Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2017 book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is a thorough and confronting analysis of race relations in Britain today. Through chapters on subjects including Black British history (and its erasure), systemic racism in institutions like the police, education and sport, feminism and the relationship between race and class, Eddo-Lodge delves into the racist structures that British society is built on and the ways they are upheld by a society that has chosen to avert its eyes.
Though the book was a massive deal when it first came out, following the murder of George Floyd, it flew back up the charts, and in June, Eddo-Lodge became the first Black Brit to top the best seller list. It was an achievement about which she felt an understandable amount of conflict.
Why was it happening for the first time in 2020? (a shameful 6% of authors published in the UK are people of colour, so it’s not actually that surprising)
And how was it possible that so many white people were just waking up to the existence of racism now?
I first had my mind given a good shake by this book last year but I decided it was long overdue a reread and today I want to do something a bit different. In the
wake of the massive protests for racial inequality this year there was the huge drive for books on anti-racism. And I do think this is a good thing, but given
a) The huge amount of people (white women especially) who still voted for Trump in the US election (still matters, even though he lost)
b) The amount of white people who were surprised by that and
c) Here in the UK, the Conservative government’s decision to choose Black History Month as the moment to move to end the teaching of critical race theory in schools – effectively closing down discussions of white privilege in educational settings.
(I feel the need to add here that the UK curriculum already contains no substantive discussion of racism or Black history, and the government also rejected calls for changes to the curriculum to address this lack earlier in this year, so this entire story was about something that already isn’t happening and was only a means to stoke up right wing vitriol – which worked, obviously)
…I don’t think a lot of people really engaged with what they read.
So, let’s talk. When we read anti-racist texts it shouldn’t be as a passive observer. Reading the book is not the same as holding yourself accountable for the internalised racism that you inevitably hold. In addition to experiencing the author’s story and really taking on the information they are imparting, you need to push yourself – to learn more, to ask yourself big, uncomfortable questions. There’s a tendency – which I have absolutely fallen into – to hear people’s stories about racism they’ve faced, or even witness it yourself, and fall into shock and horror. You know, that moment when you think “I can’t believe this still happens! How can people be so awful?” etc. This is understandable, I think, but ultimately unhelpful. It is a means for those who consider themselves ‘good’ white people to separate themselves from those acts of racism, to centre their own feelings of horror in order to comfortably distance themselves from the truth of the matter that the same white supremacy that produced that horror is one that they (I) benefit from every single day. Nova Reid, an incredible writer and anti-racism activist I have learned SO much from has talked about this a lot on Instagram.
This post, I hope, is a suggestion of how you might read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race through the frame of accountability.
Reni on the absence of Black history in UK education:
“…I don’t think my ignorance was an individual thing. That I had to go looking for significant moments in black British history suggests to me that I have been kept ignorant. While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.
We need to stop lying to ourselves, and we need to stop lying to each other. To assume that there was no civil rights movement in the UK is not just untrue, it does a disservice to our black history, leaving gaping holes where the story of progress should be.”
– Racist attacks in Liverpool in 1919, the most high profile of which was the public lynching of Charles Wootten. He was thrown into the sea and pelted with rocks by a white mob until he drowned. The British response? A repatriation drive that resulted in as many as 600 Black people being sent ‘back where they came from’ – deported to the West Indies. Many of these people had settled in the UK after fighting for Britain in the First World War.
– The Bristol Bus Boycott. Guy Bailey was denied an interview at Bristol Omnibus Company because he was Black. In response, he and the West Indian Development Council launched a campaign against the BOC’s racist practices through the local media, gaining support from local students, politicians and press – meanwhile every single one of Bristol’s West Indian residents were boycotting the bus service. Over 100 students marched in support and the boycott continued to grow. In the end, BOC were forced to cave and change their discriminatory hiring practices – though to this day, Eddo-Lodge notes, the company (now called First Somerset & Avon) has never apologised.
These are only two events that I learned of for the first time reading Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The entire first section is filled with stories of the civil rights struggle in the UK I would wager the vast majority have very little awareness even happened.
Instead of asking yourself, why wasn’t I taught about this? Instead ask, why wasn’t I curious about this before now?
Reni on challenging white feminism:
“British feminism was characterised as a movement where everything was peaceful until the angry black people turned up. The white feminists’ characterisations of black feminists as disruptive aggressors was not so different from broader stereotyping of black communities by the press. Women of colour were positioned as the immigrants of feminism, unwelcome but tolerated – a reluctantly dealt-with social problem.”
– An incident on BBC Radio 4’s Womens Hour in 2013 where Reni was cast as a bully by Caroline Criado Perez, who equated the anti-racism work Eddo-Lodge spoke of with the bullying and harassment Caroline herself was experiencing online at that time following her successful campaign to get a woman on the new ten pound bank note.
– The massive backlash the term ‘intersectionality’ faced when it first made it into the mainstream feminist discussion, with an article in The New Statesmen inferring Black feminists were ‘The Mean Girls Club’ only one example. Eddo Lodge writes: “…this knee-jerk backlash against the phrase – to what is more often than not a rigorous critique of the consequences of structural racism – was undoubtedly born from an entitled need to defend whiteness rather than any yearning to to reflect on the meaning of the phrase ‘white feminism’.”
One problem that comes up over and over again among white feminists – and white women in general – is tone policing. It is surprising how many white women who would sincerely consider themselves to be liberal, even anti-racist still don’t recognise this behaviour. Tone policing, as defined in this excellent series of infrographics by Feminism India, is the act of focusing on the tone of a person’s statement, rather than the content. It is a tactic often employed by white women against Black women to lecture them on how their anti-racist message would be a lot more successful ‘if they were nicer about it’. It’s a way for privileged groups to silence the marginalised and avoid accountability. Basically, it is a very sneaky form of racism white people – and I really can’t emphasise this enough – many of whom consider themselves anti-racist utilise to uphold their own comfort (AKA life in a white supremacy) over progress.
Why do I feel that someone should communicate the trauma of racism and anti-Blackness in a way that makes me feel comfortable? Am I acting out of a desire to preserve my own privilege?
Can you think of a time when you have felt the ‘knee-jerk’ need to defend whiteness that Eddo-Lodge identifies? Have you ever felt threatened when listening to a person of colour talk about their experiences?
Have you read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race? What came up for you while you were reading? What questions do you think readers should be asking themselves in response to this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Reni’s follow-up podcast, About Race where she delves further into subjects covered in her book
Follow The Black Curriculum on Instagram, an organisation committed to teaching Black history, year round
Watch Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC iPlayer, a drama based on the true story of the Mangrove Nine and police systemic racism