Family Book Club: How We are Talking About Race and Racism as a Family

The week the protests erupted across the US, I walked into my 16-year-old daughter’s room to check up on her. She was lying across her bed, glued to her phone, taking in the unfolding news on her social platforms (as our kids do). “What are you seeing?” I asked, expecting a curt answer. But she was eager to talk—and she was angry.

The world, as she saw it, was unjust. Nothing could change—she didn’t have trust in the current state of the government. She saw racism everywhere—in the form of police brutality against people of color as well as the xenophobic bullying she had experienced as a young Asian woman. (“Is there a difference?” I asked. “The only difference is I’m probably not going to get killed,” she said matter-of-factly.)

Our family book club is a start and if feels good to be taking this step together. (Cramer/Spencer family)

I listened carefully as she talked, not trying to dissuade or debate. This was not the time for Mom-splaining. At some point my husband and older daughter wandered into her room. What happened next was an extraordinary conversation about race and privilege—our own, yes, and how this has played out across both our country and our transracial family (my husband, my older daughter, and I are white).  I am ashamed to say that we had never talked about our differences so openly, and all of a sudden that felt like a huge mistake.

As we talked, a theme emerged: None of us were clear on what to do next, and simply being sad and angry wasn’t enough. We could protest and donate to worthy organizations, but neither of those actions, we felt, would get us closer to understanding the history, thinking, and experiences of people of color, or help us start having conversations about race and racism as a family.

Our Family Book Club is a way to help us have conversations about race and racism

When my older daughter, 23, mentioned the Black writer James Baldwin and my husband chimed in about a book he’d read about the history of whiteness, a path became clear: a family book club.

The assignment: Read a book by and/or about people of color and be ready to talk.  We started by drawing up a list of books, mostly pulled from our shelves (below). To be clear, it’s far from comprehensive. It is, simply, a start—and it feels good to be taking that step together. 

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (nonfiction)

Poetic and powerful, Baldwin’s 1962 book is, in part, a letter to his young nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. My older daughter said that reading this book made her question her comfort and helped her understand that American culture was born out of hatred and oppression, and the importance of confronting its legacy.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (nonfiction)

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Stephenson moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he took on death penalty cases, addressed bias and racism in the criminal justice system, and founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. This book details his work; a movie version of the book was released late last year, and it’s just as moving and intense.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (fiction)

Unflinching and searing, Whitehead’s followup to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad focuses on two Black boys at an abusive reform school in Florida. The book is tough to read but impossible to put down, with a jolting ending that stays with you.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo (nonfiction)

The subtitle says it all, and this thoughtful book lays out why. Reading this book was like being bumped off a well-worn track, providing perspectives on the Black experience that we had never fully considered. DiAngelo, a lecturer and professor with a deep grounding in racial and social justice, also provides an actionable path forward. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (fiction)

Technically young adult fiction, this book is about as grownup (and current) as it gets—it’s about Starr, a Black teen whose childhood friend is killed at the hands of the police, and the subsequent  impact on her family and community. This selection particularly resonated with my teen daughter, who loved Starr’s activism and perspective. As a mother, the book cracked me open. (There’s a movie version, too.)

Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power (both nonfiction)  

by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

In his poignant and beautifully written memoir, Coates expresses the reality of living in a Black body under the constant threat of racism. He reminds, powerfully, of the sheer privilege of whiteness. My husband also loved We Were Eight Years in Power, which grew out of a series of essays in The Atlantic and is a powerful and deeply researched look at mass incarceration, reparations, the Obama presidency, and other themes.

Note: We rare a reader-supported site and receive compensation from purchases made through some of the links in this post.

More to Read:

Students are Using Social Media to Talk about Racism in High School

Susan Spencer is the former editor in chief of Woman’s Day. She is the author of a book about kindness—When Action Follows Heart: 365 Ways to Share Kindness (Hay House), available at Amazon and B&N.

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