Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race: A Discussion

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.

Let’s go.

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.”

Key events:

– 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.

Questions
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.”

Key events:

– 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.

Questions
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?

In conclusion
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.

Further learning
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

Beloved

It is the mid-1800s. At Sweet Home in Kentucky, an era is ending as slavery comes under attack from the abolitionists. The worlds of Halle and Paul D are to be destroyed in a cataclysm of torment and agony. The world of Sethe, however, is to turn from one of love to one of violence and death – the death of Sethe’s baby daughter, Beloved, whose name is the single word on the tombstone, who died at her mother’s hands, and who will return to claim retribution.


“I decided that the single most uncontroversial thing one can say about the institution of slavery vis-à-vis contemporary time, is that it haunts us all. That in so many ways all our lives are entangled with the past – its manipulations and, fearful of its grasp, ignoring or dismissing or distorting it to suit ourselves, but always unable to erase it.”
– From The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The first thing you should know about Beloved, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner by Toni Morrison is that it is a ghost story. Number 124 is a ‘spiteful’ house, ‘full of a baby’s venom’ where Denver and her mother Sethe spend their days isolated – their other family lost to death or driven out by the baby ghost that shatters mirrors, ruins food and tortures the dog, and whose death at Sethe’s own hands has alienated the family from the rest of the community.

The second thing to know about Beloved is that it is a story about motherhood. In her discussion of the novel in The Source of Self Regard, Toni writes that part of what inspired Beloved was the conversations about reproductive freedom happening at the time, but rather than focusing on a woman’s right to be child-free, she was instead interested in writing about those women to whom the choice to have children “was the supreme act of freedom, not its opposite”. And so we step into the story of Sethe, and the vastness of her love for her children – a love so vast it drove her to kill one of them.

So, let’s talk a bit more about what the freedom of motherhood looks like for Sethe. As a slave, her children legally did not belong to her. They could be sold separately from her. Under such circumstances, for Sethe to choose to have her children and to claim them as hers was an act of revolution. And once she had them, she knew she had to save them from the life she and her predecessors had endured. So she does – taking a harrowing journey with them to freedom.

Freedom was hard to come by. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, owners went after escaped slaves like Sethe – their bodies, and their children still considered claimable property under the law. That’s what happens – Sethe and her children make it almost a month into their escape from their owners at Sweet Home when the slave master comes for them, and so Sethe takes her children out to the back of the house to kill them, starting with the newborn Beloved. To Sethe, to kill them is the only way she can save them. Ultimately, she only kills Beloved before she is stopped and arrested.

“If I hadn’t killed her, she would have died.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is an intensely complicated and painful read. And I haven’t even got to what happens when Beloved returns to 124 (maybe? We don’t really know. It might just be some random lady who also happens to be called Beloved). From Sethe’s act of violence, to the all-consuming intensity of her relationship with the returned Beloved, to Sethe’s boyfriend Paul D’s subsequent deeply uncomfortable sexual relationship with that very same Beloved – all of the characters in this book resist the classifications of noble victimhood that modern discourse so often projects onto slaves, and what we imagine their survival to have looked like. They are survivors, yes, but survival is a messy thing, and it is that mess that Toni explores in Beloved.

Though Sethe and Paul D are physically free from slavery, they both remain imprisoned by their trauma. Sethe’s literally haunts the house, keeping her trapped inside of it and away from the outside world where she might find a means to start moving on. Paul D, meanwhile is afraid to really love, because to love would be to feel everything, and to feel everything would, he believes, destroy him. Denver, Sethe’s daughter, meanwhile did not grow up a slave, and yet the generations of trauma that her family has endured keep her as locked inside the walls of 124 as everyone else.

“Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realise that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a deeply sad book, but it is not without hope. The ghosts probably won’t ever leave, but that doesn’t mean Sethe can’t ever step outside of her haunting.  

For a book named after her I know I haven’t written much about Beloved herself. She’s a tricky character to grasp, intentionally so. She might be a ghost or she might not – we’ll never really know – but what we do know is, she is a symbol for the 60 million and more lives lost in the slave trade whose names and stories we will never know. And even Beloved, in the end, is forgotten.

Yeah so, if it wasn’t clear, I adored this book. I know there’s nothing new about recognising Toni Morrison’s brilliance, but I am adding to the clamour to let you know if you haven’t picked up one of her books yet, you must.

Allyship is a verb: some resources for learning

For me, one of the biggest lessons of the past few years is that values kept locked inside aren’t really values. Speaking up, facing discomfort and an openness to learn are the vital ingredients of living a value-driven life.

As we all process and respond to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd among so many others, for a lot of white people now is a time where we’re thinking seriously about our anti-racist learning (something we should have been doing all along, FYI). This can have some complicated side effects for the black community, who are already dealing with a sort of trauma that we’ll never truly be able to understand. Now is a time where many well-intentioned but, to be clear, wrong, white people will ask their black and brown friends, and black and brown public figures to expend additional emotional labour teaching us how to be better people.

To be clear, that is not okay. Black and brown people don’t owe you emotional labour.

And there are already a ton of resources online so you don’t need to be sliding into anyone’s DMS demanding they educate you. The work exists, you just have to be active in seeking it out.

Today I wanted to highlight a few of the voices I turn to in my own anti-racism work. I want to caveat this post first with the probably obvious but I am just going to mention it anyway note to respect these spaces and, if you’re white, listen more than you talk.

Nova Reid
Nova is an inspirational speaker, writer, diversity and anti-racism campaigner. I came to her work through her new podcast, Conversations With Nova Reid where she and a range of guests talk about racism, allyship and what it looks like to really interrogate internalised biases. There are only 12 episodes at the time of writing, so it’s easy to catch up.
Nova’s background is in counselling and wellbeing, something that really shines through in her work, where she asks her audience to step into discomfort and be willing to be vulnerable in our examination of our internalised racism – something we all have, if we’re completely honest with ourselves. Something she has spoken of often that really stuck with me is how our fear of perceiving ourselves as “bad” holds us back from making meaningful progress in anti-racism work. For so many people that hold white privilege, the thought of being called racist is like our worst nightmare. It’s an understandable fear – I totally have it too – but rather than pushing us to be better, that fear really only manifests itself in fragility and an unwillingness to deeply look at the ways that actually we might be kind of racist. Nova’s message – if you’re willing to engage with it and really do the work (100% on you, btw) – is that rather than realising that your worst fears are true, you are in fact, “bad”, by facing your internalised racism you are actually uncovering all of the ways in which you might be better.
Feeling guilty about internalised racism pales in comparison to what it feels like for the people of colour who actually experience it.
Links to Nova’s work
Podcast: Conversations with Nova Reid
Nova’s Tedx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8iNGeVyvUs
Instagram: @novareidofficial
Ways to pay for Nova’s work: [a lot of labour goes into creating resources like this, so it’s important to pay in any way you can. For some of us that means financially supporting, or, if that’s not possible for you right now, it’s spreading the word about their work] There are a couple! Nova has a paid for anti-racism course, which you can read more about at her website. If you aren’t able to afford that right now you can also send her some money via Pay Pal, paypal.me/NovaReid

Layla F Saad
I found Layla’s work recently when Aja Barber (who I’ll get to in a minute) was a guest on her podcast. Layla is most well known for her Instagram challenge and now book Me and White Supremacy, a work that challenges readers to dig deep into their own internalised racism and confront white fragility. I haven’t read her book yet, but I am absolutely loving her podcast, The Good Ancestor Podcast. Layla talks at length about what it means to be a good ancestor, which according to her means working to create a world that is better for future generations. It is a vital idea, and the podcast features conversations with a wide range of anti-racism campaigners, activists, change makers and writers having challenging and revealing conversations about what it means to live in a white supremacy as a person of colour.
Links to Layla’s work
Podcast: The Good Ancestor Podcast
@laylafsaad on Instagram
Book: Me and White Supremacy
Ways to pay for Layla’s work: Aside from the obvious (her book!), Layla also as a Paypal account, paypal.me/LaylaSaad

Aja Barber
I came to Aja originally through her work in the realm of ethical fashion. I quickly learned, however, that it’s impossible to talk about ethical fashion without also talking about race. Aja talks more about this on her episode of Layla Saad’s podcast that I’ve already mentioned so do head there to get this in more detail, but the fashion industry is completely bound up in colonialism. From shipping our waste clothes to African countries where they either undercut and damage the local garment industry or wind up filling up landfills, to the underpaid, unsafe, slavery-rife garment sector where the majority of big brands make their products, the industry is largely build at the expense of black and brown bodies – with the many of us turning a blind eye because we just love Zara so much.
Links to Aja’s work:
@ajabarber on Instagram
Read some of Aja’s writing on Eco Age: https://eco-age.com/aja-barber
Ways to pay for Aja’s work: Aja has a Patreon where she regularly posts about ethical brands as well as hosting discussions about news in the world of sustainability at www.patreon.com/AjaBarber

Munroe Bergdorf
Munroe was actually one of the first anti-racist activists I encountered when a few years ago she was fired as a spokesperson by L’Oreal after speaking out about white supremacy on TV (something that has been in the news a lot in the last couple days as L’Oreal have started using #blacklivesmatter to boost their own profile now it suits them). Munroe Bergdorf is a black trans activist, model  and UN Changemaker having challenging discussions about racism and white supremacy and how both those things intersect with LGBTQIA+ issues. As we head into pride month, make sure you follow Munroe.
Links to Munroe’s work:
@munroebergdorf and @goddessplatform on Instagram
Documentary: What Makes A Woman? (this is probably UK-only, sorry)
Ways to pay for Munroe’s work: She is pretty famous so she doesn’t have a Paypal or a Patreon where you can directly pay for her work, but Munroe is a patron of Mermaid, a charity here in the UK that supports trans and gender-diverse children, young people and their families. You can donate to them at mermaids.org.uk/donate

Remember that learning is a life-long thing. Allyship isn’t only engaging with anti-racism work when it’s in the media like it is right now, it’s following activists like these women and regularly engaging with their work. Respectfully. And staying out of their DMs.

Others actions you can take:

There is a live list of updated organisations in Minneapolis in need of financial support, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/fundthecommunity

If you live in the UK, like me, Zing Tsjeng, Vice UK’s executive editor has suggested the following to take action:


Since she tweeted this the report has been released but without any investigation into why this disparity exists or concrete actions that are going to be taken to address it, so the pressure to do more is still very much needed. Writing to your MP can be difficult if you’ve never done it before. If you’d like help or to use the email I wrote as a template then please let me know – my email address is tewkesbury.lydia@gmail.com

Commit to learning, listening and remembering that anti-racist work starts with the work you do on yourself.