For my contribution to The Anti-Racist Educator’s current writing challenge, I decided to review a book that I just finished reading. Open for all to participate (just email your submissions), our writing challenge asks you to select a film, book, podcast, song, piece of art, or any other form of media that had a strong impact on your understanding of racism and to explain what you gained from it.
This particular book is not like anything I have ever read before. I happened to spot it in a bookstore at a time when I really needed something to lift me up. As I am at a stage of my career where I am looking for progression, I recently experienced the type of institutional barriers that many of my veteran peers of colour had warned me about. The type of demoralising barrier where you see other white people with less experience and fewer skills getting promoted before you – mostly because of their white, male privilege and because they just ‘fit’ in. I had heard so many stories from people of colour facing this type of institutional racism in Scotland, however, I never considered how it could happen to me. And I didn’t expect it to hurt so much when it slapped me right across the face without warning. It was in this vulnerable state that I spotted the pale green letters of the book Think Like A White Man: Conquering The World… While Black by Dr Boulé Whytelaw III (aka Nels Abbey).
At first sight, I laughed and sighed with relief that someone out there knew exactly what I was going through and had bothered writing an entire book about it. If white men are always the ones to succeed, perhaps thinking like them would help us people of colour reach the top of those ivory towers. As I picked up the book and flicked through its pages, I began to feel more ambivalent: should people of colour really be aspiring to whiteness, wiping out their differences, squashing others, just to thrive in the workplace? It’s that kind of ruthlessness and self-denial/self-hate that makes people of colour at the top virulently complicit in white supremacy (just look at the Home Secretary Sajid Javid's complicity in the Home Office's 'hostile environment').
Nevertheless, Nels Abbey’s introduction to the book assured me that a lot of the advice given by his fictional alter-ego, Dr Boulé Whytelaw III, has to be taken with a grain of salt. Dr Boulé Whytelaw III is a Distinguished Professor of White People Studies and Nels Abbey is a British Nigerian writer and media executive based in London. This book is the very first of its kind: a ‘racially-spiced non-fiction satirical self-help book’ to help black people survive and succeed in white workplaces.
How did it contribute to my understandings of racism and what did I gain from it?
While cynical at times, the laughter and smiles it triggers are contagious. Even though the subject of laughter is often very dire (racial injustice), the nonchalant tone helps us keep going and it provided much validation for me as a woman of colour. Racism can be isolating and we are often gas-lighted into believing that it doesn’t really happen. Therefore, it is incredibly powerful to have a whole book which both confirms, as a matter of fact, that racism is a serious struggle and suggests some humorous ways of dealing with it. As a self-care book, it identifies many coping mechanisms for dealing with the sometimes nauseating whiteness of a workplace.
Besides its survival tips, the book offers inspiration as it pioneers a new genre and demonstrates that writing with a racial lens can be a fun, creative and insightful process that I would eagerly envisage for the future. Adopting an intersectional lens, the book equally recognises male privilege, class privilege and light-skinned privilege, prompting further critical reflection from the reader.
Think Like A White Man really did lift my spirits as I felt more hopeful and more confident about some strategies I could adopt for my career progression. Granted, some of its strategies are not meant to be taken seriously as Nels Abby reminds us in his appendix of some of the more ruthless types of black professionals with the ‘undercover brother’.
*SPOILER ALERT* - some of my favourite moments.
Working twice as hard will never be enough…
On his first day in the white corporate world, Whytelaw describes his optimism and determination to work twice as hard, just like his black parents cautioned him. His enthusiasm is contagious until… he is mistaken for a security guard. While Whytelaw relates this anecdote with mirth, it powerfully evokes the types of racial microaggressions that people of colour face in the workplace and in everyday life. Such anecdotes made me increasingly aware of my light-skinned privilege as a biracial woman – while my professionalism has often been questioned, I’ve only been mistaken for a pupil because I look ‘young’ for a teacher.
White privilege in the workplace…
Why white people? Turning the gaze…
This book does a great job of turning the gaze and critically, unapologetically examining whiteness (as well as patriarchy for that matter). What I really enjoyed about this book is that it immediately made me feel comfortable as a non-white reader. It makes blackness or non-whiteness the norm and it reverts the general assumptions authors tend to make about their readers: that all books are for white people. This book is specifically not written for a white audience. Having stated that, white people could definitely learn a lot from this book and gain a better sense of how racism works - that is, if they manage to keep their white fragility in check.
White Mentor, Black Mentor...
Think Like a White Man has some genuine advice that many people of colour would benefit from and self-care tips that I already try to follow. For instance, I agree that for people of colour, it is essential to have both a white mentor and a mentor of colour to support them in their professional development. In fact, after SAMEE’s successful BME mentoring and coaching programme, the Scottish government is planning on running a similar programme for the whole of nation to support all BME teachers. There must be some truth in it.
Finally, I could not agree more with the book’s exploration of racism as rooted in history, systemic and strategic for white people.