‘I’ve written this book to articulate that feeling of having your voice and confidence snatched away from you in the cocky face of the status quo. It has been written to counter the lack of the historical knowledge and the political backdrop you need to anchor you opposition to racism. I hope you use it as a tool’.
I first became aware of the brilliant, award-winning, black feminist, Reni Eddo-Lodge a few years ago when I attended my first WOW Festival at the Southbank Centre, London. Normally held over the weekend of International Women’s Day in March, the festival seeks to highlight social, political and cultural issues from intersectional feminist perspectives. Searching back through my notebook from that time, I recalled watching Reni Eddo-Lodge on a panel discussing the topic of ‘Feminism and Privilege’ which also crops up in her relevant and pressing debut Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race published last year. Eddo-Lodge’s focus is primarily on race in western, particularly British, society, but it is impossible not to touch on where race intersects with a person’s gender, class or ability.
Growing out of a 2014 essay Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote on her blog, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is split into seven essays ranging from black British history – which we surprisingly learn little of in government-run school curriculums – to white privilege and the system in which racism is able to thrive in sinister, almost unnoticeable, ways. Eddo-Lodge writes of her frustration with white people at placing the onus on black people and people of colour to explain why racism still exists and to fight to dismantle the powerful institutions and structures that keep enforcing racism. As Eddo-Lodge states, ‘[…] racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve’. In a similar vein to the misogyny that pervades patriarchal societies, it is as much, if not more so, the responsibility of white people – as it is of men – to recognise, call-out and dismantle the racial – and misogynistic – structure in which our societies are built on. White people – like men – should and need to do more.
‘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’.
As Eddo-Lodge points out – and this is something I hadn’t questioned before, despite the often sour taste it left in my mouth – even the language we use, ever present in speeches by politicians and reports from different media sources, subtly enforces a power dichotomy between ‘them’ and ‘us’. It directs our attentions towards our neighbours as the problem rather than at the institutions or structural systems that allow an unequal society to occur.
A few interesting things I learnt about the commonplace language we use in everyday situations are that before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, ‘immigrants’ were actually classed as ‘citizens’; the term ‘muggings’ was an American exportation meaning the same as ‘street robberies’ that had existed in Britain for time immemorial, but with this new word implications of race now make it a coded description of an exclusively black crime; and that black uprisings are almost always described in the media as ‘riots’. As John Fernandes, a sociology lecturer, says, ‘[…] the problem is not a black problem. It’s not my culture, not my religion that is the problem. It is the racism of the white institutions’. Often the racism and discrimination that pervades everyday life isn’t the outright, white extremism we would expect. The kind that is easy to pin point and call out. Although white extremism has a huge part to play, it is also the racially coded language and white privilege – pervasive in popular, mainstream culture – that seriously affects black people’s and people of colour’s life chances.
‘Racism does not go both ways. There are unique forms of discrimination that are backed up by entitlement, assertion and, most importantly, supported by a structural power strong enough to scare you into complying with the demands of the status quo. We have to recognise this’.
From an intersectional feminist perspective, racism is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed and Reni Eddo-Lodge does this to perfection. Feminism was Eddo-Lodge’s first love, but like black feminists writing before her, such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde, she saw huge discrepancies between feminism which, at its best, should seek to dismantle the constructs of what bell hooks called ‘the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, and white feminism, which espouses ‘feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness’. It’s not feminism if it doesn’t take into account the many other forms of discrimination that women face and it’s not feminism if it doesn’t seek to dismantle these forms of oppression for everyone. Again, the responsibility of addressing these issues shouldn’t fall solely on those marginalised by this ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’. As Audre Lorde famously said, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is such an important and long overdue book discussing the implications of race in our everyday lives. We do not live in a post-racial society and we cannot get to a better place without having these difficult, messy and uncomfortable conversations first. Despite only being able to touch the surface of race in the space of 249 pages, Reni Eddo-Lodge ends her monumental debut with the message that it’s now up to us, and has always been up to us – and that includes white people – to keep on educating ourselves and others on the history and current situation of race relations in Britain and elsewhere.
‘It’s on your shoulders and mine to dismantle what we once accepted to be true. It’s our task. It needs to be done with whatever resources we have on hand. We need to change narratives. We need to change the frames. We need to claim the entirety of British history’.