A Reading Opportunity

Content Note: This post is authored by Jess, the director of the Women’s Center. I am a white cisgender queer woman. This post is a reflection about my reading list which is informed by my race, gender, and sexual orientation. Upon reading this, the reading opportunity that presents itself to you may look differently than mine. We all have different salient identities which provide us an opportunity to shift our dominant perspective. I hope you’ll find your own opportunity to include new or expanded voices into your 2021 reading.

If your end of December timeline was anything like mine, you might have seen a lot of screenshots of your friends’ Goodreads 2020 Year in Books summary (see some of mine below). I noticed an uptick of these posts from previous years. I mean, we were (are) in a pandemic, which presented the opportunity for many of us to read a lot more last year (I read twice as many books as I did in 2019!). There was an excitement to many of these posts – a “look how many books I read vibe. I want more! What recommendations do you have?!

As I PANned (a mnemonic device that stands for “Pay Attention Now” which is the act of intentionally observing and noticing behaviors, comments, feelings, and patterns of treatment.) through many of the images of books, I noticed a pattern — a lot of the books were written by white authors. That is, of course, minus the anti-racism books that surged to the top of many readers’ lists this summer during the Black Lives Matter protests. It was a pattern I noticed in my own reading list a few years ago when I started keeping track of the books I read. The first year I wrote down each book I read was the same year I made a commitment to read only women authors. I can’t remember the article, or let’s be honest, the podcast I listened to, that urged such a commitment, but I know it had to do something to do about the publishing industries’ problem with sexism. So, that year I only read women authors.

But, I should really say, I had a year of reading mostly white women authors.

When I took stock of my list, I noticed it right away. Out of the 18 books I read that year, only 3 were written by women of color, more specifically, all 3 were by Black women authors. Ouch.

So, the next year, I set out to include more women of color into my reading list. Of the 28 books I read, 13 books were by women of color and 1 by a indigenous man. In just one year, by being a bit more intentional with the books I selected, I went from reading 17% authors of color to 50%.

In 2020, I set out to be just as intentional, with even a bit more of a caveat. In my 2 years of tracking, I noticed something else that required more specificity from me. Most of the authors of color I was reading were Black authors, but I had set out to read more authors of color, which means I was still missing the opportunity to read books by Latinx, Native & Indigenous, and Asian authors. One way I set out to address that was by using various cultural months like Latinx Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15th) or National Native American Heritage Month (November) to read authors whose identities reflected those months of celebration.

A pleasant, but unplanned, for opportunity also popped up early for me in 2020 when 4 of my first 7 books were written by LGBTQ authors and featured queer storylines. As a queer woman, I had this ah-ha moment where I realized I didn’t always have to read stories about straight people, followed by another ah-ha moment of wondering why it took me this long to figure that out. In 2020, I read 13 books by LGBTQ authors.

Representation matters. Whether it’s reading stories that honor our own under-represented identities or incorporating voices and stories that shift our dominant perspective, representation matters.

Here’s the catch, though. My unintentional reading list was exactly how the major publishing industry intended it to be. Here’s some critical truths outlined in this recent New York Times (NYT) piece. In a study highlighted by the authors of the article, researchers analyzed the race of authors’ books published between 1950 and 2018 by large publishers and widely available via public libraries and e-books. From the search, they were able to identify the race of 3,471 authors from a total of 7,124 books. Over the course of nearly 70 years, 95 percent of the books were written by white people. Looking specially at the year 2018 in the sample, 89% of the authors were white. Over the past decade, only 22 of the 220 books on the NYT Best Sellers list were written by people of color. This article goes on to present more damning evidence about the very white publishing industry to include racial pay disparity for book advances, tokenization of authors of color, and the number of white editors that dominate what authors get published. For more information about the publishing industry, this is another really important article to check out.

A screen grab from the NYT times article referenced above highlighting the authors of color on the NYT’s best seller list in relationship to white authors (the gray-scaled images) on the list.

Going back to my 2020 reading list, even with very intentional goals, I still veered off course. In November, the list of books I read were by predominantly white authors. I picked up a book randomly at an AirBnB house. An audio book that wasn’t on my list showed up as a “It’s Your Lucky Day” pick through my public library app. A Baltimore-based book finally was available via my que, and I didn’t want to send it back to begin waiting for it all over again. So, without really trying, I read back-to-back-to-back books written by white authors. In other words, without trying, when left to read what was readily available, I was not reading books by authors of color. When looking at the statistics outlined above, it’s clear to me why that would be the case. It wasn’t a mistake – the publishing industry is set up that way like so many of our other institutions that center whiteness, heteronormativity, and the patriarchy.

A screen shot taken from the article I cited above that breaks down the diversity of people working in the publishing industry in 2019.

The industry is set up that way, so how will you push back? Check out lists on Goodreads like The ZORA Canon: The 100 greatest books ever written by African American women or Diversity in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Pick an author to read during this year’s cultural celebrations like Black History Month (February – that’s this month!!) and Pride Month (June). You might also want to expand the list to include months like Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April) by reading a book by a survivor or reading an author with a disability during National Disability Employment Awareness Month (October). Consider reading books from international authors and see if you can find one that interests you from a woman translator. Follow #bookstagram influencers of color like @Lupita.Reads on Instagram and go down a rabbit hole of all the other folks she mentions in her posts and follow them. Don’t just track your books via Goodreads since their platform doesn’t provide an easy way to keep track of the identities of authors (see my very basic tracking system below). Think about the identities you don’t have to think about whether it be ability/disability, religion, nation of origin because your identities privileges you in such a way that you do not need to think about that identity. Go out and find authors and stories that invite you to consider those identities and experiences in new ways

Here’s how I kept track of my 2020 reading list. Different color dots or dashes helped me stay accountable to the different kind of authors and stories I was reading.

A final thought. I originally had the title of this reflection called “A Reading Challenge,” but I decided it was worth reframing as an opportunity. I hope as you consider the ways you expand your reading lists (and for that matter, your tv watching and podcast listening) as something you get to do. Embrace is not as something you have to do, like it’s some chore, but as an opportunity that will allow you to grow.

So, what’s on your list? Comment below or share some of your favorites by visiting the Women’s Center on our social media platforms. Happy reading!

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