Shocking Myself

And how you can do it too ~ Brain Reel #31

Like many people this week, I’ve bought a load of books. There have been countless lists and threads and tagged posts, and the bookshops have run out of so many of the most cited titles.

But a few days ago, Lawrence and I did what I hope many white people are also doing right now: we took a look at what was already on our bookcase. We pulled out every book written by someone who isn’t white, and then made a pile specifically of those books written by black people.

I’m sure you can guess what happened: of course, both the ‘not white’ and ‘black’ piles were far too small.

I knew they’d be small before we began - I wasn’t under any illusions that I, or the publishing industry, have made a concerted long-term effort at ensuring there’s representation in the books out there - but I was shocked at quite how small those piles were.

I had thought better of myself, clearly, and I was wrong.


The last 10 days have been - for me - a series of moments of shocking myself.

Shocking myself at how many very vocal people I’ve been following online who’ve now retreated into complicit silence.

Shocking myself at how little I know about police funding, about previous very famous cases of innocent black lives lost, about migration.

Shocking myself at how few times I’ve written to my MP before.

The list goes on.


Of course, I’m not saying much more than so many writers right now - that the last 10 days has been an uncomfortable reckoning at how little we all know, how little we all act, how little we all speak up, no matter how much we think we’ve been active in the past.

‘I’ve not been doing nothing, but it’s not been enough’ - the mass realisation, it seems, of many in my (vocal) online circles.


All this shocking of myself has been deeply uncomfortable, there’s no denying it, but there’s one thing I’ve been shocked by which is making me feel more good than uncomfortable, more positive than negative, and more hopeful than dejected.

I’ve shocked myself at how easy it starts to feel to be honest and loud in your opinions the more you do it.

Now, if I was sitting reading this newsletter right now, wherever you might be, I’d be pretty disappointed at that ‘punch line’ - but let me ask you this:

How many times have you considered bringing up something you disagree with with a pal, and backed out in the end because of fear of upsetting them, of rocking the boat, of losing the friendship?

How many times have you bit your lip over something ‘trivial’ because it’s ‘not worth the hassle’?

How many times have you seen someone you like or respect online post something misinformed, but ‘only borderline-not-ok’, and scrolled quickly away without commenting or confronting?

How many times have you done any of that over the last 10 days? Really, how many?

I ask this not to play ‘gotcha’ and not to make you feel crap (though, seriously, white people need to get a lot better at just sitting in that feeling every now and again). I ask instead to shock you - like I shocked myself - into really, genuinely, looking at how much standing up for stuff you really do, and quite possibly, realising that it’s actually not that much.

And I want to tell you that - honestly - once you start speaking up, it gets so much easier.

Over the last 10 days I’ve spoke up in WhatsApp groups, in Zoom meetings, over the phone to a friend, in DMs to someone I don’t know, in comments on Instagram posts, and - I guess - here in my writing. It’s felt extremely uncomfortable, my heart has felt like it’s going to blast out of my chest, I’ve worried so much, I’ve gone back and forth with Lawrence about how best to word a 2-sentence Twitter DM.

It’s not just calling out the blatant, obvious racism with our sarcastic quote tweets. It’s about interjecting when something inappropriate is said, regardless if the person ‘meant it’ or not; it’s about kindly prodding someone to clarify their thoughts (or remove well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed public statements); it’s about filling those uncomfortable silences with your own voice; it’s about writing down what you think and putting it out there with the openness that you might have made an error, instead of saying nothing at all (maybe someone will enlighten me as to why what I’ve wrote here is bullshit; please, do, if you think so).

I’m not perfect at it, granted, but I’m trying. It’s getting easier to push away the fear I have before I speak. And I’m feeling less guilty, less complicit, less helpless.

If you need to start with the bookcase, start with the bookcase. Pull out those books written by people who aren’t white. Shock yourself.

Then try speaking up. It’s hard, but it gets easier. Be open to being shocked by that, instead of succumbing to the fear stopping you.

📌 Tip Reel 📌

I got a *lot* from this piece in Vulture by Lauren Michele Jackson asking what anti-racist reading lists are for. As I said, I’ve bought quite a few new books off the back of recommendations from amazing people over the last few days - this piece by Jackson got me thinking about what it really means to ‘read about all this’ and to really consider exactly how you go about crucial self-education.

And speaking of anti-racist lists - this open anti-racist resource Google Doc from Titi Tasha is thorough and structured and has books, articles, podcasts, Patreons and all sorts. I found it so helpful to ‘map’ the journey.

Bit late to the party on this piece by Rachel Connolly (it’s from February) all about brands and late capitalism - a sample:

Every brand and company and product is, of course, an instrument of capitalism. It isn’t sharp or perceptive to point this out; it’s stating the obvious. These essays do a lot of work, but that work is less about identifying an under-reported phenomenon, or illuminating a new way of thinking about life under capitalism, and more about absolving readers of their participation, however active or enthusiastic, in it. At what point does participation cross over from subjugation and become, instead, complicity? At what point does complicity become propagation?

Jason Okundaye has written this brilliant piece in iD around police participation at Pride. He has also written to the organisers of Pride in London and shared this email template urging others to send an email too. (I’ve sent an email.)

Currently reading:

🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯

Science Disrupt podcast

Our latest episode was with Sabine Hossenfelder (iTunes / Spotify), all about how physicists are being led astray with their insistence on finding beauty over data - Sabine is a cracking writer, thinker and physicist so this was such a fun chat with her (especially as I’m all about the beauty in maths..!)

Smoke & Mirrors

Next event I’m speaking about my book Smoke & Mirrors will be next week at CogX at 5.30-6pm on the 9th June - I’m being interviewed by Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First about hype in the cutting edge startup world. I’m also interviewing a personal hero of mine (he is part of the reason I ended up studying maths at uni…) Marcus du Sautoy, about creativity and intelligence earlier the same day (10am).

-> I have a bunch of free passes to the whole festival if you want to join - use code: SPCXSFP100

Currently Working On

Still working through my thinking on a piece to do with the ‘economy of experts’ in terms of gurus, public intellectuals, academics, advisors, consultants…and what the internet has done for credibility, ‘expertise’ and trust.

Find me elsewhere on TwitterFacebookLinkedInGoodreadsInstagramMedium, or through my website.

Until next time,
Gemma 🚀

Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.