Wandering around one of my favorite neighbourhoods in London, Kings Cross area, I ended up in a local bookstore with loads of radically written books. My eyes were caught by the provoking book cover with the title ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I was happy to have found this book in particular, as most of this type of literature plays out in an African-American or (South) African context, but not so much an Afro-European one. And yes, with the growing decolonial debate from the past few years, some interesting work has been published (such as Gloria Wekker’s masterpiece ‘’White Innocence’’ in the Dutch context) – but still, in my opinion, it is too little. So with this book, focussing solely on the topic of race in Britain, was a new scope for me; I have no knowledge whatsoever on what the relationship and struggle has been in the past or present for people of colour in the UK. And so I was very keen to read it.
The title of the book initially was used for a blog post, published in 2014. The book starts off with a preface containing the original text of the blog post, hereby a small section: ‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they no longer hear us. This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.’
This section brings nuance and understandable elaboration to the title. And that is exactly how the entire book reads: each chapter touches upon certain events and/or phenomena at hand which are further elaborated on. The book is a real page turner and served to me as a true reflection of how, in particular, many people of colour live their lives.
‘Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born into an already written script…’
The book discusses black (and other people of colour) British history, highlights events, for example of police brutality (similar to the US) and reflects these to present day Britain. Ultimately, these addressed cases lead up to concluding that reported hate crimes are not just something that drastically increased out of nowhere in Britain. In fact, for a very long time racism has been deeply rooted and still is embedded in British society. It did not emerge out of nowhere, the author concludes. Sadly, it is part of the system.
She writes about white privilege, without bitching on white people – which very often in the public sphere happens interchangeably. ‘Neutral is white. The default is white. Because we are born into an already written script that tells us what to expect from strangers due to their skin colours, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded as white. Blackness, however, is considered the ‘other’ and therefore to be suspected.’ She then, also explains the difference between prejudice and racism, stating that even when people of colour are prejudiced, it is a different concept and has another effect as compared to racism: ‘everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in position of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people.’
Furthermore, the author questions, legitimately, streams of feminism with a gender-only scope and a purpose for equality. Eddo-Lodge draws a number of examples thereof and essentially concludes that today’s challenges won’t be solved by this approach. In fact, this gender-only white feminism reinforces other individuals and/or groups to remain marginalised. A world of women behaving masculine, in order to build a career, for instance. Or, a colour blind world, which is a total illusion to begin with. Feminism requires the entire scope, the total package basically, just like Bell Hooks stated in her classic Feminism is for everybody. And in that same line of argument, the author states: ‘Feminism, at its best, is a movement that works to liberate all people who have been economically, socially and culturally marginalised by an ideological system that has been designed for them to fail, i.e. disabled people, black people, trans people, women and non-binary people, LGBT people and working-class people.’
In one of the final chapters, Eddo-Lodge touches upon the intersection of race and class. Especially given the British class-system, established during the Victorian times, where people try to make sense of society by categorising people into working, middle or upper class. The author brilliantly dismantles this system, based on a research conducted by BBC, and concludes that today’s British society consists of seven classes – not three. This, together with analysing how more and more capitalist institutions push local people out of cities, by gentrifying the area slowly, ultimately reinforces poverty. And, sadly, hitting marginalised groups even more, with single mothers being mostly affected. These are just a number of cause/effect examples. The common thread to it all is to re-think how classes are perceived and how to comprehend the complexity of intersectionality.
There is no justice, there is just us
This is the title of the final chapter. This chapter resonates with the activism that is required to deal with the mentioned issues. It speaks about how we, people of all races, can eradicate racism. It is about an entire movement that, every single day, marches forward. ‘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. We need to let it be known that black is British, that brown is British, and that we are not going away.’
A personal reflection on the book
I resonate on many levels with this book. For a very long time I have had the belief that color blindness was the best way to view the world, this was taught in school and therefore I never understood the comment ‘’we have to work twice as hard’’ by family members. I perceived people who said that they ‘’were discriminated against’’ as people who simply were looking for a scapegoat and did not take responsibilities in their lives. They had plenty of opportunities, why waste them?! I would feel a sense of pride when people would tell me that ‘’I was an exception’’, as compared to others with North African and/or Mediterranean roots. Believe me, I am the least proud of these confessions.
What changed was moving to South Africa years ago, where I zoomed out of what I was used to, Dutch society, and got exposed to completely different literature at University. I started reading work by Steve Biko, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon and many African writers. Back then, I learned very quickly that perceiving people with color blindness is disrespectful to their narrative. To their centuries long struggle. Or it would reinforce the privilege the elite already has. All of this opened up my eyes to what my gut has already seen ever since I was a child, but always accepted as something that is normal. Never again. And although I am fully aware of the fact that I should be picking my battles – because in some cases it really does not make sense to speak up (which is the exact reason why Reni Eddo-Lodge no longer speaks to white people that are not open to listen). But most of the time I will raise my voice. And yes, many times I receive the feedback ‘’but why do you have to bring up race/gender/religion?’’. Very simple: because people are marginalised because of it. Especially black people due to colonialism and the neocolonial mindset of superiority and inferiority we see in our societies during everyday, basic subtleties. And although I do not recall any instance of being discriminated against, this does not mean it doesn’t happen (to me and/or to others). And my way of contributing is to educate myself, to continue read and write on this website, openly listen and chat with others, but absolutely not tolerate anything that reinforces any kind of discrimination. So I will continue to march in this movement.
Why I recommend this book
What I liked about the approach of the book, is that it speaks from an understanding of the foundations of oppression. The book grasps the concept of intersectionality by acknowledging the complex, cumulative ways in which the effects of multiple forms discrimination (i.e. racism, sexism, classism) combine, overlap and reinforce one another. So most, if not all, marginalised individuals and communities in Britain are incorporated in the analysis of the book. I appreciate the vulnerability, honesty and self-criticism that the author shows. And how her perspective has been shaped over time through digging into facts and experiencing events herself. This makes for a good reflection and, ultimately, for a great book. Needless to say: now go read it!