Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Last year, I read and reviewed Ta-Nahisi Coates brilliant extended essay, Between the World and Me. But while it hit me in the solar plexis, I was conscious that it left me some wriggle room. This was a Black American man talking about the state of race relations in America. I could tell myself that was ‘over there.’ Britain was a different country and its problems were different.

Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race, written by Black British woman, Reni Eddo-Lodge, gives me no such wriggle room.

The title itself is deeply ironic. It was originally the title of a blog post written by Eddo-Lodge in 2014, when, exhausted by the constant pushback she received every time she raised the question of race, she wrote, “I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.” The irony is that, the response to the post has been such that, in fact, Eddo-Lodge now spends most of her time talking to white people about race. This book is a distillation of those conversations.

In a series of eloquently argued chapters, Eddo-Lodge addresses (among other things) the erasure of Black Britons from the portrayal of British history, the nature of white privilege, the failure of white feminism to engage with issues of racism, the often overlooked intersections of race with class – and what white people should be doing to tackle racism.

At one point in the book, Eddo –Lodge interviews the former head of the British National Party. My skin runs cold at the thought of speaking directly to someone who holds views like that. I cannot conceive what it must be like for a young Black woman. Yet here again, Eddo-Lodge rebukes my failure of imagination – pointing out that at least people of colour know where they are with those who hold far-right views. The real hurt comes when those they imagine to be allies let them down - again.

It strikes me frequently that there is a disconnect between the language people of colour use when discussing racism, and the way that white people hear that language and use it themselves. Contrary to what most discourse by white people seems to assume, racism is not simply about hatred and bigotry, whether or not combined with power. Nor does privilege imply being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth or having one’s path through life strew with roses. As Eddo-Lodge says, “Structural racism is never a case of innocent and pure, persecuted people of colour versus white people intent on evil and malice. Rather it is about how Britain’s relationship with race infects and distorts equal opportunity ... white privilege is the absence of the consequences of racism.”

The analogy I have worked out goes something like this:

Two people are climbing a steep hill together. They are both dealing with the same steep ascent, the same boulder-strewn path, the same boggy patches and the same fallen trees. But there is also a cloud of midges. One of the two climbers gets the odd bite along the way, but is largely left alone. The other is constantly bitten, until their skin is a mass of itchy welts and they scream, “These bloody midges are eating me alive.” The other climber, with only a couple of bites, replies, “Come on, it’s just a few insects. Man up. You’re being too sensitive.”

The cloud of midges is the myriad, often tiny, elements of bias and discrimination that together create structural racism. Privilege is the white person’s relative immunity to those bites. Complicity is the failure to acknowledge the midges are there, or to do anything to combat them.

I want to put this book into the hands of every good-hearted, liberal-minded white person I know and say, ‘please read this; please try and understand. We are all complicit, but we don’t have to be.’

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates; The Good Immigrant, ed. Nikesh Shukla; Country of Refuge, ed. Lucy Popescu

Avoid If You Dislike: Having the scales fall from your eyes – but read it anyway! We all need to.

Perfect Accompaniment: Open ears, an open heart, an open mind.

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available on Amazon

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