Back in early June, as Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets worldwide, I set myself a reading project: to avoid white writers for the rest of the year. For my standard ten or so books a month, I’d seek out authors who were anything but white.
This resolution was an effort to de-centre whiteness in my cultural diet. After a lifetime of consuming stories authored by white people, it was time to listen to different voices. It was time to listen to colonised peoples instead of colonisers. It was time to listen to Indigenous voices instead of the ubiquitous settler imaginaries.
My goal, in reading this way, was not to access some generic Bla(c)k or Brown experience. That, of course, does not exist. Although all people of colour are subordinated under white supremacy, their lives and perspectives are far from homogenous, and it would be absurd and insulting to suggest otherwise. My goal, rather, was to stop gorging on culture that centres white experience.
It wasn’t as if I’d never read Bla(c)k or PoC writers. Tony Birch, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Benjamin Law, Bernadine Evaristo, Natalie Harkin, Carly Findlay, Melissa Lucashenko, Michelle de Kretser, Aileen Moreton-Robinson: these were all treasured names on my bookshelves. Yet by and large, my reading diet reflected the literary world as a whole: white as a loaf of Tip Top.
This kind of white-dominated cultural diet may not appear explicitly ‘racist’. But seeing the world almost entirely through the eyes of white people does the work of white supremacy. It teaches you to think that white people are the norm and everyone else is ‘other’. It teaches you to think that white people are more important and their stories most deserve to be told. It teaches you, in short, to internalise the hierarchy of humans that underpins settler colonialism and white supremacy.
Toni Morrison spoke of this pernicious white centring during an interview from 1998. ‘I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people’, she said, ‘…as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I’ve spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books’.
To challenge this racist status quo, it’s not enough to add a sprinkling of ‘diverse’ writers to the mix. As Jinghua Qian explains, ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts in the arts are often a way to avoid tackling the deeper problem of structural racism—while shouldering people of colour with educational labour and exposing them to harm.
Instead of adding a few non-white voices, the taken-for-granted centring of whiteness must itself be disrupted. We need to push white people and their stories out of the perennial limelight. We need to yield space. Hence, my decision to steer clear of white-authored books, and reallocate that space to Indigenous authors and other writers of colour.
As Ambelin Kwaymullina writes in Living On Stolen Land, white settlers need ‘to engage with the / stories / that Indigenous peoples / tell about ourselves’. Settlers must ‘seek out the works / of Indigenous authors / playwrights / dancers / singers / Elders / communities / Not one story / not two / all of them’.
Of course, reading won’t bring down white supremacy. Novels are not reparations. They are not Treaty or a Voice to Parliament. Books alone will not end police violence or Black deaths in custody.
But, as Nayuka Gorrie explains, dismantling white supremacy requires both external and internal work. Alongside the external work of ‘LAND BACK, financial contributions, volunteering your time in useful capacity’, settlers must also undertake the ‘unending’ internal work of ‘unlearning, shifting your values, therapy, reflection and so much more’.
This reading challenge was part of my internal work. While stuck at home during the groundhog days of Melbourne’s lockdown, I read to unlearn white supremacy. My hair grew wild, Brett Sutton grew a beard, masks became de rigueur, time lost all meaning, my sourdough starter turned green—and all the while, I searched out different stories. Apart from a few white-authored books read for work, I’ve stuck to the task.
It’s been nearly four months now. As winter turned to spring, as case numbers went from 70 to over 700 then back down to five, my apartment grew towers of books—purchases that also redirected capital towards Indigenous and PoC writers.
Among them are great riches: Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin-winner The Yield; the archival provocations of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments; and the incendiary poetry of Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, Omar Sakr’s The Lost Arabs and First Nations collection Fire Front. There are fresh fiction debuts, including Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing and Vivian Pham’s Coconut Children; the zestful Afrofuturism of N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became; and Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, a bomb of a book that reminds us the gender binary is just another artefact of white supremacy.
There’s Avni Doshi’s scarifying Booker-shortlisted debut Burnt Sugar and C. Pam Zhang’s Booker-longlisted goldrush tale How Much of These Hills Is Gold. There’s local short story collections like Elizabeth Tan’s impossibly beguiling Smart Ovens for Lonely People, as well as the speculative fiction anthology After Australia. There are many more besides.
But I want to stress: this isn’t about any one book—although there have been wonderful books aplenty, as well as some less memorable reads. This is about the cumulative effect of abstaining from the white literary gaze and replacing it with other modes of looking.
Often, small things have been the most powerful. In Brandon Taylor’s Booker-shortlisted Real Life, the African-American protagonist refers to crowds of ‘white people’. These people are not important to the story; they’re just backdrop on a summer evening. But through the mere fact of naming their race—something no white writer would do—Taylor explodes the normalisation of whiteness, the fallacy that only people of colour are raced. He attacks the assumption that ‘white people’ are just ‘people’, while everyone else is a deviation from this norm. With a single word, Taylor conjures a new way of seeing.
Omar Sakr’s ‘White Flu’, a short story in After Australia, also wields language to devastating effect. The story, written pre-Covid, features a pandemic that only strikes white people—a playful fiction that saw Sakr experience racist attacks. For me, however, the real novelty of ‘White Flu’ is not that white people are dying; rather, it’s that their deaths don’t matter. The white flu is background, a drama played out on the evening news, while the real action concerns the family dynamics of the queer Arab protagonist. Mass white death is mere white noise. No one really cares.
Understated yet unmissable, this provocation is a disorienting inversion of real-world hierarchies that skewers white hypocrisy. As readers, we feel unsettled, even perturbed, that (fictional) white deaths don’t matter; and yet, our actions each day devalue actual Bla(c)k and Brown lives. We remain numb so long as the people suffering are not like us. We allow Black deaths to be white noise, for real. How dare we?
In conveying such truths, my reading was a reminder of the power of story. Many recurring themes were already familiar to me: frontier violence, stolen generations, intergenerational trauma, everyday racism, white fragility, racialised policing. As an academic, a professional brain who researches Australian history, I thought I knew. But learning about them through story, via a non-white gaze, brought a different kind of understanding—one that sinks deep into blood and bones. Stories changed me in a way that facts had not.
Above all, listening to non-white voices taught me how much more listening is required. A lifetime’s worth, in fact. With each book, I glimpsed anew how much I didn’t know. In the words of Kwaymullina, I was ‘learning to hear the noise of settler-colonialism inside [my] head’. It was an awful din, it turned out.
Meanwhile, beyond my apartment, the malignant whiteness of literary culture grew harder to ignore. Over recent months, structural racism has come to light at Verity La, the Canberra Writers Festival and the Fairfax emerging critics program. It’s seen Sakr attacked for ‘White Flu’, the media in uproar over a ‘diverse’ Booker shortlist, and a young Asian woman castigated for a ‘nasty’ review (when, as Evelyn Araluen notes, white men habitually write critical reviews without censure).
This is all to say that, despite its progressive veneer, the world of books continues to reflect and reproduce white supremacy. That will only change if we make it change. Otherwise, things will continue as they’ve always done.
A confession: I’m uncomfortable writing this piece. I’m anxious that my words may seem an exercise in virtue signalling or asserting my credentials as what Alison Whittaker terms a ‘good white’. Maybe I should have ceded my spot to a non-white writer.
But I’m forging ahead because I recognise that white fear of discomfort keeps white supremacy alive. Our fear of saying the wrong thing, of getting pushback, keeps us silent—and that silence maintains the status quo. White silence is violence, as they say. The practice of anti-racism therefore requires the vulnerability of speech. As white academic Hannah McGregor puts it, ‘We’ve got to care more about demanding a better world than we care about our own comfort’.
Of course, my comfort is still largely intact. It’s only been four months. It’s only been forty books. The list of things I don’t know could still fill my state-mandated 5km household radius. Only now, perhaps, I’m a little more aware of my ignorance.
But this is a beginning. What started as a glib reading challenge has upended my own gaze on the world. I can’t unsee what the world looks like without white people at the centre.
The end of 2020 will not mark the end of this internal work. It will last a lifetime—and, to be meaningful, must be accompanied by the external work of giving money, time and other resources. With that in mind, I’m donating payment for this piece, written on the stolen and unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations, to the grassroots campaign Pay The Rent.
And as I keep paying the rent, I’ll continue to meditate on the last stanza of van Neerven’s poem ‘Gubbaleaks’:
all racism leaks & streaks
don’t let us be the only ones
who see the stains
Dr Yves Rees is a writer and historian living on unceded Wurundjeri land. At present, Yves is a Lecturer in History at La Trobe University and co-host of Archive Fever podcast.