Books to Help Understand Anti-Racism and Race

Wanting to be a better white ally means learning about systemic racism. To do that, we need to dig a little deeper into U.S. history, because we’re simply not taught it fully in school, at least in a way that we understand the nuances and all that shaped how we ended up where we all are today.

As the fantastic graphic above by illustrator Jane Mount shows, there is no shortage of books that talk about race and racism.

Non-fiction offers a direct (and often blunt) path to understanding. Fiction provides an excellent means to see and feel things from a different perspective. Putting both together marries the factual aspects with emotional experience, and I think together they serve to provide a deeper understanding.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it’s only a starting point. There are MANY excellent books out there to read (and I’ll likely be adding more books over the days to come).

Fiction

The Hate you Give by Angie Thomas is a YA fiction but I’m including it in this list because I think it’s one that should be read by those in the adult category as well. 16yo Starr witnesses her best friend Khalil fatally shot by a police officer while unarmed. This is the story of how she deals with the aftermath, afraid to speak out, but fearful that his death will go unpunished. A powerful and heartbreakingly relevant contemporary story.

Also categorized as YA ,Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is another book I recommend to teens and adults. It’s a page-turning fantasy novel with magic as gorgeous as the writing and incredible world-building, but it also addresses themes of class, privilege, race, and oppression, strong parallels to modern society.

Well-written and deeply disturbing, The Nickel Boys by Bryan Stevenson is fictional storytelling (based on the real story of a Florida reform school) set in segregated Tallahassee during the Jim Crow era. After an innocent mistake and a wrongful accusation, bright and Elwood is sent to a juvenile reformatory. Despite the horrors of abuse that occur, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.”  His friend Turner is more cynical. Their experiences in the reformatory haunt them long afterward, as this story will likely haunt you.

While I recommend all of Toni Morrison’s books, in the interest of space, I’ll list her first one. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove prays every day for the blond hair and blue eyes of her white classmates that she believes will let her fit in. The tale looks deeply at what the world defines as “beautiful” and about the toll of poverty, sexism, and racism, told through Morrison’s beautiful prose.


Kindred by Octavia Butler is part fantasy, part historical fiction. It offers an immersive, horrifying look at slavery from the perspective of a modern black woman who finds herself time-traveling to the early nineteenth century to rescue a boy who turns out to an ancestor.

Native Son by Richard Wright is a powerful, throat-punch of a book about racism that offers thought-provoking narrative without providing the answers. A challenging read, as Bigger Thomas commits a heinous crime in a moment of panic that leads to a violent cycle that he can’t seem to escape, and yet his story will elicit sympathy. This book is brutal and compelling and will stick with you long after you’ve read the last page.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a story set in a surrealist version of 19th-century Virginia. In this blend of historical fiction and magical realism, when enslaved 9-year old Hiram Walker’s mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her despite being gifted with a remarkable memory. He was also gifted with a mysterious power he struggles to understand until he finds a place as an agent on the Underground Railroad. He offers a richly detailed and brutal picture of the horrors of slavery, the loss of identity, and the power of memories.

Riot Baby is YA author Tochi Onyebuchi’s first adult sci-fi/speculative fiction, a novella that packs one hell of a sucker-punch in its 176 pages.

Rooted in the hope that can live in anger, Riot Baby is as much an intimate family story as a global dystopian narrative.

In an alternative timeline, the Klan, rising in power and prominence, devises a plot to unleash Hell on Earth. Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales.  Ring Shout is speculative fiction in novella form offering up a page-turning mix of horror, fantasy, with serious Black girl magic.


*Put this one on your TBR list, because it comes out in October 2020.*

Non-Fiction

What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
Ta-Nehisi Coates offers up a lot to think about in Between the World and Me, a memoir in the form of letters to his teenage son that is powerful, moving, and deeply personal.

Ibram X. Kendi’s immersive, hefty book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is an eye-opening look at the development of racist ideas and the history of racism in America. Understanding our history as a country is imperative to changing how things are, and we rarely get an education as wide as this.

While meant for MG and YA readers, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi is a remix of Dr. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, breaking down the more wieldy original book into a more digestible size and delivery for younger readers (and for adults who want/need the same).


In So You Want to Talk About Race, author Ijeoma Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life. 

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir is a memoir about what it means to be a Black woman in America, as well as of the co-founding of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is an empowering account of survival, strength, and resilience and a call to action to change the culture that declares innocent Black life expendable.



Jesmyn Ward’s memoir contains prose as beautiful and as heartbreaking as you’ll find in her fiction (which I also recommend). This is a story about grief as well as systemic poverty and race. Her story alternates between chapters on her own childhood in Mississippi and the deaths of five young black men close to her.



The issues society is facing around race isn’t going to go away overnight, and many of us have not been doing enough work. Reading provides a way of understanding, and understanding will lead to change.

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