REVIEW: ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge

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TW: Racism, Violence and Misogyny

First things first, Reni Eddo-Lodge has done the work for us. She’s made a book that people of colour can readily give to all well-meaning white friends and colleagues that want to have a ‘discussion’ about racism. She’s put in all the mental and emotional labour to create a book that covers topics like structural racism, racism within feminism, racial bias in the criminal justice system, white privilege, class, gentrification and police brutality and when you read the book, you’ll see that there are many more themes and issues she discusses that I won’t bother listing for you. I say this book is for well-meaning white people because many people of colour, especially those of us who concern ourselves with race, gender and class, will find that they already know the argument she presents in this book. Even though there were some things discussed that I wasn’t aware of, by and large reading this book was reading and agreeing with what I already knew. However, this is not a weakness. This book is a powerful tool that draws from cultural, political and economic history as well as current affairs in order to show that structural racism is alive and thriving in Britain.

The book is divided into seven chapters: ‘Histories’, ‘The System’, ‘What is White Privilege?’, ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, ‘The Feminist Question’, ‘Race and Class’ and ‘There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us’. Honestly, I found some of these chapters boring and had to plough through them but that is not because of a failure of her writing, but instead because as I said before, I don’t need to be told what white privilege is. At the same time, some chapters really stood out to me.

I’ll start with ‘Histories’, as the title implies, Eddo-Lodge provides a historical case for structural racism. She starts with Britain’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and argues that although there wasn’t a large slave presence in Britain, many people capitalised on the slave trade through the slaves they owned in plantations in the colonies. Eddo-Lodge reveals a hidden history of riots, white supremacist violence against black and brown people and Britain’s long history of exploitation and extraction. What makes this chapter so vibrant is the way she mixes the distant past with more modern histories, she also goes through the trouble of interviewing people like Linda Bellos, the woman who brought Black History Month to Britain. As a history student, I know how so many histories are hidden from view especially within white-dominated academia, however, I was shocked by how inaccessible Black British history has been made to be and just how much I didn’t know. Eddo-Lodge writes ‘faced with collective forgetting, we must fight to remember’ and this short quote explains why it is important for people of colour to put in the labour to bring these histories to the forefront.

‘Fear of a Black Planet’ is another chapter that really stood out to me. ‘The projection of an ever-encroaching black doomsday’ is what she calls ‘fear of a black planet’. The fear of a black planet ‘maintains that people of colour are unfairly vying for precious, rationed and scarce resources, and that having more people of colour in these positions of power might instigate a drastic tipping of the scales’.  Eddo-Lodge supports her argument using quotes from right-wing politicians like former British National Party leader Nick Griffin who argues that it is racist, yes racist, ‘when you seek to deny the English’. He argues that the white minority is under attack, even though Britain is over 80% white and calls for white British people to preserve white British culture. The fear of a black planet is so real that Oxford Professor Coleman, a leading demographer, has marked doomsday as the year 2066; allowing far-right politicians to exploit fear. Eddo-Lodge then moves out of the political and into the cultural to explain how real this fear is in the white British imagination. She gives the example the backlash that followed the casting of a black Hermione for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and John Boyega as a Stormtrooper in Star Wars. Eddo-Lodge writes ‘fear of a black planet destroys good fiction, and it demonstrates how racism gets in the way of human empathy’. Black people cannot possibly play sophisticated, fully-formed characters and white Britain will even argue that casting these characters as black, encroaches on Britishness.

The last chapter I’ll discuss in depth in ‘The Feminist Question’, in my opinion, this is where Eddo-Lodge shines the most and I look forward to reading more feminist material from her. In this chapter, Eddo-Lodge sets about explaining what many women of colour feel in predominantly white feminist spaces. Ultimately, Eddo-Lodge argues that even within feminism, structural racism reigns supreme and affects the way women of colour interact with feminism and silences them. I really felt a connection with the writer when I read this chapter because like her, feminism is my first love and it is through feminism that I started thinking about race and like her, I found feminism in my late-teens. She writes, ‘feminism was helping me to become a more critical, confident woman, and in turn, it was helping me come to terms with my blackness. She recounts how many white women could not understand why women of colour wanted their own private spaces and many accused women of colour of being divisive. I won’t go into further detail for fear of making this review too long but Eddo-Lodge’s use of an Audre Lorde quotes sums up her argument beautifully: ‘your silence will not protect you’. Women of colour must speak up regardless of the backlash because when we are silent, we don’t win.

The only chapter that I felt needed a bit more work is ‘Race and Class’. As a Nigerian woman who has only lived in the UK for three years (three years being the length of time I have been at university), class isn’t something I have been conditioned to think about often so I was hoping that this chapter would answer most of my questions but it didn’t. However, this is not to say that the chapter lacked nuance or depth, I just have a lot of self-educating to do. In the chapter, Eddo-Lodge argues that we cannot look at race and class as mutually exclusive and we shouldn’t think of the working class as a white man in a floppy hat because in 2017, a more accurate image is a black woman pushing a pram. She argues that because class is tied to economic and social strength, many people of colour find themselves in the lower classes and even with hard work, because the odds are stacked against us, though mobility is possible, there are limits for the average person of colour. What I appreciated most is her exploration of gentrification, a topic that I am not exposed to in Nigeria. Lastly, Eddo-Lodge also argues that class should not be used as a divisive tool and the white lower classes need not point fingers at their black and brown neighbours, they should look at where power and wealth is concentrated.

Eddo-Lodge finishes her book on a positive note. She admits that structural racism will exist well after she dies but she argues that this shouldn’t stop people of colour from tearing down racist structures where they can. She argues that it can be as small as tackling something where you work and also warns us to be kind to ourselves. We need to build our own support structures and if we don’t want to talk to white people about race for a while, we should be allowed to do so. White people on the other hand, need to engage. They need to be allies because existing power structures can’t be destroyed without the contribution of white people because after all, racism is a white invention and a white problem. Even something as small as bearing witness to racism and being ready to speak out against racism and in support of the victim of that racism is a step in the right direction.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is just what I needed. I find that lately I’ve been finding it difficult to engage with social media because I find a lot of what I read shallow. I want to read more and expose myself to a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of race and Eddo-Lodge has provided me with that. I’m definitely going to gift this book to my younger sister who has only just began her journey in race and feminist thought and to my mother who, although is scared to appear ‘too left’, can see racism and misogyny. Of course, this book is worth the labour and if you’re a person of colour, this is something you can refer all well-meaning white people to.

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