Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race holds a mirror up to contemporary British society and its underlying structural inequalities. As a white woman, reading this book risked revealing my own ignorance while forcing me to face the uncomfortable truth of being white in a racist society. The book does not directly address white readers, but it does not exclude them either. The implied addressees throughout are people of colour, while white people are referred to in the third person.
In providing social and historical evidence to document the problem of structural inequalities in Britain, Eddo-Lodge sets out what we need to know in order to address this issue. In her initial blog post from 2014, which became the foundation of the book, Reni Eddo-Lodge echoes the arguments of the black feminist writer Audre Lorde.
I was saying […] that I had had enough. It wasn’t a cry for help, or a grovelling plea for white people’s understanding and compassion. It wasn’t an invitation for white people to indulge in self-flagellation. I stopped talking to white people about race because I don’t think giving up is a sign of weakness. Sometimes it’s about self-preservation.
What makes Eddo-Lodge stand out in comparison to her American forebears – such as Lorde and the black feminist writer and social activist bell hooks (b. 1952) – is that she is writing now, as a Londoner, about contemporary Britain. She traces systemic racism and its historical roots, dispelling the misguided British myth that racism is an American issue. In recalling that she had ‘only ever encountered black history through American-centric educational displays and lesson plans in primary and secondary school’ Eddo-Lodge argues that we have been indoctrinated into believing this misleading story. Indeed, it is easy to denounce and distance ourselves from overt forms of racism when it is seen as happening in another time and place (i.e. the U.S.).
The writer also skilfully dismantles the illusion of ‘colour-blindness’: the belief frequently held in Britain that we do not see a person’s colour and instead see everyone as equal. As well-meaning as this sounds, the truth is that if we do not see the race, then we do not see the racism. Blithely arguing that everyone is equal in a ‘post-race’ society means that we are blind to the shocking realities of racial inequality and the ways these are built into its structural fabric. For those of us who are white, the first step towards addressing racism is to recognise ourselves as white. For too long whites have presented themselves as ‘unmarked’ by race, using this to assert their dominance over others. While ‘colour-blindness’ claims that it regards all races equally, it actually normalises whiteness as the universal human experience. Recognising whiteness as a racial marker and oneself as white precedes the second, more difficult, step: understanding whiteness as a politically dominant and structurally privileged position. From here, white people can begin understanding and challenging the existing white privilege in the daily structures of 21st-century Britain. And it is everywhere.
Eddo-Lodge’s background as a journalist enables her to transition with ease between personal anecdotes and historical and contemporary research. The result is shocking. Beginning with the history of British slave trading from 1562 until 1833, she points out that slavery was a British institution for ‘much longer than it has currently been abolished’ and that ‘most British people saw the money without the blood’. Building on a British history of overt racial exploitation and violence, Eddo-Lodge explains how structural racism still perpetuates racial inequality within society today:
I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional because I think [racism] is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions. Thinking of the big picture helps you see the structures. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. […] It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically impact on people’s life chances.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race also elucidates issues of ‘intersectionality’: ‘the crossover of two distinct discriminations – racism and sexism – that happens to people who are both black and women’. The chapter on feminism is one of the most deeply researched, as Eddo-Lodge draws on her own reading of academic and cultural commentators to augment the social data presented in other chapters. In the following chapter about class, she explores further intersectional issues, arguing that there is so ‘much richness and depth […] to be found when examining those intersections, instead of denying they exist, or forgetting them altogether.’ This is one of the book’s most powerful arguments.
At the books most visionary moment, Eddo-Lodge sets out her ideas for what could be made possible through intersectional equality.
The mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a selfish, hoarding few. […] Feminism needs to demand a world in which racist history is acknowledged and accounted for, in which reparations are distributed, in which race is completely deconstructed.
The full scope of possibilities created through intersectional equality is both vital and visionary. We need an image of what a world without injustice can look like, as well as a clear view of the current state of injustice. Eddo-Lodge argues that this vision ‘has to be absolutely utopian and unrealistic, far removed from any semblance of the world we’re living in now’ because, ‘[w]e have to hope for and envision something before agitating for it’.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is an essential read, whatever your race or colour. Whether or not readers are familiar with Eddo-Lodge’s American counterparts, this book brings the issue of racism to the here and now. Its urgency and precision enables readers to see the structural racism within which we live and begin the long overdue work of healing and transformation. Undoubtedly, white people will find it challenging. There are centuries of repressed racism laid bare in its pages, to which the initial response may be denial, anger, guilt, pride, scorn or accusation. But this is where the most deeply transformative and vulnerable work must begin. Such a transformation is necessary so that when the ‘people at the sharp end of injustice’ are speaking, those in positions of structural privilege can – finally – start listening.
Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster, where she is also a visiting lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing. She tweets on @Spaewitch.
‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ is published by Bloomsbury Circus.