“It urges you to learn how to think, rather than telling you what you should think.”
For recurring readers of this column, we all know that I ain’t that clever – thanks for returning though – and so I mostly ask someone smarter than me to explain things as if I were five. I do this when it comes to maths, since letters in equations don’t make sense and it makes me want to fight whomever conceptualised that.
The point of the declaration of my idiocy is that if I can engage and love this week’s read – then none of you have an excuse to not be opening your purses and buying a copy too. Like most of book twitter, and instagram, my first encounter with author and academic Emma Dabiri was with her debut book DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR. For any who haven’t gotten around to it, DON’T TOUCH MY HAIR is a searing investigation and unpacking of the cultural, political, mathematical and cosmological history of Black hair and the implications of it in regards to race.
I have a word count to stick to, so unfortunately I can’t get into too much detail about that masterpiece of a book, but trust me when I say it’s an investment of your money and time.
Dabiri’s follow up, WHAT WHITE PEOPLE CAN DO NEXT, is a short collection of essays published following the events of black square summer, which saw a wave of anti-racist books dominating the charts. The title serves as an excellent catfish, luring readers who may be searching for further tools on how to break down the racism in their brains, but presents readers with a plethora of prompts to subjects surrounding racism, activism and a historical understanding of white supremacy that urges you to learn how to think, rather than telling you what you should think.
Dabiri is an expert of weaving her sharp wit, humour, experiences and academic studies into concise chapters with nuance and a patient tone. I mention tone specifically because of how Dabiri believes we should approach discussions and debates with those who are yet to understand the complex and deep rooted systemic claws of white supremacy, and it almost feels cringe to write ‘patient’ because a large part of me feels that we (non-Black readers) are definitely not entitled to said patience.
The essays confront and breakdown the ongoing issues of social/online activism, and with it readers (myself included) will feel the spotlight on them as we understand the part we have played in perpetuating the cycle of it. Being guilty of sharing pretty instagram infographics that breakdown information, and not always going a step further into the reading of the subject we have shared on, is a recurring issue. Dabiri notes how often we get so caught up saying something immediately, that actually doing something becomes a later priority.
“The title serves as an excellent catfish, luring readers who may be searching for further tools on how to break down the racism in their brains”
Dabiri truly enamours me with the way she critically writes, because the balance of highlighting these issues, whilst simultaneously exploring anything positive to have come out of them is no easy feat. That’s why I stick to mostly fiction, ‘cause I’m not about writing balanced essays – see above for where I told you I’m dumb.
Whilst reading, it brought to mind a tweet I read during the height of the infographic period that stated infographics should not be the beginning and the end of our learning, but a springboard into deep diving for further information and context. It seems like common sense, but was actually a rarity. It was also symptomatic of the issue of the online pressure to immediately state or rebuke anything political making the news in, as Dabiri aptly names it, “the court of Twitter”; where we often have a habit of expressing outrage or disappointment in particular figures who may not have yet spoken about the issue because they are yet to do their morning scroll of the TL.
“It provides readers with a clearer understanding of ‘what comes next’ and how coalitions and grassroots activism are so instrumental in how the work continues to evolve and expand.”
For most of the book I found myself familiar with the subjects that Dabiri was unpacking – as I am guilty of only sometimes reading and bookmarking a Twitter thread – but often left as the white man blinking meme as my mind connected the dots further. The concept of allyship is critically examined within the chapters, and though the word itself has always felt like the verbal equivalent of your worst outfits in 2005, I was unable to adequately process just how much it is the 2k20 remix of the white saviour.
Watching how Sisters Uncut have worked tirelessly following the events of the Sarah Everard vigil, and Feminist Coalition’s in depth breakdown to how they have redistributed the donations they received in support to end SARS, Dabiri’s essays in coalition and post-activism are incredible. It provides readers with a clearer understanding of ‘what comes next’ and how coalitions and grassroots activism are so instrumental in how the work continues to evolve and expand.
My particular favourite passages include the analysis of how identity politics and racial/ethnic categories have redefined how we can interact and move, even perhaps skewering the direction in where those next steps are taken. Often, it was an incredibly conflicting read, which is definitely intentional, simply because the attachment I have grown to my identity as a Moroccan muslim has become so integral that easing myself out of it in order to understand it is still part of a white supremacist system can be jarring.
“You’ll ask yourself the question of ‘but why do I think that?’ and ‘is this really what I think or what I’ve read that I should think?’”
Truth be told, I don’t think I’m even ready to begin unpacking that, but that’s why Dabiri is so fucking brilliant. Because there isn’t necessarily a demand to, but it does feel like a gentle push to explore it. You’ll ask yourself the question of ‘but why do I think that?’ and ‘is this really what I think or what I’ve read that I should think?’
Not everything Dabiri states in her book is new – which she highlights – but often feels new as she attempts to reset the dialogue with social media now part of the mix. Recognising that the parameters of the conversations and discussions are completely new and incredibly constricting due to the specific issue of it being online. Also, how it has inevitably wedded with capitalism, and causes a constant loop that returns many online prominent speakers into revisiting the same subject but under a different context.
Dabiri has written a book that has no specific demographic, as so many ethnicities should be able to recognise the pattern of online behaviour we have taken part in. It is filled to the brim with historical references, quotes, ideas and charm that only she is capable of getting across in an academic text. I am very much aware that I have barely scratched the surface of this book when writing this, which is why I make it abundantly clear that I’m not smart.
I never promised you smart bitch vibes though, just good ones. Hopefully.
Soraya Bouazzaoui is Aurelia’s Literal Hotties columnist which whilst never giving too much away, focuses on reviews and recommendations of titles by women of colour, both fiction and non-fiction. @halalltakeaway
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