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

Trick Mirror

We are living in the era of the self, an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her appearance on an early reality TV show as a teenager; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to the extravagance of wedding culture, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and wisdom all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of essays announces her as exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.


You know when a book is almost too good to review? Where a writer has accessed a level of insight so profound you could never possibly do it justice?

I refer you to Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a book of essays that blew my mind, made me uncomfortable, made me laugh out loud and, you know, casually reassess basically everything about my life.

In the first piece of Trick Mirror, ‘The I in Internet’, Jia lays out her thesis statement for everything that is to come – and still, I wasn’t ready. Trick Mirror is a book about consequences, and moving the larger part of our lives online has come with some we never could have anticipated. Perhaps the most distressing of which, Jia argues, is the commodification of the self (“capitalism’s last natural resource”), and the inflation of the importance of personal identity that followed. As Jia writes, “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.”

In this world, having an opinion is conflated with taking action; feminism isn’t about the collective so much as #GirlBoss-style individual advancement substituted for progress – or as Jia puts it, “A politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics” – and we have generally accepted the notion that maybe the best way a person can spend their life is to identify areas of potential profit and take whatever they can under the guise of ‘disrupting’ (or, more accurately, “dismantling social structures to suck up cash from whatever corners of life can still be exploited.”)

Generally speaking, the only way to make it through the day and remain sane is to have a problematically high tolerance for fucked up things. Trick Mirror lowers that shield, and demands the reader’s discomfort as we are brought face to face with the hypocrisies and glaring dilemmas of the system we have agreed to live in. No one is allowed off the hook – not even Jia, who readily implicates herself in a conversation that refuses binaries. It’s as refreshing as it is distressing to read.

It’s impossible for me to pick a favourite from this collection, because they are so impactful in such different ways, but ‘Always Be Optimising’ struck particularly close to home. A sprawling essay taking in the history of barre, beauty standards, influencer culture and the failures of the mainstream feminist movement, it lays bare a lot of the bullshit you encounter day to day as a woman.

“It’s very easy, under certain conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organising your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible. Women have known this intimately for a long time.”

As the world has expanded we’re dealing with not only unrealistic beauty standards, but unrealistic lifestyle standards (My Morning Routine and What I Eat In A Day videos, anyone?), where a relentless pursuit of self-improvement is advertised under the guise of female empowerment and ‘self-care’. In one of the many throw-the-book-across-the-room moments (those can be good too) I had during reading, Jia highlights the irony of the rebrand we’ve gifted the impossible standards women are expected to achieve. It’s no longer mid-century magazines imploring us to “spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves.

Like I said before, everyone is implicated.

With Trick Mirror, Jia has cemented herself forever as one of my favourite writers. I have already read most of the essays multiple times, and writing this I got lost in them all over again. I really can’t recommend this book enough.