Joining an anti-racist book club? Don’t get too comfortable in that armchair.

Why We Wrote This

If the rise in anti-racist book clubs in the U.S. is any indication, this summer’s protests may have sparked more than a momentary reckoning with systemic racism. Readers are moving beyond discussion to action.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Keidrick and Holly Roy, who started two book clubs to discuss race in America, pose in the office in their home in Somerville, Massachusetts, on Oct. 27, 2020.

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During this summer’s protests over police killings of Black men and women, sales of books about race skyrocketed. And people weren’t just reading them – they were talking about them. Book clubs focused on anti-racism formed around the country, and for many of them, the goal went beyond discussion to action.

As Dorsa Amir, an evolutionary anthropologist, explains, book clubs can act as “the beginning of community organization where, in addition to learning about the issues, there can be specific tasks and specific actions that can be taken,” like protesting, writing elected representatives, or raising funds.

Balancing talk and action has been important to Keidrick and Holly Roy, who co-led two book clubs. It’s easy to go back to “life as usual” after attending a single protest or talk, Mr. Roy notes. But “I began to think about what might happen if we kept the transformative spirit of protest alive through a forum that engages in these extended, long-term dialogues.”

Yet Mr. Roy is quick to add that more than talk is needed. Engaging in deep discussions about racism is necessary, but it’s not sufficient, he says. “At the same time, we have to go out and we have to act.”

When George Floyd’s death while in police custody prompted protests, Keidrick Roy, who is Black, and his wife, Holly, who is white, saw an opportunity to help others grow their understanding of race in America – not by marching but by reading. In June, they organized two book clubs focused on anti-racism: one was secular and the other for members of City on a Hill Church in Somerville, Massachusetts, which they attend. 

The clubs resembled academic courses, with detailed syllabuses and guided discussions. In both cases, people joined “because they had deep questions about the state of our country,” says Mr. Roy, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Harvard University. “Beyond learning how to interact with others, I also think folks joined to understand themselves and the history of our country.” 

The Roys’ groups were not one-offs. After Mr. Floyd’s death in May, sales of bestselling books about race jumped as much as 6,900%, according to Forbes, and book clubs focused on anti-racism formed around the country – both in person and over Zoom. For many of these clubs, including the Roys, the goal went beyond discussion. “People talk about how they can apply the particular lessons we teach ... to their daily work,” says Mr. Roy. In other words, book clubs have become sites not only for education but also for action.

Zoom attendance at the Roys’ secular book club meetings ranged from 45 to 60 people, while the church book club drew between 25 and 40 people. Thanks to these groups, a middle school teacher figured out a way to address the racial antagonism she’s observed between her students. Others have taken the lessons they’ve learned to their bosses and organizations to revise hiring practices and policies. Some are bringing resources and materials to traditional book clubs they already belonged to. 

Moving through angst to action

None of this is easy, though. And for white readers, the concept of white guilt makes it even harder – as does the daunting feeling of facing a massive undertaking when learning about racism, says Sara Brownson, who directs children’s programs at Holy Trinity Church in McLean, Virginia, and is a former teacher. She participates in two book clubs exploring anti-racism, one with 25 attendees and the other with five. Both clubs focus on Latasha Morrison’s “Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation,” which details Ms. Morrison’s experience as a Black woman at the intersection of race and faith and strives to equip readers to become ambassadors of racial reconciliation. 

“One of the things I’ve really discovered is the difference between shame and guilt,” Ms. Brownson says. “Shame is the emotion … in your head, whereas guilt is more talking about the actions that you’ve [taken].” A big question, she says, is whether to wallow in that guilt, which can be all-consuming. “One thing that I feel has really helped me is just listening to other stories and then picking things that I can do that feel attainable.”

Balancing a sense of safety with the responsibility to act was important to the Roys as well. They wanted to create a space where people could engage with others without fear of making mistakes or saying the wrong thing, Mr. Roy comments. “We also wanted to prepare folks for calling out racism when they see it. … Not exercising one’s power to walk away from the struggle for racial justice [but] to engage in the long-term, community-building initiatives.”

Dorsa Amir, an Iranian American evolutionary anthropologist, emphasizes this progression from individual action to broader change, noting that book clubs are a great start because they form as collectives of interested and engaged people. “This is kind of the beginning of community organization where, in addition to learning about the issues, there can be specific tasks and specific actions that can be taken,” like protesting, writing elected representatives, or raising funds, says Dr. Amir, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Cooperation Lab at Boston College.

Prodding schools and churches to improve

In some cases, book clubs have formed purposely to prompt action. That was true for Eliza Perry, a white elementary school social studies teacher in Denver, Colorado, whose club met over the summer and focused on improving practices at her school. The nearly 30 participants chose to read “White Fragility,” “Raising White Kids,” or “Waking up White,” and some joined a task force focused on implementing systemic change in areas like admissions and professional development.

“Personal reflection is always where it starts,” Ms. Perry says. But she plans to use what she has learned to inform her teaching. “As an educator at a private school, I have so much more choice in what I … teach my kids,” Ms. Perry adds.

Ms. Brownson is sharing what she’s learning as well. After joining her first book club through her church, she recognized a way to take action steps of her own and began leading an additional group. Over time, “I see people more willing to jump into conversation … and not as quick to judge,” says Ms. Brownson. “And I see people’s eyes becoming a little bit more open.”

One focus of the book club at her church is reckoning with historical racism in Christian churches in the U.S. In addition, reading “Be the Bridge” with the group has opened the door for some members to share how they have experienced racism in their church recently.

That kind of openness has the potential to develop lasting connections and, perhaps, lasting change. It’s easy to go back to “life as usual” after attending a single protest or talk, Mr. Roy notes, but “part of the point of protesting is to disrupt the ordinary, to reframe how people see the world. I began to think about what might happen if we kept the transformative spirit of protest alive through a forum that engages in these extended, long-term dialogues.”

Mr. Roy is quick to add that more than talk is needed. Engaging in deep discussions about racism is necessary, but it’s not sufficient, he says. “At the same time, we have to go out and we have to act.”

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