White people think they know all about you from reading a book.

Sometimes a white person says something about people of colour that is untrue, and when you correct her, the white person will insist that she is right because she read it in a book.

You know that it is untrue because you do not (or somebody you know does not) fit into that generalization; thus, it is inaccurate to say that people of colour have that property, without qualifiers. For some reason, the white person believes that the written word should override the lived experiences of people of colour, even when that book is a fictional portrayal of, a study of, or an interpretation of our lived experiences.

Note that to give priority to one’s lived experience over a book in this case is not a case of anti-intellectualism. (However, it is probably often dismissed as anti-intellectualism by the white person, because of the assumption that people of colour are against book learnin’ and are opposed to something because it comes from a book.) Instead, disproving a universal claim by using one counterexample is an application of predicate logic.

To disprove the claim, “All X have property P,” all you need to do is to show, “There exists an X without property P.”

For example, in the documentary Bowling for Columbine (which won numerous awards, including an Oscar and a Cannes Film Festival award), Michael Moore claims that Canadians don’t look their doors. However, I am Canadian and I lock my door, so obviously, Moore’s claim is false. (Other Canadians I know also lock their doors, and most have installed alarm systems as well.)

Another example is that certain books about Asian culture may claim that in Asian families, the husband is the head of the household and the wife is subservient. However, I know several Asian families consisting of a wife and a husband, in which the wife is the head of the household and the husband is subservient. Obviously, this claim about male dominance in Asian families is false.

In books and other media published in white-majority countries, the same stereotypes of people of colour appear over and over again, because stories by people of colour that challenge those stereotypes are often deemed inauthentic, and are thus rejected for publication or mass distribution. White liberals, and even white anti-racists, may read one book or several books relaying the same themes and conclusions about the lives of people of colour. They are usually unaware that the visibility of books about the lives of people of colour—even those authored by people of colour—are subject to the selective pressures of white approval, in both publication and popularity. They are not fully aware of their white privilege, that even when they read books about people of colour, authored by people of colour, these books may still be catering to their white lens and reaffirming their racial preconceptions.

Again, when you challenge these single stories in published books with our own diverse stories from our lived experiences, we are dismissed again, simply because what we say contradicts the book, or multiple books of the same type, perhaps all referencing the same classic text of a single story that became canonical (at a time before the Civil Rights Movement), and set the precedent for all derivative works on the topic. When we try to educate white people through our own volition and attempt to expose them to the world outside of books, racial stereotyping allows them to assume that we oppose books in theory, not the content of most books in practice.

There is nothing wrong with encoding stories and information into written text. However, when a white person assumes that the books she reads about people of colour tell the whole story, it is yet another demonstration of her white privilege.

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4 Responses to “White people think they know all about you from reading a book.”

  1. thelady Says:

    they also think they know all about you from knowing one other person of your race, since we are all alike they don’t have to differentiate between you and any other being that belongs to the same race

    one highly annoying anti-racist blogger is a white male married to a black women, therefore he acts as an authority on black people to his mostly white readers.

  2. Nquest Says:

    And… worse, when a White person reads certain books written by or about POC and takes the information in the book(s) to mean something that causes a person of color to question the White person’s interpretation of the reading material…

    Well, when the White person insist that their interpretation is correct despite (1) well reasoned counter-facts and explanations (often supplying context for the sentiments/ideals expressed in the books the White person was not aware of) presented by a person of color and (2) revealing that their own (the White person’s own) assumptions/beliefs about how POC should/would think or feel were at the core of the interpretation… it’s clear that the White person has some kind of vested interest in wanting to be an “authority on Black people”/POC even if that means s/he is more of an authority on POC than the very individuals of color who s/he readily admits (when its convenient, of course) are among those who present information/insight regarding POC that they (the White person) was not aware of.

  3. Restructure! Says:

    @Nquest:

    Heh, I know what you mean.

    Thea touched upon this too:

    They’re not going to think – hey, maybe there’s some parts of this story I just don’t get – they’re going to think that they fully understand it, and that this is all there is to this story. They’re not going to recognise that potentially they don’t ge the whole story because they lack some kind of lived experience that would enable them to pick up on the nuances.

    That really pisses me off. Like I can read Ulysses or whatever incomprehensible great British novel, and I can recognise that just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. It prolly just means I don’t know enough about what Joyce is referencing to get Ulysses. But folks with privilege are rarely going to read a book about a marginalised experience of which they have no understanding – because the experience is so poorly represented in mainstream culture – and think hey, maybe I don’t get some parts of this book, because I don’t know anything about what this writer is referencing.

    What this whole grad school thing is teaching me is that people with privilege/entitlement are incapable of understanding that there a billion things in the world that they know nothing about.

  4. 1stddevHuman Says:

    That would be grating if someone insisted that because they read a book or watched a movie about a person of group X, that when they meet someone of that group they feel they KNOW that individual. I think familiarity is proven in discovering and knowing the things that are particular to an individual–especially the exceptions.


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