Category Archives: Reflections

Top 15 Most Impactful Books That I Read In 2020

This year will make it into the history books of the future. Kids will likely read about 2020 (let’s hope it will just be 2020) for generations to come. It was also an excellent year to be a reader for several reasons. First of all, there was more time to read than in most years, because there weren’t many places to go or to be. Second, reading allows you to change your scenery and even your life for a little while.
Mason Cooley’s quote “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” seems to have been made for this year. It wasn’t unless he’s a sort of Nostradamus, Cooley lived between 1927 and 2002. He was a professor emeritus of French, speech, and world literature and he was known for his witty aphorisms.

I used the stories in books a lot this year to get away from the sofa and to other places and worlds. 70 times to be exact. I read more this year and I wrote less. Most posts take me about 5 hours to write (and about 5 minutes to read, it’s better that I don’t dwell on that), and having to put aside 5 hours each weekend is a big investment. I’m happy with the current rhythm, so I plan to stick to it in 2021. The full list of books that I read in 2020 is listed below. For my reference as much as for yours. When I set out to select my top reads I expected it to be mostly filled with non-fiction. How wrong I was. There are only three non-fiction books in my top 15 of 2020. There are also 2 plays on it and 10 fiction books.

It feels a bit pretentious to write about my top 15 but I love reading about other people’s top reads and I often find new “to be reads” on these lists, so here we go. If you don’t care about lists you can skip the rest of this post. The books are listed in the order in which I read them.

Mindset by Carol Dweck
In Mindset, Carol Dweck explains what a growth mindset is and what a fixed mindset is, and why it’s good to have a growth mindset. The term growth mindset is used by a lot of people, not just in self-help books, but also in business. Not everyone who uses the term knows what it means though.
Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum between a growth and a fixed mindset and it can shift a bit depending on the topic or how you are feeling.
Teaching yourself to have a growth mindset is worth it. It helps both you and the people around you. The possibilities of what you can do are (almost) endless, you just have to believe in them!

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold
Luke Arnold’s debut novel is special. The world that he has created is imaginative and well designed and the story gripped me from the start. It has exactly the right level of darkness in it and it kept surprising me.
Arnold’s released his second novel, Dead Man in a Ditch”, also featuring Fetch Philips in 2020 and it’s definitely on my “to be read” list for 2021.

The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
In this classic tale, the narrator is 15-year-old Christopher. Mark Haddon does an excellent job of taking us along Christopher’s train of thought. Christopher is very good at math and facts and not as good as people and feelings. He prefers to stay close to home but when he finds that the neighbor’s dog has been murdered wants to find out what happened and who did it. The answer is surprising to both Christopher and the reader!

The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez is the first play that I read in 2020. It’s an emotional story about difficult subjects, told in an understated way. It was powerful to read, I can only imagine how powerful it must be to watch it as a play. If I ever have the opportunity to see the play I won’t hesitate.
The story is about a group of men wanting to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. The writers are “young man” 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. Two of them are Eric and Toby and they also tell the story of Eric and Toby and their friends.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard
The second play on this list is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This one is a classic that has been performed by some very interesting performers (I haven’t seen it be performed, unfortunately). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two supporting characters from Hamlet and in this play, we get to experience what happens to them when they are not on stage in Hamlet. It’s clever and funny.
It will surprise no one that the version I would have most liked to see is the version with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz in the title roles in 2013 at the Sydney Theatre Company. But the version with Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 would also have been a memorable treat.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
I listened to the audiobook of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. I picked this book because it’s narrated by Lin Manuel Miranda. It’s a heart-warming and heart-wrenching story and the narrating is as good as you’d expect from Miranda. It was a treat to listen to the story of Aristotle and Dante discovering who they are and what their place in the world is.

Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
In Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explain why we should all want there to be more equality. Instead, the world that we live in gets more and more unequal and the corona crisis is increasing the gap even further. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The poor are also facing worse consequences of the crisis in non-monetary terms. I’ve always been an economic socialist and I wish there was a way to imprint the results of the research that is referenced in this book and the summary of the book itself into the collective consciousness of everyone who has an above-average income or significant assets.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is a romance novel. It was a close call between this one and Beach Read which one would make it onto this list. Both are great reads for when you long for a book that doesn’t require your brain to fire on all cylinders.
Red, White and Royal Blue is about the son of the President of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz, and his nemesis, the British Prince Henry. The two of them get into an altercation and both their families demand that they publicly show that they get along perfectly fine to avoid an international incident.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
We all take hundreds of decisions every day and each decision taken differently could have led to a different life. In The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Nora feels like all of the key decisions that she took were the wrong ones. She’s let everyone she cares about down.
One night when things are particularly bad Nora ends up in the midnight library. The library contains all the books describing the lives she could have lived had she made different choices. And she gets to try them on too! This book is another great story in which Haig plays with time in a very clever way (I can also highly recommend How To Stop Time).

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Color Purple by Alice Walker is a classic. And for good reason. It’s a heartbreaking and very painful story that is set in the south of the US in the 1930s. It’s told through the letters that the sisters Celie and Nettie write to each other. Somehow this way of telling the story makes it a lot easier to digest. Especially the strength and calm that Celie displays in her letters make the atrocities seem bearable. Alice Walker is a magician.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a young adult novel. I had this book on my e-reader for a long time before I started reading it. I was afraid I would be put off by the darkness and (or) the fact that it was written for young adults. Neither happened. It’s a great story and it gave me a lot of insights about living in a poor neighborhood in the US and about the impact of race on black people’s everyday life.

The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker
I pretty much read The Simple Wild by K.A. Tucker in a single sitting. It’s a romance novel but it’s more than that. I got attached to all the characters in the book. I was very happy to discover that there’s a sequel (Wild at Heart) and I bought that immediately. So far I haven’t read it because I’m afraid I will be disappointed after enjoying The Simple Wild so much. Either by the story itself or where it takes the protagonists, Calla and Jonah. But I will read it…soon!

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
I listened to the Clap When You Land audiobook, which is narrated by the author, Elizabeth Acevedo. Another great story with valuable insights (for me) about immigration and black people’s everyday experiences. There is a lot of heartbreak in this story but it never felt too dark to continue listening. The desire to know where the story would lead Camino and Yahaira, and to listen to the beautiful phrases and storytelling always tempted me to listen just a little bit longer…

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
In the stunning novel, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, we meet Werner and Marie-Laure.
It’s 1934 and Werner is a German orphan. He and his younger sister Jutta live in an orphanage in the mining town of Zollverein.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her dad, who is the principal locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. At six years old, Marie-Laure loses her eyesight.
Then the war starts…

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz & Janet Mills
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills is a short book that’s both inspiring and moving. It’s more spiritual than books that I would normally recommend or enjoy, but it’s just as powerful when you ignore all of that. This book made me feel calm and confident in a tumultuous period. It’s an excellent read for this extraordinary time.

The full list of books I read in 2020:

  1. Sand Talk – Tyson Yunkaporta
  2. #Girlboss – Sophia Amoruso
  3. Mindset – Carol Dweck
  4. The sense of an ending – Julian Barnes
  5. Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
  6. Breaking Cover – Stella Rimington
  7. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  8. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (audiobook)
  9. I is an other – James Geary
  10. The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan
  11. It started with a secret – Jill Mansell
  12. Seeing what others don’t – Gary Klein
  13. Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson
  14. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  15. Het water komt – Rutger Bregman
  16. The Last Smile in Sunder City – Luke Arnold
  17. Americanah – Chimananda Ngozi Adichie
  18. Fed Up – Gemma Hartley
  19. Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek
  20. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
  21. Does the Center Hold – Donald Palmer
  22. Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
  23. Quiet – Susan Cain
  24. The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
  25. The Inheritance – Matthew Lopez
  26. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead – Tom Stoppard
  27. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  28. Beach Read – Emily Henry
  29. How to Argue with a Racist – Adam Rutherford
  30. White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism – Robin DiAngelo
  31. How to be Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
  32. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Saenz (audiobook)
  33. Haben – Haben Girma
  34. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
  35. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  36. Broederschap. Op Zoek Naar Een Verloren Ideaal – Bas Heijne & Kiza Magendane
  37. Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare
  38. This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free – Martin Hägglund
  39. Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone – Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett
  40. Red, White and Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston
  41. The End of Everything – Katie Mack
  42. Humankind – Rutger Bregman
  43. More Than a Woman – Caitlin Moran
  44. Transformational Presence – Alan Seale
  45. The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
  46. Atomic Habits – James Clear
  47. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  48. Not All Dead White Men – Donna Zuckerberg
  49. King Lear – William Shakespeare
  50. The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
  51. Grit – Angela Duckworth
  52. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  53. Opdrachtgever Gezocht – Jan Willem van den Brink & Maarten van Os
  54. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi
  55. The Simple Wild – K.A. Tucker
  56. You Are a Badass – Jen Sincero
  57. Heartburn – Nora Ephron
  58. Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo
  59. Sula – Toni Morrison
  60. Call Me by Your Name – André Aciman (audiobook)
  61. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  62. Essentialism – Greg Mckeown
  63. Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
  64. The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz & Janet Mills
  65. The Magician’s Nephew – C.S. Lewis
  66. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
  67. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
  68. Wait, What? – James E. Ryan
  69. The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho
  70. 1984 – George Orwell

Humankind – A Hopeful History

If you need a break from the news and all the negativity in the world, it’s worth considering reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman. The premise in itself is interesting, Bregman claims that people are inherently good. We can be made to do awful things but we’re not programmed to be awful. I must admit that I was skeptical. How can you not be, with everything that’s going on in the world? I’m not completely converted after reading it but the book did plant the seeds of several new ideas. I will mention a few in this post. If you are looking for a feel-good vibe that is substantiated by research I highly encourage you to read Humankind.

Pessimist or optimist?

One of the ideas that this book changed for me is that I thought I was a pessimist. That I didn’t believe people are naturally good. I didn’t want to be a pessimist, I think no one wants to be a pessimist. When Bregman compared countries to companies I realized that while I’m a pessimist when looking at a global scale, I’m an optimist at a smaller scale. I believe companies should be run in a way that assumes that people are inherently good. Giving people responsibility will make them act more responsible. Keeping people on a short leash will make them passive and disinterested. You get the best results when people are intrinsically motivated and to allow people to be intrinsically motivated you have to give them some responsibility and trust them with it.

Why do I believe people are mostly inclined to do the right thing at the small scale of a company (not just the company that I work for, any company) but do I find it difficult to believe the same thing at the larger scale of a country or even the world? People working for companies are very clearly people. I can relate to them. When talking about countries the numbers become too big. We can’t imagine 17 million people (in the case of The Netherlands) which means that people become anonymous statistics. And it’s hard to feel compassion for statistics. We need to remember that all these people are more similar to us than they are different. Refugees and soldiers are all people. They have friends and family as we do and they want a good life for the people that they love. They just might have a different idea of how to get there.

Following the news

Most of us tend to closely follow the news. And for most of us, the news won’t make us feel better about people or the world. What we need to remember is that the news shows exceptions. The behavior and ideas of the majority of people aren’t newsworthy. The news also focuses on negative stories, as they are more sensational and we’re more likely to click on their headlines. The people protesting against the Corona rules and guidelines are exceptions. Most people try to follow the rules and guidelines. The people who point guns at BLM protesters who walk past their house are also exceptions. Watching the news shows you the worst and most negative exceptions and a lot of us are addicted to checking the news several times throughout the day, constantly keeping negative examples top of mind. At this point, our built-in availability bias kicks in. We feel that things we can recall easily must be important and happen often. This means that we assume that what we see on the news (riots at protests, terrorist attacks, and people consciously breaking corona guidelines) happens all the time. Most people are a lot more afraid of getting killed in a terrorist attack than of being struck by lightning and yet the latter is four times more likely to happen.

We feel that it’s important that we are informed about the latest news stories. It feels irresponsible not to know. When you think about it that makes no sense as ninety-nine out of a hundred times (at least) us being aware of the news doesn’t change a single thing for anyone except ourselves and our anxiety about the state of the world. We’re much better off picking a limited number of topics or problems to follow somewhat closely and try to make a difference in them. Either by donating money or by actively getting involved. You can then focus on those topics and leave the other topics for other people to deal with.
I have used this realization to cut down on my news consumption by mostly staying off Twitter. I’ve also become an Amnesty International member. I’ll continue to promote having empathy and compassion for people with different experiences than your own, I’ll do whatever I can to make the company that I work for as inclusive as possible, and I’ll try to always be kind.

Empathy vs compassion

The focus on empathy is interesting. Bregman describes in the book that people are inherently good and friendly, but that we are also very tribal. And having empathy enhances the feeling of tribalism. It makes us identify with one group and almost by definition because of that, turn against another group. It brings out the best but also the worst in us. Empathy can make us care deeply and it can make hate with the same passion. Instead of focusing on empathy, we should have a closer look at compassion. Compassion is more restrained and constructive. It doesn’t let you share in the suffering of the other person, but it does help you to see their suffering and take action. If you empathize strongly with someone who is suffering it can paralyze and drain you. Feeling compassion means you can keep your energy and take constructive action.
The book provides a simplified example. When a child is scared of the dark, you don’t want to feel their fear as if it’s your own (empathy). You want to comfort and reassure the child (compassion).

World leaders

The group of people that most make me doubt if it can be that people are inherently good. Or even, not inherently bad, it’s our current world leaders. The thing that sets our current leaders (“leaders”) apart from the rest of us, is that they have no shame. Most of us can’t imagine knowingly lying, even if the consequences are small. Let alone lying to an entire country and negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of thousands (if not millions) of people.
Most people’s emotions show in their faces and body posture. They can’t hide how they feel. And shame is an emotion that is very powerful and extraordinarily difficult to control. When we feel shame we start blushing. Anyone who has ever tried to stop the blushing knows that this is impossible. Thinking about it will inevitably make it worse, not better. Having our emotions on display helps us to come across as trustworthy to others. It allows us to be part of a team and work together.
Powerful people often don’t blush. They are literally shameless. They are more impulsive, egotistical, reckless, and arrogant than the average person. They cheat on their spouses more often and care less about other people’s perspectives. Some leaders grow up like this but power can also trigger it. Power can be a drug that makes you focus on yourself and it can detach you from the people around you.

So now what?

Think critically, always. Don’t give up. We should try to be kind and compassionate to our family, friends, and co-workers and more abstract groups like refugees and people with a different sexual orientation, religion, gender, or skin color. Don’t think in big numbers, think in people.
Being kind doesn’t mean being meek or tame. We need to change things and the only way to do that is by pushing hard against institutions and structures that are causing harm to other people or the earth. Sitting back and smiling politely won’t get us there. Pick a small thing that you feel strongly about and that you can contribute to and talk about it, write about it, sing about, march for it, or donate to the cause.
We aren’t inherently bad but we are also not completely good. We all have good and bad sides and where on the spectrum we are depends on the subject and your point of view. If we focus more on our own and other people’s kindness and positive sides we will see more of it. And that in turn will inspire us to do better ourselves. Baby steps. We can do this!

This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free

This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free has two parts that could have been two books. It feels a little bit like Hägglund had two strong ideas and a one-book deal. The book is split into two parts where each part describes one of the ideas. Both ideas are thought-provoking, very well researched, and clearly described and explained. It was easy to stay engaged in the philosophical text.
In this post, I’ll focus on the first part of the book, which is about why mortality makes us free. The second part explains why capitalism can never lead to equality and why redistribution of wealth under capitalism can’t work in the long run. I might come back to that in a later post.

Our mortality might be the one thing that we can all agree on in this world full of division and false dichotomies. We don’t know when or how, but eventually we’ll all die. We are fragile and our lives are finite. Hägglund argues, successfully in my opinion, that the transience of our life is what makes it valuable.
Death makes life meaningless, because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because the finitude of our lives makes every moment precious. Knowing that it can all end makes us care. Hägglund calls this secular faith. I would prefer to just call it caring, but that might be why I’m not a philosopher.

Most religions consider our finitude a lamentable condition that ideally should be overcome. Our lives on earth are considered a necessary prelude to eternity after death. An explanation of what eternity means is seldom included. It’s often considered to be similar to our lives on earth, except it will last forever. We’ll be together with our loved ones and there won’t be any pain or suffering. This premise means that it can’t be like our life on earth. The happiest day of our lives is so enjoyable because it sits in contrast to other days. Just try and picture the happiest day of your life (or just a happy day) and imagine it will last forever. The lack of contrast would make it bland and even boring. An eternal now would deprive us of a past and a future. There is no risk and no failure and thus no growth.

When we think about eternity after death this not what we have in mind. It turns out that we don’t want eternity. We want to continue to live our lives as we do on earth. When we wish that the lives of those whom we love will last, we do not wish for them to be eternal but for their earthly lives to continue.
The thought of our own death and the death of our loved ones is painful. We don’t want to die and we often don’t want things to end. At the same time, we shouldn’t want things to be eternal. Eternity would take away all reasons to care and be passionate. A life worth living must be finite and include secular faith or reasons to care. If your ultimate goal is to exist until you die, just so you can move on to eternity in heaven, you have no reason to deeply care about anything that happens during your life.

We enjoy spring because of the contrast of the cold and dark winter. We savior a summer day because we know that fall will be coming to fade the bright colors to a more demure red and yellow and brown. Life can be beautiful because it can be tough.
It is often asserted that life without spirituality suffers from disenchantment. However, it’s the transience of our lives that gives us a reason to care. If only one tiny circumstance in evolution or the lives of our ancestors would have been different, we would not have been here. There is no pre-determined meaning to life, but it can be beautiful. The most meaningful things in our lives often turn out to be the small things. A smile, a laugh, or sharing a spontaneous moment. We can make living worthwhile by caring and trying to make a difference to other people. Perhaps even to future generations. While our death is unavoidable, our legacy might live on.

It’s also a commonly held belief that religion is required to lead a moral life. The atrocities committed and wars fought in the name of religion should make it abundantly clear that religion can also have the opposite effect. The books and stories that are at the core of many religions are said to explain what it means to lead a moral life, but their interpretations differ wildly and some of them are used as excuses for bigotry and cause immense suffering. Leading a secular life, there isn’t a single dedicated text that tells us how to lead our lives. It’s up to us to create our moral compass. I like the humanist concept of trying to live your life in a way that does the least amount of damage and the most amount of good for both people and the planet. Not being sweetened by the idea of heaven or threatened with punishment in hell, leading a moral, secular life depends on intrinsic motivation. Knowing that life is short and death unavoidable provides this motivation for many.
Of course, some non-religious people feel that the meaninglessness of our existence is a reason to not care at all. But religion is certainly not a requirement for leading a good and moral life.

Seeing things in perspective as they happen is almost impossible. Looking back at past events it’s often easier to see them as precious. Time takes the edge of any hurt or worries that you encountered at the time. Appreciating the present is more difficult as it’s raw and unprocessed. Memories are also often isolated, not taking into account the full context of everything else that was going on in your life and the world.
This is especially challenging today. With a raging pandemic that’s causing pain and suffering and that’s increasing inequality, a sociopath in the White House, and the very urgent problem of climate change moved to the background it can be hard to find joy and happiness. If you feel this way try focusing on the small things. I can feel intense happiness when I’m running or when I’m sat on the sofa with a cup of tea after a long day. It’s ok to allow yourself these moments of happiness despite the state that the world is in. Denying yourself the little pleasures isn’t going to make the world a better place and might make you depressed.

I’m not religious and I believe that when I die my existence ends. While I’m not afraid of death I’m also not a fan, so I mostly don’t think about it if I don’t have to. While this book might not have changed my beliefs significantly I found it interesting and uplifting to read and think about why the finitude of our lives is a good thing. I liked both the writing and ideas. The second part of the book on the subject of democratic socialism is just as interesting as the first part and also worth a read.

Something else that fascinated me about the book was the confidence with which Hägglund asserts that the common interpretations of the works of some famous philosophers are wrong and how his interpretation is right. I understand that he has spent a lot of time studying all of these works as well as the broader concept. I don’t mean to say that he is wrong. A lot of Hägglund’s interpretations sound at least plausible. I simply don’t know and I’m not convinced that I would be bold enough to reject the norm and present my own interpretation as the right one. It’s interesting.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

The more I learn about racism, the more I realize how hard it is to argue against racist ideas. It’s not hard to oppose them, but it’s hard to say something that will get the other person to at least stop and think, let alone change their mind. This week I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. A lot of the ideas below were triggered by the excellent explanations and sometimes painful truths in the book.

I try to find a balance between consuming new ideas and staying informed and getting depressed from seeing too much hatred and ignorance online. It’s a thin line to walk on and I often get it wrong. Some of the discourse online scares the hell out of me. A good example is an article on a Dutch news site about the unmarked order troops in Portland who pick up protestors from the streets without identifying themselves and take them away in unmarked rental vans. The comments below that article are filled with remarks that what these troops are doing is justified and that the BLM protests and “Antifa” pose a serious threat to these cities and communities. After all, Trump declared that Antifa is a terrorist organization.

Antifa stands for anti-fascist. A definition of fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”. The word was originally used for Mussolini’s party and has since been generalized to include those with similar believes. Against that background and definition, I consider myself to be Antifa. I hope and even assume that most people commenting on the article would not identify as fascists even if some might not identify as explicitly anti-fascist.

Moving away from this specific example, how do you explain to someone who feels picking up BLM protestors of the street is good and just that black people have to deal with systemic and unjust racism and that they are right to demand structural changes? I don’t think many people who aren’t sympathetic towards the BLM organization and protests are afraid of losing their white privilege at this point. I think in many cases they are just scared of change in general. They want things to go back to “normal”. Where normal means that everyone accepts the world that we have today, inequalities and injustices and all. I think. Maybe?

The push for quiet and complacency isn’t new. In 1963 Liberation Magazine published an article by Martin Luther King, Jr that included the following statement: ‘First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” ‘Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t think we’ve made much progress in this area since 1963. That’s 57 years and two generations! Can you blame black people for getting frustrated with a society, government, and white people from both the left and the right not caring enough to make some real changes?

Part of the challenge of making society less racist is that the changes can’t be made by black people. Racism is about power. It’s about being a position to negatively impact other people’s lives. Lasting changes will have to be made by those in power. Unfortunately, those at the top also benefit the most from the current racist, misogynist power structures and thus have the most to lose. They will only change things when they are forced to. In places where quotas about the number or percentage of women that are being hired or women that are part of boards and leadership teams are enforced the number of (white) women is increasing.
Going forward we don’t just need quota on the number of women, we also need quota on the number of black people that are being hired and that are being promoted into leadership positions.

Many oppose quotas, stating that “the best person for the job” should be hired. But if you think that the homogeneous flock of middle-aged white men currently clogging the upper echelons of most professions got there purely through talent and hard work you’re fooling yourself. We don’t live in a meritocracy, and to pretend that simple hard work will allow people of all skin colors, genders, religions, etc. to achieve the same level of success is an exercise in willful ignorance.

To change racist laws and regulations we need a different approach as no institution can force a government to make changes. Keeping the status quo needs to lead to a structural loss of power or money to enforce changes. This could be achieved if the protests last long enough and through means like the broadly supported bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama between 1955 and 1956. It can also be achieved if those demanding change get so much support that not meeting demands means losing elections.

Even if you’re not keen on protesting you can contribute to the push for a more just world from the comfort of your own home. Especially if you are white. You can help spread the call for change to racist laws and institutions on social media, through letters to newspapers and among your friends and family. People who are not racist, but even people who are anti-racist are often moderate and polite about the issue.
The far-right don’t hold themselves to the same standards. They use bold claims, fear-mongering, and often lies. They use all the platforms they have access to, regardless of whether that’s a “decent” thing to do. They reach a lot of people with these tactics and speak to fear, which is a powerful tool. Their sympathizers don’t nod passionately at their screen when they read these lies, they amplify these right-wing voices in all the ways they have available to them. And they don’t fight among themselves even if they might not agree on all the nitty-gritty right-wing details.

We need to do the same. We need to share our passion for equality and anti-racism with the world. It’s uncomfortable and it might mean we end up in the occasional online shitstorm, but agreeing quietly at home isn’t helpful at this point. To weather the shit storms and limit the number of storms we need to also form a left-wing, anti-racist front. We are too happy to shout at people whose opinion is slightly different from ours while we avoid engaging with people who have a wildly different opinion. Let’s suspend our internal disagreements. They are, frankly, not relevant at the moment. We have bigger fish to fry.

Let’s agree to work together for now and amplify the voices of minorities. The mess we are living in was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a small hoarding few. It won’t be easy but we have to keep working at it. And just as important: we have to continue to believe that we can achieve real change. Because if we lose hope they win and we’re f*cked.

How to be an Antiracist

Yes, it’s another one about racism. We’re not done learning yet. We probably never will be. And you don’t get to complain about having to deal with racism until you’ve had to endure it for dozens of years as black people have.

Besides continuing to learn about racism, I’ve also learned something about books about racism this week. Literally for every book about racism that I’ve read or am considering to read I’ve seen people in my social media timelines explaining why the book is no good, doesn’t explain the issue correctly, or even corrupts the debate. I’ve also seen significant praise about all these books. At first, I felt discouraged by this and wondered what the point is, but after contemplating how to find the “right” books I’ve decided that as long as you’re not just reading one book and keep thinking critically, you’re probably going to be ok. Reading different perspectives can help you to shape your ideas. Those ideas can and should then be adjusted as you absorb more information.

The main insight that I got from Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracists is that there are different kinds of racism. When you read about it, it makes sense. But I’d never thought about racism as anything other than just a single concept. The easiest to define and understand types of racism are:

  • Biological racism – the ideas that there are genetic racial differences and that these differences create a hierarchy. If you want that properly debunked I can also recommend reading Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist. Even if that book doesn’t really explain how to argue with a racist unless they are using pure biological racism, which I think is rare.
  • Bodily racism – portraying and treating black bodies as more animal-like and violent than others
  • Cultural racism – creating and imposing a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy. A proponent of this is suggesting that black people will be better off if only they adopt white culture. We consider white customs the norm and anyone with different customs slightly or not so slightly barbaric.
  • Behavioral racism – is about making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and projecting the behavior of individuals onto entire groups.

Antiracism is to actively work against racism and racist ideas. This can start with simple things (theoretically simple at least). Behavioral racism is probably the type of racism we are all guilty of most often. When a white boy isn’t paying attention in school and getting back grades the boy is considered a bad student. Probably undermotivated and undisciplined. When a black boy is getting back grades and isn’t paying attention in school the behavior of the boy is extrapolated to all other black boys. Black boys aren’t worse students than white boys. But we do often feel that the bad behavior of one of them confirms our ideas about the behavior of the entire group. The fact that many white people believe this is problematic, but what’s worse is that these boys internalize those ideas too. And it’s been proven many times that if you believe that you are not as smart as the people around you, your results will suffer because of it.
Ibram Kendi writes that he grew up having many racist ideas himself and that he was sabotaging himself and his future opportunities because of them. He felt that if he messed up he was failing all black people. Can you imagine a white kid feeling like they failed all white people when they do something wrong?

We also extrapolate the positive achievements of individuals to the groups we identify them with, as many immigrant professional athletes can attest to. If they win, they are seen as an integrated part of the country they represent. If they lose they are referred to by their original nationality. This isn’t just true for black people. As a tennis fan, I know that Andy Murray has commented multiple times on the fact that he is called British by the British media when he’s won and Scottish when he’s lost. Of course, his achievements are his and not related to his country of birth or residency.
The same is true for black athletes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the 100 and 200 meters because he was a very dedicated athlete, he worked very hard, was very disciplined. He wasn’t an extraordinary athlete because he was black “and black people are better sprinters”. This idea is biological racism. The fact that there are more world-class black sprinters has to do with culture, role models, and motivation. Not with an innate ability to run faster.

Ibram Kendi argues that the source of racist ideas isn’t just ignorance and hate, it’s self-interest. Racist ideas are a by-product of racial policies. Getting rid of the policies is proving to be so hard because the people who have to adjust them have a self-interest in keeping them in place. The people in charge benefit economically and politically from the current system that benefits white people disproportionately.

An example that makes it relatively easy to explain is how schools are funded in the US. Schools are funded by property taxes in the school’s neighborhood. Property taxes are based on the prices of houses and when many black people live in a neighborhood, housing prices plummet. As a result schools in black neighborhoods are underfunded. This could be resolved by designing a different system by which to fund schools. But the people in charge are mostly white. Their kids live in white neighborhoods and go to white schools. Implementing a system that would allow for better funding of schools in black neighborhoods would mean that there will be less money for schools in white neighborhoods. The self-interest of the people in power ensures that the school funding system will not change anytime soon.
This video explains the school funding system very nicely

School funding is just one example. For most racist policies you’ll find similar self-interests keep them from being overturned. This means that the most effective way of protesting is to make it in the self-interest of those in power to change the policies. That’s very hard to achieve and can’t just come from black people. This fight gains more weight when both black and white people in power stand up against racist policies. But these people also have the most to lose. Will enough people be able to accept losing part of their privilege to enhance equality. Remember, when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. A lot will have to change before we can overturn policies and power structures that support racism today. It will take many self-less people and a lot of time, energy, and courage. I hope we’ll get there and I realize that just reading and writing about racism isn’t enough to contribute in a meaningful way. I also have to examine my privilege and get comfortable with the idea that I will have to give it up to ensure that we all have equal opportunities and resources.

I have been extremely lucky in my life and it’s time to share that luck with as many other people as possible.