Not Reading About White People. For Once.

Can we not read another book about white people?

That’s what someone said in book club a few weeks back. And it’s stayed with me ever since. We’ve read about 16 books since the inception of our book club and I can only think of one that wasn’t about white people. One and a half if we count Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which was mostly about white people dealing with racism but the cast of characters wasn’t 100% white.

And then I took it a step further and looked at my own reading choices over the past year. Three books that I’ve read in the past year (and at this point, I’ve read 78) were not about white people.

Three and a half if I count Major Pettigrew.

I always thought that I read a wide variety of stories about all kinds of people. But my reading records say otherwise.

Clearly I need to make more of an effort to choose diversity in my reading. Because if I’m not expanding my worldview with reading, what’s the point?

To that end, I just finished The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, bringing my total of non-white reads to a staggering four and a half.

Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is the story of Hattie Shepherd, told through the stories of her nine surviving children. One could argue that it’s the story of the Shepherd family as each chapter is the story of one or more of her children, but I think it’s more about Hattie. Each child’s story somehow comes back to Hattie – how she acted, if she beat them, if she ignored them etc. Each child is wounded or damaged in some way by Hattie and instead of a story of a family, you get a story about an individual or many individuals, sharing a common bond: Hattie.

That was the one thing that really stood out for me about this book: individuality. Yes, collectively this book tells the story about a family. But each chapter is really the story about one person, with references back to their mother. None of the stories intersect with each other, as is often the case with this style of book (see The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman for my favourite in this style).

The book spans a time period from 1923 all the way to 1980. The Shepherds live in Philadelphia but their roots are in Georgia and they struggle with the Jim Crow laws, racism south of the Mason-Dixon Line, poverty, revival preaching, and the Vietnam War. In one instance Hattie’s sister and brother-in-law are having a picnic on the side of the road when they get harassed by a group of white men who tell them to get lost. Such is the talent of Mathis’ writing that I could practically taste the fear and the shame.

I was swept up in this book until the last two chapters which is when Mathis lost me. While none of the chapters made me love any of the characters, they made me want to know more about how they got that way. The last two chapters felt forced to me, like the book wanted wrapping up too quickly.

Once again I’m glad for the ladies of my book club. If this hadn’t been brought up, I never would have realized that I’m not reading diversely enough. Now I’m aware and I hope that I will be able to be more conscientious about it. Don’t want to get all David Gilmour about it.

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10 thoughts on “Not Reading About White People. For Once.

  1. I sometimes think about the way access to book publishing (education, resources, similarity of cultures and outlook) being dominated by the white middle classes. Not only books about black people – but books by and about the working classes I think are lacking in comparison to those white middle class books.

    I’m as much to blame as the next person for wanting my books this way. I guess I should look at my reading habits – because they are habits – of wanting my books to be within certain “safe” parameters.

    Thought provoking post.

    • I guarantee those books are out there but we might have to do some digging. Definitely most authors are educated and maybe don’t use the working class for their writing. Used to be some great examples but it seems as though authors are getting away from that. That said, I do think there are some excellent books about immigrants, I just maybe need to look harder to find them.

      I’m hoping to be more aware of this going forward!

  2. It’s cool that you chose a book about non-white people by someone who isn’t white. Even among contemporary books with person of color protagonists, the authors tend to be white more ofter than not. Nothing wrong with trying to step into somebody else’s shoes (that’s the point of reading/writing), but the way that it’s so preferable for someone of privilege to do is a little disheartening.

      • That’s a problem, too (I actually think there’s a notable amount of translated work by non-English speaking writers who aren’t black), but I was referring to books like “The Help.” Except for a work by the very rare American writer of color who established a career before the Great Recession, most traditionally published fiction that features people of color is by white authors than not. There’s the books about the experience of relating to the other, and it’s not uncommon for diversity in fiction being a protagonist who is biracial — either written by someone white or someone of privilege. The latter point speaks to the point your other commenter made about social class. .. .

      • There is absolutely a ton of translated work by white authors. It’s the non-white writers that don’t come from an upper middle class background and their stories that we’re missing out on. And you’re also right that by and large stories about non-white characters tend to be written by white authors.

        How do we as readers change this landscape?

        I’m so delighted with the insightful comments on this post!

      • The only way that the opinion of most readers count is through their money. Between people’s need for escapism and the part of the human condition that wants to hear whatever privileges we have reinforced as normalcy, it’s difficult for any headway to be made. Publishing is a heavily networked, traditionally privileged industry, as is. It’s certainly open to considering anyone’s work, but the work that’s going to shine is going to have a large business element — and that’s one that will often more easily have been honed by privileged sensibilities. I think the Great Recession and the shortening of the cultural attention span has made anything with books as a business harder, so, even as there’s a recognizable lack of diversity, the road getting there is quite narrow. .

        I want to say that there should be more attention given to self-published fiction, but I know that the average work is a bit disregarded because it doesn’t have the litmus test that traditionally published work does . But with part of that litmus test being how commercial and demographic-driven something is, maybe the potential of self-published work to reflect stories by people whose backgrounds would be considered poor or diverse by others shouldn’t be unsung. (I’m considering it). It’s just, there’s so much work out there like this now and few venues trying to sift out what might be a good read with the clout that established reviewers have.

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