reading beyond me

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If a white woman, a queer person of color, and a person who uses a wheelchair to get around all walk into the same store, their experiences are sure to differ. The white woman may receive a comforting smile from the security guard. The queer person may avoid holding hands with their partner. And the person who is the using the wheelchair may encounter shopping carts in the middle of the aisle that makes their shopping experience longer than it should be. All of this may seem small and even insignificant, but these constant interactions cause us to see the world differently than those who do not have them.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar and pioneer on critical race theory, introduced the concept of intersectionality to the field. Intersectionality describes how our different identities overlap and work together in determining how we experience the world, particularly when it comes to power, privilege, and oppression. Her 2016 TED Talk used intersectionality to explain why we remember the names of black boys and men who have been murdered by police, but not the names black girls and women whose lives ended the same way. Society has a frame for police violence against black men, and the stories of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner fit neatly in that frame. We don’t, however, have that frame for Aiyana Jones, Kathryn Johnston, and Yvette Smith. Intersectionality helps us create these frames and better understand the world as others do.

This is why diversity in publishing is so important. It invites different perspectives to the table and serves as an avenue for people who have very different lived experiences to share their stories, through truth and fiction, offering a glimpse of their lives to others. Chronicling diverse lived experiences bears witness to these experiences. But there’s still more to be done. More that we, as readers, can do.

As readers, and citizens of the world, we have a responsibility to understand the encounters others have as they navigate through society. Books allow us to peek into the world through the eyes of others, and they help us build frames to understand lived experiences that are foreign to ours. We have a responsibility to seek out these experiences and understand the world as lived by others. If we can’t see a problem, we can’t fix a problem. If we don’t understand oppression that differs from our own, we can’t act and transform the world into a place that is just for all.

World Book Day is a perfect time for us to challenge ourselves to read beyond our own worldview. Over the next eight months, I would love for you to join me in reading authors and characters who experience the world in different ways. Take note of their intersections and work to understand how those intersections make their lived experiences different from our own. Let’s enjoy stories outside of our normal frame of understanding. And let’s use these privileged glimpses into the lives of others to build frames that are diverse enough to hold new truths.

There are no rules per se, but here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Throughout school, we read lots of white men. Let’s see if we can avoid them with this challenge.
  • Identities overlap. Let them.
  • Fiction? Non-fiction? It doesn’t matter. Read across genre. Read what you like and enjoy.
  • Be mindful of the identities of the main characters as well. Is the author telling the story of someone who experiences the world as they do?
  • Feel free to add American to the racial and ethnic descriptors, but make sure you don’t read only American authors.

We have the responsibility to bear witness to the way people who don’t look like us, people who don’t love like us, and people who don’t confront the world like us experience the world. Let books be a tiny step in helping us do just that.

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