In today's political climate, accusations of racism have become just as, if not more, inflammatory than actual racist behavior. Though racism persists, we have successfully attached so much stigma to the words "racist" and "racism" that we all recoil instinctively at the thought of such words being used to describe our own conduct. But given the pervasiveness of racial discrimination and prejudice to this day, there's no aspect of life that isn't colored by racism -- often structural or subconscious racism, making it all the more difficult to confront or stamp out. Literature is no exception, as we well know; as much as we'd like to think of books as little meritocracies, literary success tends to flow toward white writers, particularly men. This sort of inequality arises from certain big decisions, such as a major review's failure to cover the releases of books by non-white authors, but also from many small ones, like individual readers repeatedly choosing to buy, read and recommend books by white writers. Are our own personal tastes in literature perpetuating inequality? And are people judging us for it?
Recently, over at Book Riot, Swapna Krishna pondered the awkward feeling of realizing you’re not liking a book by an author of color. “What if I didn’t like [Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah]?” she wondered. “What would it say about me? Or [...] what would people think it said about me?” Krishna put her finger on a rarely acknowledged raw nerve found in many modern readers: It’s deeply uncomfortable to anticipate people reacting to your literary taste with charges of racism, and no less uncomfortable to view yourself as a possible racist.
It feels unfair that we should have to guard ourselves against this aura of racism whenever we say something as innocent as “I didn’t enjoy Americanah.” Though I personally adored Americanah, as did Krishna, no book that I’m aware of is universally loved, and all readers have idiosyncratic tastes and proclivities that help us form opinions on what we read. We might have any number of reasons for disliking Americanah, and racism is only one of them, right? This lets us off the hook too easily, however; though racial prejudice is not the only reason we may dislike a book by a writer of color, it is a factor that can influence us so imperceptibly that we may not realize it -- making it all the more difficult to guard against.
Very few of us consciously reject books because of the color of the author. The marginalization of non-white authors tends to happen more insidiously, when readers feel they “can’t relate to the characters” or find the racial themes “heavy-handed” or “not universal enough.” If specific racial issues portrayed in the book do not affect the reader's own group, the reader may find the depiction of them in fiction to be jarring and alienating. Many readers may vaguely assume the book is of low quality if the author does not look like Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens, like so many men (and some women!) I've known who claim not to be sexist but derisively call Jane Austen books "chick lit" despite her status as one of the most innovative and acclaimed novelists of her time. When this happens, readers may feel the urge to return to more comfortable reading, often of the whiter origin we’re used to, or simply books that don't challenge us to understand the experiences of minority groups to which we don't belong.
This is when that vague shame comes in handy. That shame is our conscience reminding us we should open ourselves up as much as possible to appreciating art that doesn’t reflect us or the dominant culture we’ve grown so accustomed to. We don’t want people to unjustly think of us as racist, but that fear itself is less important than the valuable gut check it provides -- “make sure you’re giving this a chance before you toss it aside.”
When I was in college, I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for a class. I didn’t like it. Defiant about my dislike of a recognized classic by a black author, I argued that I found it clunky, preachy, and dependent on unsophisticated symbolism. My right to reject the value of whatever book I chose seemed paramount, and I instinctively lashed out against the idea that my rejection of the book was racist in any way.
But in retrospect, I suffered from this myopic judgement as much as anyone. While, on a surface level, the book featured a number of instances of racial rhetoric and symbolism that seemed overly blunt, I hadn’t bothered to pay closer attention to the subtler mechanisms working underneath. Fascinating, subversive elements of the book, like its caustic but self-questioning narrator with his simultaneously shrouded and intimately exposed identity, had mostly escaped me. Even the “heavy-handed” symbolism and “harsh” rhetoric I’d deplored as over-the-top had a value I didn’t recognize. Some issues warrant rage and cris de coeur, and the legacy of slavery and systemic racism are among them. Listening to these outbursts without an immediate withdrawal to a critical distance allows us a window into an experience we too rarely see in literature. I wanted to insist on my American right to free opinion, and in the process I missed out on challenging myself to enjoy and understand a book that departed from the almost entirely white Western tradition of my experience.
It's possible, of course, that I could have tried strenuously to appreciate Invisible Man and failed. Perhaps the particular strengths of the book were not those I tend to value as a reader. And, obviously, not all books by authors of color succeed (indeed, many books by all authors are not good). Sometimes we’ll read a book by a non-white writer and find it actually fails as a work of fiction, or simply that, despite open-mindedness and commitment, we simply can’t get into the book. All readers have some books that they don’t care for, regardless of the critical consensus.
More forces are at work, however, than simply taste and quality of writing. Publicity, word of mouth, book reviews, and ingrained social expectations about what a great author looks like (hint: usually white, male, and middle-to-upper class), as well as myriad other factors, influence our reading choices and our inclination to approve of what we do read. These factors, which are all advantageous, for the most part, to white establishment-friendly authors, have no less sway over our literary tastes than personal idiosyncrasy. The white male canon we read forms our ideas about what good literature is and who writes it, and the white male literary establishment tends to promote more of the same. No reader is immune from these taste-shaping forces.
Given the many fingers on the scale in favor of white authors, we as readers need some counter-pressure not to simply stick with reliably white, mainstream writers, but to open ourselves to appreciating a diversity of voices, perspectives, and writing styles. That pressure may come in the form of a niggling fear that our instinctive distaste for a book by a non-white author will make us seem racist. Or, even deeper, a fear that this dislike reveals that we actually are racist. This fear is not comfortable, but it’s useful.
Readers have no obligation to love, or even like, every book they read. I do think, however, that we should give them all the fairest chance we can. After all, that means giving ourselves a fair chance at enjoying different styles of writing, at hearing a variety of narratives and understanding more about the experiences of those unlike us -- in short, giving ourselves up to the joys of reading. And, just as importantly, it means giving marginalized authors the seat they deserve at the table.
So, no, you’re probably not racist for not liking every book you read by a non-white author. But why not embrace that fear? Though it’s not a pleasant feeling, it serves a valuable purpose for all readers. It’s a reminder that we all need to make an effort to appreciate the unfamiliar and to keep our minds open. And if you’re tempted to avoid this whole issue by avoiding books by non-white writers, remember: The more of these books you read, the more you’ll grow in understanding as a reader -- and the more you’ll see which authors of color you love and which simply aren’t for you. Sometimes the only way to assuage fear is to embrace it.