If there is anything I’ve learned from the backlash against reading authors who aren’t white men, it is that people have a fairly simplistic view of what equality looks like. According to the commenters who think it’s horrible that I’m taking two years to correct a reading imbalance that has persisted for two decades, including one of the members of The Secular Round Table, I’d be better off and more egalitarian by continuing to read mostly or even only white male authors as long as I never consciously discriminated against or in favor of authors based on their race or gender.
Frankly speaking, I see that as ludicrous. It would be unfair of me, however, to not allow for anyone of that persuasion to proffer an alternative. So here’s your chance, if you think me reading selectively for two years is a bad thing: What ought I do instead?
PrototypeAtheist at The Secular Round Table responded to my Daily Dot op-ed. To respond to his points:
- The title of my op-ed, “Is it time to stop reading books by white men?”, was not of my choosing. Additionally, the answer to the title that was posited in my piece is not a “Yes, never ever read a thing written by a white men henceforth forevermore.” It’s a lot more nuanced than that.
- Discriminatory behavior does not have to be conscious to exist. Just because the PrototypeAtheist believes that he does not discriminate against women and/or people of color in his reading does not mean that his reading history will not reflect that bias. It probably does, just like that of most people. That it so reflects a societal, built-in bias that leads to this common outcome, as I discussed in my op-ed. You don’t have to actively discriminate in order to discriminate. Discrimination is a thing that happens as a result of an unfair system.
- Countering unconscious bias with conscious action is not ironic or hypocritical. It is a recognition of the realities of the situation, which is that we live in a society that is already biased.
- White male authors’ livelihood will not be significantly harmed by a few people not reading them for a year or two or some people choosing to diversify their reading habits in other ways.
- That “Affirmative Action” takes away from “deserving” cisgender heterosexual white men in order to give to non-male and/or non-white people based merely on those facts is a frankly disgusting claim. There are non-male and/or non-white people who are just as deserving and just as qualified. Their advancement has been hindered by the systemic as well as unconscious bias that is endemic in our society. I want to be part of that, not reinforcement of the status quo.
- No one is being forced to do anything. PrototypeAtheist is free to indefinitely read nothing but white male authors if he so chooses. I am choosing differently.
- Ideally, yes, who the author is as a person won’t matter. We do not live in a world where who you are doesn’t matter, however. Pretending we do and going along with the biases built into the system is not a noble and egalitarian approach, it’s one that reinforces extant biases.
- For the next two years, I am choosing both books that I would like to read and books that others have recommended to me with a focus on non-male authors this year and non-white authors next year. How that is “vindictive” after twenty full years of mostly reading white male authors, and many years to come that will include many books by white male authors, is beyond me.
As for potential courses of action, here are the possibilities, as well as outcomes, I can see for my reading habits.
Continue Reading Without Anything Resembling Conscious Intent
For twenty years, my reading habits were dictated not by anything as noble as the unbiased, merit-based system some claim it was. I didn’t pick up and examine every single book that exists in the world and then decide, based on its relative merits, whether or not to read it. Instead, what I read was dictated by what I stumbled upon via schoolwork, browsing featured titles at the school and public library, citations within books I’d already read, LibraryThing recommendations for similar books to what I’d already read, mentions made by peers and teachers, NPR specials, and the religious worldviews I held (or, later, lack thereof). In other words, all aspects of my life, chosen or not, influenced what I ended up reading.
If I’d continued to read that way, I’d have been unlikely to change the patterns in my reading. The majority of the authors I’d read would be white male authors, neatly aligning with the biases in society and in the publishing industry. I would have allowed the biases built into society and transmitted to me via various institutions to dictate who I read. Needless to say, this outcome is not the one I’d prefer.
Continue to Read What I Already Was Reading, But with Additions
In this scenario, I would have continued to read what I did as described in the prior scenario, but also would have made an effort to obtain and add in authors who weren’t of the kind I usually read.
This isn’t a bad choice, and one that others have made in lieu of more extreme challenges, but it really wasn’t for me. First off, I already have lots of books by authors who aren’t white men in my reading queue. Secondly, since my spare time is limited and I can be a stubborn creature of habit when overwhelmed, I’d likely default to familiar authors instead of the ones I’d added, making the reading a chore instead of a pleasure. Lastly, I have full, free reign over what I read (I’m not in school nor am I currently part of any sort of reading group), so I am not in any way obligated to make exceptions for any reason.
I’d imagine that, if I were to go with this choice, I’d read a few authors outside my usual but not many.
Read Selectively for a Short While
In this scenario, I would spend a year reading non-male authors and a year reading non-white authors exclusively. This is the path I have chosen that has led to the controversy at hand.
The short-term outcome I see is that I will expose myself to new authors and acquire new favorites, but also fall behind on some of my favorite white male authors. In the long term, I will automatically read more diverse authors thanks to the jump-start from 2015 and 2016; I won’t have to exclude white male authors to read authors who don’t fall into that group.