Discussion: Leading an Antiracist Book Club

Real talk: race and discrimination is nothing new. What’s new is that people are having more open conversations about it than they have previously. This year especially there have been many posts with reference links to books, articles, films, documentaries and podcasts,all focused on the topic of race. A common phrase being thrown around is “to educate yourself” and we should, especially if it’s not something that we face daily. We should educate ourselves on things that others face, but sometimes doing so can be difficult especially when doing it alone. I personally am someone who likes to process out loud and likes to do so with others, which is why starting an Antiracist Book Club has been so beneficial for me.

While I am not an expert, nor do I have all the answers, there are many things that I have learned about running an Antiracist Book Club and I wanted to share those tips in the hopes that they encourage others to do the same!

In this post, I’ll discuss things that I have found successful as well as some book recommendations to help you start your own Antiracist Book Club.

A few months ago the youth theatre company that I work for decided to start an Antiracist Book Club to give the teens in our community a place to learn more about social justice issues and encourage open discussions about race. When asked if I wanted to assist with the book club, I eagerly agreed as I believe this is an incredibly important topic and wanted to use my voice and platform to encourage meaningful discussions. 

If you’re thinking about starting an Antiracist Book Club but are feeling unsure of how to go about it, I highly recommend finding someone to lead with you! I run the book club with a former co-worker and as we’re working with teens, having another adult there as a leader has been really great! 

Just before we started the book club, the two of us had a discussion about how we thought this book club should run. There were many things we thought of, such as: What did we want the kids to get out of it? What did we feel comfortable with? But the most important thing that we both said was: How do we make this book club a safe space? 

We both agreed that the most important thing besides helping these kids and ourselves become more aware of social justice matters, was that we create a brave space. As educators, our main concerns are always the safety and comfort of our students and that has translated into how we’ve run this book club. We wanted to make sure that the kids felt that they could freely express their thoughts on the readings, what’s going on in the world and how these things have made them feel. 

As we all know, conversations about race and discrimination are hard. That’s part of why they’re usually avoided, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it should be avoided, in fact it means that they should be discussed. Ensuring that your book club is a safe space for everyone (especially people of color) is the best place to start. Though our book club is focused on teens, I believe that these pointers are important for a group of any age.

My suggestions for creating a safe and positive environment:

Again all of these are simply suggestions of things that I have found useful. Some of these may work for you and some may not, but I hope that these tips help you get started.

1. Be okay with pauses:

There are going to be times when no one knows how to respond to something that you’ve read. That’s okay! Depending on the subject covered, the information can be difficult to process and sometimes people don’t have the words right away. Learn to be okay with pauses in the conversation. Don’t feel the need to talk just to talk; sometimes you’ll need to think about the subject more before beginning the discussion. Many of these topics are topics we’ve been conditioned not to discuss with people and that can be a difficult habit to break. The pauses are okay. Those pauses can later lead to meaningful and powerful conversations, let them happen organically.

2. You won’t always be right – don’t let that stop you:

One of the reasons why you’ve started, or are thinking of starting, an Antiracist Book Club is probably to educate yourself and others on the important social justice issues in the world. One of the best ways we learn is by having conversations. No one’s experiences or thoughts are going to perfectly align with yours, and that is how we grow as people. We grow by having discussions and conversations and listening to others. It’s easy to not comment on something because you fear being wrong, in many instances that is the correct choice. I have found that in this setting not speaking up hinders growth. There will probably be times when something that is brought up is a situation that members haven’t ever experienced or heard of. That may make them feel as though they shouldn’t add commentary or engage in the discussion. An important thing to remember is that when it comes to conversations about race and discrimination, no one has all the correct answers. No one is ever done learning. The members of your book club should feel free to ask questions, speak up, and be wrong and know that what they say will lead to an open and hopefully educational discussion.

3. You can tap out when you need to:

Conversations about race, police brutality, and discrimination can be emotionally and mentally draining, especially for people of color. For white people, these can be new conversations, and however taxing it can be for them to be part of these conversations, it is ten times more exhausting for people of color. These topics can bring up memories or emotions that may be triggering. From the start establish that at any moment a member of the book club – especially if they are a person of color – can remove themselves from the conversation for however long they need, no explanations needed.

4. What happens in book club stays in book club:

Ah, the good old Fight Club reference really does come in handy here. If you’re like me, when you’re reading something and you’ve learned something new, you probably want to share that information with everyone you know. That’s totally valid, but if you’re going to be talking about books or topics that were brought up in book club, proceed with caution. Sharing your thoughts on books/topics that are brought up is totally valid, but be sure to avoid anything like “during book club x said….” Specifics of conversations should stay between the members of the book club. But I fully encourage discussing the general topics with others – and if they’re interested in learning or discussing more encourage them to join you!

5. Take turns leading:

Taking turns leading the discussions is a great way to encourage everyone to stay engaged and contributing. After a few weeks of leading ourselves we brought up the idea of having a different person lead each meeting and it’s worked out very well! It also helps the meetings feel a little less class like with having a different person lead the discussion each week. I think this works especially well if you have teens.

6. Read fiction and non-fiction books:

Let’s be real – sometimes history and non-fiction can get a little tiring, especially if you mostly read fiction. As someone who prefers fiction over non-fiction, for me having a mixture of the two helps to keep things fresh. It’s also important to remember that your anti-racism isn’t enough if you’re only supporting media from BIPOC authors that is told in a non-fiction setting. BIPOC authors and creators have beautiful and rich stories to share and I would encourage you to add those stories to your book club as well.

Below you will find some recommendations for books to help you get started with your Antiracist Book Club. There are many books that I haven’t read yet that I’m sure would be wonderful additions and if you have any recommendations please feel free to comment on them so that I can check them out!

Book Recommendations:

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

I personally loved this book. It covered so many things in American history that I actually was not aware of and it was all done in a way that was incredibly interesting and accessible. Sometimes with history books it can feel a bit like you’re just reading off a list of facts, this book feels the opposite. I haven’t read Dr. Ibram X. Kendi Stamped from the Beginning but reading this reimagined version has made me want to. Jason Reynolds writing is compelling and thought provoking. I would recommend starting with this book. It’s important to understand where and how these social constructs started before diving into how they permeate our society.

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

When The Hate U Give came out in 2017 I moved it right up to the top of my to read list and it was honestly a huge eye opener. That book has stuck with me for years and I will continue to recommend it until everyone I know has read it. The topics covered in The Hate U Give are as relevant now as they were in 2017 and reading it this year was even more powerful than the first time. I feel that this book is required reading for any Antiracist Book Club – especially for teens.

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound 

The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry by Maryann Erigha

I’m in the process of reading this book now and so far it has shed a lot of insight on the racial imbalance in Hollywood. If you’re especially interested in film I would recommend this book.

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound 

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

You Should See Me in a Crown is one of my favorite reads of 2020. While it does cover topics of race and how race influences one’s opportunities it is about more than just race. I think as important as it is to read books that are specifically about discussions of race, it is equally important to read books by authors of color that are simply about characters of color and their lives. 

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound 

I hope that you’ve found this post helpful and that it encourages you to start your own Antiracist Book Club!

Happy reading!

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