweets, Instagram pictures) some BAME literature and reading.

Here’s some more lists for you to look at:

I retweet a lot on Twitter as well, but please find original sources from BAME people too. And, please note that BAME people are NOT your dictionary. Unless you are asking specific, personal-but-not-too-personal questions like, “What is your favourite book?”, Google exists for a reason. Black people are not your personal librarians.

And if you were wondering what I’m reading, here are just 5 books by BAME authors that I want to get to soon because they sound amazing:

  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  • For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig
  • Pride by Ibi Zoboi
  • The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (I actually DNF’d this one once because I was reading it on my phone and I think the formatting got screwed up. Now that I have a kindle I’m going to tackle it again!)

What’s on your reading list? Please recommend me some BAME books in the comments!

Keep reading!

3 thoughts on “Examining My White Privilege Through Literature

  1. Hello, Hannah. You asked for recommendations: I’m currently reading Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s a lesser known work here in America, written in the 1930s by a black scholar in Atlanta, which sought to reframe the history of black contributions in the American Civil War as well as its aftermath as one in which black Americans worked to reconstruct their role in the South rather than acting as mere victims within a white narrative. It was controversial for its time. It’s a little dense and academic so far (I’m 100 pages in) but well worth it. We hear very little about our own Reconstructive history here in the states. Thank you for your resources. 🙂

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