About 18 months ago, I went to a politically charged comedy gig performed by a left-wing BME comedian. (NB: I am using BME as Eddo-Lodge does, i.e. as a non-exclusitory way of, basically, saying “non-white”.) I was in a large group, and one of the people with me was the parent of a peer, an affluent, middle-aged white man. Within the set, the comedian spoke at length about white privilege, structural racism and the patriarchy, and at the end of the – to me – entertaining, funny, moving, thought-provoking and thoughtful performance, this middle-aged white man grumbled – for ages – about “what a load of bollocks” he thought the comedian’s – to me – astute points were. “I worked hard to get where I am, I started with nothing,” the man said, “How dare they say I only got where I am because I’m a white man? I have earned this,” he concluded (words to that effect, anyway). The comedian – who in the time since has become a primetime TV regular – was writing and performing this material at the same time as Reni Eddo-Lodge was putting together this book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, a title she originally used for a blog post waaaaay back in 2014. Eddo-Lodge’s blog post was about frustration at not being listened to when talking to white people about race, despite regularly being asked to, ordered to, or expected to do so said talking. Eddo-Lodge, as a talented and successful journalist, very much has the ability to express her thoughts and knowledge in a way that is palatable to the white establishment, much like the Oxbridge-educated comedian I watched with a grumpy middle-aged man. Eddo-Lodge and the comedian I saw are educated, successful, people, and both of them express ideas in the way that grumpy middle-aged people claim everyone “should” use. However, when these supposedly “palatable” voices express ideas that make the same grumpy middle-aged people feel uncomfortable, the permission to speak and – crucially – the attention is lost.
Reni Eddo-Lodge is not no longer talking to white people about race because everything’s fine and we can all move on; no, Reni Eddo-Lodge is no longer talking to white people about race because, when she does, we don’t listen.
Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify my opinion on the book.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is essential reading for anyone British who has a) a pre-existing interest in the dissemination of structural prejudice; b) does not – but wants to – understand contemporary discussions of racism or c) – the people who need it the most but will almost certainly never engage with it – anyone who finds the title of the book offensive.
This is not a manifesto, this is not a selection of easy solutions to fix a simple problem. It is a long-form, engaging and serious exploration of the complexity of racism and the history of race relations in the UK. It is about police brutality as much as it is about white feminism, it is about intersectionality and about body image, about sexual identities and stereotypes and corruption and abuse of power. It is an essential read, defining the UK by its actions alone, allowing the strength of its character to be what renders its meaning. There is much knowledge and thought and understanding evidenced in these pages, and it is a deeply informative text, particularly given its British focus, which is not something I’ve encountered much of before in my reading of “identity-focused” texts.
Eddo-Lodge’s book is a description of a “what”. It evidences in painstaking and intense detail the realities of what it is – and what it has been – to live in the UK as a BME person, how identities have been coopted and stolen, first impressions hijacked and racism and xenophobia stoked by elites who have far, far more to lose than the people they are encouraging to be victimised. It is a book about entrenched power, about structures and systems and it is about the past, the now and the future. It is not a pessimistic text, but it is also not necessarily an optimistic one. It is a text that describes a situation, not its solutions: but why the fuck should it? As Eddo-Lodge articulates far better than I can in her conclusion, racism comes from white people, racism is a catalyst for anti-progressive governmental policy, racism is a method to embiggen individuals who don’t deserve embiggening, racism is a way for mediocre white people to feel better about their failings: by blaming the small amount of BME elites who “took their jobs”. Racism is a white problem: it is white people who need to change to fix racism. And that is what white people do not want to hear.
This book is important and is getting the attention it deserves. My worry about it, though, is that the ears it desperately, desperately needs to reach will be the ones it never touches.
I have witnessed first hand what Eddo-Lodge writes about, the denial of lived experience and the dismissal of publicly related experience that diverge from the white establishment’s own. I knew I could not express to my peer’s right wing father the realities of the white-cis-hetero-patriarchy any better than a performer whose career is based on an ability to discuss complex issues in a broadly accessible way. The problem is a lack of engagement, a lack of respect, the problem is white people understanding enough to feel guilty about privilege and becoming resentful of having been caused that feeling of guilt. As I often say, diminishment of privilege is not the same as discrimination, but as an able-bodied, heterosexual, middle class, university-educated white man, I’ve got a lot of fucking privilege to lose, and any erosion of the system will take a while to hit me. So let me use my privilege, let me take your attention, whoever you are, and say:
Go and read Reni Eddo-Lodge. Don’t be fucking resentful – if you’re white – when you acknowledge the privilege you’ve had. No one is saying YOU are evil because you have benefitted from white privilege, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that an international system that repeatedly and indiscriminately favours giving property and power to mediocre white men while allowing huge swathes of the global population to live in poverty, then that in itself may be evil. No one, affluent middle-aged white men, is saying you haven’t “earned” what you have, we’re saying that were you a black, bisexual, working class, HIV positive woman with motor neurone disease, you would have found what you have a damn sight harder to “earn”, because the entire system through which you have “earned” is constructed to be easiest for people like you. Like me, too, let’s be honest. And no, I’m not fucking “virtue signalling” by saying this. I’m just endeavouring to live my life without being a prick.
Ignorance is not an excuse any more. No, the world is not fair, but becoming aware of the intricacies of that unfairness, and the intersections of different modes of oppression, is a step towards making things fairer.
A problem that is not spoken of is very rarely fixed. Be a human being, not a human being an asshole.