Rising Up is a slender book in which Sonali Kolhatkar succinctly makes the argument that stories have the power to make social change.

She begins by outlining how people of color encounter racism in everyday life by sharing an experience she had at a grocery store with an angry white man who accused her of “driving like an Asian” as she was pushing her 4-year-old around the store in a cart. This powerful opening narrative demonstrates how often people of color deal with racism while going about their everyday lives.

Kolhatkar is known for her weekly TV and radio show Rising Up with Sonali and she also serves as racial justice editor for Yes! Magazine. This book grew out of her journalistic work and nearly two decades of material that she’s collected on social movements.

In the first three chapters, she outlines the racial bias in corporate media, including liberal media like NPR and The New York Times and critiques Hollywood’s racialized narratives of crime. In the last three chapters, she focuses on how individuals and activists such as the Black Lives Matter Movement are changing the narrative one person at a time. She highlights such moments as #OscarsSoWhite, the formation of Black Twitter, and Darnella Frazer’s video of the George Floyd murder as examples of such change.

Kohlatkar’s book covers familiar territory for those of us engaged in social justice work and who, as people of color, have experienced racial incidents or struggled with media bias. The clear prose, the succinct coverage of topics, and the brevity of the book make this a useful primer to explore. It should be particularly suitable for book groups, activist groups, and high school/college students interested in exploring media bias and seeking change.

I had the opportunity to talk with Sonali Kolhatkar via Zoom recently.

Kolhatkar initially had no plans for Rising Up, but when City Lights Booksellers & Publishers approached her following the Jan. 6, 2020 events to consciously create more opportunities to promote racial justice, things changed. She was reluctant at first, noting that she does not identify as an activist/organizer, but as a storyteller who amplifies the work of others. She sees her role as telling the stories of these racial justice movements.

We discussed racial bias found in corporate media, and I wondered if independent media’s limited reach impacted its influence. Kolhatkar readily agreed that independent media does not have the reach of corporate media, but that where it excels is in pressuring corporate media to be more radical in its coverage. In Rising Up, she writes on how independent media influenced the mainstream to drop the term “illegal” immigrant from its reportage.

One of the challenges for an author of such a book is that of audience.

To many of us who consume liberal corporate media and/or independent media, Rising Up covers familiar ground and deepens our thinking. However, the followers of right-wing media will not read this book even if folks like me believe they desperately need to.

Kolhatkar noted that her audience is anybody who believes that we need a multiracial democracy for the United States to survive and thrive. This book is a resource for such readers. She said that right wing politicians sell a fear-based narrative about the U.S. being on the brink of disaster, and seek to enforce policy based on such fear.

Kolhatkar offers an alternative approach and wants to tell stories of racial justice because “when one of us is not free, no one is free.” Our story — narratives centering communities of color — is based on “joy and striving for better,” not fear and anxiety. 

Kolhatkar writes extensively about the Black Lives Matter movement, and I asked her to comment on the racialization of Asian Americans in the media.

“As Asian Americans we occupy a tenuous space in a white supremacist nation. We have some advantages and are spared some of the worst violence that is reserved for Black people and Indigenous people but we are very much Otherized,” she said.  

White supremacy turns Asian Americans into a racial “wedge,” such as with the recent affirmative action in college admissions case. Kolhatkar spoke candidly about anti-Blackness, casteism, and colorism that plague Asian American communities and how that prevents us from being in solidarity with other marginalized groups.

She added that she sees the younger generation of Asian Americans offering hope in these areas, observing that they are more willing to have conversations across racial lines with other communities of color and to discuss questions of gender and sexuality more openly. 

What is striking about Kolhatkar is her optimism. She believes in solutions journalism and cites Yes! Magazine as an example and rejects crisis journalism that fosters cynicism. She cites many examples of grassroots change occurring because of the work of racial justice activists who are changing the narrative one story at a time and one person at a time.

Sonali Kolhatkar has a story to tell and she tells it well. She knows her audience and is passionate about her ideals for fostering a multiracial society where everyone can thrive. Her work is thought-provoking and talking with her was a warm and wonderful experience. Her optimism is infectious. Her event at Town Hall will be worth attending.

Sonali Kolhatkar speaks with Sunnivie Brydum at Town Hall as part of their Civics series on September 6, 2023 at 7:30 PM. The event is in-person only.

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