Saira Rao and Regina Jackson Turner are self-described women of color who make a good living catering to white women. Tickets for their Race 2 Dinner events, which their website describes as a chance for “white women” to participate in a “conversation about how the white women at the table are complicit in the continued injustices of our white supremacist society,” sell for $2,500 a pop.
While Rao and Turner have clearly found a niche for their ideas among the wealthy elite who want to luxuriate in evenings of fine wine and self-flagellation, executives at Penguin Random House believe there is much wider appetite for books that point the finger at readers. In April they signed the pair to write “White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How to Get Better.”
Their book joins a relatively new but growing genre of works – both fiction and nonfiction, by authors of all races – that aim to educate whites about the deep racism that supports their privileged lives. These woke beach reads infuse the best-selling template of white-bread chick lit with the consciousness of social justice warriors.
This spring brought “A Good Neighborhood” by New York Times best-selling author Therese Anne Fowler. It centers on Xavier, a polite, smart, classical guitar-playing black teenager in North Carolina, who starts dating a rich white neighbor and is falsely accused of raping her by her racist, sexist, pervert, tree-killing (yes, really) stepfather.
The boy’s lawyer tells him: “You are a black man accused of raping an underage white girl. If you put yourself in front of a jury, you’ve got twelve strangers who’ll be literally sitting in judgment of you. … Some of those jurors will be women. Some of them will be white. White fathers of teenage girls if the prosecution can manage it.”
At various points, Fowler, who is white, pauses to have characters lecture readers about the racist criminal justice system and the “talk” that many black parents have with their children about how the police won’t give them the benefit of the doubt. The novel adds class concerns to the racial mix. At Xavier’s bail hearing, his mother asks, “So if I happen to have a quarter mill laying around I lose nothing. But if I’m one of the ninety-nine percent who don’t, I forfeit twenty-five grand. That’s a fair system?”
Extended lectures about structural racism have become a regular feature of books that would be placed on a list of “beach reads.” In “Privilege,” the recently published campus novel by Mary Adkins, who is white, a biracial character named Bea recalls staying with the family of a white friend when a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
“The conversation had left Bea frustrated – mostly with herself for not speaking up. … Was it really that hard for [her friend’s father] to understand that you’re treated differently based on race? Or did he just not want to know it? Was it that hard to know … that racial bias could be subconscious?”
The eponymous protagonist of the novel “Queenie,” a Jamaican British 20-something, makes it her mission to publish articles about police shootings in America and attend Black Lives Matter protests in London. “Another black man died in America today,” Queenie tells Darcy, a self-described “liberal” friend and co-worker. “Police killed him.”
“Oh no, what was he doing?” she asked absentmindedly.
“What do you mean, ‘What was he doing?’ He wasn’t doing anything, he was driving.” The words burst forth from me. “And even if he was doing something, doesn’t mean he should be killed for it. … You asked a stupid question. … That sort of attitude is the problem. … I’m not calling you a racist, I’m saying that if the thinking is that someone should be killed for doing something wrong, that thinking is dangerous.”
None of these novels mentions the disproportionate rates of crime committed by blacks, which might account for the more frequent than average encounters that black people have with the police; or the number of black people murdered by other black people, which dwarfs the number shot by police; or the number of black lives that have been saved by supposedly racist police tactics.
The point of these books is that even well-meaning white people don’t really grasp how bad the system is and how, through their “unconscious bias,” they are at least in part to blame.
These works reflect the larger “Great Awokening” that has taken hold since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. This phrase is shorthand for the powerful mixture of virtue and guilt that informs many well-educated liberal white Americans.
Zach Goldberg reported in Tablet that surveys show white liberals are now more pessimistic about race relations than African Americans. They are the only demographic group in America to display a “pro-outgroup” bias – meaning that among all the different groups surveyed, white liberals were the only ones who expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.
So do the white women reading these novels enjoy being accused of racism? Joseph Bottum, who edited the Weekly Standard’s book reviews for many years and is the author most recently of “The Decline of the Novel,” says he’s “not sure they are enjoying it.” But it is serving a purpose. He compares these didactic novels to Lutheran hymns, which other Protestants used to joke were “catechism reduced to song.” It’s just a slightly easier way to digest a highhanded lecture.
It’s easy to see why these messages have so easily lent themselves to Young Adult fiction too. Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which spent almost an entire year on the New York Times bestseller list, follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old black girl growing up in a working-class family in the inner city while attending a private mostly white school in the suburbs.
Her friend Khalil is shot in the back by a police officer and Starr is the sole witness. The book follows the Black Lives Matter narrative — that innocent, unarmed black teenage boys are regularly murdered by racist officers and no one is held accountable when they do.
Kyla Schuller, a white professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at Rutgers University, applauds this trend. She especially credits the work of “black feminist writing online for the last 10 years or so” at websites such as Jezebel and Feminista, whose writers “have made it clear that a discussion of women’s experience that doesn’t interrogate race becomes a part of white supremacy.”
Schuller, who is writing a book called “The Trouble With White Women” about the history of intersectional feminism (which acknowledges “how different forms of discrimination intersect with and amplify gender-based discrimination”), says the “market data suggest that the average woman reader really likes these themes. They’re coming back for more. It suggests that maybe if they’re provoked, it’s in a way that feels useful.” Schuller believes the books that publishers “want from women authors are not about motherhood. Motherhood is over. They want books at intersection of race, gender and sexuality.”
Bottum also believes that these novelists and their readers “have a hunger for a moral purpose” and combating racism “is the only moral purpose our society has on offer.” He compares such novels to the 1930s and ’40s literature of social realism. Authors like John Dos Passos or Upton Sinclair “had to throw in undigested bits of Marxism” in the midst of their stories.
The lectures in these modern novels go well beyond complaints about prejudiced police officers or structural racism to expose the unconscious bias of seemingly well-meaning whites.
In “Such a Fun Age,” Kiley Reid’s widely praised 2019 novel, the protagonist Emira is essentially asked to decide who is more racist – her boyfriend, Kelley, or her employer, Alex (the two used to date in high school). Kelley tells her: “You’re not the first black woman Alex has hired to work for her family, and you probably won’t be the last.”
The fact that Alex wants to befriend Emira, by “accidentally ordering two salads and offering one to Emira, or sending her home with a bag filled with frozen dinners and soups,” seems to be of great importance. “It wasn’t that Emira didn’t understand the racially charged history,” she thinks to herself.
As if having her meals bought weren’t racist enough, it turns out that her boyfriend may be “one of those white guys who not only goes out of his way to date black women but only wants to date black women.” As one of the other characters notes, “People like that think that it says something good about them, that they’re so brave and unique that they would even dare to date black women. Like they’re some kind of martyr.”
This outing of unconscious bias also takes place in reviews of these novels. In her New York Times review of “A Good Neighborhood,” Reid, who is black, criticizes Fowler, who is white, for presenting a cartoon version of prejudice.
She compares Fowler’s unjustly accused protagonist, Xavier, to Uncle Tom – “a nonthreatening fantasy for the book’s white audience” – and writes that “racism is depicted much like death or pregnancy, in that it is an all-or-nothing, binary state of being. The racist characters are brazenly racist: They call biracial children ‘abominations’ and freely use the n-word. The nonracist characters are professional allies; one is actually martyred, in a ludicrous series of events, after storming away from a racist relative.”
Examinations of unconscious bias are also on full display during Race 2 Dinners. As an article in The Guardian described one of the events:
Morgan Richards admits she recently did nothing when someone patronizingly commended her for adopting her two black children, as though she had saved them. ‘What I went through to be a mother, I didn’t care if they were black,’ she says, opening a window for Rao to challenge her: ‘So, you admit it is stooping low to adopt a black child?’ And Richards accepts that the undertone of her statement is racist.
As more confessions like this are revealed, Rao and Jackson seem to press those they think can take it, while empathizing with those who can’t.
“Well done for recognizing that,” Jackson says, to soothe one woman. “We are all part of the problem. We have to get comfortable with that to become part of the solution.”
Just as part of the problem is white women being too nice to black women who work for them and white men dating black women, so it is also white families adopting black children. And the solution? Well, it seems to be greater racial separation and more acceptance of guilt by white people.
John Wilson, who used to edit the literary magazine Books & Culture, says these novels recall conversations from his college years during the 1960s. “White people would say they’re not racist, but it didn’t matter because others would say that they participated in racist structures. … It made it impossible to carry on a conversation.”
Women are definitely talking about the books. Anna Ford, founder and CEO of Bookclubz (an online organizational tool for 12,000 clubs worldwide), said that racially charged books – including “Such a Fun Age,” “The Hate U Give,” “Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead and “The Water Dancer” by Ta-Nehisi Coates – have been among the most popular.
“What we know about all book clubs is that they have this inherent culture of respect,” Ford said. “People come because they want to share their ideas and opinions and want to hear others.” She said these conversations about race may be able to happen more easily because there is a “recognition of other people’s vulnerability.” Book clubs, she notes, “are a safe space.”
But John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and a frequent commentator on race, said these books seem less intent on sparking discussion than sending a message. “We are constantly told that America remains in some kind of denial about racism, that the lesson never gets through. But this is said so very much, in so many places, and has been for so very long that you start to wonder at what point we might admit that the message has gotten out there.”
McWhorter suggests that “when the woke perspective on race is casually preached even in books like these, it’s one more piece of evidence that people who insist that America is deaf and dumb to the nature of racism are concerned less with public advocacy and social change than in displaying an aggrieved oppositional attitude as a kind of identity, as an end in itself, regardless of reality.”
Shelby Steele, a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of “White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era,” suggests this current crop of novels are “what happens when someone writes out of an identity rather than out of their individual selves. They squeeze themselves into really bad ideas — that white males commonly fetishize black women, etc.
“They seem to be satisfying the terms of a Black Lives Matter black identity rather than exploring their experience as individuals. And, as always, their characterizations and story lines arrive at black victimization as eternal truth. They fail to be interesting as writers because actual truth is forbidden.”
This article from Naomi Schaefer Riley was originally published by RealClearInvestigations.