Twenty-Four Non-Fiction Social Justice Books You Must Read

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When I was in school, I loved learning. I was the kid who (for the most part) hung on the teachers every word. 

I ENJOYED going to class and filling my head with something I didn’t know the day before. Now… homework was another matter. But learning? Loved it. 

After University, I realized after a few years that I really missed the dedicated time to education. I began to feel musty and stagnant in my brain house. 

I wasn’t challenging myself. I wasn’t growing as a person in the way that I wanted to. 

Prioritizing Learning

I wanted to incorporate non-fiction books into my reading repertoire but resisted it for a while. 

I actually re-read my favorite comfort books for years instead of reading anything new. I finally put my foot down and decided to prioritize learning.  

  • Feminism 
  • Disability Justice
  • Black History
  • Medical Apartheid 
  • Gender & Sexuality 
  • Colonialism 
  • Indigenous Rights 
  • Environmentalism 

The list goes on. I was interested in it all and I wanted to learn. So I did! 

I’m still on my learning journey but I’ve found a way to incorporate non fiction books into my normal reading schedule, and I’ve learned so many things I did not know before. Join me!

Changing Habits

I originally approached reading non fiction books the wrong way, in my opinion. I am a reader who reads a book in one to three sittings at most. 

That didn’t work for me for non-fiction books. They were long, dense, and covered heavy topics. It wasn’t realistic to think I’d read for four hours in one sitting. 

What I do now is pick a non-fiction book of the month. Something I want to try to read within that time frame. 

I put it on my bedside table and I aim to read a chapter each night that I get into bed early. 

That’s it. That did the trick. Giving myself permission to just read a small amount, even half a chapter made all the difference. 

It’s not a race, it’s okay if I take the full month to finish the book. I’m in it for the knowledge and perspective. 

An added bonus for me is that I have largely banned myself from reading any books after 8pm because I inevitably end up staying up all night reading. 

Having a chapter limit for a non-fiction book is great because I feel happy to have read before bed but haven’t been sucked down the rabbit hole that blows up my sleep schedule. 

A Note on Anti-Racist Work

Not all the books on this list are about racial justice… but a lot of them are. And as intersectionality tells us, our intersecting identities impact how we move through this world. 

So even when a book isn’t about race, race will come into play because that’s how our society works. As @iamlisako wrote, a reading list will not dismantle racism. 

Obviously I love reading and am obsessed with books. I turn to books for everything “learn how to garden” find a book! “Learn how to forage” find a book! 

I confess that reading anti-racist works felt like such a good actionable first step toward dismantling white supremacy… and that’s just what it is. 

The very first step, step zero even. All it costs is some time and a willingness to learn, but other than that there’s no investment. You aren’t putting any skin in the game. 

Dismantling white supremacy and creating equity in our society is going to take a lot more than some reading. 

However, you’ll feel more comfortable and confident if you get some reading in so you understand what we are fighting, or at least I did. 

I didn’t want to bull in a china shop my way through anti-racist work and harm others in the process, so I learned as much as I could to hopefully avoid that outcome. 

You’ll still make mistakes, but at least you’ll be more open to hearing that you did and rectifying it. 


What to Read

So, without further Ado, let’s hop right into it. I’m including in this list books that i’ve read and books that I can’t wait to read. Drop your recs in the comments! What book expanded your mind, or changed your perspective?

Social Justice Books TBR

Isabel Wilkerson

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Mikki Kendall

Today’s feminist movement has a glaring blind spot, and paradoxically, it is women.

Mainstream feminists rarely talk about meeting basic needs as a feminist issue, argues Mikki Kendall, but food insecurity, access to quality education, safe neighborhoods, a living wage, and medical care are all feminist issues.

This book is brilliantly written, and easy to get through. It’s a great cornerstone read for any feminist. 

Ijeoma Oluo

In this breakout book, Ijeoma Oluo explores the complex reality of today’s racial landscape–from white privilege and police brutality to systemic discrimination and the Black Lives Matter movement–offering straightforward clarity that readers need to contribute to the dismantling of the racial divide.

Oluo has written a great primer as a jumping off point. I highly recommend this one. 

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

In this collection of essays, Lambda Literary Award-winning writer and longtime activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explores the politics and realities of disability justice, a movement that centers the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and brown people, with knowledge and gifts for all.

Very often disability justice is left out of the conversations we have as we look to a create a more equitable future. 

Care Work, helps recenter a very important conversation. Definitely add this one to your list. 

Morgan Lev Edward Holleb

There can be confusion around the appropriate terminology for trans and queer identities, even within the trans community itself.

As language is constantly evolving, it can be especially difficult to know what to say. 

As a thorough A-Z glossary of trans and queer words from ‘ace’ to ‘xe’, this dictionary guide will help to dispel the anxiety around using the “wrong” words, while explaining the weight of using certain labels and providing individuals with a vocabulary for personal identification.

Richard Rothstein

Through extraordinary revelations and extensive research that Ta-Nehisi Coates has lauded as “brilliant” (The Atlantic), Rothstein comes to chronicle nothing less than an untold story that begins in the 1920s, showing how this process of de jure segregation began with explicit racial zoning, as millions of African Americans moved in a great historical migration from the south to the north.

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Indigenous resistance is a radical rejection of contemporary colonialism focused around the refusal of the dispossession of both Indigenous bodies and land. 

Simpson makes clear that its goal can no longer be cultural resurgence as a mechanism for inclusion in a multicultural mosaic. 

Instead, she calls for unapologetic, place-based Indigenous alternatives to the destructive logics of the settler colonial state, including heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalist exploitation.

Angela Y. Davis

In these newly collected essays, interviews, and speeches, world-renowned activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis illuminates the connections between struggles against state violence and oppression throughout history and around the world.

Reflecting on the importance of black feminism, intersectionality, and prison abolitionism for today’s struggles, Davis discusses the legacies of previous liberation struggles, from the Black Freedom Movement to the South African anti-Apartheid movement. 

She highlights connections and analyzes today’s struggles against state terror, from Ferguson to Palestine.

Davis is incredibly consistent in her messaging and major themes run throughout each essay and speech. 

Yaba Blay

One Drop explores the extent to which historical definitions of race continue to shape contemporary racial identities and lived experiences of racial difference. 

Featuring the perspectives of 60 contributors representing 25 countries and combining candid narratives with striking portraiture, this book provides living testimony to the diversity of Blackness. 

Although contributors use varying terms to self-identify, they all see themselves as part of the larger racial, cultural, and social group generally referred to as Black.

Aja Barber

In Consumed, Barber calls for change within an industry that regularly overreaches with abandon, creating real imbalances in the environment and the lives of those who do the work–often in unsafe conditions for very low pay–and the billionaires who receive the most profit.

A story told in two parts, Barber exposes the endemic injustices in our consumer industries and the uncomfortable history of the textile industry, one which brokered slavery, racism, and today’s wealth inequality.

Once the layers are peeled back, Barber invites you to participate in unlearning, to understand the truth behind why we consume in the way that we do, to confront the uncomfortable feeling that we are never quite enough and why we fill that void with consumption rather than compassion.

Shayda Kafai

In recent years, disability activism has come into its own as a vital and necessary means to acknowledge the power and resilience of the disabled community, and to call out ableist culture wherever it appears.

Crip Kinship explores the art-activism of Sins Invalid, a San Francisco Bay Area-based performance project, and its radical imaginings of what disabled, queer, trans, and gender nonconforming bodyminds of color can do.

Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, Kay Whitlock

Drawing on years of research, activism, and legal advocacy, Queer (In)Justice is a searing examination of queer experiences–as “suspects,” defendants, prisoners, and survivors of crime. 

The authors unpack queer criminal archetypes–like “gleeful gay killers,” “lethal lesbians,” “disease spreaders,” and “deceptive gender benders”–to illustrate the punishment of queer expression, regardless of whether a crime was ever committed. 

Eric A. Stanley, Nat Smith

Pathologized, terrorized, and confined, trans/gender non-conforming and queer folks have always struggled against the enormity of the prison industrial complex. 

The first collection of its kind, Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith bring together current and former prisoners, activists, and academics to offer new ways for understanding how race, gender, ability, and sexuality are lived under the crushing weight of captivity.

Beth E. Richie

Through the compelling stories of Black women who have been most affected by racism, persistent poverty, class inequality, limited access to support resources or institutions, Beth E. Richie shows that the threat of violence to Black women has never been more serious, demonstrating how conservative legal, social, political and economic policies have impacted activism in the U.S.-based movement to end violence against women.

Judith Butler

Since its publication in 1990, Gender Trouble has become one of the key works of contemporary feminist theory, and an essential work for anyone interested in the study of gender, queer theory, or the politics of sexuality in culture.

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí

A work that rethinks gender as a Western construction, The Invention of Women offers a new way of understanding both Yoruban and Western cultures.

 Author Oyeronke Oyewumi reveals an ideology of biological determinism at the heart of Western social categories-the idea that biology provides the rationale for organizing the social world.

Western gender discourses, simply did not exist in Yorubaland, where the body was not the basis of social roles.

Oyewumi traces the misapplication of Western, body-oriented concepts of gender through the history of gender discourses in Yoruba studies.

Angela Y. Davis

Angela Davis provides a powerful history of the social and political influence of whiteness and elitism in feminism, from abolitionist days to the present, and demonstrates how the racist and classist biases of its leaders inevitably hampered any collective ambitions.

Louise Michele Newman

This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women’s rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. 

At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for “primitives” while calling for its elimination among the “civilized.” 

Koa Beck

Addressing today’s conversation about race, empowerment, and inclusion in America, Koa Beck, writer and former editor-in-chief of Jezebel, boldly examines the history of feminism, from the true mission of the suffragists to the rise of corporate feminism with clear-eyed scrutiny and meticulous detail. 

She also examines overlooked communities—including Native American, Muslim, transgender, and more—and their ongoing struggles for social change.

Judith Heumann, Kristen Joiner

A story of fighting to belong in a world that wasn’t built for all of us and of one woman’s activism—from the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco to inside the halls of Washington—Being Heumann recounts Judy Heumann’s lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance, and inclusion in society.

Austin Channing Brown

In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value “diversity” in their mission statements, I’m Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words. 

Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric–from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.

Harriet A. Washington

Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. 

Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations.

The product of years of prodigious research into medical journals and experimental reports long undisturbed, Medical Apartheid reveals the hidden underbelly of scientific research.

Ruby Hamad

Ruby Hamad undertakes a new investigation of gender and race. 

She shows how the division between innocent white women and racialized, sexualized women of color was created, and why this division is crucial to confront.

Taking us from the slave era, when white women fought in court to keep their slaves, through the centuries of colonialism, when they offered a soft face for brutal tactics, to the modern workplace, White Tears/Brown Scars tells a charged story of white women’s active participation in campaigns of oppression.

bell hooks

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks—writer, teacher, and insurgent black intellectual—writes about a new kind of education, educations as the practice of freedom. 

Teaching students to “transgress” against racial, sexual, and class boundaries in order to achieve the gift of freedom is, for hooks, the teacher’s most important goal.

These are the books that I’ve already read or have queued up to read. However, I know that it’s not by any stretch a complete list, and is  very US centric. 

I would love any additions for communities I’ve missed. 

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