A year like 2020 reveals the need to #KeepUP with conversations and voices about diversity and inclusion more than ever. As academic publishers, we especially need to make efforts to understand and be allies. So our Assistant Production Editor, David Juarez, decided to start a book club at Notre Dame Press. These are his thoughts:
How do you even begin to comprehend and respond to a year like 2020? A year of panic, rage, and confusion; of protests against race-based targeting and brutality; of demands for racial and ethnic equity, justice, and equality; of isolations and quarantines. In a tumultuous time, one of the greatest salves for me—one that offers comfort, understanding, and an opportunity to dig further and deeper—has always been right there on my bookshelf. And as someone who has worked in academic publishing for more than three years, I recognized there was a chance to hear stories from other voices: ones that could better define the history, the pains, the triumphs, the sorrows of Black Americans and other underrepresented groups in our country. So I decided to start a book club at work.
Over the summer of 2020, many members of the University of Notre Dame Press had participated in a group reading of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. With our entire press working remotely due to the ongoing pandemic, we connected through several Zoom sessions and conversations and dug deep into the meanings of “white fragility,” the complexities of discussing race in professional settings and elsewhere, and other facets of DiAngelo’s text. We hoped to expand our knowledge and examine the barriers that seem to prevent more frank, open, honest, and ultimately important conversations about who often sits at the head of the table, in media, and other spaces, and who is often missing, overlooked, or even silenced. While sometimes difficult, our team’s conversations, ideas, and anecdotes were rich, thought provoking, and insightful, and I was happy to see us come together to address such a large topic as racial inequality.
But I recognized, as our discussion of the book came to a close, that DiAngelo’s book was not the end. Far from it. In our discussions, we brought in some of the responses and critiques to DiAngelo’s text and sought to understand the complexities of talking about talking about race. Her text, while well-meaning and argued, was intended mostly for white audiences, some of whom have rarely discussed race or have never questioned things like privilege and access. As a Chicano myself, a lot of what we read and discussed felt quite familiar to me. I could reflect on the many instances of microaggressions in my life and the personal conversations with other people of color on feeling isolated, often the only POC in a room in any given situation. We agreed that we needed to do more.
So, after some quick polling, we chose a second book: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. I had read The Warmth of Other Suns several years before, an absolutely wonderful and powerful study of the Great Migration. Caste had a different focus: a reexamination of race and ethnicity through the structure of a caste system. Wilkerson positions her arguments by detailing three castes in history—the Indian, the American, and the Nazi—and weaving personal stories, anecdotes, and observations throughout. For the UNDP book club, it was a unique and fascinating approach, one that differed greatly from DiAngelo’s.
As we read, we worked to dissect Wilkerson’s ideas as well as how she chose to structure the book’s narrative and arguments. But we also worked to find ways of taking what we read and brainstorming possible initiatives we could make at the press, which might also impact the broader Notre Dame community and perhaps even the larger industry of academic publishing. It was a whirlwind of analysis and devising, of discovery and learning. Toward the end of our discussions, we covered topics such as inclusive language in job descriptions; student and campus outreach outside of the “usual” areas of English and writing programs; possible event ideas for our annual book festival on campus; developing an internship or fellowship program; ways to further conversations and facilitate dialogues on diversity and inclusion; and compiling statistics on our authors, readers, and more, as a useful tool for seeing where we are and where we can go in the future. Ultimately, we came away from the experience with a plethora of new perspectives and new ways of envisioning the work of an academic press.
In my time at Notre Dame Press, I continue to marvel at the amazing work and camaraderie shared amongst us. The book club was a simple idea that blossomed into opportunities for growth and enrichment; a way for us to continue to engage and respond to developments in not only our industry but also the world around us. I have been more than privileged to work with such a dynamic and considerate group, and I am excited to share in the experience of working and reading together into the future.