Yet, if the solipsism of the self-help social justice genre is plain enough, so too is its appeal. When so much injustice stems from huge, deep-seated, structural issues that have been created over decades if not centuries, people will naturally gravitate toward the more manageable option of tweaking the contents of their own heads. Given the choice between pulling weeds in your own little garden plot versus joining a team of people who are trying to chop down a 400-year-old oak tree with a pocket knife, most of us would choose the former; even if the weeds always come back, digging them up feels like progress. And of course, not everyone who reads these books does it to the exclusion of other forms of activism, or sits on their hands while they do. One millennial white woman, who was waiting on a back-ordered copy of White Fragility for her anti-racist book club, told me that she’s been doing meaningful work for years to push for police reform, but saw the book club as an opportunity to discover new resources and perspectives: an exercise in the active listening that allies are often exhorted to do.
But for those whose activism begins and ends with hashtags and book clubs, the narcissism is undeniable, and arguably even part of the appeal—what Vulture’s Lauren Michelle Jackson calls “a vanity project, where the goal is no longer to learn more about race, power, and capital, but to spring closer to the enlightened order of the antiracist.” (“And yet, were one to actually read many of these books,” Jackson notes, “one might reach the conclusion that there is no anti-racist stasis within reach of a lifetime.”) Self-help social justice doesn’t just offer privileged white women the comfort of a permanent passion project; it fuels the pleasant, ego-driven delusion that nothing is more important to the cause, to any cause, than the innermost minutiae of your own thoughts, attitudes, and feelings.