Back in November 2016, I visited my good friend M at the University of Cambridge. It was two days after the American election and we were venting over chocolate crepes in a cozy cafe. Venomous words against US government teachers with a Republican agenda and voters blinded by religious intolerance spewed out as we sought therapeutic release along with our sugar high. Halfway through a rant on the moral depravity of certain politicians, we were interrupted by the man who had been sitting quietly next to our table.
Curtis, a former military man from North Carolina, was visiting UK universities for his daughter and could not help overhearing our conversation. Our reactions to the election drastically differed. As he asked a series of hot-button questions, M and I held our own, citing facts on refugee vetting and abortion rights. Most topics were typical ones we had mulled over and to which we had thought of responses many times. However, the topic soon turned towards race relations in America, with Curtis asserting that they’ve gotten worse over the years since Obama. To which M and I said that it’s actually just bringing to light many serious issues from which ethnic minorities have suffered since the beginning of American history.
It wasn’t until one incredulous question Curtis directed at me that I was truly thrown for a loop — “Do you really think that race affects how you live your life?”
I had to pause.
I mean, the grass is green. The sky is blue. People treat POC differently than White people. These are facts I’ve known my entire life. I gave a selection of anecdotes from my trusty file of everyday racist encounters and a few hard-hitting statistics of discrimination to round them out. It was, in the end, a civil conversation, but after we shook hands and parted ways, I knew that we had failed in convincing him that America is not colorblind.
Of course, it isn’t just in America that POC encounter racism. As people increasingly move across borders in the age of globalization, other countries are also becoming more multicultural. Since moving to Paris two years ago, I’ve noticed that the French seem even more hesitant and even extremely uncomfortable to acknowledge race and ethnicity in conversation. And yet French culture is much more explicitly racist, in a blasé, orientalist, 19th century, “oh-isn’t-this-curious” kind of way. Several French people seem to be perfectly fine with calling out “Asiatique!” when I walk by or pressing their hands together to bow to me while I sit on a cafe terrasse. At two separate banks, I’ve had to redo documents because the teller, while holding my American passport in her hands, assigned me a Chinese nationality in the database. It is nothing short of infuriating to have these experiences in France and for the state to say that race is not a significant category in social affairs (racial statistics are not taken on the French census).
When you live every day as a person of color, as a woman of color, it is impossible not to be aware of the multitude of ways in which race affects how society treats you and people who look like you. If you are a POC or other minority with a visible marker of otherness, you already know what I mean. But how can we convince skeptics of a truth about which the intricacies took an entire lifetime to understand? Maybe on a more basic level, how can we get them to even care to learn more?
In a development studies class I took this year, we discussed theories as to why violence has declined in the past century. Today’s society is not squeaky clean in terms of violence, but at least people have less tolerance grisly acts. It wasn’t too long ago that public duels (remember, “Hamilton”?) and taking your kid to see the weekly executions were a popular pastime (fun fact, the last guillotine execution in France occured in 1977).
Steven Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature that perhaps the rise of literature had something to do with it. The decline of violence and the ascent of literacy as well as of the popular novel coincided in Europe and America in the 1800s. So perhaps “putting yourself in their shoes” through reading first-person narratives written by POC can increase societal empathy towards the Other.
Thinking back to my encounter at Cambridge, I’ve been a healthy dose of cynical about Pinker’s theory for a long time. Maybe people can only empathize if they have the gene for it. Maybe people don’t even care to try. A quick scan on Goodreads reviews for books by hard hitters like Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith would show that some people just don’t care or understand why race is an issue, even after reading a first-person account of racism. When I read the condemning top comment on Jennifer Choi’s beautiful and relatable piece on her experience as an Asian-American in Paris, I was left wondering – are we even reading the same words? What role can literature play today for mending deep chasms in society? Can books still change minds?
But over the past few years, I’ve met people from all walks of life who were transformed by what they had read and lead their lives a little differently because of a book. Jamie, the librarian in Cairo, who after reading Everything I Never Told You insisted to the Egyptian storekeeper that, yes, even I the girl with “China-eyes” is American. The photo exhibition in the Danish Royal Library exploring Denmark’s colonial past in the West Indies which opened because of the influx of voices demanding deeper acknowledgement of Denmark’s role in slavery. I learned this from the Danish woman I met at Colson Whitehead’s talk at the Louisiana Literary Festival in Copenhagen. At the same festival, I heard Edouard Louis speak, the author of The End of Eddy, whose debut novel did for France what Hillbilly Elegy did in the States – spark a nation-wide debate on the working class, marginalization, and populism.
On a personal note, from books I’ve deepened my own understanding about the experience of other POC – enough to change my own perceptions. I remember the many conversations I’ve had with my fellow Asian-Americans who gushed with me over Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. They revolved around our excitement to discover that we share so much in common with our Black, Latinx, South Asian, and other brothers and sisters, and also deeper understanding of the many ways our experiences are not comparable. I’ve had time to reflect, digest, and discuss these nuances because written narratives allow for this space.
The work of making the color barrier visible to skeptics takes more than one conversation, and honestly, it requires more openness and vulnerability than most people can muster for strangers or even the fringes of our friend circle. A recurring challenge I have in these conversations is summed up best by Adichie in Americanah — “race doesn’t really exist for [them] because it has never been a barrier.” Reading forces the reader to come close to experiencing life where race is a barrier.
My encounter with Curtis at first left me disillusioned. But I will continue to believe that books can change viewpoints and actions. The act of reading can be an invaluable, personal, and lengthy exercise that allows readers to delve into sensitive topics at their own pace. A French saying I recently learned comes to mind – “petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid,” or “little by little, the bird makes its nest.”