My formal education ended a while ago. And, despite the fact that I have multiple college degrees, I am constantly finding areas in which my education has fallen short. Unfortunately, you can’t learn everything in school (but you can still learn a lot, so stay in school kids). But, growing up in conservative America, it took me a while to realize just how lacking in diversity my education was.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase that history is written by the victors. I propose we revise that a little bit: history was written by white men. And, therefore, tends to be kind of racist and sexist. While I do not have the power to fix that in our education system (sadly), I can fix it in my own brain. So, I’ve been on a journey to learn as much as I can and fill the gaps. Let’s explore how I am becoming an insufferable history nerd who makes people uncomfortable with facts about how racist our formal education is.
Did you know Washington’s teeth weren’t wood? They mostly belonged to slaves (source). Anyway…
Recognize and Fill in the Gaps
You all know I love reading nonfiction. I read kind of a lot of it. And while it not quite as fun or easy to read as fiction, I do find it really fulfilling. And definitely educational (my brain is full of random facts from books).
But one thing I have been trying to do lately is to make my nonfiction reading more diverse. That does not mean I don’t read nonfiction by white authors or about white people. I am currently reading Grant by Ron Chernow, which is by a white man about a white man. But it’s also about a president who truly believed racism was wrong, fought against it, and was widely despised for trying to abolish the KKK… a hundred and fifty years ago.
But I’m also reading book about black history and women’s history and basically anything I can get my hands on. Ever heard of Jeremiah Hamilton? He was Wall Street’s first black millionaire and a total badass. And yes, I read his biography. I’ve also read diverse memoirs and books about racial issues in both the US and Britain. Throw in a lot of diverse fiction, and I feel like I’m on the right track… but the more I read, the more I realize have to learn.
When I read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, I realized just how much knowledge I was lacking about the subject. I mean, I knew I had a lot to learn, but that was definitely a wake-up call. Because not only do I have a lot to learn, I have to reevaluate everything I had already been taught.
Read Outside Your Comfort Zone
One of the best ways I have found to fill in the gaps is reading outside of my comfort zone. A perfect example of this is Know the Beginning Well: An Inside Journey into Five Decades of African Development by K. Y. Amoako. I had not heard of this book at all before the publisher very kindly reached out to me. What struck me most reading the synopsis is that I couldn’t think of a single other nonfiction book I had read set in Africa (except Trevor Noah’s excellent memoir).
But in years and years of studying history from all over the world, I had never once learned about Africa. I took college classes in Russian history and Eastern European history and Chinese history and American history… I’m not sure Africa was ever even an option. And, since this was something new to me, of course I immediately responded that I would love to read this book and learn more about this subject.
This is where I should mention that, while I have a degree in history and am a massive history nerd, in my college career, I failed exactly one class: economics. (It wasn’t totally my fault, my professor phrased the test questions weird and almost everyone failed, but still.) So, this was kind of new for me, in multiple ways. Luckily, Amoako (who has a crazy impressive career) wrote this almost as a memoir. So, while I will admit to not quite grasping some of the economic concepts, it was pretty easy to read.
And I learned A LOT. It was really eye opening to see how different Africa’s concerns were from America’s. For example, Africa’s leaders focused a lot on being able to feed their citizens. Which is important around the world, but something I don’t hear much about in America. They also put emphasis on empowering women. It reminded me a lot of Melinda Gates’s book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. It’s something that is incredibly important, especially for nations focusing on becoming more developed.
I was impressed both with how far Africa has come in such a short amount of time and with how Amoako presented the information. Even though this wasn’t really something I’d normally pick up, I really appreciated having a good way to learn more and broaden my own horizons.
Why This is Important
I think most of us know how much information out there is skewed or flat out wrong (especially if you are currently living in America). Even the news is often biased now. Biases are natural – most of us are raised with them and it’s really hard not to carry them with you. I’m sure I am enjoying the Grant biography a lot more because I am biased towards books that promote anti-slavery as a good thing. Sure, that’s (hopefully) a basic belief most people have now, but it’s still a bias.
But my biases weren’t always aligned with what I believe now. I was raised in a very conservative community by parents that were pretty vocal in their judgements of others. I carried those with me for a long time. But one of the things I am most proud of in my life is educating myself to the point that I am a lot more open-minded and accepting. I had to unlearn the biases I was taught as a child. Your biases might not be your fault, but they are something you can change. They might not be something you need to change, but they are something you should give some thought to. Why are you biased towards a thing? And, deep down, is that actually what you believe?
What changed for me was reading books. I have made a conscious effort over the past few years to expose myself to other cultures and experiences. I will never know what it is like to be a black person. Or an asian person. Or an indigenous person. While I have received some hints of racism due to my Middle-Eastern last name, I look white. That is how the outside world sees and (for the most part) treats me.
By reading books – both fiction and nonfiction – about different experiences, I feel like I am better able to recognize discrimination in my real life. I might never understand, but it is the least I can do to learn and support marginalized groups of people or different cultures. Learning more about even African economic development gave me a deeper understanding of where African people are coming from and what people living there have gone through.
I think, particularly here in the US, we really need to improve how mainstream society thinks about people and societies that are “other”. Racism and discrimination come from fear. Fear is often caused by a lack of knowledge and/or empathy. If anything, I am so glad I changed that for myself and realized there is a different path. But the more I learn, the more I feel like I can better find ways to make a positive difference.
You Can Learn Things from Books You Might Not Learn Elsewhere
Personally, I do feel like I got a pretty good education. I am proud of my degrees. But I also recognize that I still have a lot to learn. I think too many people leave school and just stop seeking out new knowledge. And I don’t really agree with that. The world is a really cool place, and there are so many amazing things out there that you don’t know.
In the past few of years, I have learned about dinosaurs, zombifying parasites, various historical figures like Catherine the Great and Leonardo da Vinci, earthworms (yes, I literally read an entire book about earthworms and liked it), crematories, microbes, astrophysics, plagues, genes, blood, octopuses, a groundbreaking women’s basketball team, and the history of humans. Sure, I frequently annoy everyone I know with random facts, but I am so freaking proud of myself and my brain.
I also learned about things like racial issues in both American and Britain, the first black millionaire in the US – Jeremiah Hamilton, how people live differently than I do in other parts of the US, one man’s journey to escape from North Korea and what life was like for him there, how important it is to empower women – especially in other countries, rape culture on college campuses, what life is like for people in countries like South Africa or Pakistan, and how to be a better feminist.
And guess what? I didn’t even come close to learning any of those things in school. And the more I read, the more I learn. And the more I learn, the more I realize I still have to learn. And (contrary to what twelve-year-old-me believed), that is a wonderful feeling. I might be stuck inside with only my books, but those books contain the entire world. And knowing the potential there is kind of amazing.
It Will Change You
Ever since I started on my journey to learn about anything and everything I can, I have completely changed as a person. I do feel like a badass nerd when I can gross people out with the fact that there are wasps that perform neurosurgery on cockroaches to turn them into zombies (true story – Google “cockroach wasps”). But more importantly, I am so much better as a person. And while I hope that does lead to me making some difference, no matter how small, I am satisfied that I can walk around feeling like a good person.
I have knowledge to stand up and fight for my beliefs and intelligently argue against things that are wrong (like racism). It might just be turning thirty (if your not there yet, trust me when I say it makes a huge difference and it’s awesome), but I think having so much more knowledge has helped me feel comfortable in my own skin. Some days, I don’t feel great about myself, but I never stop being proud of my brain and what it can do.
Learning about people and places and cultures different from you WILL make you a better, more empathetic person. It just does. And I truly believe that is something this world can use today.
I hope this post was coherent (it took me a long time to write and I am very tired). But, more importantly, I hope this inspired some of you to pick up books outside your comfort zone and learn about something new. It can be fiction (highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi) or nonfiction (Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi is a great start), but trust me when I say that it will make you feel smarter and better as a person. It’s worth it, I promise.
Have you read any books outside your comfort zone or learned something new lately? And, if you’d like to, but don’t know where to start, give me some ideas about what interests you and I can leave some recommendations in the comments!