Becoming an Ally

2020 has been an eye-opening year in countless ways. The deaths of Ahmaud Abery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the subsequent response of the public and politicians were a turning point in my understanding of race and racism in America. Yes, I'm ashamed this introspection took me 28 years, but I'm glad it happened now as opposed to later, or never. I've considered my position and privilege in life as a white man, and considered how I think about and treat others different than myself.

As always, books have helped me through this process. I've started with "the basics" and tried to branch out from there. There is always more to read and more to do. It will never be enough, but any little positive change helps. I've titled this page "Becoming an Ally," because it's a journey, not necessarily a destination.

Because this problem is so engrained in our society, no one book truly encapsulates the entire picture. I have tried to provide "The Gist," to point out what piece of the puzzle each book provides.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

The first book I read, and a great introduction for someone who has never given the topic of systemic racism much thought. The author anticipates every question and doubt and is able to counter each one with excellent points. This is the perfect book to dip your toe into the water. It considers what it truly means to be racist, and not just "KKK burning crosses" racist, but everyday racist thoughts and actions. I hate to be cliche, but after reading this book, I started looking at the news, the media, and the world in a slightly different way, seriously considering what people mean when they point out something as being racist.

The Gist: If you've never thought about systemic racism, white privilege, or deny the possibility of being racist, this is the best place to start.

How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi

Some people recommend this book after reading others, but I thought it was a great book early in my exploration of racism. Dr. Kendi explores the concept of racism using a number of anecdotes from his own life, and explores the facets of what it means to be racist. The tenet of his book is that it is not enough to be "not racist," this is the equivalent of being a silent bystander. Inaction does not lead to positive change, it only allows and condones negative behaviors. The key is to actively be "anti-racist," to fight against racist actions with positive actions to create beneficial changes. The book isn't exactly a "how-to guide," it doesn't give a list of ways to be anti-racist in everyday life. It's about a change in lifestyle, in thought. The book gives hope, that it is possible to be anti-racist.

The Gist: Understanding how biases are inherent and estabilished unconsciously, and overcoming them is a lifelong process.

Black Man in a White Coat, by Damon Tweedy

My exploration and understanding of racism, sexism, prejudice were thankfully introduced during medical school, and it has made me a better physician. Dr. Tweedy writes of his own story, how it feels to be a black man through medical school, residency, and as a physician. It is about his own perceptions of himself, the perceptions of others, and his interactions with both black and white patients. Medical school and residency have been a constant struggle for me, and to see a small window into what it's like for a black person dealing with the extra pressure was extremely eye-opening. The book was immensely readable, and I was able to read it within a weekend.

The Gist: Systemic racism through the lens of medicine and the medical field.

The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein

This book was horrifying. Imagine being unable to buy a house, get a loan, afford rent, because the banks, the government, the public are against you. The idea that through the years, black families have been prevented from accumulating wealth, been obstructed from buying houses, corraled into separate less desirable neighborhoods...then society wonders why so many black families have no money, no prospects, no futures. This book truly exemplifies the term "systemic" racism, as the entire system is unbelievably full of racist policies. Truly terrifying.

  • The Gist: Systemic racism and the role it plays in housing and wealth.

  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Daniel Tatum

    I thought this book was fascinating, as it takes a look at the development of black identity, what it means to be "black" for children growing up in a world that identifies "white" as the norm. It explores the importance of representation and positive role models. As a white man, it's nothing I've really thought about, but now I can't stop seeing how the majority of media representations use white characters. I can't imagine the feeling of exclusion that minorities feel, or the excitement of seeing a character (such as Black Panther) who looks like you do. The book focuses mainly on black identity, but I found it important that she also dedicates a lengthy chapter to some of the struggles for Asian, Latinx, and MENA individuals.

    The Gist: Understanding development of an individual's identity through the lens of race and they way they see how society represents and portrays them.

    Killing the Black Body, by Dorothy Roberts

    This is not a easy book to read. The book examines the treatment specifically of black women within the context of slavery, eugenics, forced sterilization, and adoption. The book is dense at times, but the thesis is important and worth a read. Both sexism and racism are prevalent throughout history and present-day, and their intersection has lead to the appalling treatment of black women. The book offers some interesting arguments and counterarguments, which I would put to shame trying to summarize here. Topics include the debate of birth control, welfare support, and infertility treatment. The discussion of drug use and biased treatment of cocaine-using mothers alone is worth a read.

    The Gist: The negative treatment of black women in society and the attempts to control and take away their bodily autonomy.

    The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

    This book dispels whatever myths you've been led to believe about black men, crime, and the justice system. By the end, you come to realize that the justice system is inherently biased every step of the way, in order to entrap black men and create an inescapable cycle to prevent them from ever becoming a part of normal society. The title comes from the fact taht prison labor is a loophole to the abolition of slavery, and that there are numerous political and economic reasons for disproportionately imprisoning non-white men and women. The book also points out how the US imprisons an incomparably high proportion of our citizens and how this is not justice at all.

    The Gist: Systemic racism and the role it plays in perpetuating the prison labor system.

    Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington

    As a doctor, reading this book was deeply painful. Healthcare workers like to think we do this to help others, and the realization that the medical field has been complicit in harming patients throughout history (and is still ongoing) is sickening. Additionally, this book is insanely comprehensive - most people have heard of the Tuskegee experiments, but this book points out how that's only the tip of the iceberg. I highly recommend this to anyone in or out of the medical field. We can and must do better.

    The Gist: Systemic racism and the role the medical field has played in harming those it should be helping.

    Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi

    I expected this book to be a history of racism in America, but was pleasantly surprised that it was not. Instead, as the cover points out, this is a history of "racist ideas" in America. The central theme of the book is that racism vs antiracism is not as simplistic as it seems. One of the main points is how segregationists and assimilationists are often at odds, but the idea of assimilating with the "mainstream" and losing a group's identity is just as inherently racist as remaining separate and unequal. Attempts to move past racism are constantly met with challenges but in different and constantly evolving ways. For those who like biographies, the book is told with a focus on five different historical figures at different timepoints in history.

    The Gist: Throughout history, there have been many takes on race and racism, but not all with good intentions.

    Africa: A biography of the continent, by John Reader

    One book can't comprehensively cover everything about Africa but this may be as close as it comes. The book truly captures the breadth of African history, starting with the formation of the continent itself and how this plays a role in the development of societies and cultures down the road. The book is dense, but I enjoyed many of the tangential threads (such as the importance of camel physiology or cowrie shell economics) as the author tries to capture the nuances of Africa as a place that was often glossed over in history class. Although the book is obviously not comprehensive, it's a great starting point for further reading.

    The Gist: One of the best books to introduce the fascinating history of an overlooked continent.

    How to Hide an Empire, by Daniel Immerwahr

    I bought this book not realizing it fit perfectly on this page, I mostly just find learning about the "greater" United States to be interesting (I think it stems from coin collecting). But this book was insanely good, I could barely put it down. The author emphasizes how the "greater" United States is often forgotten and overlooked, both now and throughout history. Often the reason for this was due to who lives there (ie white or not), and how this affected the fates of these places (ie Hawaii vs the Philippines). The book also points out how WWII was a turning point for imperialistic empires, and the US became an empire in its own right but not in the same way that prior countries had done it. For example, you'll learn more about standardization of screw threads (and have a great time learning about it). I don't want to spoil the book too much (it's impossible to encapsulate in a review), you'll have to read it yourself!

    The Gist: The US is a colonial empire with often overlooked colonies, but not in the way that you might think.

    America for Americans, by Erika Lee

    An extremely well-written book about the history of xenophobia throughout America's history. The book explains how some groups have been begrudgingly incorporated into America (aka white America), partially to maintain exclusion of other groups (aka non-white America). Some of the ways this country has treated foreigners is truly sickening and needs to be acknowledged. Learn about how the US sent Mexican Americans back across the border during the Great Depression, or how South American countries shipped their Japanese citizens to the US for internment during WWII and wouldn't take them back after the war. The book also points out how our current understanding of (illegal) immigration is not as immutable as we might think, and the repercussions of many historical and political decisions and the effects on the country today. The book was written right before COVID, but the paperback copy has an extra chapter looking at the anti-Asian experience since the pandemic started.

    The Gist: Immigration, xenophobia, and the horrifying depths of the way America has treated foreigners.

    White Rage, by Carol Anderson

    This book is not a pleasant read, but it is a necessary one. The author points out that every time strides are made against systemic racism, white people push back with a sickening backlash. I'm not sure what's worse: the tactics used (mobs, lynching, riots), or the fact that society is entirely built to protect white individuals in order to perpetuate a flawed system.

    The Gist: The disgusting depths that white people will go to in order to maintain supremacy in society.