A short reading list for white people who want to engage better with conversations about race.

I’ve had several conversations recently with well meaning white folks who want to engage and ask questions about black lives matter and other race discussions appearing in US news, but have also been told “it’s not my job to teach you,” by their black colleagues. This is true — it is not their job to teach you. But hear me out, before you get defensive: this request is an enormous emotional labor to add to a coworker’s plate. You can answer some of your questions through the rich materials out there on your own. This is an act of research and engaging responsibly: like many things, there is a long history here that one must engage with before truly understanding what is happening now.

I am making this short list of readings to help you get started learning on your own so that it is not on them to teach you the basics. I am not an expert, there are many others who will have better recommendations than I do. But I wanted to make this list for people who need a first step. I am making this list in hopes that from here you will be able to seek out all the authors and thinkers who have made important contributions to this discussion. (This is a perpetual work in progress)

The best way to engage with it is to take a step that many well meaning, pro-active people will be uncomfortable with: you need to sit with discomfort. Like engaging with a loved one who is giving you feedback on something you have done that hurt them, you must acknowledge the pain and suffering before you do anything else. Blocking out this discomfort and jumping immediately into, “how can I fix it? What can we do next?” is not the first step towards truly engaging. Read these things. Sit with and engage with your discomfort.

To frame your reading: Engage with an open mind. Try to listen and learn, without trying to critique and defend. Just listen.

Suggested Readings:
Begin here (mandatory read): Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Especially relevant right now, with the gun control debates in Florida:
Why it hurts when the world loves everyone but us by Janaya Khan

CodeSwitch is a great podcast.

Show About Race (Another helpful series available as a podcast)

Another angle on why representation matters: Safwat Saleem asks what it means to be considered “normal.”

On DACA, being undocumented in the US in the Trump Era, and the many types of labor that comes with all of these themes: this blog is very thoughtful and honest.

Activist Deanna Zandt has answered many questions about race for other white folks here. Some of your own questions might appear in her thoughtful responses.

Good luck! (And I am open to adding more/doing more specific reading lists over time. This is not an exhaustive list of all the great work out there, just a short one to help people get started.)

Translating Research Beyond Academic Journals — Potential Wins and Pitfalls

Since I left TED and returned to Grad school, I have been navigating the world of research writing and regularly asking “who is the audience here?” I care very deeply about making research accessible to a wide audience, not just other academics. I remember grimacing my way through some TEDtalks, cringing when statements were made with too much certainty or an exaggerated finding. But I also find myself grimacing through lectures that run for hours without clear definition. Writing for a book or an article is a very different practice than writing for video or radio. Since media has taken may different forms, media literacy — and expectations — need to be clearer. So, how do we approach all the cool tools that exist in our Media ecosystem?

For precision and peer review, academic journals are unparalleled. It is easy to follow conversations between them and see where someone was coming from because there is a clear code of conduct with citations. Debates are also public, so when something is uncertain, there will likely be notes nearby. The community is good about critiquing work and bringing to light inconsistencies. That said, academic journals are inaccessible to most people (paywalls) and so full of dense, clunky writing that requires training to unpack successfully that it cannot reach some of the communities who need it the most. There are some debates where nothing seems certain and selecting a direction forward seems difficult and dangerous. But these are the best places to go for truly in-depth research and understanding its limits. These articles require a lot of time and attention to unpack.

Nonfiction, wider audience books try to turn this clunkier writing into a format for a wider audience who is still excited to read 350 pages on a specific topic. Editors will shape stories with the researchers to help the book “flow” a little better, and some of the precision is lost in the sculpting of the story line. Books are not always fact checked, though books written in an academic press/setting may be subjected to similar peer pressures for rigorous methods that academics writing for journals may experience. Non-fiction books are written by academics but also by journalists and other writers who may have different or more limited training. The best way to gauge what kind of writing it is is to read about the author and consider some of their previous work. These books require commitment and attention to reading. It is also to important who the author is and what claims they make about their research methods in the book: what is disclosed? What is omitted?

Daily Newspaper articles — This media is produced more quickly than books and peer reviewed journal articles and has a different goal for its readers. These are shorter articles — geared towards informing busy people who are unlikely to interact with the nuts and bolts of the research behind the story. They want to know how it will affect them and they want the writing to be clear and quickly digestible. How you design sentences and storylines matter. This means skimming off another layer of precision. This is not necessarily a bad thing — quick exposure to many topics allows for individuals to be better informed about all the diverse activity taking place in research. But the limits of the research may be more difficult to understand immediately. “It kind of works sometimes” doesn’t really sell stories. It means you should continue digging, asking what the sources are, and following stories over time before determining what is “true.”

Radio and Video — Writing for Radio and Video presents different challenges. Listeners cannot easily go back and make a section go really slowly so they can comprehend it. Especially if it’s live. Sometimes you can pause it and replay it, but the ideal is to explain something with enough clarity and the right pacing that keeps the audience interested before they get bored. If radio/video speakers spoke the Methods Section of a peer reviewed paper aloud, the majority of their audience would tune out. Both are faster paced and require some elements of drama to make their elements engaging in ways that academic papers may not need to. Does it shave off some precision? Yes. But what is the goal with these elements? For a TED Talk, it is to present a window into a new world of research that may have previously been intimidating before. It is not meant to be cited necessarily, but hopefully it can guide you towards research that you can cite and engage with more deeply. Radio and Video are excellent for the “so what?” elements of your written work. Why should non-academic people go through the trouble of tracking down your article? How does it serve the community outside of universities?

Perhaps one mistake I see most often with research presented through Radio/Video is the certainty demanded from these kinds of performances. We all know politicians are lying when they say “we will do X AND Y AND Z AND A AND B AND C!” but it’s required from this public performance. I think that pressure translates into these mediums sometimes as well. In my ideal world, researchers would have a cool, intriguing question AND a clear “so what?” that was accessible to a wider audience. Then they could take you on a journey of discovery — what have you been trying along the way to answer your question? Not promising a result and immediate application. The TEDTalks and podcasts I’ve heard about the discovery journey are among my very favorites — and they serve to inspire new generations of young researchers.

I think it’s easy to say “X MEDIA HAS RUINED EVERYTHING” but harder to say, what is this medium doing well? How can I use it to make my research more accessible and engaging? How can we work together to improve the ways that research is presented in media? THESE are interesting and challenging conversations. It’s worth thinking about how your research would look in each of these formats — and how/why it changes.

2018: May there be room for imperfection.

I want to make a case for 2018 to be the year that we remember that people behave very differently when they are in supportive vs. toxic environments. When we read people’s statements and judge them, review them for jobs, or consider our first impressions, I ask that we leave some room for imperfection. The person before you may be working very hard to preserve themselves and not at their best. Or this person may have hit their stride and be comfortable and able to give a lot more to others. I think positive change in our communities comes from discussing and acknowledging what people need, rather than telling them to “suck it up” and just “try harder,” or writing them off entirely for failing to meet our expectations of “pleasantness.”

I was rereading my journal from 5 years ago and kept feeling my stomach twist in guilt with some of my behavior from a time when I was completely miserable and lost in my first jobThis is not me. I wrote. And it’s true — the grumpy, detached, selfish person I saw myself becoming while my daily environment felt really confusing and unpleasant made me into a different person. It made me defensive and jealous in every interaction I had. I was fighting to preserve my sanity and it meant I could not give ANYTHING to anyone else. I hated myself for it. I saw the person I was in public and couldn’t stand her, but I didn’t have more to give to make it better.

I left that environment and started to prioritize things that kept me healthier and saner — spending time with people what I liked spending time with who were positive forces in my life, rather than those who tried to compete with me and drag me down, getting enough sleep, blocking out “sacred hours” of the week that were untouchable because they were the times I read, did artwork, exercised, etc. I went back to being the version of myself that I was proud of. And in this space of comfort, I was much better able to be kind and patient with other people.

I thought about what kinds of references my old coworkers would give me — they probably didn’t find me fun or pleasant to be around. In this day and age, that could be bad for a future job prospect. I hope interviewers know that sometimes people need to leave jobs because their previous environments were toxic to them and references from these old jobs will not always reflect the best sides of that person. Maybe this new space will be healthier for them and they’ll bring what they’ve learned along the way to be a better coworker and teammate than they were before. I wish that 2018 will be a year when we think about room for growth in hiring and seeing the potential people have when they are healthy and happy coworkers.

I think this goes for friendships too. Sometimes someone is really hurting and they behave unpleasantly for a while, but come back to a friendship when they are healthier. I hope there is space in our friendships for forgiveness and time and healing.

I think about those who have to carry many responsibilities in their days and how sometimes they fall short of expectations. I always used to brief my freelancers with, I want to be both your friend because I care about your health and sanity and your boss. When we have a conversation, tell me who I need to be in it so I can give you honest, un-conflicted answers. I think this worked well for us. We finished crushing schedules on time and supported each other, even while projects were chaotic and unpredictable. We leaned on each other when we needed to and we coached each other when we needed to. There was space to be imperfect and kind.

I wish for leadership this year. Messy, sometimes imperfect leadership that makes change and starts important dialogues. I want more “bad feminists” and dreamers and people who make shit happen. 2017 brought out so many strong thinkers and activists and so much honesty. I am so excited by all of the organizing that has been happening! I hope 2018 is a year we can embrace differences in methods and offer critiques that keep us moving forward powerfully. I hope we grow together.

For further conversions:

This was a really interesting critique of current movements — and it highlights some opportunities for growth.

Reminded me of things I was worried about as a young activist.

Six books that captured my imagination in 2017

I like reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction, alongside my academic papers. I find this is the best way to improve my writing style and think about the best ways to communicate different ideas memorably for different audiences. The following authors taught me a lot about character development and playing with research + language + scenes to develop characters and complicated stories.

My six favorites from this year were:
1) Difficult Women (Roxane Gay)
2) Outline (Rachel Cusk)
3) Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson)
4) My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
5) Argonauts (Maggie Nelson)
6) Cork Dork (Bianca Bosker)

Difficult women was a breath of fresh air in a year when I was fighting to define myself, including the less “savory” bits. The characters in each of the short stories in Difficult Women are challenging, complex and real. It was so refreshing to see someone develop female characters this way. They were unapologetic about their strength and who they were. I have read it three times this year when I am having trouble writing clearly and concisely. I find Roxane Gay’s writing memorable, powerful, and intense. I’ve learned so much from her writing style that I consider when I am writing this year.

While reading Outline, I imagined a beautifully performed play where the most beautiful moments are these smaller moments of reflection where characters learn about themselves from interacting with each other or the landscape behind them. I enjoyed the slow reveals and how present the characters and story felt. I’ve thought about this story structure often since the first time I read it, because it feels like a valuable way to present an experiment and related it back to theory/abstract reflection, rather than front or rear loading it.

There were so many elements of Another Brooklyn that delighted me. I loved the writing style: short sections that were beautifully written, memorable, and visually powerful. I was living in Brooklyn and could easily imagine this parallel story taking place nearby. The four women grow into themselves and their friendships in powerful ways, with all of the strength, sorrow, and pride that comes with navigating into adulthood. The author does an incredible job introducing the explicit and implicit challenges of female friendships and transitioning roles for women in their communities.

I read My Name is Lucy Barton around the same time I was reading both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land. The combination of these three books, in conversation with one another for me, felt like an important moment for me this year. It was an intense conversation about social class and expectations. What we take on from others, what we leave behind, what we choose to hide, what we define for ourselves, etc. I had many uncomfortable moments and questions arise from reading these three books at the same time, especially in a piece of fiction like Lucy Barton where I could imagine people I’ve met through the years in each of the roles she describes in her book. It made me think more deeply about fiscal responsibility and how openly we do (or don’t) discuss social class.

I had never in my life read anything like The Argonauts before. I know I am a little late to this party, but wow. I enjoyed the way Maggie Nelson weaves together research, personal essays, and beautiful writing to ask difficult questions and turn some of my assumptions about gender, motherhood and relationships on their heads. Powerful and challenging. Wow.

My dad gave me Cork Dork as a summer read before I started graduate school and it was a FUN way to think about methods and questions for ethnography from the perspective of a journalist who was HUNGRY for answers and fearless about how far she could push herself into this other world to answer them. I related to her insatiable curiosity. Each of the characters Bianca Bosker learns from sound like fascinating characters and it gave me a new way to think about New York’s restaurants. Each time I walk by or go have dinner, I watch for the subtle and impressive ways these teams coordinate their work. I have a new language for describing smells and flavors, as well. I realized how limited my descriptions were for these sensory experiences and kicked myself to do better.

2017: Year in Review

If each year has a theme, I believe this year tested my ability to recenter myself and recognize when I needed to take a break and come back to something. For someone with the kind of “I never get tired!” attitude I had in college and post-college, this was a big step towards preserving my sanity. I learned that we are never always and completely self-reliant — the wisdom in “it takes a village” is just as much about adults as it is about raising children. Perhaps there are weeks and tasks that I can accomplish on my own, but there is no shame in asking for help.

2016 ended with what felt like an apocalypse. The day after the 2016 election felt like a funeral — I rode to work in a subway car that was uncharacteristically silent, with people weeping silently into their coats. I bought a sweater pattern that I finished 6 months later. It was something to keep my hands busy and knitting is very meditative for me. The anxiety I felt about the changes we were undergoing, especially the rising abuse in the ways people spoke to each other on and offline, felt truly overwhelming some days.

I believe in kindness. I believe in the kind of Christianity that I was raised in — where I give whenever and wherever I can. I started re-centering myself by taking deliberate time to be around people who made me feel positive about the world and hopeful. I was careful about how I devoted my truly focused time to projects and people that I was with and forgave myself when I was no longer able to juggle too many projects simultaneously.

I was fiercely protective of my time, preferring to do a few things really carefully and not try to improvise as much as I had to for a while. I read 52 books this year. I kept a list and wrote a sentence about each one so I could remember where I had started and how this year’s literary journey ended. I spent 15-20 hours a week on a single assignment (my math/programming homework) and planned my days around the hours I knew I was sharp and focused, leaving my less focused hours for all the tasks that used to take up so much more time during my day. I spent time cooking complicated dishes as a study break, learning to make curry by first toasting the whole spices and grinding them myself. I protected my Monday evenings as a “family dinner” time with my roommate. I hand wrote more letters this Christmas than I ever have before. I felt each word, and meant it, as I wrote to people I loved and missed during my new academic monk hood.

My world in some ways feels smaller now that I don’t juggle my overbooked calendar every week, but I am proud of what I am creating and the new creative ways of thinking I can access while I truly focus on my projects.

There are many days I have to cut myself off from reading the news (and twitter. I had already cut down my facebook habit significantly from last year). I feel the bile rising in my throat and a rage I’ve never felt before bounce through my veins. But this year, I tried to turn to my curiosity and understand what was happening so I could recenter. I learned that there are many things happening that are utter lunacy, but there are others that have some reasons that make sense to others and I can engage with that. I subscribed to the National Review, followed a number of Evangelical leaders on twitter. I started reading more of what my conservative friends were posting on their facebooks. I don’t agree with them frequently, but reading well thought out arguments and seeing how they gathered evidence took the “bogey man” element out of policies that I had felt were shoved down my throat during this last year. I was humbled in some of my finger pointing when I noticed that they too were enraged by things like voter suppression. This was not a conservative value, just a product of the horrible political machines in power these days. I re-centered. The rage was not allowed to consume me.

I read the bible, finding places I related to and found some of the values I grew up with stated time and time again. If this was a language that was so important to so many parts of the country, I decided it was time that I learned to engage with it.

I gave friends long hugs when they needed them most and I talked openly about my anxieties. Especially on the days that were much harder and I doubted myself or doubted that I would find hope again. I chose stillness on days when the world felt especially crazy to me. I stopped pretending to be happy and together when I was having a hard day and took time for myself to get better. Accepting this side of myself, the part that needs a little more attention some days, allowed me to love others more honestly. I found a partner who forces me to design our relationship with him each step of the way, without being lazy and assuming pre-determined roles. We talk about everything when it is beautiful and when it is difficult. And we go through very long walks in the woods on the weekends, just to be alone together in stillness.

And there were always books. Because books are my antidote to everything — heartbreak, change, excitement, exhaustion, hope. I will post a media list later this week, but books helped me through a lot of the harder times this year.

I learned the dimensions of my patience and my fear this year. I would have been so scared to do that years ago, preferring to “turn everything off” and just run like a machine for as long as I could. This year I listened and confronted my biases and fears and stubbornness when it deserved to be challenged. I constantly adjusted my expectations of myself allowing more room for growth than ever before.

I leave 2017 with hope and gratitude for those who love me even when I have a hard time doing everything I am supposed to be doing. I hope that I can one day do the same for you when you need me most.

Call your congress people about the tax bill. Today.

From a very concerned graduate student: PLEASE CALL YOUR CONGRESS PEOPLE ABOUT THE TAX BILL ASAP. Asking very earnestly for your help. Please help.

This bill includes language that charges already pretty broke grad students for the tuition waiver they receive to attend school. In total, this means many grad students would be taxed as though they are making an extra $30,000-$50,000 that they in reality do not have access to in any form of liquidity. That’s a HUGE difference in what it means to be able to pay rent/eat/keep the lights on.

If it passes, I know a number of students in a variety of fields who would need to consider dropping out and abandoning their research. It will mean that labs lose some of their most important researchers and a lot of the research that helps create informed debate will be lost.

This feels like an assault on our academic institutions because they do not follow the sway of think tanks backed by billionaires. Without these students and an academic future, we risk only producing research that serves a handful of oligarchs and private research through pharmaceutical companies that can continue to charge you $$$$$$ for everything you consume when you are sick.

I study labor and want to keep studying labor because I am terrified of a future that looks like serfdom. I don’t believe in the “economic eugenics” of the far far right. I don’t believe that your salary, your savings account, and your access to liquidity says anything about who you are as a person or a neighbor. I don’t want to live in anything resembling that society because that is extremely dangerous for everyone.

I believe in a society that takes care of each other, especially when some of us stumble and need a little more help.

Please call your congress people.

Why I decided to go to grad school

I am recently getting a questions in my inbox from people considering Ph.D studies and/or professional lives devoted to research. Many of these questions can be boiled down to, How did you get to where you are? Here’s one version of my answer.

I had a strong suspicion beginning my second year of college that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I still had many lingering doubts. I applied to a fellowship program that would groom me for the GRE, independent research, and a life time in academia. I made it through to the final round, excited during the interviews and a nervous wreck about “signing away my life” during the breaks. I ultimately did not receive the fellowship, which felt devastating for 24 hours and then, a relief. I wasn’t sure at 20. I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I knew I loved numbers and surveys and reading endlessly and asking questions and investigating things. But I had trouble finding the right field for myself and I wanted to see what working life was like in the “real world.” Surely, I told myself, they still need researchers out there. So I put my Ph.D. dreams aside and decided to work for what I determined was a “respectable amount of time.”

In my head, this was meant to be a 2 year research job. But the job market is interesting and opaque and full of strange and unexpected results. I learned that job descriptions are rarely accurate, that I did not need to work anywhere near as hard as I did in college to still have excellent results and a social life(?!) and “research” in industry is sometimes a scary and terrifying Frankenstein version of what I wanted to do. It’s amazing what becomes “fact” when someone in a hierarchical organization determines it must be so. I worked in research in a financial company, a media company, and a tech start up. Each version of my job was interesting and had a lot of space for me to design what I was working on, but I was keenly aware of the holes in my skill set and the distance between what made me light up when I talked about it… and the research I did during my working hours.

I had a moment while fact checking where I was increasingly frustrated by the original research I was doing to patch up holes in an argument… knowing I would never get credit for the work… when I realized I wanted to do independent research. The questions and notes I had been scrawling away in notebooks and Evernote were haunting my dreams and making it very difficult to ignore any longer. I knew I needed more training to answer some of these questions and I knew I needed to work on them in a formal setting for people to take me seriously. So I approached my college advisors.

Absolutely no one in my life was even a little surprised when I told them. The scariest conversation (in my anticipation) was with my boss who did not bat an eyelash. She instead beamed at me and said she was thrilled and when did she need to turn in my recommendation letter?

See, I have always been a nerd. I obsess over things I am reading or decide to investigate for a long period of time not because it had a specific “end goal” but because it fascinated me and captured my imagination. My questions really do haunt me. Some kept me up all night. I would read for hours trying to answer my questions, even when I knew I had work the next day. I carried around a “field journal” for observations on communities I found interesting. I liked experiment design and talked about it long past the point of everyone else beginning to play with their phones. I break into a giant smile when I talk about theories I am playing with and successful days in the field.

Making money was nice, but it wasn’t enough. I realized the price of working on questions that didn’t interest me felt much more costly to me than I had understood. I was willing to take that pay cut — and sign up to be in grad school until I am at least 31 — because this time to read and study and design experiments and live my questions was what I needed to do to feel alive. It was worth leaving behind the experience I had built up over time, my comfortable salary and life style, and the networks of friends and colleagues I had built up because my questions called so loudly.

As one advisor told me when I told him about my plans, “I would not recommend this life style to anyone who could happily live a different life.” He told me, “you will spend the next few years becoming an expert on what feels like the handle of a single type of hammer in a tool shed. It drives most people insane. You need to be slightly insane to do this.” And I am. I tried and I cannot leave my questions behind. I returned to grad school because I know what I need to explore and answer with my life and I know what it will cost me to do so.

Sometimes people ask me if they should do this because they don’t know what else they would do. Don’t do that. Don’t come back until you have something you can hold on to when you are consumed with the self doubt and overwhelmed by the isolation that is part of independent research. I had to work for 4 years and try working in 3 totally different fields until I was ready. It’s ok to take your time and try giving yourself to another job, another field. Nothing you do, work-wise or research-wise will ever be absolutely perfect. It just won’t. But start by experimenting with the different variables that you can choose in this life. Maybe it’s money, location, or the type of work that you do. Find what matters to you. Pursue that.

For me, the type of work I do (research) and the specific questions I want to answer became a priority that I could no longer ignore. And it was an expensive decision to make, but I know in my heart this is where I am supposed to be.