Reading – what a wonderful activity, yes? Reading is important to how we explore new ideas, deepen ideas we currently have, not to mention deepen our faith as Christians. But sadly, even here, what we read – and more specifically how we choose what we read – can just as easily be a tool of white supremacy, and the forces of this world that seek to keep us divided up and primed-up. Marissa Becklin, MDiv sudent at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, shares her personal epiphany of how even something so simple as her personal reading choices entrenched her biases and privilege, and what she is doing to address it. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I love reading.
I have loved reading for as long as I can remember—as a child I used to stay up late (long past when my parents had thought I had gone to bed) in order to finish the book I was currently immersed in. At that young age I read to hear the stories of others, to learn about their experiences, their joys, their challenges—to feel connected to others in a way that felt somehow more vulnerable and real than the interactions that I watched adults around me engage in with one another. Reading was a way for me to seek understanding—it was a way for me to practice listening.
Today, as an adult, I still love to read. I enjoy all sorts of genres, and benefit greatly from hearing about the world through the eyes of another. Reading has become a spiritual practice for me during seminary—when I am overwhelmed, exhausted, bored, and am about to turn to my phone, computer, or TV, I turn instead to a book. When people I am friends with find out how much time I spend reading, they are often astonished—they wonder how I find the time, and sometimes imply that my time spent reading must equate to a habit of laziness. In fact, reading is not a silly habit that I need to actively make time for in my life—it is a practice of quiet time and reflection that I depend on in order to function holistically. Through hearing the stories of others, I feel closer to God.
But as a white, cisgender, heterosexual woman, born in the United States, who grew up middle-class, if reading is my spiritual practice and my reading list only privileges the voices of those who have been historically privileged, I am worshiping the false idol of white supremacy instead of God.
I have been guilty of this on so many occasions—of reading books primarily by white authors, by male authors, by US authors, by straight authors, by cis-authors. Of, as a student, buying into the narrative handed to me in a public high school in Iowa that the “literary canon” is made up of white men because they “write the best stories.” Of tending only to see or perceive as esteemed and worthy those authors who the narrative of white supremacy names as esteemed and worthy. Of letting the voice of white supremacy ring in my ear in the stories that I chose to read.
As summer begins in the northern hemisphere, this is the season of blog posts about summer reading list recommendations.
Though it is not shocking, many of the posts that I see pop up on my Facebook page are lists of white authors, or are fluffy stories deemed appropriate for ‘reading on the beach.’ These are lists of books to help privileged folks deny the pain of the world, avoid the reality of oppression that they participate in, and ‘escape from it all.’ The ability to ‘escape from it all’ in books is a sign of privilege. The ability to, in one’s free time, choose not to think about the hardships that others face (and the ways in which many benefit from that hardship), is a sign of privilege. It reminds me of what a white congregant once told me when we were talking about Islamophobia in the United States during an adult education session—“Do we really need to talk about this? I don’t come to church on my day off to get bummed out.”
This existence in a literary vestige to privilege brings me no joy. As I continually reevaluate my reading habits and watch for sinful patterns in my choice of books, I ask myself the question—why do I read?
Do I read to feel good about myself?
To ‘get away from it all’?
To deny reality?
The answer is no.
I read to hear the stories of others.
I read to listen—to hear what another person sees in this world, to seek understanding. I read to hear in someone’s own words about their history, their experiences, their life. I read to feel closer to others, and subsequently to feel closer to God, and when I read only or primarily the voices of those historically privileged, I grant power to the idol of white supremacy. I sinfully ignore the voices of so many who have stories to tell, truth to speak.
In this sinfulness, I feel separate from God.
Hearing the stories of others, in all of their intricacies and complexities, makes me a more whole person. In the insidious world of white supremacy, the propagation of oppression and violent narratives about the ‘normativity’ of white culture depend upon all of us—all of God’s beautiful, unique, intricate people—not hearing one another’s stories. When we don’t hear one another’s stories, it becomes so easy to buy into false narratives of scarcity—to believe that we are in competition with one another, that our liberation is not interrelated and interdependent. The onus is on those who have privilege—on me, as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, married, Christian, U.S. citizen—to do the work of listening for the voices of those we have wrongfully and sinfully deemed unimportant or lacking in esteem.
The onus is on people with privilege to seek out the stories of those whose oppression they have wrongfully benefited from, and to amplify their voices.
So, during this season of book lists, why do you read?
Who do you read?