“Mindful of Race” by Ruth King

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Subtitle: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out

In the Introduction, Ruth King shares the effects of race on her own body and her own family as a Black woman living in the south of the US. Insight meditation has helped her manage the effects of racism, and she has created trainings that help others cure the heart disease of racism.

Part 1, Diagnosis, analyzes racism. Her writing is direct and clear. Here is how racism affects Black people. Here is how it affects white people. We have dominant and subordinated identities, like a white woman who is also chronically ill, or a Jewish person who passes as white. Here is how we can begin to get honest with ourselves and others about race.

Part 2, Heart Surgery, teaches the basics of mindfulness meditation. Here is how to invite the body to settle. Here are many specific phrases to say silently to ourselves or others in metta (kindness) meditation. For example, “When you feel deep sorrow, hopelessness, and despair, I will stay with you. I will breathe with you.”

Part 3, Recovery, gives tools for creating racial affinity discussion groups and making progress in dislodging racism from our hearts. Throughout the book, she gives examples of how listening deeply and making time for our emotional responses allows us to move through them and reach our vulnerable hearts.

Unlike The Inner Work of Racial Justice by Rhonda Magee which moves very slowly and seems to be trying to convince skeptical white people, this book lays out the truth and assumes people will do the work to absorb it.

Highly recommended.

Ruth King’s website with more about her Mindful of Race training program.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Inner Work of Racial Justice” by Rhonda V. Magee

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Subtitle: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness

Rhonda V. Magee is a Black woman law professor at the University of San Francisco. She has studied mindfulness in depth, and uses it to get through difficult conversations about race with students as well as live with ever-present microaggressions. She teaches mindfulness to help people pause before reacting, increase inner tolerance for strong emotions, and to stay connected with themselves and others.

The first half of the book very gently and slowly encourages the reader to admit that racism exists and might be part of their lives. This is the opposite of Layla Saad’s direct approach in Me and White Supremacy. I can see that different approaches work well for different people.

The strongest message of the book is that we need to stay in mindful, non-violent conversation with each other (and ourselves) about race. Not until the last chapter does she add a caveat about retreating from people who threaten violence. I would add a second caveat about people who are simply not listening or engaging in good faith. Most of her examples include students or workshop participants who have chosen to learn from her, or community members who have an existing motivation to stay connected.

With the addition of those caveats, I agree that we are all in the racist soup together, each learning at our own pace, and we can do our best to be kind to people who are not as knowledgeable as we are, just as more knowledgeable people continue to be kind to us. I wanted to see more about reaching one’s limits and reacting with anger and frustration. There is a place for that, as well as a lot of good work to be done in the world with mindful listening.

Highly recommended for people who are new to anti-racist work, or new to meditation, but not both. I think it would be difficult to learn both from a book at the same time. I have some experience with both and the pace felt slow, but I still got a lot from the book.

Meditations and articles at Rhonda V. Magee’s website

Available at Powell’s Books.

“You Don’t Say” by Nate Powell

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Subtitle: Collected Stories

Recommended to me by: a friend

This collection of short story out-takes in comic form was recommended to me for “Cakewalk,” about a white girl who dressed in blackface for Halloween, and “Like Hell I Will,” about the 1921 arson and massacre of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” a prosperous Black community. Tulsa race massacre on Wikipedia.

The Midwestern girl in “Cakewalk” is unaware of her transgression. She wants to be loved like Aunt Jemima, and doesn’t understand why the adults around her are horrified. No one explains it to her, even while she’s told to wash the charcoal off her face.

“Like Hell I Will” lays out the terrible, shameful history of the Tulsa race massacre. It is well-told and well-drawn, and at the same time minimized by its inclusion in this compendium of much less serious vignettes from white people’s perspectives.

Nate Powell is the illustrator for “March,” John Lewis’s autobiography in graphic novel form. That might be a better introduction to his work than this collection, which starts with comics drawing from his own life as a rootless young white man in the punk scene.

Available at Amazon.

“Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong

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Subtitle: An Asian American Reckoning

Recommended to me by: Jesse-the-k

Cathy Park Hong describes minor feelings as “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.”

In this frank memoir, she describes growing up in LA’s Koreatown in a Korean immigrant family, complex friendships in college, and finding her voice as an artist in conversation with other artists, interwoven with Asian American experiences of racism.

Patiently educating a clueless white person about race is draining. It takes all your powers of persuasion. Because it’s more than a chat about race. It’s ontological. It’s like explaining to a person why you exist, or why you feel pain, or why your reality is distinct from their reality. Except it’s even trickier than that. Because the person has all of Western history, politics, literature, and mass culture on their side, proving that you don’t exist.

Cathy Park Hong pulls off that tricky feat, asserting her own reality and showing us her life while also explaining what it’s like to be Korean in America for clueless white folks. Highly recommended!

Random House Books summary

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Gathering Moss” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Subtitle: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Recommended to me by: Reading Braiding Sweetgrass

A lyrical series of essays that weave together fascinating details about mosses and stories about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s life. She is an extraordinary storyteller.

Mosses are the most minimal plants. They survive by carefully funneling and holding onto water when it is available, and drying out without dying to await the next rainfall.

Mosses vary tremendously in shape and habitat. They match at a micro level the macro level of rainforests. Some mosses grow together with the old growth trees they drape along, and will not regrow if the moss is torn away. Some mosses persist along city sidewalks and buildings all over the world. Indigenous people use mosses where water absorbency is needed.

Highly recommended!

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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Subtitle: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Recommended to me by: Amy Bennett

A set of essays loosely tied together in chronological order, with themes of sweetgrass and braiding all the way through. Each essay braids together personal memoir, Native American (specifically Potawatomi) ways of living, and colonialist ways of living.

Potawatomi ways developed over generations as people saw what works to live in balance with nature, as a part of nature. Humans are considered the young ones, the newcomers, learning from their more experienced plant and animal family members.

Sweetgrass is harvested in specific ways. Not the first plant you find, because that might be the only one. Take only what you need, up to half of the plants there, either by cutting half of each bunch, or taking whole bunches. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Professor of Botany, and one of her PhD students showed in a set of careful experiments that sweetgrass thrives when harvested this way, and fails to propagate if it is left completely unharvested. Humans and sweetgrass have a cooperative, collaborative partnership.

White colonialists disastrously interrupted Native American ways of living by stealing Native Americans’ lands and pushing them into entirely different ecosystems, and by taking their children to residential schools and forcibly preventing them from speaking their own languages or practicing their spirituality. The Potawatomi people and other tribes are gathering together the fragments of what remains, and braiding them together anew.

The book ends on a hopeful note, that perhaps enough of us will turn toward collaborative, cooperative ways of living that we will not entirely destroy the ecosystems of this green earth. Fitting right in with that hope, the current Great Pause of this pandemic gives us time to consider what we want to add back in to our lives, and what we want to leave behind to allow cleaner skies, safer streets, and more sustainable lives.

I read this as an ebook, because that’s what I can get from the library in this time of pandemic. It’s an odd way to read a book so rooted in physical experience, and I would have much preferred to have a physical book in my hands. This is a long book that wants to be appreciated slowly, essay by essay, section by section, exploring how all the parts fit together to support each other.

Highly recommended!

Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘People can’t understand the world as a gift unless someone shows them how’ interview by James Yeh, May 23, 2020

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Uncomfortable Labels” by Laura Kate Dale

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Subtitle: My Life as A Gay Autistic Trans Woman

Recommended to me by: a friend

Laura Kate Dale’s detailed, matter-of-fact autobiography addressing the intersection of being trans and autistic, from early childhood into adulthood. She discusses why early signs of being both autistic and trans obscured each other so that she did not receive accommodations until she was diagnosed and came out in her late teens.

She does not flinch from difficult topics like depression, addiction, and suicidal feelings and actions, both in herself and in close friends. Much of the book is dark and depressing, but she ends on a positive note about her current life at age 26, with a great living situation, stable job, and fiancée.

Recommended for anyone who might be or know someone who is autistic and trans, or anyone who wants to know more about what that’s like.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“My Grandfather’s Blessings” by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.

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Subtitle: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging

Recommended to me by: Robyn Posin

Rachel Naomi Remen writes about wisdom, meaning, connection, grief, compassion, and how to live with authenticity in a series of vignettes from her life and the lives of her patients. She works with people dying of cancer, and their grieving survivors. Some stories are about her childhood conversations with her Orthodox Rabbi grandfather, a wise and gentle man. Some are about her own struggle with Crohn’s disease. She was a pioneer in medical school and in practice as a woman and someone living with chronic illness. She was a pioneer again talking about the mind/body connection and the need for healing rather than (or in addition to) curing people.

Many of the stories touched something in me and made me cry, perhaps out of longing for the kinds of connection and meaning she describes. I like that she says service is between equals, people recognizing and supporting the wholeness in each other, as opposed to helping or fixing, which requires one person to be less than another.

Recommended as a dose of wisdom and hope.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“To Become the Sun” by Ani Rose Whaleswan

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Subtitle: Natural, Living Metaphors for Truama, Healing and Spirit

Recommended to me by: Ani Rose Whaleswan. I’ve known the author for a long time online, and I contributed an essay to her collection We Have Come Far.

A lyrical, grounded, wise, hopeful book that shares Ani Rose Whaleswan’s connection to nature and positive metaphors for healing.

Each chapter explores a metaphor in depth and ends with questions to think about and a note about non-violence. The metaphors are: Mountain, Pearl, Unfolding Flowers, Stones, Compost, Hummingbird, Wave, Embers, and Shadow. The book is about healing rather than trauma, and while it discusses some of the effects of trauma, it does not have explicit traumatic material.

There are also a lot of quotes and references to other wise people’s work, including one of my favorites from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (see below). Unfortunately the quote is (presumably accidentally) misattributed to a white man. The book is double spaced and has not been professionally edited.

Highly recommended for new ways to think about the process of healing from profound trauma.

I first encountered this quote on the English AP exam and loved it so much I made sure to remember the author and title to find it later, even in the middle of taking the exam.

When god had made (the man) he made him all out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into a million pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another.—Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Available at Amazon.

“Bicycle/Race” by Adonia E. Lugo, Phd

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Subtitle: Transportation, Culture, & Resistance

Recommended to me by: Elly Blue

Adonia Lugo gives us both a warm memoir and a carefully researched overview of her anthropological study of racism in bicycling activism. She shares her background as a half-Mexican, half-white girl growing up in San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, her joyful involvement with bicycling as transportation while studying in Portland, and her direct experiences of racism and resistance as she pursued her PhD research. As part of it, she helped create the first cicLAvia in LA, where streets are closed to cars and opened to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Race and mobility are intertwined because we designed segregation into our built environments and how we police them, and racial equity in the distribution of public money isn’t a metaphor or a goal you opt into; it’s a legal obligation, thanks to the civil rights movement. I wasn’t pointing to the culture of white supremacy embedded in bike advocacy, policy, and planning because I wanted to cause trouble; it was about fulfilling the promise of our shared democracy.

She writes about the successive waves of colonization and conquest that shaped Southern California, the role of racism in people’s preference for private cars, selective police enforcement against people of color, and the reinforcement of white supremacy in the networks of people who set public policy. She writes about how her family’s loving support gave her the confidence to try to create change, and how she realized that entrenched systems were resisting her efforts.

Highly recommended! I read it a chapter or two at a time, with pauses to digest the information about the racist underpinnings of US culture and transportation.

Available at Microcosm Publishing.