It has become a pattern with organizations to use book studies as their “action” towards racial equity. It. Is. Not. Enough.
In my last 6 years in school districts, I have seen school leaders site reading books as their racial equity strategy in their school improvement plans. Every year without fail, this happens. It didn’t seem to get better in 2020 when big corporations were making public commitments to be anti-racist, and claiming to support Black Lives Matter through massive changes to how they do business. School leaders may have made similar public comments stating they were committed to racial equity. However, they fail to be able to produce actionable steps that will produce systemic change NOW!
Why is a book study not enough? There have been some great books published in the last 10 years that do support folks’ ability to raise their racial consciousness. This is not a knock on the books or their value; however, reading a book is a passive way of claiming you are “doing the work”. When I have engaged with White leaders on their learning from these readings, I am constantly dealing with their shock that racism looks like this now. Or listening to their sadness. Or continue to hear them say “there’s so much more work that needs to be done”. Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in these conversations can be tortured, drained, traumatized, to have to participate in such nonsense. Understand, most BIPOC in your organization do not need to read a book that explains how racism still exists and that we should talk about it. That is a blatant disregard of their lived experience.
Outside of these conversations just being painful for myself as a person of color, I rarely witness these same White leaders apply their learning in real-time and publicly. A conversation about a book is “safe” for most of these people. It is in a setting that assumes everyone is learning, and you are commenting on someone else’s work and knowledge. You can easily pretend you agree when internally you may greatly disagree. You can choose to not engage at all, or respond in ways that make you look good. The lessons in these books are not being used to hold leaders accountable for their actions. These books are not providing the policy and procedures that guide how these same leaders respond to a student reporting racial discrimination. These books are not being used to have conversations about race with the students or community. They are “in-house” conversations and often there is no strategic planning tied to the book study.
Before some of you argue with me, I want to acknowledge the teachers and individuals that are great at turning texts they read into changing behavior like their pedagogy. My point is even these individuals are fighting a system. They need the system to change its behavior too, and most organizations are not using the book study to do that. In fact, many are using it as wool to cloak their true desire to maintain the status quo that serves their power, position, and whiteness. Leaders cannot simply ask their teams, how does this book apply to their role and our commitment to racial equity? Leaders must model and demand actions that disrupt racial inequities. Don’t just read about the suffering of Black people in our country’s history and present time (this is in soooooooooooo many books about race), but ask your Black employees, students, and families how you can serve them better. What do they need or want from you? Listen and act accordingly. Don’t just read about White Fragility (which I am an absolute fan of this book), but call yourself out when you are totally in your fragility. Even better, as a White person, call another White person out on their White fragility, especially if you are witnessing it harm a Black or Brown person. Make that a norm in your team and organization.
I think I have laid it out for you. While book studies on books about race can be beneficial, it is not enough and it most definitely cannot be your strategic plan. Strategic plans require accountability to the learning, actions dismantling racist systems, embracing discomfort and vulnerability, and most importantly, listening to and shifting decision-making to BIPOC in your organization and community to design the strategic plan. Their current experience is much more valuable for organizations to understand than what a book will tell you.