I have talked before about how I wasn’t exactly the best person growing up. I was absolutely the product of an environment where racism and homophobia and sexism were “normal” and completely acceptable. And yes, the world has vastly improved for the better. But this isn’t the world I grew up in. I have a very conservative and religious family, and lived in a very conservative pocket of California (if you look at a political map, we’re that little red spot in a very blue state.
And, if I’m being totally honest, I started realizing some of the things I had been taught or told weren’t right fairly early. I didn’t know enough or wasn’t brave enough to ever say anything, but the racist or sexist or homophobic jokes and comments always made me a little bit uncomfortable. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t part of the problem, because that’s what you had to do to fit in around here, and I had enough problems with that already. But I do think that contributed to how I felt about myself. Which was very not good.
So, today, I thought I’d share some tips on how I used books to stop being part of the problem and actually like myself more! I know this is a totally radical idea, but it turns out when you stop being a judgmental asshole, it’s easier to actually believe you’re a good person. Who knew, right?
Step One: Recognize you’re probably at least kind of asshole even though you probably don’t think you are (it’s time to examine your subconscious biases!)
Yes, we all have them. No, you’re probably (definitely) not “the least racist person in the world”. And yes, you almost definitely have some internalized prejudices you probably don’t know you have. Welcome to 2021, where it’s time to stop brushing that shit under the rug and deal with it because our parents didn’t! Like mental health issues, prejudices (like racism) are not best ignored (trust me on that one). They tend to simmer until they boil and no one wants that. Unless you are a truly awful person, in which case I will have to kindly ask you to fuck off. Thanks!
But, for the rest of you, the good news is there is a way out. Since you’re here, I am assuming you have at least a passing interest in books. Which is good, because I am a firm believer that reading in general not only makes you smarter, it makes you a better person. And it doesn’t even matter what kind of books you like, because even if you only read one very specific genre, I’d bet good money that you’ve read about people/characters whose experience differ from yours. You’re opening your mind even if you’re not even thinking about it.
Which is a start. But now, think about what those experiences or cultures or worldviews or orientations or beliefs were. What was different from yours? Did any of them make you uncomfortable (even just a little bit)? Did you disagree with any of them? Now think about why they made you uncomfortable, or why you disagreed with or didn’t like something. If you’re reading about a serial killer and thought what they were doing is wrong, you’re probably in the clear. But if you’re reading about someone who simply has different values or beliefs than you do, maybe look at that a little more closely and think about how it makes you feel and why.
If something makes you uncomfortable and you don’t know why, it might be a subconscious bias. And the first step to banishing it is recognizing it. So think about exactly what about that thing makes you uncomfortable. Put it into words. And if you wouldn’t be willing to share that explanation with the class, I think you know what the problem is. You have just dug up a subconscious bias!
Now, let’s hit it over the head with some books.
Step Two: Commit to doing the work
Personally, I have done a lot of work on myself over the past few years. I was in the process of using books to become a better person long before I was doing it on purpose. But the work has gone a lot faster now that I try to choose books more purposefully. Not everything I read is for a specific reason. Out of every ten or so books, I try to pick one nonfiction book that is about a social issue (currently focusing on antiracism with a healthy side of feminism).
But reading nonfiction isn’t the only way to put in the work. If you like reading romance novels, try to pick up more of them by and about people of color. You’ll get a fun romance, but you’ll also be exposed to an experience different than your own. Unfortunately, you kind of have to actively seek out diverse books because it’s still very easy to read mostly white or whitewashed books (take a look at any book blogger or vlogger’s monthly wrap up and you’ll see it’s true). I even wrote a whole post last year over why it isn’t that easy to find and read more books by authors of color.
So whether you’re choosing to read books specifically for educational reasons OR you just want to incorporate more books into your normal reading that open your mind to more diverse experiences, you’re going to have to put in some work. Once you start doing this on purpose, you’ll get a better idea of what you want and need to focus on, and it gets easier to keep going.
The good news is there are TONS of resources nowadays. I have a lot of recommendations on this blog (but will give you more personalized ones if you want!), and I know so many other bloggers do as well. In the mood for a thriller? It takes two minutes to Google “thrillers by BIPOC authors” (see, I did it for you). And while there is nothing wrong with reading everything by Gillian Flynn, maybe take a second to explore what else is out there.
Step Three: Target practice
So you’ve started to look more closely at your own biases and maybe read some more diverse books. Congratulations! You should be starting to get a better idea of what you should be focusing on. If you believe abortion is absolutely wrong, no excuses ever, women’s issues might be something you can address. Trust me, I went to Catholic school for twelve years and Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road changed my mind. And I’m a much better feminist for it.
Here’s the trick: you don’t have to completely get rid of your entire belief system and become a radical feminist. But don’t you think it’s important to be able to defend your beliefs intelligently? You don’t have to agree with me, but why do you disagree? The point of this exercise is not to change your mind on everything, but to see if what you believe stands up to criticism. Wouldn’t you like to think your beliefs are that strong? Here’s a safe way to test them.
I’ve always said I don’t care what you believe, as long as you have a good reason why. But if you come at me and try to justify racism, I will back up my argument with so many sources your head will spin. I am not going to lie, I get immense pleasure out of making racist/sexist assholes feel stupid. The look on their faces is a fun reward for all the work you put in. Look at you! You’re on your way to not only not being a better person, but making the world a better place! Gold star! Seriously, though, it feels awesome and makes me feel a little better about how much the world can suck sometimes.
Step Four: Accept that you and your beliefs are not “better”
It sometimes blows my mind that people don’t seem to understand that “different” does not automatically mean “better” or “worse”. You can be different from someone, but still be equal to them. Crazy, I know. Seriously, though, there are way too many people who seem to not understand this. Believe what you want, but that doesn’t mean I have to. AND it also doesn’t mean I get to disrespect you for it, either. Unless you are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic… you get the point. Because then I do reserve the right to withhold my respect. I think that’s fair.
Exploring different cultures and life experiences will make you see how beautiful the way other people live can be, even if you don’t want to live the same way. Reading about Muslim characters won’t make you a Muslim, just like reading about dinosaurs won’t make you a dinosaur. But it might teach you something, and send you back into the world with a little more knowledge and empathy.
There is also some value in understanding your own beliefs. Personally, I think it’s important to be able to back them up. Your beliefs become stronger, which has the added side effect of making you feel less threatened by something different. And that, my friends, is the root of prejudice! As Yoda says, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the dark side.” It’s human nature to fear the unknown, so shine a light on it and you’ll see it’s not so scary. It’s just different, and that’s okay.
Seriously, how boring would the world be if every single person liked and believed the same things? Pretty damn boring. So by embracing and learning more about what makes the world – not just your world, the one we all have to share – a wonderful place (hint: it’s diversity), we can stop being scared little shits. Pretty cool, right?
Step Five: Use your knowledge to fight evil
In my own journey to be less of an asshole person, I have noticed some pretty cool, yet unexpected side effects. When you learn about something, it really does become less scary. Because if a T. rex came at me a few years ago, I definitely would have frozen and probably immediately gotten eaten. Now, thanks to books, I know I can outrun it in a car (don’t try it on foot), so it’s slightly less scary because I know enough to know how to react in a way that’s not stupid or crazy or mean (like shoving someone else in front of the T. rex so I can escape). Though it would definitely still be pretty terrifying, let’s be real.
And when you apply the same formula to remove the fear of unknown cultures or religions or orientations or a million other things people can be jerks about, the world itself doesn’t seem so bad. As a result, it’s a lot easier to spot the bad and do something about it. Not gonna lie, when I was a kid people of color were kind of intimidating in a weird way because I wasn’t really taught to accept them even though they were different from me. So I’d focus on that little seed of fear instead of the person being racist, because I was scared. Now that I’m not (because I know there is no reason to be), I can focus on the racist person instead. And use my brain to make them feel like the tiny little person they are.
But that isn’t the only way we can fight people like that. Because they’re not all bad. Sure, some of them are. But I bet you have at least one friend or family member who is at least a little bit racist. The one who makes slightly off-color jokes that everyone nervously laughs at or ignores. Now that you’ve done the work, and understand exactly why that is not okay, you can be the one to tell them so.
I definitely have those people in my life. And doing the work has made me much more comfortable saying something when I hear something wrong. The more I work on this to better myself, the more it has become a habit to correct people in the moment (helping them learn as well), and encouraging people to stop perpetuating their unconscious prejudices by bringing them into the light. You don’t even have to make it a big deal. A simple, “hey, that’s not cool” is enough to make some people start rethinking what they just said.
One major bonus to all of this is that I feel so much better about myself. I’ve talked a little bit before about how I’ve struggled with self-esteem and depression for almost my entire life. But doing this work has massively contributed to making me feel like I don’t suck. I was taught to think other people are wrong for supporting gay marriage or not going to a Christian church. But it is so freeing to be accepting instead of always being against something. You don’t have to embrace things you don’t agree with, but if it’s not hurting you, just choose to not care. Ignore it. It really is that easy. I promise literally nothing bad will happen. And everyone, including you, will be so much happier for it.
Step Six: Don’t stop learning
Yes, I have done enough work to feel like I can share this guide to help you do the same. I have changed so, so much in the past five or so years because of this. I can absolutely say I am a drastically better person for it, and I am so proud of myself for choosing to be on this journey. But it is a journey. I recognize that I am flawed, that I have privilege, and that there is still a lot more I need to learn. So even though I have actively been putting in the work and feel like I’m a better person, I also know that I have more to do.
I know I could be doing better, and I’m going to keep trying to do better. Being a better person isn’t just something you can check off your to do list. It’s something you have to always keep working on. Yes, this process has taught me a lot of things that made me better. But it also taught me just how much more I need to learn. And not just because I was ignorant, but also because I was taught things that aren’t right, or at the very least extremely one-sided. So I’m working to fix that.
Honestly, if there is one thing I can say to convince you to join me on this journey, it’s this: for the first time in thirty years, I legitimately feel like I am a good person. I can honestly say that. And it feels so good. But I am just one person, and I am far from perfect. I’m not going to change the world alone. Hey, if this post convinces even one person, I’d consider that my good deed for the day. It is truly worth it and one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done, and I think you should try it.
Here’s to being a better human. And if that requires me to read more, fine.