You can't defeat racism with 'reading lists'. Take it from a feminist – we tried this

Back when feminism was mainstreaming, and it seemed like the conversation was finally going to turn toward “how do we start to think about women as human beings, rather than as mothers/sexual objects/children/domesticity machines?”, women drew up a lot of lists. Please read these books of feminist theory. Please watch these women-directed movies. Please follow these women on Twitter. We thought we could educate people – of any of the genders – out of their misogyny

It didn’t work. It turns out needling a bunch of guys into putting The Second Sex on their bedside table didn’t make the world safer for women. And, as anyone who has been raped by a Yale man knows, education doesn’t make anyone a better person.

As anti-racism protests mobilize across the United States, anti-racist reading lists have also proliferated. Suddenly Instagram, typically the most unabashedly shallow social media platform, has converted overnight into the world’s largest anti-racism bookstore. I’m impressed with the good faith of the people sharing these lists or asking others for recommendations, and for the presence of these books on bestseller lists.

But I’m also skeptical. Because feminism tried this, and it mostly failed to connect the intellectual understanding of misogyny with the way the world functions for women. We taught it. We talked about it. We wrote about it, we marched about it, we podcasted about it, we yelled about it, we made YouTube videos about it, we wore T-shirts about it, we went to court about it.

And over and over again, we said, Please, read our books. Because reading builds empathy. Because reading makes you a better person. (Stalin was a big reader, but sure.) We demanded and got women superheroes. We got more of our stories and experiences told in film and television. We got documentaries made about our deaths, our history and our struggles to live in a world hostile to us. And part of it was our fault, for mostly elevating white voices, voices with minor requests, voices pitched to avoid making men too uncomfortable. But as soon as a stressor hit – a small thing like a combination pandemic-uprising-global lockdown – domestic violence rates rose, women lost their jobs at a disproportionate rate, and the difficulty in raising equal attention for black women killed by police, like Breonna Taylor and Kiwi Herring, became obvious.

Education has so often been used as a method of indoctrination and control – typically the first step of any colonial project is to take over the schools. So why can’t the colonized or the oppressed use the same tool to reverse the damage?

While I would never argue against reading – I was a book critic for 15 years, and I have made similar lists, yelling at people to read Lester SpenceJune JordanJackie WangCoco FuscoPankaj Mishra – I think we have to admit the limited effect education and entertainment have on the material reality of the world. Intellectual curiosity should always be encouraged, and diversity of thought and perspective is important for a multitude of reasons. But often we leave an issue with “educate yourself” and figure that person will “do the work” and either find enlightenment or remain an irredeemable misogynist or racist troll forever.

Part of it is our naive and longstanding belief that we can buy our way to liberation. Maybe if we all just consume the right products, the world will become a better place. But buying grass-fed beef didn’t slow global warming, it just made a couple of very rich men much richer. Buying a couple of books from the Women’s History Month display table at Barnes & Noble didn’t solve misogyny.

It’s important to recognize that paying attention is not the same as understanding, and in an age of information overload, more information – the right information this time, of course – isn’t the full solution. We perceive each other through intermediaries, and this seems to be what we prefer. For that which is foreign to us, we prefer a theory or an explanation. We watch a documentary about beekeepers in Macedonia and think we now understand beekeepers in Macedonia. But all we are doing is interpreting reality through someone else’s interpretation of reality.

How do we make a bad person less of a bad person? Trying to answer this question has led us to all sorts of timewasters and ethical dead ends. We tried through yelling, we tried through medical experimentation, we tried through re-education, we tried through philosophy. But as anyone who has been raped by a philosopher knows …

When we are dealing with someone who is indoctrinated or besotted with bad or regressive thinking, the intuitive approach is to educate or instruct. But there truly is no replacement for actual, physical, social encounter between humans to create a shared perspective. And right now, in this uprising, that is where the counterintuitive, but constructive, answer is forming. We are encountering each other in our shared (and forced) encounters with the police. The building can start from there. There is no shortcut. We must find one another on the streets.

  • Jessa Crispin is a Guardian US columnist. She is the host of the Public Intellectual podcast