White Fragility

If you have ever wondered why some people respond to the suggestion that something they’ve said is racist with outrage over the implication that they could ever be racist rather than with a desire to understand why, make amends and educate themselves, this book will help you understand.

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism is written by Robin D’Angelo, a white person with decades of experience delivering racial justice training to organizations. Throughout that experience she has met with responses that are familiar to me, and probably many other people. These responses generally go along the lines of ‘I define myself as not-racist, so therefore nothing I say or do could possibly be racist’ and ‘You saying something I said or did was racist is far, far more offensive and harmful to me than the racist thing I said is harmful to someone else, and therefore it is much more important for me to defend myself than to entertain the idea that I inadvertently said something racist’. What we’re not talking about here is the overt sentiments and statements of someone who consciously identifies as a white supremacist. We’re talking about progressives, moderates and conservatives who truly believe they are not racist (and certainly don’t intend to be) but who do not understand how growing up in historically racist societies have embedded attitudes and language that have their origins in racist ideology.

For me, knowing that I grew up in a country with an imperial legacy that used racist ideology to justify its exploitation of non-white peoples, some of which was enshrined in law, and lots of which was embedded in literature, art and other cultural media, makes it seem pretty obvious that I enjoy privileges that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t white, and pretty obvious I might not be fully aware of all the racist opinions and beliefs I’ve absorbed from my culture. Of course I would be horrified if someone told me I’d said something racist and probably my first instinct would be to be defensive (isn’t it always?). But I like to think I could move past that to apologising and figuring out what was behind what I’d said so that it didn’t happen again.

D’Angelo’s book pulls apart the various factors that lead to a different response and it’s illuminating. Central is the idea that we like to see ourselves as good people and the definition of a good white person currently includes not being racist. This means that being called out for saying something racist is an identity threat – to which people tend to respond with some emotional heat.

I found the discussion on how white people are taught about their own history or, more to the point, not taught interesting. When I was at school I learnt about a sanitised, positive British empire focused on exploration, adventure and discovery, and it wasn’t until reading more as an adult that I began to understand what empire was really all about. Even if a white person grows up in an area where there are lots of non-white people, that doesn’t mean we understand anything about the social construct of race and how it impacts people, because it is not openly talked about in the arenas most white people get their information. Also interesting is the information about how classifications of someone as white – in order to determine who was eligible to own property – developed and how convoluted they became, all in the service of restricting wealth and privilege to a small minority.

Reading White Fragility gave me a lot of insight into why it is actually so hard to shift the systemic disadvantages/privileges associated with race and to create more equal outcomes and opportunities for people. It also gave me better ways to talk about these things. Highly recommended.

The Art of Thinking Clearly

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli is a collection of very short essays exploring the many mistakes humans are prone to making when we think about things. There’s not much new in this book, but I find however often I read about confirmation bias and the sunk cost fallacy I find myself slipping back into that kind of thinking. It’s hard work because our brains aren’t actually wired for logic and rational thinking. This is an easy and accessible guide to some of the concepts that can be found in much denser books like Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

There are 99 thinking errors in this book which address things like how the availability of examples makes us forget about probability and how we regularly mistake correlation for causation.

If you want to understand why people sometimes say and do things that you think are ridiculous, then this book will help. Although it might also make you realise that the things you say and do are also ridiculous. so be warned.

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.

I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson.¬†Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.

The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.

McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.

This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.


The Inner Game of Work

inner gameI’m getting the opportunity to get lots of training at work at the moment, and that usually comes with book recommendations. The Inner Game of Work is about coaching, and written by W. Timothy Gallway who revolutionised tennis coaching by focussing on inner resistance rather than technique. The idea is that performance is as much about what’s going on in your head as it is about skill and ability. Negative self-talk can drag down the best players.

The Inner Game of Work talks about learning, focus, finding your joy, and awareness. Which is great, but it’s long on theory and short on practice. It asserts the importance of being present and being in the moment but offers little guidance as to how you do that. You’ll have to turn to other books for that. It was pretty hard work reading it but there’s some useful ideas.

I did like the section on thinking like a CEO. It challenges you to question whether you are actually in charge of the corporation that is you or whether you’ve given decision-making responsibility to others. These are ‘stakeholders’ such as family, employers, friends, and anyone else who has an opinion about how you live your life. I like to think of it as being master of your own ship because I was a pirate in a past life, but the CEO metaphor works as well.

I am on the lookout for a writing coach in the London area though, so if you can recommend someone, let me know in the comments.

7 Secrets of the Prolific

the-7-secrets-of-the-prolificThe 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The definitive guide to overcoming procrastination, perfectionism, and writer’s block by Hillary Rettig is one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. I was struggling to finish a novella manuscript. I don’t really get blocked; I can always write something and I have numerous projects on the go. What I struggle with is completing a piece.

It turns out that the problem is perfectionism. I’m alright at the start of a project when I have this amazing idea in my head and I have the whole book to realise that vision. As I go on, I run out of time and become increasingly aware that what’s on the page is vastly inferior to what I imagined. I know this. The problems perfectionism causes me are legion.

There was a lot in this book to help, mostly focussed on what perfectionism actually looks like in your life. I know I’m a perfectionist and I know how that happened. What was eye-opening was attributing some of the things I do around procrastinating to perfectionism. My inner voices would have me believe it’s laziness, but my inner voices are full of shit and need to shut up.

The proof of the effectiveness of this book is that I finished the novella. I am currently editing it and preparing it for submission to publishers. I got over the mental blocks that were making it hard, painful and slow. I got past the need for it to be perfect and began to be able to appreciate what I’d achieved.

The 7 Secrets of the Prolific is self-published and there’s a chapter in the book extolling the virtues of self-publishing and how to do that in a professional manner. It was thought-provoking and made me reconsider whether I would self-publish a novel.

This is a great book, I got so much out of it, and I highly recommend for anyone with procrastination issues.

Strip off Your Fear: Radiate the Confidence Within

SOYF-web-coverThis is a book about setting yourself free to live the life you really want to have. In Strip off your Fear, Betsy Talbot talks about the reasons we keep our dreams small and hide ourselves away.

Each chapter focuses on a body part: hair, face, breasts, stomach, genitals and legs. The chapters talk about the ways we’re taught to find ourselves inadequate (dye your hair! wear spanx! cover yourself up!) then about the ways we think about that body part. Talbot then talks about what that body part does for us and the positive attributes it has. Through her descriptions of body language I came to see how people experience me as being a lot more confidant than I actually feel, and also to see how I can own that confidence.

I found the understanding of how we come to have limiting beliefs and project them on to our bodies to be a bit superficial. It suits the tone of the book which is light and positive but might suggest that these things are easily overcome. It’s not a start-of-the-journey book. If you’re pretty au fait with your stories and how you came by them, then this is a fun, inspiring book that will help you find the confidence of your new stories. I enjoyed it, and found it motivational. Could have used a chapter on arms though.

Eating in the Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling

Eating in the light of the moonI picked this up because I’d become aware I wasn’t really enjoying what I was eating and I needed a reminder about working through feelings rather than suppressing them with food.

Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston addresses eating disorders through folklore and mythology. Each chapter looks at the various motives we have for using food as self-medication, whether it’s chasing the perfect body because that’s what women are valued for, or controlling your food intake because someone else is controlling everything else in your life, or overeating because you spend all your willpower being the good girl. There’s a lot of chapters.

Each chapter uses a folktale to illustrate the issue, which I really enjoyed. I knew some of the stories but a lot of them were new to me. In context of the work, the symbolism and metaphors took on a deeper meaning than they might have if I’d read them in another context. I liked it. It got me thinking about things in a different way which was just what I needed. If you have any interest in eating disorders, personally or therapeutically, this could be a useful addition to your library.

Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential

mindsetA mindset is a collection of beliefs, assumptions and methods we have about how to do things and what things mean that is so established that it provides a powerful driving force for our decisions and choices.

In Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential Carol Dweck looks at the impact on success of a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Success is defined in terms of achieving goals, pursuing dreams and having good relationships.

A fixed mindset is a collection of beliefs that says whatever you do is a test that you have to pass. A score on an exam, performance in a game, how you do in a meeting, whether you get on with people. If you do good, you are good. If you don’t do good, then you’re rubbish. Everything becomes a sign of your ability. People with fixed mindsets tend to believe that abilities like intelligence, creativity, athleticism, strength, courage, or singing are innate. You’re born with a certain amount of these things and that’s it. If you can’t cook an omelette the first time you try then you can’t cook. And you’ll never be able to cook.

Fixed mindsets develop when kids are praised for being something or criticised for not being something, as in ‘you’re so clever’ or ‘you have no sense of rhythm’. It’s reinforced by the behaviour of adults demonstrated a fixed mindset about themselves. The cultural belief that if you’re good at something then it should be effortless.

A growth mindset sees everything as a learning opportunity. If you don’t do well on a test, then that tells you to try harder, to work smarter, to think about what you could have done differently. It encourages you to look at what other people do well to see what you can learn from them. People with a growth mindset believe that whatever level of talent you start with in any sphere of life you can learn to do better. If you can’t cook an omelette the first time you try then you recognize that you have a lot to learn and practice will result in a better omelette.

Growth mindsets come from being praised for working hard, practicing and honest feedback about how you did.

The book is filled with examples of business leaders, sports people, musicians and many others who demonstrate either of the mindsets. Dweck says that most people have a mix of growth and fixed mindsets, that you believe that there are some traits and abilities you can change and some you can’t. She also provides examples of people who changed from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets.

I found the book inspiring and it was a joy to read. I recognise that I grew up with a mostly fixed mindset but over the last fifteen years have moved to a growth mindset in many areas. But there are still places where I have a fixed mindset and I’m motivated to change that. I know that under stress I can fall back into fixed mindset thinking, but I also know that I can move on from there. The book is fantastic and I highly recommend it.


The Gift of Fear

I never really struggle to find books to read. There are loads of them and I’ve read hardly any. For me, it’s more about not buying all the books I see that I think I’d like to read. Sometimes I try to resist. Honestly. Then a book will come into my awareness and I’ll think I should read that, but I manage to exercise some self-control and don’t buy it. But it will keep popping up in articles that I’m reading or people around me will talk about it, and if that book keeps making its presence known, I’ll think I am meant to read it. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is one of those books.

de Becker works with a wide range of people and organizations to predict when someone will become violent. He discusses all sorts of situations including dates that turn into stalking, the fired employee who won’t let go, assassination threats against public figures, helpful strangers who are really predators, and people obsessed with a single issue. In many cases these situations won’t become violent, but sometimes they will and this book explores how to determine the ones that will.

Violence is predictable. And many of us know when it’s going to happen. We tell ourselves not to listen to our intuition. We don’t want to say no, or to risk offending someone, or to be melodramatic, so we ignore the signs that our subconscious has picked up. Much of the advice in this book is based around listening to yourself and taking notice of what we’re feeling.

Some of the advice is about how to respond so as to shut down potentially violent situations. For example, how to say no. Women particularly, although not exclusively, are socialized to believe that saying no makes them a bad person, or even that saying no will invite an aggressive response. In fact, not saying no communicates that you can’t say no and are an easy target. Another example is not responding. We’re tempted to think that if we just explain clearly, once and for all, the reasons why the person can’t have their job back, or that their accusations are unfounded, then they will respond like a rational person and back off. If you’ve done that once already and it didn’t work, then it’s not going to. Because that person is not rational and all you do is show them they can get a response. Also, we probably need to let go of having the last word.

There is a list of warning signs that tell you when someone is not safe. These are:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.”
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt you.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

I’m really, really glad I read this book. I can look back on a lot of times when I thought someone or something was iffy and I acted on that, and then felt guilty for being rude, not giving someone a chance, or unwilling to accept help. In most of those cases at least one of the indicators of violence was present. Knowing that I know what to look out for and that I can trust my instincts is empowering. Unlike many things you read, this book is meant to help you be less afraid because your intuition can’t help you if you’re afraid of everything. It’s amazing and everyone should read it.

The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity

I’m interested in identity and exploring aspects of personality and how we play parts in the various areas of our lives. All of us have different ways of being depending on the situation we find ourselves in. Who I am at work is not exactly the same as who I am with family, or with various groups of friends. For some people the differences are subtle and more about emphasising certain qualities than about being a completely different person. For others, it’s more a matter of playing a part. In my roleplaying group, I’m interested in how much the characters we create are related to who we really are. So, The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity by Sarah Lynne Bowman really appealed to me.

The book covers the evolution and development of roleplaying, both as a leisure activity and as a training tool in military and corporate environments. It looks at the skills that can be developed and how scenarios can be used as learning tools, and refers to studies that show that learning through simulations or role-playing is more effective than book study and classroom teaching. Bowman also considers the link between play and learning in childhood and the social pressure to move on from these activities in adulthood, and what we may lose from doing so.

Bowman considers live-action roleplaying, tabletop roleplaying and computer games with roleplaying elements. She looks at the two dominant systems, Dungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness and uses personal examples to demonstrate her points. Bowman has conducted in-depth interviews with a small number of long-term roleplayers, examining their experiences and the benefits they get from roleplaying.

In the last chapter, Bowman discusses types of identity alteration as categories of character that players are likely to create. The nine types are:
The Doppelganger Self, a character very close to the player’s personality.
The Devoid Self, the player but lacking an essential quality that the player possesses in real life.
The Augmented Self, the player, but better, with some quality that the player doesn’t possess.
The Fragmented Self, a subdued aspect of the player’s personality forming the central concept of the character.
The Repressed Self, an outlet for the player’s Inner Child, a naive, innocent version of themselves.
The Idealized Self, a character with qualities the player wishes to have.
The Oppositional Self, a character completely opposite to the player’s personality.
The Experimental Self, when a player is experimenting with outlandish or bizarre concepts to see how that would work.
The Taboo Self, incorporating themes the player cannot address in real life and often directed at exploring morality.

The book as a whole was very interesting and I found it more readable than I expected to. The part I was especially drawn to was the discussion of the types at the end and the different ways in which ways of being can be explored. My observation is that some people engage with this more consciously than others and that I can see that in future I might use these ideas to explore certain themes and concepts. I would have liked more quantitative data, but I appreciate that the studies haven’t necessarily been done. I would also have liked more in-depth consideration of the nine types of character, as I found them disappointingly brief. These things aside, I really enjoyed this and would recommend it for anyone interested in psychology and identity.