‘Back to Black’ & ‘White Fragility’ Must-Reads before 2019

I was initially going to write two separate reviews for ‘Black to Black’ by Kehinde Andrews and ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo.

As part of my Non-Fiction November, I planned to read ‘White Fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo, among other amazing non-fictions books, and‘Black to Black’ by Kehinde Andrews was only a late addition. Once I got it, however, I knew I would read it immediately; so I did, and shortly after closing its final pages, I picked up and started devouring the first pages of ‘White Fragility’.

I must admit that at first I didn’t see any similarities between ‘Black to Black’ and  ‘White Fragility’. Both books are non-fiction, and both books are race-themed but other than that, I didn’t think they were good for book pairing. After finishing ‘White Fragility’, however, I realised that they actually complement each other in ways I hadn’t previously thought of. This is why I have decided to discuss both books side by side.

I thought I’d break them down and outline briefly what they’re about, what I’ve learned from them, and how they have impacted me personally. Both books are Must-Reads before the end of this year (if you can’t make it, not a problem, starting the new year with one or both of these books will make for a superb start), they will also make for great Christmas gifts (for yourself or your friends and family), and here is why:

AUDIENCE

At first glance, the target audiences of both books are in stark contrast of each other. On one hand, DiAngelo’s book primarily targets white people. Andrews’ book, on the other hand, is openly addressed to black people. Notwithstanding, both authors insert themselves in their narratives. Andrews uses the word ‘we’ quite often to denote his belonging to the target audience of his book. He doesn’t try to explain facts or concepts that would be obvious to black people just for the benefit of the book’s potential white audience. While Andrews does not clearly denote that the book is exclusively for black people, he also does not cater to the infamous ‘white fragility’ by justifying his endeavours or apologising for not centring white voices, interests or feelings. Right from the beginning, the tone of the book is unflinching and unapologetic.

Robin DiAngelo’s book is similar to Andrews’ in the sense that it directly addresses its main audience (which, in this case, is white), and in the way she includes herself in her target audience. DiAngelo, however, is a bit more direct in opening up the spectrum of her audience, explaining that while white people should be the main beneficiaries of reading this book, black people and POC could also find some interesting and helpful insights into the white psyche in her work.

CONTENT

Before delving into the more intricate aspects of the books, I would humbly like to suggest one thing: if you’re easily offended and unwilling to see beyond what you hold to be true, neither of these books are for you. This sounds a bit extreme and, potentially, presumptuous, but I know how uncomfortable these books (especially ‘White Fragility’) made me, but also know how much they have helped me, and have changed the way I view the world; that is why I’d rather not have someone read them than misunderstand, misquote, or mis-contextualise them. They are too important and too rare in the publishing world to be defamed or undermined (especially since people are more like to say that the books are bad than to admit that they don’t quite understand them).

‘White Fragility’ forced me to take a long hard look in the mirror, and an embarrassed glance at my countless missteps and offensive behavioural patterns of the past (the present, and probably also the future). ‘Back to Black’ was less uncomfortable to me personally (as a white person) but it still fundamentally challenged my view of the world, it questioned my personal beliefs (e.g. the importance of a ‘nation’ – if you don’t read anything, at least read that part of the book. My mind was blown). ‘Back to Black’ lays bare how the West has forced its own worldview on the rest of the world, consequently plunging it into chaos. Of course, I previously knew about the ways in which the West has invaded and influenced the rest of the world, but Kehinde Andrews takes it a step further. Honestly speaking, at times I had to put down the book to thoroughly digest Andrews’ words and arguments. His intellectual prowess is deeply impressive (and a bit intimidating), yet he finds a way to concisely explain the superbly complex ideas he defends in this book.

IMPACT

What stuck with me the most after finishing ‘Black to Black’ was the way in which Andrews led me to change my views on some black movements and the inherent problems with them. In doing so, I have not only been able to learn more about important movements or ideologies that are supposed to lead the way towards black liberation, but I have also come to further understand the actual involvement of the West in those matters.

‘White Fragility’ has, to put it directly and plainly, changed my life. It has somewhat become a consultative manual to navigate life as a white person who tries to do less damage and harm to black people around me just by being (white). The book makes it clear that the onus is on me and my actions (rather than my feelings), and on the consequences of my actions. I have come to understand that no matter how much I know or think I know, having been socialised as a white person in the context of a white supremacist world will take a lifetime of unravelling, unlearning, and relearning.

What has probably made the most long-lasting impact on me is DiAngelo’s critical analysis of the particular role of white women in the upholding of white supremacist structures. I have grown up in a world dominated by (white) feminist thoughts – you know, men are bad if they’re oppressing you, don’t let a man tell you what to do etc. So, coming to realise that outside of the traditional white heterosexual context I am actually the perpetrator and not the victim was not an easy pill to swallow. The book uncompromisingly exposed how my behaviour as a white woman can be detrimental, even fatal for black people – and particularly black men. Having a black man as a life partner, those realisations hit close to home.

CONCLUSION

I could go on and on about either of these books for another 100 pages. I’m so glad to have read both of them, and I think I’ve really benefited from reading them in a sequence. They complemented each other so well and have made a lasting impression on me.

You might even want to think of the pair in this way:

‘Back to Black’ shows you how the world is and why, it gives you the historical and social background knowledge to understand how white people and the West have become who and what they are today, which is where ‘White Fragility’ comes into play. That books shows you (especially if you’re white) how to take the first step towards change and how to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy, imperialism, and racism. 

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