20 Books of Summer, #10–11: Dabiri and McDonald on Whiteness

I didn’t jump on the antiracist books bandwagon last year. Instead, my way into the topic was a work I became aware of through the online Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. I was on the Church House website to buy books by several of the weekend’s contributors and a forthcoming release being advertised jumped out at me for its provocative title and fabulous cover: God Is Not a White Man. I promptly pre-ordered. It never fails to put this Gungor song in my head, and seemed an ideal way to engage with the issues from a perspective that makes sense to me. So for this latest batch of colour-themed summer reads I’m thinking about whiteness from the point of view of women of colour based in England and Ireland.

 

God Is Not a White Man (And Other Revelations) by Chine McDonald (2021)

Here’s where McDonald is coming from: she moved to England from Nigeria with her family as a small child, grew up on the Evangelical end of Anglicanism, works for Christian Aid, and is married to a white man. She’s used to being the only Black person in the room when she steps into a church or other Christian setting in the UK. “It is a sad fact that the Church often lags behind on racial justice, remaining intransigent on issues that the world has long since labelled oppressive and unjust [such as opposing interracial marriage].” Always in the background for her is the way Black people are being treated in other parts of the world: although she wrote the bulk of this book before George Floyd’s murder, she has updated it with details about Donald Trump’s late outrages and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her chief concern is for her young son, growing up as a male with brown skin.

The book is shaped around moments of revelation large and small. For instance, McDonald opens with the first time she saw a God who looked like her. It was through The Shack, a bestselling novel by William P. Young in which God the Father is portrayed as a big Black woman (played by Octavia Spencer in the film version). She notes how important such symbolism is: “When a Black woman only sees God reflected as a white man, then somewhere in her subconscious she believes that white men are better representations of God than she is, that she is made less in the image of God than they are.” Other topics are the importance of equal access and education (she went to Cambridge), and standards of beauty. Beyoncé helped her to love her body, curves and all, and feel a sense of Black sisterhood. I liked getting glimpses into her life, such as her big Nigerian wedding to Mark. (New purchase)

 

Links between the two books: The authors’ Nigerian heritage, plus McDonald mentions that she interviewed Dabiri at Greenbelt Festival in 2019 and has been trying to get up the courage to return to her natural hair, as Dabiri encouraged her (the Natural Hair Movement is the topic of Dabiri’s first book, Don’t Touch My Hair).

 

What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition by Emma Dabiri (2021)

Another terrific cover with a bold sans serif font. This is clearly in the mould of 2020’s antiracist books, but Dabiri wouldn’t thank you for considering her under the same umbrella. She doesn’t like the concept of allyship because it reinforces unhelpful roles: people of colour as victims and white people as the ones with power who can come and save the day.

Dabiri is Irish and Nigerian and grew up in the USA and Ireland. Her experience of racism was much more overt than McDonald’s, including verbal and physical abuse. She challenges white people to stop the denial: ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’, though artificial constructs, have been with us since at least the 1660s, so racism is a system we have all been born into. “We’ve been conditioned to see the world through that lens for centuries. … over that you have no control. What you do have control over is what you do next.”

Like McDonald, Dabiri emphasizes that monolithic categories like white and Black flatten a huge diversity of people and experiences (McDonald has a chapter entitled “Africa Is Not a Country”). But Dabiri has a more political (as well as, of course, a completely secular) approach: She wants readers to interrogate capitalism and think about how resources can be redistributed more fairly. Her notion of coalition is about identifying common ground and shared goals. “On the most basic level, we have to see our struggles as interconnected because they are, and because we are.”

Reading this was like encountering an extended TED talk. I wasn’t taken enough with Dabiri’s writing style to seek out her previous book, but if you have an interest in the subject matter you may as well pick up this 150-pager. It was small enough for me to pack in the back of our booze bag and read a bit of during a neighbour’s outdoor birthday party last weekend. I got a couple of “huh” looks, but that may have been just for reading during a party at all rather than for the specific content. (Public library)

 

Would I say that I enjoyed reading these two books? That’s a tough question. They were worthwhile, but also tedious in places, such that I did plenty of skimming. History, politics, sociology: these fields are not my reading comfort zone. The theological bent to McDonald’s work made it more to my taste than Dabiri’s contribution. Still, my whole reason for avoiding antiracist books was that I questioned my motivation. I didn’t want to read them because I felt I should; a sense of obligation is a recipe for resentment when it comes to books. I’m not sure to what extent readers should read things they feel they must. I look to books for learning opportunities, yes, but also for escape and pleasure. But maybe it’s valuable simply to show willing, to get outside your reading comfort zone and be open to hearing new ideas.

How about you? Would you pick up one of these for the educational value?

 

I have ALL of the rest of my 20 Books of Summer in progress at the moment. The only question is when I will next finish some!

9 responses

  1. History, politics, sociology: right up my street. So this is the kind of reading to which I gravitate. When I pick up non-fiction, that is. Which I’ve doing more often this year, I believe (although my stat’s could prove me wrong and I still haven’t checked them!). I find it interesting to read what you’ve said of McDonald’s experience in English churches…are there not Black congregations there? Or was she not attending in an urban setting? (I dabbled in Henry Louis Gate’s The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song earlier this summer.) The second one would fit more readily into my reading, I’m guessing. And I love that you took a book to a party. I wonder how many people will read this and take THEIR book with them to the next one they attend. 🙂

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    1. McDonald’s family mostly attended mainstream Anglican churches. She does remember one moment from her childhood when the well-meaning white lady on the door of a church they were visiting said, “you might be more comfortable in the church down the road…” Black churches are much less common here; they tend to be on the Pentecostal end and would, yes, have a predominantly African congregation. (I grew up with my family attending a Black church, so that’s one particular reason why this book drew me in. I also took a terrific Black Theology course in college as part of my Religion major.)

      Neither of these reads blended the history/sociology into a personal story particularly effectively for me; then again, I’ll always prefer a straightforward memoir to a book that’s issue-led. The Dabiri is more of a manifesto, but with few practical ideas on offer.

      I’m pretty much never without a book. Inevitably, if I fail to bring one, I regret it, so my Kindle or a slim paperback will accompany me everywhere in a purse or pocket. The party invite said 6/7, though for months I’d had 6 on my calendar, so we rocked up at 6:20 and were the first ones there, sat on our own with a glass of Pimm’s for 25 minutes until anyone else showed! Anyway. Book, drink, comfy chair, balmy weather: can’t complain!

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      1. buriedinprint

        Hah, she probably would have been more comfortable down the road. But I can imagine that I wouldn’t have wanted anyone telling me that in her position either, however well-meaning.

        I think I know what you mean. Two essay collections that have worked for me recently that blend the personal and political effectively to my mind are Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning and Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. One reason why these stood out for me is that they simultaneously felt so natural and authentic but I could also tell, when I stopped to peer more closely, that they were carefully crafted and shaped; I felt as though they had the reader in mind the whole time, without performing for the reader either, so that it felt intimate but also polished. Have you come across those?

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      2. I’ve heard good things about Minor Feelings. I’d definitely give that one a try if I came across a copy.

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  2. I read Don’t Touch My Hair when it came out and thought it was fine, but a bit thin, so I think if this one didn’t capture you, it might not either.

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    1. That’s good to know.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve just come to read this after writing my own review of Dabiri’s book. I found it ultimately left me with more questions than answers, which is OK of course; I’m glad I didn’t in the end review it alongside a book on allyship! I have read quite a lot of those books but I already had a particular interest in race (or ‘race’) and immigrant experiences, and have hoovered up the books that have become available and promoted as they’ve come out (I liken this in my head to when H&M circle round to doing the skirt shape I like and I buy a few to see me through). I’ve been drip-feeding them through my blog until these last two months when I’ve done Exploring Lives Different to Mine for my 20 Books.

    Oh, and well done on your 20 Books progress. I’m feeling I might get done now as I’m onto novels after the last two non-fiction books!

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  4. That’s an interesting question about reading because you feel like you “should” read something. I do think white people should educate themselves about racism, but I don’t think that has to be done by reading books. Personally, I like to learn by reading, while if I’m watching TV, I probably want something mindless. For someone else, maybe they’d rather keep their reading fun, but they like to watch documentaries. I’m not sure other ‘should’ reads could as easily be replaced by other activities though – watching an film adaption of a classic I thought I should read wouldn’t feel like a good substitute for reading it, for example.

    I also don’t think that picking up something I want to read and something I ‘should’ read are mutually exclusive, so I try to focus on books at the intersection of the two, whether I’m reading books on race, the classics, etc. There are a ton of books about race that are great contemporary fiction or that read like thrillers; that are engaging narrative nonfiction, thoughtful essays, or beautiful poetry. But I think I don’t suffer as much from the resentment that comes with obligation that you mention. I could see that making it much harder to find something you’re both excited about and reading because you “should”. For all that those things aren’t mutually exclusive for me, I can get why they might be for some readers.

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    1. I was talking about this with my mother the other day, when she was visiting and I gave her a tour through my bookcases. I showed her my, ahem, entire shelf of books I’ve started but not finished. She said there must be something wrong with these books, that they weren’t compelling enough to hold my attention. I said a book doesn’t have to be compelling to be worth reading; I will eventually finish all of these, but at the time I was reading too many books and these didn’t draw me in for whatever reason. But she said her primary reason for reading is enjoyment, so if the pages aren’t turning she’ll give up on a book. Whereas I pick up books for multiple purposes, including education as well as entertainment. So you’re right, a book can fill multiple roles, but it helps if the style is engaging.

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