In today’s cultural moment—during which hundreds of mainstream institutions in the U.S. are acknowledging systemic racism—books and other content about race and discrimination have surged in popularity. These texts, such as How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi; So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo; and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum, are meant to elevate general knowledge about Black people’s lived experiences, and the ways that racism is baked into American life. They have been widely circulated throughout university plenaries, in corporate seminars, and on public-library websites. Black-owned independent bookstores have been swamped with orders driven by overwhelming demand, and sales for titles on civil rights have tripled in some cases.
Social change via collective awareness—known as “consciousness raising”—isn’t a new strategy; it originated during the civil-rights movement in the 1960s and was popularized by the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. During the latter, consciousness raising was used as a way to mobilize women and draw them to feminism by pushing the notion that their experiences (in their interpersonal relationships, workplaces, and childhoods) were not individual, but rather a shared, gendered condition. Yet many radical feminists (especially Black ones) were critical of consciousness raising, wary that mainstream feminism was doing more navel-gazing than organizing to tackle social problems.