I recently announced something I’d decided on ages ago: That I’d exclusively be reading non-male authors in 2015 and non-white authors in 2016.
The moment of resolution happened when my horrified eyes beheld my reading record on gender. Not only were my percentages far less than 50/50 (favoring male authors) but also most of the female authors on record for me reflected books that I’d read as a child and younger teen. From the time I started university until now, I’d mostly read white male authors.
Furthermore, the works by the relatively few authors of color I’d read were on racial issues and the non-male authors I’d read were writings on feminism.
How did this happen to a voracious reader who graduated with a double degree in the Humanities, an area of study widely reviled as diversity-obsessed? The short answer is that I paid no attention to gender or race in my reading, and not caring is a recipe for bias in a world riddled with inequality.
How It Happened
I majored in English and Philosophy at university. My priorities in school were, in this order, to take the best philosophy classes I could, to have time to work, to graduate early, and to have four-day weekends if I could (i.e. take Tuesday-Thursday courses only). Though a few of my English lit classes included many authors of color and female authors, I chose most of them based on perceived ease as well as scheduling fit, not horizon-broadening. As for the Philosophy courses, to call the better-loved of my two majors “an extensive overview of white male thought” would be rather generous towards it.
I also deconverted from Islam during the spring and summer of my first year as a college student. I read a lot of atheist-authored evolutionary biology and psychology, skepticism, science, and atheistic philosophy — as in Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Shermer, etc.
Ignore It & It Will Go Away?
A common argument against discussing or taking conscious care when it comes to matters of race and gender is that calling attention to the issue will exacerbate matters. Why not focus on the common humanity we all share rather than our differences?
Unfortunately for the anti-victimhood brigade, that attitude does not accurately reflect the world in which we live. Seemingly “equal” and “unbiased” behavior doesn’t lead to equal and unbiased outcomes. Because of intrinsic biases, behaving as if equality were already acheived leads to the reinforcement of the status quo, which is certainly not equality for all.
Bias doesn’t magically correct itself when we ignore it in favor of pretending like all that matters is that we are human. If that were true, there would be a lot more balance in my reading history. If a voracious non-male reader of color like myself managed to read so few non-male and/or non-white authors, then active correction is the only solution.
Some Uncomfortable Ideas
Active correction does tend to make people uncomfortable. Just take a quick gander at the comments on another piece that makes the argument that I do. The idea of working proactively to correct an implicit bias stinks of “reverse discrimination” to most people. However, recognizing that biases can and often do exist without conscious motivation or realization is absolutely essential in working towards countering those biases.
In other words, I didn’t mean to discriminate in favor of white men, but that is what happened anyway, regardless of intent. If I’m going to be more egalitarian in my reading, I’ll have to counter my unthinking biases with thoughtful action.
Even More Uncomfortable Implications
As uncomfortable as it can be to admit you have biases and to actively work to correct them, the implications of letting the biases simply be are far more uncomfortable.
The issue, for me, is that non-men and non-white people are staggeringly underrepresented in my reading. I have spent over 20 years disregarding the gender or race of the people who authored my books and ended up reading mostly white male authors. That means either one of two things:
- That I have a bias in my reading and I’m interested in correcting it; or
- That there are few-to-no non-male and/or non-white authors worth reading.
Based on the reading I have done of authors who aren’t white men, I would say that the second notion is false. There are many non-male and/or non-white authors with fine books out there. It is on me to find them. If I don’t, I will continue in my implicit agreement with the second premise.
A Statistical View
Is it really so bad to take two short years to focus on perspectives other than the white male ones after focusing (unwittingly) on white male authors for so long? Given that I learned to read at age 3, and I’ll be 28 years old at the end of 2016, I will have spent 2 out of 25 reading years focusing on non-white and/or non-male authors. 8% of my active reading years is barely anything, let alone anything approximating equality.
Heck, even after entering the books that I already have that I will be reading for the next two years, I’ve yet to reach gender equality in my reading.