My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet

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Growing up in Miami, Cuban-American author Jennine Capó Crucet saw her ethnicity represented in every facet of her community. Having never been singled out for her otherness, she experienced many of the privileges afforded to most white Americans. Her race is simply rendered invisible by its prevalence. When she is suddenly immersed into affluent white America as a first-generation college student at a private university, she begins the painful journey of learning what it means to be an outsider and unlearning “whiteness” as the ultimate achievement.

As a college student, she finds little affirmation of belonging in an institution that was meant to help her reach her full potential. The more she advances in academia, the more she recognizes what it requires of her—to essentially erase her brownness in the process of molding herself into a model of white success.

Her poignant, unabashed writing goes beyond statistics about inequality and provides glimpses into her personal struggles—everything from ongoing imposter syndrome in her professional and personal life to choosing a suitable DJ for an interracial wedding. Her essays pick apart the flawed paradigm that shaped her own parents’ aspirations and her decisions as a young woman.

Crucet’s essay collection is not just a reflection on her upbringing and early career—it is a hand extended to all the young minorities in the U.S. who have had to change their name, their hair, their accents, and more, in an effort to thrive and advance in this world. It is a reality check for white Americans. It is a call to action for widespread systemic change, despite the fact that even the smallest acts of reform are often met with derision and defensiveness by the people who continue to benefit from and uphold the status quo.

 

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“If I stop paying close attention, academia can be a comfortable, recognizable place, one where I am encouraged to buy into the falsehood of a meritocracy that promises the American Dream to anyone willing to work hard. But I’ve come to see the American Dream for what it really is: a lie my parents had little choice but to buy into and sell to me, a lie that conflated working hard with passing for, becoming, and being white.”

Erosion: Essays of Undoing

What if beauty dwells in the margins of our undoing and remaking?

downloadErosion is a collection of essays depicting the ways that modern priorities and lifestyles have led to the spiritual, physical, and political erosion of communities in the United States. At the core of Williams’ melodic, impassioned writing is a deep connection to her homeland of Utah and an earnest empathy for all living beings. Written over the last several years, Williams examines environmental legislation and the political environment that enabled the gutting of national monuments and the auctioning of public lands to the Big Oil industry. These acts of aggression are emblematic of new incarnations of colonialism that deny indigenous sovereignty and the right of the American people to access wild spaces that are central to cultural identity and vitality.

Informed by her own journey from the Mormon church to a unifying “cosmic faith”, Williams unravels the delusions and misplaced priorities that led to the oppressive, consumerist culture that is threatening life-giving systems. Her stories encourage readers to embrace the entire spectrum of human reactions to the long-term and everyday tragedies we are living through—sitting with our sorrow and grief, remaining hopeful, and pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and normal to us in order to make progress.

Williams writes about the landscape not as a privilege to be cherished, but as the very lifeblood that enables us to flourish. To ignore its needs is to ignore our own during this precarious transition into ecological and political collapse. Erosion is both historical, and deeply personal—a glimpse into an individual’s heart as well as the collective consciousness of a nation.

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Not until we begin to understand the true costs of what we have lost and the pain we have inflicted on people and nature through the destruction of fragile landscapes and communities in the commodification and extraction of the Earth, can a healing between us take place. Our collective crisis of conscience and consciousness in this era of climate change is based on self-delusion, privilege, and our sense of entitlement, all of which continue to fuel the power and rapaciousness of our appetites. It is killing us.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

9780062413505_p0_v4_s1200x630Roxane Gay began this anthology in an attempt to unravel the nebulous concept of “rape culture”– to engage with the question, “What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence?” Ultimately, this piece became a place where diverse individuals across the gender spectrum could reclaim their own stories, free from expectations about what it means to carry the burden of trauma.

Gay and the contributing authors created a space where it’s okay to say, “It WAS that bad. It still is.” This anthology does not offer simple truths about sexual violence or a literary tonic for those scarred by it, but it does provide insight into why these kinds of stories are silenced and why every one of them matters. The authors, so far beyond vulnerable, offer readers the broken bits of themselves so that their experiences might become something more than a car crash everyone likes to observe in a most unhelpful way.

“I’m writing this so it can be a part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these, because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone.”

These stories are brimming with emotional chaos and contradictions, but together, the voices ring true in a kind of perverse harmony of pain and healing. Together, the survivors scream unapologetically that each of us matter, and this can’t continue. Every time someone musters the courage to speak up, every time we refuse to diminish our own pain for the sake of others, the Movement is that much closer to holding people accountable for the suffering they’ve inflicted and a little bit closer to a cultural revolution.

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“It’s time to pull out the scalpel and turn it around. Slash vents in the paper walls of this master’s house of heteropatriarchal colonialist mass hallucination that claims to be our reality. Give vent to our rage. Be bad. Dare to survive.” –So Mayer 

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

A1a-mCOkXRLFrom an outsider’s view, Wang’s identity stands apart from the common conception of someone with schizoaffective disorder—she is ivy-league educated, exceedingly well-dressed, and “high-functioning” when she is not in the grips of psychosis. After being kicked out of her university for her mental health status, Wang begins a never ending journey into a health system whose diagnoses, treatments, and policies are often at odds with her autonomy and humanity.

As her schizoaffective disorder is compounded by PTSD and chronic Lyme disease, Wang strives to embrace the liminal spaces she has no choice but to inhabit. She learns how she might be able to keep herself tethered to reality just enough to find peace and engage with the insights that her psychotic episodes may have to offer. Her essays both illuminate the outer workings of her mental illness while documenting the terrifying ways that her sense of self is swept away time and again.

“When the self has been swallowed by illness, isn’t it cruel to insist on a self that is not illness?” At the core of this essay collection is this simple question. In it, Wang asks us whether it is really an act of generosity when we make a distinction between a person and the illness that makes up their reality (e.g. calling someone a schizophrenic versus a person suffering from schizoaffective disorder). In whose service do we define this boundary, and what is it that we value in other people that makes them worthy of love and respect?

The Collected Schizophrenias offers so much of Wang–her most vulnerable uncertainties and darkest delusions, alongside a wealth of information about the diseases known as the schizophrenias. She presents all of this with a humility and eloquent clarity that make her story unforgettable.

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Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Luiselli_TellMeHow_9781566894951_1024x1024An essay in 40 questions, beginning with “Why did you come to the US? Where are your parents?”

In Tell Me How it Ends, Valeria Luiselli shares her experience as an interpreter for refugee children from Central America arriving in the United States. As she fills out the intake questionnaire with each child, she attempts the impossible task of reducing the traumas of their life into a few blank lines.

The maddeningly concise questions minimize the underlying tragedy—the fact that thousands of children with the right to political asylum, the right to a dignified life free of violence and persecution, are quickly filtered through the US legal system. Often, they are deported as “illegals” before receiving legal support or due process to obtain refugee status.

Luiselli’s work is a testament to her commitment to making these stories known and heard. Many of the questions she asks the children are unanswerable, beyond comprehension, or too sad to muster a coherent response, but the call to action for the rest of us is much clearer:

 “And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

This book gives readers the opportunity to bear witness to the suffering of others, understand why families and children will continue to flee oppressive conditions, and hopefully inspire readers to take action against dehumanizing policies.

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“And once you’re here, you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the greater theater of belonging.”

Everything’s Trash, but it’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson

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In her distinctive comedic style, Phoebe Robinson’s essay collection gives us her perspective on how our society has fallen into a state of absolute trash, while also pointing out some things that are not trash.

Examples of trash: mistreatment of women of color in male-dominated career fields, the failures of non-intersectional feminism, trying to find a life partner via dating apps, fake pockets and tiny pockets in pants.

Despite living in a world where we are inundated with reminders of our failure to achieve a level of mutual respect and tolerance of one another, Robinson reminds us all of two crucial things. Firstly, to take a critical look at how we participate in a toxic patriarchy. Secondly, to laugh and find humor in the midst of all the trash. Robinson speaks candidly about some of her personal low points and models the ways that we can leverage hurtful experiences to participate in positive change. She talks about serious issues with comic relief and a desire to not just make people laugh, but also encourage readers to engage with moments of discomfort and shame in a meaningful way.

If you’ve listened to Robinson on one of her podcasts, 2 Dope Queens or Sooo Many White Guys, her book induces an equal amount of laughing out loud and affirmative snaps.

My favorite excerpt from the book, Phoebe’s tough-love pep talk to feminism:

“Feminism, you honestly just have to do better. I know you’ve heard this a million times and a million ways, but you have to figure it the fuck out and do better. Yes, you. The onus is not on those you’ve consistently excluded to fix this. And trust me, it needs fixing, and I’m not talking about relying on repeating the same “remedies” of the past. Meaning, I don’t need the sorries. I’m not interested in the #NotAllWomen defense. I have no desire to engage with your expression of guilt as a sign that the state of things bothers you. Show us it bothers you by behaving differently. Act as if you understand that inclusiveness is what feminism should have been about since day one. And not because you’re hoping you’re going to get a pat on the back for doing what you should’ve done in the first place. Okay? …Give me something to root for. Give me and all women of color, queer women, trans women, lower-class women, something to root for. Most importantly, give us love, because while you’ve been hard on us, the love has been in very short supply. Give us the love we deserve and we’ll root for you forever.”

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we are never meeting in real life. by Samantha Irby

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I read this essay collection because Roxane Gay, one of my feminist heroines, said it was amazing, and she never disappoints. It made me laugh and cry and cringe within the same essay. The subjects are broad– normalizing the experience of being treated poorly in relationships during her twenties; disregarding money-saving tips in the most gloriously irresponsible ways; her evil cat, Hellen Keller, and more.

The author’s self-deprecating humor is woven into even the most humiliating and depressing situations, and her excellent use of ALL CAPS as a writing tool for emphatic expletives and strong opinions kept me laughing throughout. Irby’s writing is unapologetically vulnerable and self-confident in the best way. Chances are that this book will make you feel uncomfortable, but you should read it anyway.

All this might be easier if I could punch something, but I’m not a punch-something person. I’m a “sit in the dark in the bathroom with a package of sharp cheddar cheese slices” person.”

 

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