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.

How we remember & Leaving Tunisia

I wrote this on my last evening in Tunisia after a very eventful week.

I did my best to tweet about a lot of the activities and places I was able to see/explore this week… not to be THAT person who overshares on social media, but because I know my own experience of digging through media channels and twitter before coming to Tunisia was repeated scenes of violence and WARNING WARNING WARNINGS. It meant I came with my own fears and apprehensions about being here… even down to the last minute before I boarded my plane from Frankfurt, when an old friend who has been to Tunis several times told me to be very careful because he was worried.

I tweeted and posted and created content about the positive efforts and growth here, because I want there to be more discussion and dimension to the pictures we paint of Tunisia in English media right now.

Violence is terrible, I do not mean to belittle the experience of those who were shot in Tunis in March or in Sousse this past month. It is terrible. But this country, and so many others, are more than the sums of their violence.

Even yesterday as I sat outside waiting for someone, I received another traveling warning from the US Embassy about Tunisia and the Middle East, more generally. The email didn’t have any more news — it restated the recent shootings, but it caused my heart to race when I saw just the subject line from the embassy in my inbox.

The language we use to frame events and communities affects our perception and later the attitude we take when we interact with those communities.

I am still critical of the frequent shootings in the United States, where we still refuse to improve gun regulation and thus wind up with often preventable mass shootings. We don’t see a travel ban or repeated warnings from other embassies around the world about these events in the United States. Tunisia, I am told, strictly regulates guns, making it easy to identify who is playing with weapons traffickers or interested parties in the black market when the police find weapons outside “acceptable” places.

There is pain here, there is economic pressure that makes some feel like they are reaching a breaking point as they search endlessly for jobs they may never find… but where isn’t that true right now?

It took a while for me to let go of the fear, especially as a woman who often travels alone. For my entire life, I have been offered endless advice on ways to “stay safe” and narratives about all the people “who want to hurt” me. Yes, I could stay home and program and never see the world, but that’s not who I am.

Tunisia is so much more than the sum of the acts of violence these past few months. It is a country with an enormously rich history, a diverse ecosystem of entrepreneurs and thinkers and builders and artists, and a country that is tackling challenging issues in designing a government.

I always take precautions and try my best to stay safe. I respected the fact that Tunisians dress more conservatively than I normally would and planned accordingly, if for no other reason than to keep a lower profile and be able to explore without disturbing the ecosystem. I spent more time listening and asking questions than talking. I said “yes” to every adventure that came my way, while making sure I knew where I was, had access to a charged cell phone, and had enough cash on me to handle a variety of situations. But if something happened to me here or in New York… sometimes there isn’t a whole lot I can do. And I accept that. I accept that as the cost of living and the cost of actively learning about communities.

It’s hard to break out of popular narratives, but every little piece helps. I hope that instead of fixating on the violence, we can also see how people in countries struggling with violence survive in the background. How they continue to build and grow businesses or create art. Because that is the backbone of the countries like Tunisia…  and my beloved Mexico. Not the violence.