A Race Relations Reading List

A book list for learning about racial injustice, dismantling white supremacy, and recognizing racism in its many forms.

It’s impossible to deny that something major is happening in the USA at the moment, with the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Police Officers. Marches made it all the way to Aotearoa, with many here thinking about racism and police bias closer to home.

A number of people have seen the need to educate themselves about the history of racism, and how it plays out today in a multitude of ways, sometimes in ways many of us don’t even realise. If you’ve found yourself wanting to learn more about these current events, we’ve put together a list of books that cover all kinds of scenarios. Some are focused on Aotearoa New Zealand, others are focused on the Black American experience, and others still are more general.

If any of these titles interest you, visit your local bookseller to see if they have it in stock, or can order it in for you. They might even be able to recommend some titles we’ve missed!


Aotearoa New Zealand

Lani Wendt Young’s Read NZ Te Pou Muramura lecture from 2019, Stories from the Wild: Reading and Writing in the Digital Age, addresses representation in literature, gatekeeping in the publishing industry and how emerging digital technologies are disrupting traditional publishing and offering new opportunities for both readers and writers.

BWB Texts are short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers. Many of them look into the ongoing effects of colonialism.

Tangata Whenua: An Illustrated History – Atholl Anderson

Hikoi: Forty Years of Maori Protest – Aroha Harris

Working as Allies: Supporters of Indigenous Justice Reflect – Jen Margaret

He Rukuruku Whakaaro: Colonising Myths, Maori Realities – Ani Mikaere

Still Being Punished – Rachael Selby

Decolonising Methodologies – Linda Tuhiwai Smith

Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End – Ranginui Walker



Have Black Lives Ever Mattered? – Mumia Abu-Jamal

Natives – Akala

Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy – Carol Anderson

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide – Carol Anderson

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism – Derrick Bell

Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement – Janet Dewart Bell

Things that make White People Uncomfortable – Michael Bennett

A Black Women’s History of the United States – Daina Ramey Berry & Kali Nicole Gross

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness – Austin Channing Brown

Chokehold: Policing Black Men – Paul Butler

Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLY Cases – ed. Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman

Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race – Thomas Chatterton Williams

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Skin We’re In – Desmond Cole

Eloquent Rage – Brittney Cooper

What Truth Sounds Like – Michael Eric Dyson

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves – Glory Edim

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class – Ian Haney Lopez

Black Feminist Thought – Patricia Hill Collins

How Not To Get Shot – D.L. Hughley

Antagonist, Advocates and Allies: The Wake Up Call Guide for White Women Who Want to Become Allies with Black Women – Catrice M. Jackson

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South – Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot – Mikki Kendall

How to be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

It’s not about the Burqa – ed. Mariam Khan

When they call you a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele

Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents – Margaret Kimberley

Heavy – Kiese Laymon

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches – Audre Lorde

They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives – Wesley Lowery

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack – Peggy McIntosh

On the Other Side of Freedom: Race and Justice in a Divided America – DeRay McKesson

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More – Janet Mock

The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys – ed. Eddie Moore Jr., Ali Michael & Marguerite W. Penick-Parks

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools – Monique Morris

So you want to talk about Race – Ijeoma Oluo

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America – Patrick Phillips

Stamped – Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi

Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine

Killing the Black Body – Dorothy Roberts

How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality – Adam Rutherford

Me and White Supremacy – Layla F. Saad

In the Wake: On Blackness and Being – Christina Sharpe

The End of Policing – Alex Vitale

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race – ed. Jesmyn Ward

Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority – Tim Wise

Other writers who have written extensively about race are Bell Hooks, Angela Davis and James Baldwin. For children, the Little People, Big Dreams series by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara covers the lives of historical figures, including Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and more. And don’t forget to read fiction and poetry about and by black writers, and writers outside of your culture. What we read helps to shape our world.

Book Review: Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader, by Madeleine Chapman

Jacinda Ardern A New Kind Of LeaderIt was a tweet that prompted me to buy Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader. On her twitter account in late March, author Madeleine Chapman wrote: “I was worried something big would happen between this going to print and it being on shelves and guess what? The biggest thing happened!!”

I felt a pang of empathy. Writing a topical book must be tricky in the best of circumstances. But who could’ve foreseen yet another crisis interrupting Jacinda’s first term as prime minister?

Delving into the book, I was reminded that dramatic turns and unexpected events have been par for the course. Reading whilst in a lockdown fugue, it seems almost absurd that so many things happened so fast during that election period of 2017. The tepid campaigning disrupted by Labour’s last minute switch of leader. The jolt of excitement and hope as Jacindamania took hold across the country. The votes neck and neck. The limbo of waiting for Winston Peters to make his call (“the political Bachelor, idly twirling his final rose” as Chapman so perfectly puts it).

And then, elected within just a few months of stepping into the spotlight, Jacinda went on to face unprecedented challenges as prime minister – not to mention she had a baby in the midst of it all too.

Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader manages to contextualise these significant events while also providing the perspective of anecdotal insights. (I cannot shake the image of the Tawa Rotary Club gleefully presenting Jacinda with a birthday cake boobytrapped with a blue interior beneath its icing.)

This balance of personable and political is entertaining to read and even evokes the affable appeal of Jacinda herself. I admire Chapman’s skill at weaving a compelling narrative from the dry policy work and petty interactions that make up much of the political world. Her tone throughout the book is irreverent and at times very funny, more reflective of modern day blogging than a staid biographical tome. It will make an ideal gift for your overseas aunty who texted you to celebrate girl power when she first heard Jacinda was elected.

After a prologue set on the day of Winston Peter’s coalition announcement, Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader takes a chronological path through an unconventional career. We follow Jacinda’s progression from Mormon schoolgirl, to uni grad on her OE, to President of the International Union of Socialist Youth, to backbencher MP, to global celebrity fawned over by international media. Themes emerge throughout the chapters. Some due to the repetition of phrases such as “not cool but not uncool”. Others as we see Jacinda’s pragmatic decision making in action. 

A long chapter is devoted to the terror events of 15 March 2019 and its aftermath. It’s a difficult read. But it reinforces why Jacinda’s approach to leadership and service is so important. A prime minister who could demonstrate that kindness is a strength, not a weakness, was exactly what New Zealand needed in those times. And, regardless of publishing deadlines, the book leaves you with the impression that it’s what New Zealand will need in its next chapter too.

Reviewed by Annabel Henderson Morrell

Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader
by Madeleine Chapman
Black Inc Books
ISBN 9781760641818

Book Review: The Pacific Affair by Gary Paul Stephenson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_pacific_affairCharming yet flawed, The Pacific Affair by Gary Paul Stephenson is an entertaining read that tackles a dramatic and ever-pertinent concept, yet is let down by editorial errors and attention to the wrong kind of detail. If you are a patient reader sympathetic to encouraging new authors, read this book: if you are not, give it a skip.

The Pacific Affair introduces resourceful hero Charles Langham whose personal mission is to force stagnant politicians and international organisations to act over climate change, poverty, and (somewhat out of sync) the South American drug trade. After issuing the United Nations with an ultimatum of consequences for failure to change course, Langham garners the ready support of the vast majority of nations but makes an enemy of the President of the United States of America. Pitted against the arguably most powerful man on the planet, Langham and his team must uncover the President’s adversary motivations whilst also outrunning and outsmarting the US Navy and the President’s Special Ops team. The more Langham’s team discover, the murkier the waters become. Based on board Langham’s super yacht, the journey follows the Sundancer from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, spanning from Panama to the Amazon to Tonga and beyond. While Langham’s unlimited cash, expertise, and good fortune felt incredible at times, the relevance of the theme negated these simplicities, leaving a framework for a thrilling story.

While Stephenson has a flair for imagination, the devil is not in the detail in The Pacific Affair. Stephenson haphazardly introduces a rambling cast of characters and has a tendency for lengthy descriptions of the interior design of insignificant rooms. The narrative could do without the clutter. The novel is also littered with editorial errors and formatting inconsistencies that could kill the enjoyment for grammar-sticklers. If Stephenson were able to tighten up these issues in the next novel in the Charles Langham series, the reader could fully let go and fall into the promising narrative.

Adding a bittersweet charm to The Pacific Affair is the knowledge that Stephenson suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, which he shares with the novel’s hero, Charles Langham. MS affects people in different ways, but can have physical effects such as poor balance, slurred speech, spasms, and fatigue, as well effects on a person’s memory, thinking, and emotions. Langham’s MS affliction gives the character a realness that is rare in hero figures, although the effects of the disease could have been amplified. Both Stephenson and Langham’s efforts are enormous feats for MS-suffers, which may help as encouragement for those living with the disease and also serves to help raise awareness about Multiple Sclerosis.

In a political climate that is questioning the establishment repeatedly, demanding a new breed of politicians to act in the interests of the common people, the concept shaping The Pacific Affair is important and absorbing. While a dose of patience may be required, Stephenson’s well-intended The Pacific Affair is compelling.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

The Pacific Affair
by Gary Paul Stephenson
Published by Lang Book Publishing
ISBN 9780994129062

Book Review: New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key, by Michael Bassett

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

Michael Bassett is a former university lecturer in history, who was first elected for the Labour Party in 1972, and became a cabinet minister in the 4th Labour Government in 1984. He should have some unique insights into the careers of the Prime Ministers in New Zealand, both as an historian and as an insider. But during his career, Bassett has moved from the left of the Labour Party to become the main defender of the faith for “Rogernomics” – so, associated with the ACT Party.

The book begins as mostly elite political biography, moves into some sharp personal polemics during Bassett’s era as a politician, and ends up cheer-leading for John Key. As an elitist historian, Bassett’s text for the early Prime Ministers is based on some classic historical works, without accounting for recent scholarship from university history departments. And as an elitist, Bassett continually name checks retired right wing economists like Gary Hawke, and Don Brash, who regularly appear for their anecdotal accounts of politicians. Bassett himself often slips into the first person, and goes from the past to the present tense.

One of the idiosyncratic aspects of this book is the amount of text given over to caretaker Prime Ministers, like Harry Bell, who gets almost as many pages as days he spent in office. Bassett’s use of initials for Bell can also confuse him with his politician father, F.D. Bell. The reason for this focus on Bell is his influence on the likes of Coates and other key figures in the interwar period, which is Bassett’s main area of knowledge as an historian. But the post-war period has an underlying narrative based on economic transformation, and its apparent link to academic theorising. He digresses to talk about Don Brash’s view on the role of Canterbury University (p.335) in the chapter on Bill Rowling, who was apparently gripped by Keynes’ thinking.

For Bassett, after Kirk, the Labour leaders do not shape up. Most of the invective is reserved for R.D. Muldoon. This is where Bassett gets particularly petty, including referring to Muldoon as “Old Pussy”, based on a schooldays anecdote. He repeats this term a number of times in the Muldoon chapter, as well as other unattributed anecdotes, like when the Treasury secretary, Henry Lang, waited outside the minister’s office all day to get his point across. This is portrayed as an example of the Treasury officials’ views being overridden, but Bassett misrepresents their relationship with the finance minister.

Bassett’s book includes a lot of black & white images, some from library sources, and others from his own collection or offered by recent Prime Ministers. The caption on the photo for the first page of Jenny Shipley’s chapter states that it was contemporary, when it’s obviously taken recently. Indeed, with no photographs in colour, other than the cover photo of John Key playing golf, it is hard to justify the $50 retail price tag. But then this book is only really for the political conservatives in the current debate.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

New Zealand’s Prime Ministers: From Dick Seddon to John Key
by Michael Bassett
David Ling Publishing 2017

NB: The views in this review do not necessarily represent those of Booksellers NZ as an organisation. All of our reviewers are independent commentators.

Book Review: The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, by David Hastings

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_many_deaths_of_mary_dobieOne sunny afternoon in November 1880, on the road near Ōpunake in Taranaki, visiting Englishwoman, Mary Dobie, is brutally murdered, with her throat cut so deeply that she was all but decapitated. It was a horrific crime by both contemporary and modern standards. Wellington’s Evening Post called it a “shocking outrage”. Speculation was rife – about the nature of the crime, the behaviour of the victim, and the motive of the perpetrator.is an in-depth account of this fascinatingly awful story.

The backdrop to this sad story is the rumbling unease as tensions escalate at Parihaka. The ploughmen have been increasingly active and the pākehā settlers are calling upon the government to take action. Many at the time suspected that there were political motives for Mary’s murder, as she was the sister-in-law of a captain stationed at Taranaki with the Armed Constabulary. A confession is quickly elicited from a young Māori horse wrangler, Tuhi, and he is committed for trial.

Hastings is a journalist by background and has employed all of the talents in his arsenal to comprehensively research the events in the book, drawing upon many first-hand accounts in newspapers, court records and diaries. Sources are meticulously documented in the Notes and Bibliography, leaving no doubt that this tale is well-researched. The inclusion of photographs and drawings, some by Mary herself, bring the story to life and serve as a sobering reminder that these were real living people, and not merely fictional characters in a sordid whodunit.

This is a fascinating tale of a gruesome killing, made all the more interesting by the surrounding political climate of the time. I confess I had not before heard of the poor ill-fated Mary Dobie, but I will no longer be able to drive around the Taranaki coast without thinking of her. This is a story that stays with you for some time.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie: Murder, Politics and Revenge in Nineteenth Century New Zealand 
by David Hastings
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408374

Book review: The Phoenix Song by John Sinclair

This book is in bookstores now. It is also the Listener Book Club book for December.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling that he could have made it even more complex, and that the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, most certainly has its rewards.

Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book is dense with history but it has its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our understanding of what creativity is. The very idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover says it moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

While I think what Sinclair has produced is certainly an interesting and technically accomplished novel, it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, which certainly paints a detailed picture of her surroundings for the reader, but tends to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read.

Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Phoenix Song 
by John Sinclair
Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012
ISBN 9780864738257

Read more about The Listener Book Club.

Winner of a copy of The Phoenix Song thanks to Victoria University Press. We asked people to comment below if they’d like to win a copy of this book – the lucky winner (chosen by random number generator) is Kerry Aluf.