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The case for using literature to kickstart conversations about race at work

woman reading book
Reuters/David Mercado
A woman reads a book in La Paz, Bolivia, September 14, 2018.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Anti-racist reading lists are a hot commodity in the wake of protests over police brutality and widespread injustice against Black Americans. But they’re far from a cure-all. As Lauren Michele Jackson argued in Vulture, treating literature by Black authors as a primer on racism and allyship may serve to flatten the richness and artistry of those books.

Part of the issue is that reading can be an insular experience. People looking to deepen their understanding of race and inequality may benefit more from participating in a dialogue that features many different perspectives—ideally, with someone knowledgeable about the material at hand guiding the discussion. That’s why Ann Kowal Smith, founder and executive director of Books@Work, suggests discussing literature as a means of broaching conversations about race in the workplace. Research also suggests that reading literature may help increase empathy and understanding of others’ experiences, potentially spurring better real-world behavior.

Books@Work, founded as a nonprofit in 2011, partners with organizations around the world to provide group discussions of short stories and books to employees, with a focus on fiction and narrative nonfiction. The groups are facilitated by professors with expertise in the subject matter, which Smith says ensures the conversations are thoughtful and productive.  The discussions are meant to help employees go deep on issues like race and identity in a way that typical diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) trainings do not.

“The way a lot of organizations have focused on DEI up until now has been with specific training programs, where they’ll talk about systemic racism or they’ll talk about skills and tools and language to use, and it’s very instructional,” Smith says. “What a story-based conversation does, is it allows a group of people to have a conversation about a tender topic where people are at different places in the journey.”

Best Buy chief communications and public affairs officer Matt Furman, who pilots a Books@Work program in his department, says he’s seen two big advantages so far.

The first, he says, is “the extent to which people are willing to say out loud, I didn’t know that. A book like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, where you talk about racism in medicine and the notion of experimentation on the Black population, what you realize is a large segment of the American population doesn’t have any sense of the history or the impact. What you find is people willing to own up to their own lack of understanding.”

Furman says the book discussions also present an opportunity for people of color “to talk about similar experiences or conversations they’ve had about those experiences. They get to put themselves in the story in a way that helps you understand their lives.” And at a time when people often rely on disparate news sources and can come into discussions with very different understandings of current events, sharing a common text helps “level-set” the discussion.

Smith says a book group can also upend workplace hierarchies, potentially helping people to speak their minds even after the official discussion is over. “It’s safe to ask the question that isn’t articulately worded, or to talk to your boss’s boss’s boss,” she says. That in turn gives employees “a little more confidence to stand up and point out things that aren’t working or are unjust.”

Of course, becoming an anti-racist organization involves a lot more than books, and joining an anti-racist book club is not a substitute for meaningful activism. But, Furman says, “If you want to foster relationships that might not have existed before, and raise people’s awareness of history and current events, this kind of book club format seems to have real benefits.”

Here are a few of the books and stories on race that Smith has found to resonate with workers:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

“It’s an incredible story because it’s all about racial inequality and health disparities,” says Smith—a particularly timely topic given the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on the US’s Black population.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler

“It’s a fantastic novel about a Black woman married to a white man who lives in California in the 1970s, who has a series of dreams that transport her back to the plantation where her grandmother was born. It’s all about the legacy of slavery.”

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

This novel, which begins in 18th-century Ghana and goes on to cover eras from slavery to the Jazz Age, “is beautifully constructed and written, but also has this broad, sweeping story through the lens of multiple generations.”

“Executive Decision,” from Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories, by Charles Johnson

“It’s about a business owner faced with hiring a Black man or a white woman, with an interesting twist.”

“Brownies,” from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

“It’s about a group of young Black Girl Scouts who create an altercation with white Girl Scouts, and are surprised in terms of their own responses.”

“Dragon Slayers,” by Jerald Walker

“Facing harsh criticism from a highly regarded mentor, the author reflects on his self image as a Black man, his writing and how he mentors others. His learnings about himself are set in stark contrast with the very stereotypes he seeks to avoid, as seen through a conversation with a self-styled liberal White man at a cocktail party. The story asks us to reflect on how we see ourselves, and how much stereotypes drive our perspectives of ourselves and each other, within and across race.”