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jessica tholmer
January 03, 2018 10:56 am

I read a lot of books. Everyone who knows me in real life or who follows me on social media will probably groan after reading that line (I talk about books a lot). I’m so glad I fell back in love with reading books and I’m proud of being such an avid reader. I’m so grateful that taking the bus daily helped me to find my bookworm self again. I’m also quite proud at the variety of books that I choose to read. Of the ~70 books I read in 2017, less than 10% were written by men, and literally only one was written by a white man. I think it’s always important — but especially important right now — to maximize the voices of women and people of color, and especially the voices of women of color.

I’ve always been drawn to Black voices. As a biracial woman who more strongly identifies with her Black side, these are the voices I prefer. I love Black women, and their stories, and their words. I think of my family — of myself— when I read these books. They are important to me, and I wish they were important to more people.

I am also an incredibly proud feminist.

I love to read books written by tough broads. This year, I read Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen, We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler, Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, and Weird in a World That’s Not by Jennifer Romolini. I am proud to read and support the works of people I follow on Twitter.

But not everyone is appreciative of a feminist with a book in her hand.

At a former job, I was continually harassed by a (white) (male) coworker. I wrote about it a bit before, but the harassment ranged from inappropriate comments about race to outright aggression.

He yelled at me twice. He slammed a chair into a desk right next to me. Regularly, he made comments about my Blackness and my feminism.

Much of this harassment stemmed from his obsession with reading the back cover of whichever book I held while walking into the office. I rode the bus to work and much preferred losing myself in words for 40 minutes instead of sitting bored in traffic. Those 40 minutes to work and 40 minutes home were the best parts of my day, and I’d carry the book in my hands and set it on my desk for the rest of the day

Eventually, I started keeping my book in my backpack under my desk; my coworker had started grabbing any new book from me on a weekly basis, asking me what it was about, who wrote it, and why I was reading it.

It finally came to a head one day when I was reading the book Spinster by Kate Bolick.

He picked up my book to read the back cover. I politely asked him to put it down, but he didn’t. He was so mock-interested in the book because, “Oh you’re reading about your own life?” I rolled my eyes — the title Spinster is intentional. The book actually delves into the history of the word, why we use it, and why some women have attempted to reclaim it. His really simplistic joke about me being a spinster fell flat, so he continued.

"Does she live alone with a cat too?"

It was ironic. To have a (young) (white) (man) mock Kate Bolick’s really smart and well-researched work — without even understanding what the book was about — was laughable. If I hadn’t been so mad.

Believe it or not, it got worse.

When he finally got down to the bar code area, he saw that the book is classified as “Feminist Theory.” My coworker just about passed out laughing. He was wiping actual tears from his eyes.

I looked at him straight-faced and asked him why he was laughing — I really didn’t get it! — and without asking me, or responding to my question, he pulled out his iPhone and snapped a picture on Snapchat of the words “Feminist Theory.”

“My friends will love this,” he cackled.

I mean, Feminist Theory is a real thing. It’s something people study, something they dedicate their lives to. It is an actual section in (hopefully) every public library in the country. I grabbed my book back from him and asked him to leave my desk.

From that point on, whenever I was reading anything else about race or feminism, I had to hide it from him.

His commentary pissed me off, and since my harassment complaints to the higher-ups in my company were futile, I had to try to minimize the opportunities for him to ruin my day.

However, when I was reading White Tears by Hari Kunzru, I left it out on purpose.

When he rolled his eyes and asked me what it was about, I finally quipped back, “Are you always interested in what I’m reading because you’re making your own reading list?”

He scoffed, “I would definitely not read anything you’ve ever read. Definitely not.”

I couldn’t help myself:

"Have you ever actually read a book?"

He didn’t bother me about my books after that. (And as a reminder: he still works there. I do not.)

White male fragility is so intense that stationary books  — things that do not live or breathe — can be threatening.

Oh, how I love the power of the written word.

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