Year In Review: 2020 Anti-Racism Reading Group

This year, our lab formed an Anti-Racism Discussion Group and read a series of books to broaden our perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion. We met monthly for discussions, and learned a lot from the books’ authors and from one another. If you’re interested in our reading list, we’ve listed each book (with a few words about its contents) below. We’re also happy to share our discussion prompts and more detailed thoughts on request.

Summer 2020 Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney
We chose this book as our summer book club reading, and found it to be an illuminating discussion of a number of issues surrounding the intersection of the Black experience and the American outdoor/environmental movement. This book had a different writing style from our normal scientific (or popular science) fare, but we learned a great deal about the importance of who controls the narrative, how history impacts feelings of safety in nature, and the systematic exclusion of Black people from the American outdoors.

August 2020 How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi (Discussion leaders: Laura, Alexandra, and Ferdinand)
We kicked off our anti-racism reading group with this important and insightful text. Kendi’s work is widely read (and widely recommended) for a reason: His self-examination throughout the narrative helped his message resonate with each of us as we evaluated our own actions and asked how we could become more actively anti-racist. Among the points that resonated with us were Kendi’s explanation of the origins of race as a social construct, his metaphor of water flowing into buckets at different rates for the legacy of inequity caused by institutionalized racism, and his description of the vital importance of Black communities.

September 2020Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think and Do by Jennifer L. Eberhardt (Discussion leaders: Raine and Veronica)
Seeking deeper understanding of the implicit biases that can shape our actions and decisions, we turned to Biased to understand the social psychology of racism and other biases. While some of us felt the book could have been more critical of institutional racism, we found that the case studies Eberhardt used really resonated with us. We also appreciated the discussion of how shared experiences can break down implicit biases, but only under certain circumstances. 

October 2020Voter Suppression in US Elections, a transcript of a discussion between Stacey Abrams and others (Discussion leaders: Gabe and Michelle)
This was an incredibly timely choice given that the US election was right around the corner when we held our discussion. (We applaud the members of our lab who phone- and text-banked to encourage voter turnout around the country!) Yet it was also a painful and frustrating read because it highlighted the really blatant ways in which government policy has been used to suppress Black voters in particular. The first half of the book is a transcript of a panel discussion on the topic: Although some of us needed to adjust to this different style of text, the personalized nature of the conversation and details shared really helped bring the message home. The book ends with a compilation of relevant articles that add context to the transcribed discussion.

November 2020The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (Discussion leaders: Holly, Laura, and Ean)
Our previous readings had highlighted the ways that racism is “baked in” to US policy, so we chose The Color of Law to learn more about this history. Rothstein’s thesis is that America’s current segregated state is not simply the consequence of individual (racist) choices, but rather is the outcome of systematic policy at both national and local levels. He draws on examples from across the US, including the SF Bay Area and New Jersey, hitting close to home for many of us. This was a good November read as it provided excellent fodder for Thanksgiving discussions with family members about the deep legacy these policies have left, including segregated neighborhoods and enormous wealth gaps.

December 2020American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear by Khaled A. Beydoun (Discussion leaders: Chris and Ferdinand)
This year we prioritized learning about the Black experience, but we also recognized parallels in the inequities and biases faced by other races and religions. So, we ended the year by reading about Islamophobia in the USA. Many of us found this book more difficult to read than our previous choices, and asked ourselves whether this was shaped by our own unconscious biases. We learned a lot from the book’s description of the long history of Islamophobia in the US, including the post-Cold War political interest in casting Islam as a civilizational opponent (“clash of civilizations”), and the role some academics played in that. While we felt that the author’s language and examples could have been more nuanced, we recognized the divergence between fear of (and government policies to stop) religious-based terrorism, and the far greater threat of home-grown (e.g., white supremacist) terrorism in the United States.

An addendum from Holly: Overall, this year’s reading provided me with lots of opportunities for learning and growth. I’m grateful to our lab group for participating in this learning experience, especially the discussion leaders who provided weekly reminders of the reading schedule and crafted thoughtful discussion prompts for our monthly meetings. Some things that I think worked well:

  1. Choice of reading material — Among the books we read, I would especially recommend How to be an Anti-Racist as an entry point to the subject matter and The Color of Law as an excellent summary of racist (to use Kendi’s, and our, definition) legal policies in US history.
  2. Paired discussion leadership — Rachel Germain told me about an equity discussion group (BREWS at the University of Toronto), and emphasized the importance of paired discussion leaders. We found that working in teams was a good way to not just share the work of organizing the month’s discussion, but also feel supported and have a “gut check” when dealing with sensitive topics.
  3. Use of small-group discussions — We spent most of our hour-long Zoom meetings in small (3-4 person) breakout rooms, discussing prompts from the discussion leaders and taking notes on a Google Doc shared across all groups. At the end of the hour, we’d return to the large (10-15 person) group to debrief. As all classroom instructors know, this provided a more intimate setting where everyone’s voice could be heard, as well as integration at the end to highlight the various topics each group discussed.
  4. Defraying costs and emphasizing that participation is voluntary — There are lots of barriers for entry in our community: We didn’t want money to prevent participation here. We set up a small lab fund (via Visa gift card) that people could use anonymously to purchase copies of each month’s book (and often found free copies through UCSB’s library system). And because the subject matter resonates with each of us in different ways, we didn’t mandate participation, and took care to be respectful of one another in discussion.