Due to recent events there has been an explosion of interest in reading books about race, the issues surrounding it, how it affects societies, communities, and the life stories of individual people as well as what it means both from a historical perspective and how the modern world is dominated and governed by it often to the detriment of one group over another. I wanted to participate in this ‘conversation’ but was at a loss as to which work to choose. So I did a bit of research and came up with a shortened list of titles and this one, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was one of them.
Why did I ultimately pick it up? It was written from a black female perspective and was centered on the British story/situation which has received less overall attention but, coming from a country that has cultural and historical ties to Britain, I thought it would hold particular interest.
And I can tell you that it was riveting from start to finish.
The author, Reni Eddo-Lodge, wrote a blog post a few years before this book was published called Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (which is reproduced in full in the book) that sparked a national debate in Britain and subsequently led her to doing the exact opposite – she now speaks all the time about the complex issues of race and racism in Britain. And yes, they are far more layered and deep seated than many would like to or are willing to admit. But I found Reni’s voice to be clear and impassioned, her words, thoughts, opinions and ideas to be easily understandable and I had no hesitation in believing all she said to be the truth, as difficult as these truths might seem.
I very much appreciated that she took the time to give me, the reader, some of the history of Britain and its relationship to race. She quite rightly points out that there is very little focus in British society on the country’s’ role in the slave trade (more associated with America in the public discourse on the subject) and the wealth it created for Britain, of which the effects can still be seen in major cities today. She also highlights the rampant anti-black feelings in Britain after both wars and beyond with hate crimes and clashes based on race being common. And while not codified into law, anti-black societal ‘rules’ existed and often mirrored those which were prevalent in the United States with the behaviour of some sections of white society towards blacks being similar to that which manifested in some states in the US.
Unsurprisingly the author points out that Parliament (a white male upper class dominated institution) was ineffectual in combating racism and in fact it passed laws that promoted racist notions and ideas. It wasn’t until 1965 that the first Act of Parliament which sought to limit (not outlaw) dicrimination based on race passed and, sadly, it was ultimately a weak attempt with too many loopholes and no conviction behind the ideas.
Two particular quotes that have stuck with me are ‘… [the] Black British story starved of oxygen … ‘ and a particularly telling one ‘… Looking at our history shows racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s at the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system…’
Eddo-Lodge then goes on to examine in depth various aspects of race and racism in Britain. I found her discussion on the structural nature of racism to be very eye opening. I was fairly certain before I read this book that that was the case, but her explanation of the notion, and why it is so fought against in British society, to be illuminating and concerning.
She says ‘… We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systematic power …’ By framing racism as a moral issue, it gives the ability for those in positions of power (the majority being white middle to upper class men) to deny racism’s structural nature and therefore deny the possibility that by participating and benefiting from such a system, they might in fact be racist. They may not use derogatory words or commit violent acts based on race, but as Eddo-Lodge says ‘… [racism] is not just about personal prejudice, but the collective effects of bias …’. This structural bias based on race will never go away if it cannot be acknowledged.
The way Eddo-Lodge frames the discussion really made me stop, take several steps back and think more about the society and structures in which I live and operate within, requiring more complex and honest thoughts. Is the fight for equality within the current system really what is required if the system is built by whites from a white perspective OR does the whole system need to be rebuilt? It’s something that the author throws out there as an option.
Now any discussion on race must include the concept of white privilege because it seems to be something that many have difficulty with, and Eddo-Lodge states that it is the tendency to deny this that, in part, prompted her original blog post. I thought her definition was brutally honest and very powerful. She puts it into the context of absence and says it’s the ‘exclusion from the narrative of being human’. Think about it for a bit. Just imagine it. Eddo-Lodge continues with the description of white privilege as ‘… the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way and you won’t even be aware of it …’ as well as the assertion ‘… White privilege is instrumental to racism …’.
She also points out that there is a difference between racism and prejudice, and discusses how the concept of reverse racism or racism against white people is used to change the narrative and avoid addressing the issues of racism against black people and people of colour, something that has been enabled by a white dominated media.
Now it’s possible to think that reading about such deep and fundamental issues could become difficult and depressing but I actually found it enlightening and refreshing. That’s not to say that all of it was easy going but it was necessary to try to understand the complexity of the situation.
The topic of multiculturalism and how it has been turned into something negative to express or imply a ‘takeover’ of British (British denoting white) society by non-whites is discussed. What is disturbing is that this concept is used by ALL political parties, not only the deeply racist British Nationalist Party who (along with some in wider society) turn the ‘freedom of speech’ concept against those voicing their objection to racist views. Eddo-Lodge quite clearly says ‘ …it is about protecting white people from being criticised …’.
But perhaps one of the most fascinating discussions within the book (for me at least) was that of race within the feminist movement in Britain. Or should I say, the lack of race as a welcome concept. Eddo-Lodge is not against feminism. In fact she credits it with her awakening as a young woman at college, but she quickly found that trying to talk about race as an aspect of feminism was not welcome. Why? Simply put, feminism (especially in popular media) is at its core is white dominated (I have heard this said before in other things I have read) and it was from this core that intense pushback came to the discussion of race as part of the fundamentals of the movement, with particular scorn being directed towards an idea being talked about and discussed within black feminist circles – intersectionality.
The notion of intersectionality well and truly became a battleground within the movement. Now if I understand it correctly (and forgive me if I get this not quite right) but intersectionality is the intersection of different and varying elements that affect and can be applied to a person, persons or group. In Eddo-Lodge’s argument that would include gender as well as race but not exclusively. White feminism characterised it as unintelligible academic dogma which was supported by certains sections of the white media.
Eddo-Lodge sees this as an example of the wider struggle for the black community, with white (political) feminism becoming another arm of the white political establishment’s efforts to deny (female) blackness its power and exclude it from the wider discourse. But she stresses the importance of an inclusive feminist movement when she says ‘…Far from shutting down debate, incorporating the challenges of racism is absolutely essential for a feminist movement that doesn’t leave anyone behind …’. Not all women experience the same things in life the same way, and in order to be a truly representative movement for women, it is essential to include race and the black woman’s experience and perspective. It is disappointing that this appears to be such a hard idea to accept for some.
Eddo-Lodge also traverses discussions on topics such as race and class, where she rejects the notion that (as some believe) class is the battleground that should be fought in Britain, not race and that policies that adversely affect the working class in Britain now disproportionately affect blacks and people of colour generally as they are more likely to be the dominant in that group. And that because of structural racism it is very difficult to move beyond the class that you occupy if you are a person of colour.
She finishes by talking about where Britain is as a society in terms of race and ways that could be employed to bring about change, the conversations that need to be had and she says this:
‘Britain’s relationship with race and racism isn’t a neat narrative with a feel-good resolution. Change is incremental, and racism will exist long after I die. But if you’re committed to anti-racism, you’re in it for the long haul. It will be difficult. Getting to the end point will require you to be uncomfortable’.
All the way through this book there were moments where I found myself nodding my head in full agreement with what Eddo-Lodge was saying and points at which I had to stop and ponder so that I could think through the implications of it all. I found the book fascinating on many levels and it held my interest intellectually and emotionally all the way through. Her voice was one of intelligence, clarity and honesty all of which compelled me as a reader to have conversations with others around me about the concepts she was discussing which I suppose is ironic considering the title of the book.
I am very glad that I read this book and I encourage others to pick it up and invest the time into Eddo-Lodge and her ideas. They allow you to open your mind and step outside yourself, to think about the society in which you live from a totally new perspective.
Rating: 5 Stars
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)