A friend of mine recently posted a blog about K.T. Bradford’s challenge to stop reading straight white cisgendered men for a year. The post she linked to is here. I have a few objections to all this, but first I thought it would be interesting to look at my own reading and see how diverse it is. Here’s what I’ve been reading, as far back as I can remember.
- The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (white woman, British)
- Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (white man, British)
- Giles Goat Boy by John Barth (white man, American)
- Haiti, The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois (white man, American)
- Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth(?) (black woman, American)
- Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama (Japanese American man, American)
- One day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (white man, Russian)
- Oblivion by David Foster Wallace (white man, American)
So that’s one white woman, five white men, one non-white woman, one non white man. So mostly white men, so I suppose I am guilty. But there seem to me to be problems with this. Do we count Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a white man, sure, but a Russian who spent many years in Stalin’s gulags, as representing the elite, privileged class? Laurent Dubois is a white man, but it’s a book about Haiti, a sympathetic book at that, quite critical of the many imperialist misadventures that nation has suffered.
And this, I think, is the biggest problem I have with K.T. Bradford’s thinking, at least as I understand it. It’s superficial and ignores the content of the book, and thus reinforces rather than rejects racial thinking. Her system would let us read out and out reactionaries like Dinesh Dsouza and Ann Coulter, but wouldn’t let us read race concious books critical of western imperialism and capitalism by white scholars like Edward Baptist or Laurent Dubois. There’s an underlying absurdity here.
Including straight and cisgendered criteria on her list seems even more problematic. What about bisexual men who are in a monogamous relationship with a woman? Do they count? Are we really just reinforcing the idea of difference, or différance as Derrida would say, by identifying ourselves and others along these lines? That’s a big hairy issue, but it bears consideration here. Race and homosexuality as identity are both cultural constructs that don’t necessarily exist in nature. A dog might engage in homosexual behaviour, but I’m not sure that the dog would be a homosexual then. Are racial and sexual preference really viable sources of identity, or is the truly progressive thought to turn away from them altogether?
This doesn’t erase Bradford’s point, though. It is true that a very narrow band of society has a hugely disproportionate representation, both in our media, politically, and financially. In the book industry, for example, 90% of books reviewed in the New York Times are by white men, according to that article at least. The statistics of people of color in the best seller list is even more dismal, at 3% according to this article. There clearly is some problem with how books are being selected by the publishing industry and promoted by the media.
It’s important to bear in mind too, however, that the vast majority of authors are not promoted or selected by the industry giants, regardless of race or gender. Would changing the demographic of who those few who are promoted and selected really alter the underlying picture? That most voices aren’t being represented or read? That most readers are sucking off the same mass culture pipe, censored and controlled by a few large corporations? I don’t mean there’s conspiracy theory here, but the way these companies select and promote books are shaped by our ideas about the purpose of books, to sell well. That’s a whole other issue as well, that I may write about separately.
My finaly complaint is that Bradford’s conception doesn’t leave any positive identity for me. I have no way of participating as a content creator. I’m white, more or less straight and more or less cisgendered. It’s not really viable for me to embrace an idea, or a conception of fairness, that excludes myself. I think if progressive ideologies are to survive and are not to become, ultimately, reactionary, they need to provide positive and inclusive identities.
I don’t mean any of this as serious criticism, and I agree with Bradford far more than I agree with most of the criticism she’s getting. My complaint is not that she is too radical, but rather that she is not radical enough. Hopefully you’ll still be willing to read my book. I’m only mostly straight white and cisgendered. Plus it’s free so it’s not necessarily participating in the economic side of things.