Not (Technically) an Anti-Racism Book List

Image by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

by Pastor Megan Herrold Sinchi

Throughout the summer, every now and then I’ve come across a new anti-racism reading list as people (especially white Americans) are looking to learn and understand more about racism in our country. I’ve actually read quite a few books on these lists and I think they’re great! Really helpful info. Some of them tell forgotten tales from U.S. history. Some seem designed to inspire greater self-awareness in the reader, an area in which I personally always strive to grow. 

However, in my own racial justice journey, these types of books are not the only ones that have helped equip or encourage me. In some cases, growth has happened through reading fiction by or about people of color. These books aren’t specifically about racism. But because of the authors’ experiences, or the characters’ storylines, the lives portrayed face certain challenges as a result of racism. 

So I wanted to share about a few of the books that have helped me in my pursuit of anti-racism, cross-cultural awareness, or both. And yes, I’m sharing this because, as a Christian and as a citizen in society, I feel a responsibility to do what I can to understand others–it’s part of how I live out God’s call to love my neighbor. 

But I’m also sharing because, as a Christian who is also a white American, a lot of the transformative work that God has done in my life has been through cross-cultural experience. God has undone a lot of my arrogance, pride, and self-righteousness through these interactions. I’ve learned a lot about joy and hope through relationships with people who face more challenging–and unjust–circumstances than I do. My reverence for God has grown as I experience more of His good creation, especially the many facets of the imago dei evident in the people around me. And my passion for God’s kingdom, for God’s will to be done on earth, has been emboldened by intentionally facing the ugly aspects of society. As a pastor for spiritual formation, I’m hoping that sharing this list will open new avenues of spiritual growth in you readers as well.

One caveat: It’s been at least 10 years since reading some of these books, and my notes below are based on my recollections of them now. It’s possible my memory is flawed and I get some story details wrong. But whether or not my memory of the book is correct, it’s that memory hat has an impact on me today, so that’s what I’m sharing. So join me on Memory Lane!

There There, by Tommy Orange

Are there many stories out there about First Nations peoples living in the twenty-first century? Or living in urban rather than rural settings? This is the only one I know of off-hand. It tells the story of several people of a range of ages and backgrounds, who all end up at a pow-wow in Oakland. It’s also interesting to see the range of “connection” that the characters feel to their indigenous heritage. Because there are so many characters, it almost reads like a collection of short stories. 

Related: Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann; Porous Borders, by Julian Lim; The Other Slavery, by Andrés Reséndez

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Definitely one of my top-10 favorite books! I loved, loved the story-telling style, the way it moves back and forth in the characters’ timelines, and how this technique is used to slowly reveal bits and pieces of the mystery at the heart of the story. A good depiction of the various ways people deal with trauma. It also explores the impact of Asian-American stereotypes and the challenges that bi-racial/bi-cultural families face.

Related: The Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere is based on another book by Ng; it also explores cross-cultural relationships and interactions.

Them, by Nathan McCall

Honestly, this was not one of my favorite books. It was OK, but it didn’t really draw me in like some books do. I’m including it, however, because at the time that I read it (10+ years ago), it was helpful for me to have a book in which the two main characters were a Black man and a white woman. Given where I was in the early stages of my own journey, it was helpful to read the characters’ different reactions to the same circumstances. I also remember a couple of scenes in which the white woman said or did something I might have said or done; it was helpful to see the other characters’ perspectives on why those things are less…helpful than I would have thought. The ending of the book also helped me realize the deep level of commitment and stamina I (as a white person) would need if I truly wanted to pursue anti-racism.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I read this book while I was living in Ireland and it helped me process some of the cross-cultural dissonance I was experiencing at the time. The main character emigrates from Nigeria to the United States for school. She has uncomfortable reactions to things that I would consider normal–like eating bread at any meal, not just at certain times of the day. Seeing the struggles she went through in a culture that was “normal” for me but “foreign” for her helped me process some of the struggles I was having in another country (though her experience was waaay tougher than mine). It also helped me accept the idea that there are different ways of doing things–just normal, everyday things–and none of them is necessarily worse or better simply because there’s a difference. This was a key development in my intercultural adaptability, as well as adaptability in general, which has come in handy during these pandemic times. 

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

A black man is wrongfully accused and convicted of rape, despite his wife being his alibi, and the whole process of accusation, trial, and imprisonment wreaks havoc on his life and the lives of those around him. Obviously pretty relevant to recent events and our growing national awareness of wrongful mass incarceration. But it helped me to see the impact that these tragic trends have not just on those who end up in prison, but also their family and friends. 

Related: The story of Curtis Flowers as portrayed in season 2 of the podcast In The Dark.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

You may have heard of or read this one already, it got a lot of attention when it first came out. The story is a sort of generational saga, following the descendants of two sisters from Ghana, one of whom remains there in a position of relative privilege, the other who is sold into slavery. It covers many generations of history, so I got to see the wide range of prejudices, discriminatory practices, and risks to life faced by people of African descent over the centuries. It’s helpful to see how these changed and built on each other in order to better understand our context today.

Related: Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

At its heart, it’s a story about people connected through a church community who are just trying to live their lives even when faced with complicated circumstances. But every now and then, the author includes the extra questions that the characters have to ask, the extra risks they face, due to being Black in America. Probably one of my top-10 favorite books, and I rarely feel that way about a story that features a love triangle. It also gives an in-depth, poignant look at the effects of having an abortion–probably the only time I’ve ever read an exploration (fiction or non-fiction) of what the impact is on the man. 

Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji

So, I didn’t know that the CIA was responsible for overthrowing probably the only democratically elected leader of Iran. This book is tangentially about that. I really liked the love story, but what I think was helpful for me in terms of anti-racism and cross-cultural understanding was the normalization of practices that might seem “backward,” or living circumstances that might make it seem like these are people I should “pity.” The characters weren’t deprived or unhappy just because they didn’t have modern Western amenities. In any case, I thought it was a beautiful story and just all around a good book. 

Related: Overthrow, by Stephen Kinzer