good reads, re: race

A few weeks ago a colleague asked me for a list of books about diversity.  He was looking for something that would appeal to a general university audience.  Something that would be a great conversation starter.  Something very readable.  I came up with a couple of ideas.


Kym Ragusa, The Skin Between Us: A Memoir of Race, Beauty and Belonging  (link)

Ragusa’s 2006 memoir is beautifully written.  Her main theme is ‘belonging’–how does one find one’s place in a community?  As a mixed race person, she seems to belongs in both the Black and Italian communities of Harlem, yet both communities question her fidelity.  Too black for the Italian kids and too Italian for the black kids.  The memoir gestures at the pain of growing up on the margins, but through subtle description and her talent at narration, the reader leaves feeling something quite different than sympathy for a victim.  This is not a victim memoir.  Ragusa visited my campus in 2008 and I asked her if she felt vulnerable putting all these stories to paper.  Her answer has stuck with me–“I didn’t tell everything; I chose what to say, what not to say, and how to say it.”  Her approach to creative non-fiction is inspiring, and suggests how many of us readers might relate to our own histories; how we might find the narration of our belonging and non-belonging.



Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty first Century (link)

This 2012 book is an interdisciplinary work of art.  Chapter 1 “The Invention of Race” is worth the price of the book.  I taught this book in a Philosophy of Race course and found that students responded immediately to her arguments, which are laid out elegantly and with punchy examples.  If you are looking for the historical cases to support the idea that ‘race in the US is socially constructed,’ look no further.  The central argument of the book builds slowly, carefully and dramatically.  Although this is not a short book, its can be ready quickly.  The chapters also stand alone.  Highly recommended.


Charles Blow, Fire Shut up in My Bones (link)

I began reading this book last month, and had to put it down in order to catch my breath.  Like the Ragusa memoir, here we are dealing with an author narrating a past that is not without pain.  I would contrast Blow’s work and Ragusa’s work with that of Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozak Nation;  More, Now, Again). Wurtzel’s addition memoirs are too voyeuristic for me; they treat the reader as thrill seeker wanting to get off on someone else’s pain; and the narrator seems to also want to get off on her own pain.  Fire is not that sort of memoir; it is not fundamentally about racial or class voyeurism.  The point is not to get the reader to vicariously place himself in the shoes of an ‘other’ or a ‘victim.’  The memoir is about us, the reader, watching an adult narrate his childhood.  This memoir is about freedom, and the construction of identity through prose.  This type of memoir appeals to me much more than voyeuristic memoirs of pain.


These two last books are a bit older.


Gary Younge, No Place Like Home: A Black Britain’s Journey Through the American South.  (link)

This isn’t a new book (2002), but it’s hilariously written, and sociologically compelling.  I’ve taught it, and it’s wonderful at presenting a non-United-Statesian perspective on race.  One of his basic themes is “looking local, sounding foreign.” What a great way to discuss what it means to “sound black” or “sound white.”  The auditory qualities of race are important to racial identities, but it can be difficult to find a way into the topic of auditory whiteness.  Younge has anecdote after anecdote, such as the time he ‘accidentally’ went to an all white church in the deep south.  The moment Younge’s accent was heard by the congregation, he found himself mobbed by graciousness rather than anger and confusion.  His IQ went up twenty points on the spot!  This book is written in journalistic style, with wicked humor.  A great book for talking about the notion of “sounding black.”



Cornel West, Race Matters (link)

This book is the oldest of the bunch (1997, 2001), but I continue to teach it and recommend it.  Simply written, and with striking first person examples, this book describes race in terms of “liberal” and “conservative” views.  The book is written for those who want a clear definition of “liberal” and “conservative,” not  for the professional philosopher who wants subtlety.  West’s pragmatic solution is to attack ‘nihilism’ through community organizing and addressing poverty.  Pedagogically, the book gives both liberal and conservative students a vocabulary for articulating their ideas about race. Even three or four years after my students have had my class, they tell me that they remember reading the West book and debating his views on race.   An effective book, and one that shows non-philosophers how philosophy can be relevant to social issues. Something that you could give your friend at the coffee shop.  A great conversation starter.







veggie games

I like to play a game with my students.  I lecture on a topic.  At most 20 minutes, no more.  I give ten or fifteen students a sheet of paper.  During my 20 minutes they have to write one question for me.  I stop talking.  I collect the papers.  I shuffle them.  I read aloud the question and give my best impromptu answers.

This game works best with topics that matter to me. I have to think & work. I go with my honest gut feeling, even if it leads me into unpolished reflections.  I let the students ask whatever they want–personal questions of me, political questions, abstract ones.  I tell them the worst that could happen is that I’d decline to answer.

Today we talked about vegetarianism.  I opened the discussion with a five minute interview with a vegetarian.  A very young vegetarian–a ten year old.  This articulate ten year old (my daughter) was asked how long she’d been a veggie, why she’s veggie, and if she ever desired to eat meat.

After playing the interview, I proceeded with my own top five reasons for being a vegetarian.  Those top five reasons go something like this:

5-Vegetarian food is healthy.

4-Vegetarian diets are good for the environment.

3-Factory farms are pretty nasty.

2- Vegetarian food tastes awesome.

1- I love animals.


Here are some of the wonderful questions from my students:

“How does your daughter know she’s a true vegetarian if she has never eaten meat?”

“Was it hard for you to get your daughters to become vegetarian?”

“Do you believe it is easy to be born into a family of vegetarians?”

“Do you eat tofu?”

“Animals eat other animals.  Why is it seen as barbaric if humans eat other animals?”

“Why is it bad for humans to kill other animals?”


One of my favorite reasons to teach vegetarianism is that I’m able to foster a discussion that connects abstract moral theory to everyday living.  My students read Singer’s 1979 piece and they also listen to an interview of a nine year old explaining her moral reasoning for zoo abolitionism and total vegetarianism.  I disclose my own reasons for being a vegetarian and allow curious students to ask personal questions about my moral theory and how it affects my everyday life choices.

I also offer a possible psycho-analytic reason for my 22 years as a vegetarian.  I was born in Kansas City in 1974 and was raised in a tough urban environment.  Around 1982 my parents fled the city and moved to rural Kansas.  We lived in a farmhouse with no running water and no indoor toilet.  We began accumulating farm animals like a goat, a pig, chickens, a duck here and there, a peacock here and there, lots of dogs, lots of cats, etc.  I became attached to the pig, which I viewed as a family pet.  We gave him an uninspired name “Porky,” but it was a name nonetheless, which, to me, signified family membership.  I bonded with Porky the same way I bonded with my dogs.  Porky was a family pet and my friend.  Then, one day, Porky was gone and there were pork chops on the table.  You guessed it.

I enjoy talking about vegetarianism because it allows me to be a different kind of teacher.  I get to tell stories–my stories.  I get to answer real questions.  I get to poke and prod at social conventions.  I get to hear from hunters eager to know what I think about the moral status of deer.  I get to hear from sons and daughters of farmers who also named & ate their farm animals.  Most of the latter seem a bit resigned to the ‘naturalness’ of eating a family pet.  Although, I’ve yet to come across one of my students who has eaten the family dog.  There’s always one or two who say that they’d be curious enough to eat some dog meat if it was offered to them, and if the seasoning was just right.

I do worry that in teaching about my vegetarianism I come across as preachy.  So, I simply address my preachiness head-on and try to keep a sense of humor about it.  “Man, I’m really sounding preachy aren’t I.”

I think some of my students suspect that its no accident that I teach vegetarianism on the week before Thanksgiving.  Okay, I’m just going to plead guilty on that count.

Today was different in one respect.  For the first time ever I accompanied my discussion with images of factory farms.  We looked at battery cages, mega meat chicken farms, and dairy cattle.  I’ve never used images like this in class.  I don’t like looking at the images myself.  If I’m going to use propaganda, I prefer it to be text rather than image propaganda.

The next step would be to assess how the story telling method of philosophy works.  Do students retain more or less?  Are their powers of critical thinking awakened or dulled?



Psychologist Derald Wang Sue has a wonderful word for a phenomenon that I’ve been trying to name for a long time.  It’s what happens when a white professor like me begins talking about affirmative action.  It’s what happens when a classroom has a majority of majority students and heads turn to the diverse body in the room.  It’s what happens when our conversations about Ferguson go off track and more than one person looks for a way to move on, escape, stop talking.  It’s what happens when a usually bored and placid face looks nervous and tense.  Race talk.  That’s Sue’s word for it.

“When topics of race or racism arise, they [whites] become anxious, constricted, and cautious in what they say. Remaining silent and consciously screening and censoring out anything they consider to be racially offensive become the hallmark of their communications.” (

One of the deep ironies of race talk is that whites’ anxious, constricted behavior can easily be interpreted as racist behavior.  Whites are so awkward when we talk about race that we come across as hiding something, as unable to cope, as making no sense.  The fear of appearing racist becomes a self-fulfilling act.

Sociologist Jonathan Patrick Schreiner (who wrote an MA thesis on the innovative Race Relations Project at Penn State) found that white students have a “nearly universal fear of stating their opinion or race.”  The most common response to why white students didn’t like race talk: they feared offending a member of the other race.  For many white students at Penn State, participation in an extra-curricular race dialogue program was their first experience with inter-race dialogue.

White’s don’t have a monopoly on awkwardness during race talk. But it does affect us differently. Now here’s an interesting thought: if race talk affects students of color differently, then do color-blind student learning outcomes make sense?

One of the hardest lessons of Sue’s work on race talk is that white professors are not good at spotting and dealing with racial micro-aggressions in the classroom.  If that hypothesis is correct, then we whites need to become more reflecting about when race talk is occurring in our classroom and how to effectively acknowledge it.

My field, that of Philosophy, prides itself on dialogue.  We take the idea of Socratic method seriously and try to engage in meaningful speech with our students.  And we pride ourselves on being able to talk about tough moral issues.  We also pride ourselves on teaching critical thinking.  The notion of race talk presents very blunt challenges to us–challenges about how ‘critical’ we’re being.  To paraphrase Nancy Fraser, the question is what’s critical about critical thinking?