A thought experiment on our reading lives

I‘ve been in a serious writing slump over the last year or longer. I don’t know what it is. I joked with a friend that since I’ve been engaging and thinking more on Twitter that I’ve only been able to think in 240 characters at a time. It’s become a real problem.

But someone suggested seeing the micro-writing I’m doing on Twitter as small, rough drafts—pieces of thinking, some scrappier than others, that I might be able to reflect upon, cobble some thoughts together, and then explore a bit deeper. A few days ago, I posted a thread reflecting on the diversity of my own reading life, so I want to include those thoughts and expand a little on them here.  

In the last few years, I’ve been thinking more more deeply about the texts we choose to include in our curriculum. When I first started teaching, I didn’t think about curricular choices beyond whether or not students seemed engaged with the books we were reading—and at the time, engagement meant to me that students “liked” the book. If students “liked” a book, I considered that a “win.”

Of course, now I realize that there are all sorts of problems with that thinking. Focusing on students liking a book—on their emotional response—doesn’t address the problem when what students like might be problematic (an extreme example would be if a student said he really liked reading something like Mein Kampf). And seeing student responses to reading as a “win” implies an adversarial relationship that often centers teacher-directed practices versus a student-centered classroom.

As I’ve continued to teach, though, I’ve been thinking about the curriculum through new lenses. I’ve made more time for independent reading, because if I see building a lifelong love—or at least appreciation—for reading as any part of my job as a teacher, then I need to give students time, access, and opportunities to engage with books that they choose for themselves.

My hope, too, with independent reading is that students who might not otherwise see themselves in the required curriculum may have an opportunity to find themselves through choice reading. I’ll never forget when one of my Chinese American students looked around at the two dozen or so books I had on display during Asian Pacific American month say, “I never knew there were so many books written by Asian American writers.”

But the thing is, students— especially students of color—shouldn’t have to look for themselves only in choice reading and not in the the regular curriculum, which has been traditionally dominated by White, often male, authors and characters. This sends the message that these writers and the experiences they might reflect in their works are optional reading, while works in the traditional canon are important enough to be required. In other words, they might need “these” writers to be well-educated but other voices aren’t necessary.

And so on Twitter, I suggested this thought experiment:

A thought experiment: think about all the books you’ve ever read — for academic purposes or in your personal life, from the pictures books read to you to the books you read now. How long would it take to read enough books by POC to match the number of White authors you’ve read?

As an English major in college, I took every multicultural literature class offered. When I read WEB DuBois’s concept of ‘double-consciousness’ everything clicked. I knew what he meant. I continued to read as much as I could by authors from marginalized communities.

All of this is to say that it still wasn’t — still isn’t — enough. And I am someone who has actively sought out a diverse reading experience. For every book I’ve read by a POC, I’ve read at least 3-4 by a White author. And perhaps that’s a conservative estimate.

And if I consider all the media I consume? The newspapers, essayists, film directors, television writers, producers, song writers, and so on? I’m not sure I’d like the answer. And again, I’m someone who has recently been paying attention to these things.

So why does any of this matter? It’s the content of the material not the color of one’s skin that’s important, right? The problem is that this colorblind approach fails to recognize the ways in which POC and White artists are shaped by race and racism.

That’s not being divisive to say that; it’s fact. When we continue to listen to the voices of one group, to continue to see the world through the eyes of one particular gaze, we also adopt, consciously and subconsciously, all the values that go with it.

And this is as true for POC as it is for White people. For some of us, that has resulted in marginalization; for others, a sense of centeredness without even realizing it. Both leave us broken and blind.

So I am trying in my own life to fix that, by being more conscious and intentional about all the media I consume: the books I read, the podcasts I listen to, the films I spend money to watch, the essayists I follow, and in the classroom, the mentor texts I share with students.

And what I’ve found is that when I’ve opened my eyes to the points-of-view of others, my own personal world has expanded. My own sense of the possible, my sense of shared humanity has expanded. Living intentionally in the perspectives of others has been an experience in humility.

A few things I want to add as I reflect and unpack a little more:

While I say that I’m someone who tried to find “mirrors” (Bishop 1990) for myself in the literature I read, the truth is, I could have done a better job. As someone who felt a pressure to “fit in”—especially as one of only a handful of students of color, and AAPI students, in most of my elementary and middle school years—I internalized the need to assimilate. And in my reading, that meant reading (and valuing) predominantly White authors. (I reflect a little on that experience here in this post.)

But as much as I loved all my English teachers (it’s one of the reasons I became one, after all), I think they could have done a better job, too. They could have been more intentional at guiding me, and my classmates, toward texts that not only would have reflected my own experiences, but all the experiences of a diverse, multicultural America and world. I think or hope that they would agree, and if they are still teaching, that they would have changed their practices as they perhaps became more sensitive to a systemic lack of representation in ELA curricula.

As I write above, once I started auditing my reading life, I also began to look more closely at all the media I consume. As much as I loved the show Friends when it first aired, for example, I can’t help notice how not diverse the show is, particularly for a show that is set in one of the most diverse cities in the world. As much as I was #TeamLuke in Gilmore Girls, the small-town life of Stars Hollow and witty banter between Lorelei and Rory that I was consuming  reflected a very privileged lifestyle. While watching these shows for their entertainment and escape value was important, I can’t help wonder how being entertained or escaping into the worlds that these shows reflected also allowed me to ignore the experiences of others, especially those already underrepresented in the media and marginalized by society.

(As an aside and if you’re interested, I recommend listening to the Slate podcast, “Pre-Woke Watching,” that looks at problematic favorites.)

Some might think it unfair to criticize these shows—or my English teachers—for not knowing better, for seeing and representing the world through narrow rather than inclusive lenses. Diversity and equity seem to be issues that are more important today than they were “back then.” But I chose Friends and Gilmore Girls on purpose, not only because they are two shows that I watched in their entirety, but also because they are relatively contemporary. And I could name any number of television shows on air right now that reflect similar issues.

And some might simply say, then don’t watch those shows, or don’t read those books. Watch and read what you want. That might be a fair point for television shows (or maybe not if/when shows become cultural conversations—i.e. will Ross and Rachel ever get together?—and participation in these conversations requires, at the very least, familiarity). But for language arts curriculum where books are required? Where most high school teachers require some books but not others? This is a fair and necessary point. I go back to a point in the thread I posted: “When we continue to listen to the voices of one group, to continue to see the world through the eyes of one particular gaze, we also adopt, consciously and subconsciously, all the values that go with it. And this is as true for POC as it is for White people. For some of us, that has resulted in marginalization; for others, a sense of centeredness without even realizing it. Both leave us broken and blind.”

I’ve been reading and learning a lot from Dr. Ali Michael’s Raising Race Questions. What I appreciate in her inquiry about racism is how she frames, very clearly, how racism is a problem for all of us, not just people of color:

Racism has a fracturing effect on individuals and communities, and we cannot repair these fractures without really understanding how racism functions, both inside and outside of us. Signs of this brokenness can be seen in the strain of cross-racial relationships, the ways that segregation and inequality begin to seem normal, and the internalization of stereotypes that keep us from understanding one another.

If racism leaves us all broken, shouldn’t we all be invested in addressing this problem? Shouldn’t we all be reading more widely? Talking more honestly? We’re generally uncomfortable talking about race and racism because we’ve been socialized not to do so. But how can we fix a problem when we can’t or don’t talk about it?

For the most part, fellow teachers responded positively to my original thread, with some acknowledging the ways in which their own reading lives have been limited and the impact that’s had on their own experiences. If you haven’t already, please read Sherri Spelic’s beautiful and thoughtful response. I’ll just quote a small piece here:

I second your claim that we adopt the values that come along with reading mainly through the dominant gaze. I’ve been very good at assimilating into the dominant culture. My reading choices over decades have reinforced and bolstered that process. And maybe this is what I woke up thinking most about: The way I read, which naturally bleeds into the way I write, is a function of how those efforts have been rewarded – as a student, colleague, employee, and friend. Since my social circles over decades have been comprised of mainly well-educated middle class white people, the language and literary habits I have cultivated reflect that participation. As a kid, I was told by my Black neighborhood friends, “You talk like a white girl.” They were correct. I suppose in my pursuit to fit in even better as an adult I learned to “read like a pretty smart white guy.”

Sherri’s whole piece is wonderful, so if you have some time, please read.

There were, of course, a few dissenters, whose criticisms I’d also like to address. But that will be in my next post since this one seems to have gone a little longer than I intended. When that’s ready, I’ll update with a link.

In the meantime, this seems like a good place to share what’s in my reading stack right now. So here are some of the books I’ve either finished recently, I’m currently reading, or I’m reading next.:

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English teacher. Writer. Reader. Photography hobbyist. Daughter of immigrants. Wife to best friend. Mom to three Jedi-in-training. She/her.

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