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.
With consciousness raising today, a similar issue has emerged: the idea that broader knowledge of systemic racism will bring about meaningful social change for Black communities. The tactic can be a crucial step toward resolving forms of oppression, and the work of Black scholars, journalists, and writers has contributed greatly to how these issues are being reframed in the public discourse. But many of these authors would agree that raising awareness about racism is not a means in itself of correcting injustice. And while the crafters of anti-racist reading lists are mostly making an earnest effort to educate people, literature and dialogue cannot supplant restorative social policies and laws, organizational change, and structural redress.
When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse. Executives at major corporations such as Amazon, for instance, have invited race scholars and writers to “help [them] unpack” such topics as the American justice system and how to be an anti-racist ally. Yet Black employees at many of these companies have pointed to the hypocrisy of in-house dialogues about race while practices like labor exploitation continue. In the form of hollow public statements and company-sponsored conversations, consciousness raising is often toothless.
Overemphasis on awareness can also lead to a preoccupation with the racist symbolism of certain sports mascots, band names, brand logos, and public spaces, while obscuring the deeper forms of harm behind these iconographies. Consider the public consciousness about Confederate statues: It has resulted in the widespread removal of these monuments, but it has also meant that people have stopped short of examining their more insidious effects. These statues were part of a highly organized and aggressive lobbying campaign by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC)—a nationwide organization founded by pro-slavery white women—to promote the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” The Lost Cause was a venomous mythology that minimized slavery and venerated those who fought to preserve it. But public commemoration of Confederates was just the tip of the iceberg—the UDC’s main goal for the Lost Cause was to target public-school curricula.
The UDC stealthily pressured school boards to purge all texts that it claimed as doing “injustice to the South” and replace them with neo-Confederate propaganda that cherished slaveholders as martyrs and celebrated slavery as benevolent to African Americans. The statues of tyrannical white supremacists like Nathan Bedford Forrest, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis were but ornaments topping off the UDC’s national policy victories. To topple those statues today—without overhauling the textbooks and curricula that soft-pedal slavery and omit its devotion to anti-Black violence—seems equally ornamental.
Anti-racism efforts that are watered down by “listening” and “learning” treat justice as though it can be acquired through the awakening of people’s hearts and minds—instead of through a clear-cut democratic process. Following the Nuremberg trials in 1945 and 1946, German youth in the ’60s sparked a new era of collective accountability by asking their parents “What did you do in the Third Reich?,” triggering a national reckoning over Jewish persecution. The German government paid out billions in Jewish reparations for its war crimes. And after decades of denazification and restructuring government, industries, and institutions, Germany now requires Holocaust education in all secondary schools.
During the 1990s in post-apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu called for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which held public hearings for apartheid’s perpetrators and provided public testimonies from thousands of its Black victims. The TRC has its own criticisms—it individualized people’s suffering under apartheid instead of indicting state violence against entire communities, and it extended impunity to many guilty parties. But its original stated philosophy was clear: To put a system of white supremacy before a tribunal, those who participated in it had to say what they did and be held accountable.
In this sense, the answer to “What did you do?” would seem to be far more material for race relations than “What have you read?” Structural justice and public accountability facilitate consciousness raising and give it meaning beyond lip service. In the absence of concrete economic and legislative changes, consciousness raising through anti-racist reading is mere filibustering—white people learning about their privilege and power without ever having to sacrifice either.