A Racial Equity Screen for Book Clubs

By David Pon

Everyone I know seems to be in a book club these days. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, my friends are erudite, sophisticated lovers of their local, independent bookstore. And few things can beat the isolation of shelter-in-place like a good book followed by a thoughtful discussion with one’s friends.

However, books have power. Choosing a book without putting some thought into the dimension of racial equity raises the possibility of causing harm. Depending on the choice we make, books can perpetuate unconscious bias as well as economic inequality. Our choices matter, and so do the books we select. The current moment, like so many moments, calls upon us to show solidarity in support of Black lives. Therefore, I invite you to ask these three questions when choosing your next book:

  1. Has the author perpetuated anti-Blackness? If they have said or done things to perpetuate anti-Blackness, have they since worked to repair the harm they have caused?
  2. Whose story are they telling? Is this story appropriative?
  3. Where can I purchase this book? Can I support a local, independent, and Black-owned bookstore by buying this book?

When your club is discussing which book to read next, put each proposed book through these equity screens. You may find it helpful to do the research and screen the books before the conversation. 

To the first point, reading has a profound impact on the way we think. If an author has a history of anti-Black bias, their written words can carry that bias as well. This bias can show up in subtle ways which can over time shape our own opinions and normalize anti-Blackness.

To the second point, a pattern exists of white authors profiting from telling non-white people’s stories. This behavior falls into a wider pattern in which a white person takes something desirable that belongs to a non-white person, such as their fashion, art, music, or literature, and uses it to personally enrich themself. Please don’t reward this behavior.

To the third point, Black-owned businesses face myriad challenges other businesses don’t, and Black-owned bookstores are no exception. Consider the history of discriminatory bank lending practices, for one. Centuries of institutional practices such as these have contributed to the racial wealth gap we see today. If you can, please show Black-owned bookstores some love.

If you decide to introduce this screen to your book club, thank you for taking a tangible step toward building a more equitable society. Do you have any suggestions for other ways that book clubs can be spaces that affirm the importance of racial equity? Let us know.