Monday, May 11, 2020

Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

After reading Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/ Brown Scars, and discussing it at length, I was pointed to this book by Reni Eddo-Lodge, a London based journalist who has written a detailed analysis of racism in Britain, both historically and currently. I have hardly spent any time in Britain, and so do not have any personal experience and knowledge of these issues there, but she has written in a clear and compelling way, that even if I do not fully grasp the political structures or geographical references, her points still hit home to a reader outside the UK.

Eddo-Lodge is a black woman who as a 4-year old asked her mother when she would become white, because all the good people on TV were white, but all the villains were brown or black. Through her university years she took a course on black history where she realised how much of the UK’s history ignored the issues of racism and the range of cultures present in the country. Increasingly right wing political agendas were calling for a reduction in immigration, to protect “British people” and their “way of life”. As she dug deeper, she began to realise the depth of structural racism through all facets of British life.

But as she tried to speak about it, she met walls of resistance from white people, refusing to see the issues, or claiming we are post-racism and that we no longer see colour. After years of trying, and meeting walls, blank faces, arguments and white tears (like Hamad), in 2014 she wrote a blog post (also like Hamad), called “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. It was a way to declare that for self-protection, it was no longer worth talking to people that refused to see the problem. Not unsurprisingly, it sparked critique, but also, much more positively, more conversation, both from people of colour agreeing with her comments, but also from many white people keen to understand more and wanting to know what they could do. It is worth spotting her own note that when she talks about white people she doesn’t mean every individual white person but rather whiteness as a political ideology. (p115)

That led to this book. Firstly she covers some of the history of Britain, including the various ways that people of colour came to the country and how racism has been prevalent across the years. She then turns to consider “the system” using detailed examples of police racism, which led to coverups, persecution and miscarriages of justice for many people of colour. This then leads to an analysis of what she terms ‘structural racism’, how racism is intrinsically part of life, and its reaches affect education, job opportunities, housing, income, the way people are treated in the workforce, access to medical care and so on. Yet, it’s often just assumed or ignored, because it’s so part of life: “The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account.“ (p64)
“Research from a number of different sources shows how racism is weaved into the fabric of our world. This demands a collective redefinition of what it means to be racist, how racism manifests, and what we must do to end it. It seems like black people face a disadvantage at every significant step in their lives.” (p65-66)
She then turns to consider white privilege: “the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life trajectory in someway. And you probably won’t even notice it.... White privilege is dull, grinding complacency. It is par for the course in a world in which drastic race inequality is responded to with a shoulder shrug, considered just the norm.“ (p87)

This chapter also raises some interesting questions about mixed race children and where they find their identity, whether parents actually consider both ethnicities as they raise a child, and the impacts of privilege and racism on that child.

The next chapter then turns to consider “Fear of a black planet”, and the irrational fear that white people have that perhaps one day the tables will be turned on them. As such, she makes some very interesting comments comparing the importance of talking about racism with its often counter-argument: talking about offending people. What happens at that point she says,
"Tackling racism moves from conversations about justice to conversations about sensitivity. Those who are repeatedly struck by racism’s tendency to hinder their life chances are told to toughen up and grow a thicker skin."
As she notes, the conversations need to be had, and we need to encourage free speech. But, as she notes:
“Free speech is a fundamental foundation of a free and fair democracy. But let’s be honest and have the guts to unpick who gets to speak, where, and why. The real test of this country’s perimeters of freedom of speech will be found if or when a person can freely discuss racism without being subject to intellectually dishonest attempts to undermine their arguments. If free speech, as so many insist, includes being prepared to hear opinions that you don’t like, then let’s open up the parameters of what we consider acceptable debate.”
She then considers feminism and introduces the term intersectionality to address the joint issues black women face when delaying with both racism and sexism. Hamad dealt with the intersection between racism and feminism in more depth, but I also appreciated Eddo-Lodge’s analysis here. She finally turns to consider class structure, and how racism in intertwined here as well. There was some detail on London’s housing situation here, which while the details escaped me, was clearly showing the disadvantage people of colour experience when councils ‘gentrify’. She also challenges the idea that more education, or moving up in class will really make any difference:
"Being constantly looked at like an alien in the country you were born in requires true tolerance. I don’t think that any amount of class privilege, money or education can shield you from racism." (p208-209)
The final chapter moves to considerations of how to respond. First she says, the conversation needs to keep being had. When asked, when do you think we’ll get to the end point on this, she says “you can’t skip to the resolution without having a difficult, messy conversation first. We are still in the hard bit.“ (p213). She notes,
“Change is incremental, and racism will exist long after I die. But if you’re committed to anti-racism, you’re in it for the long haul. It will be difficult. Getting to the end point will require you to be uncomfortable." (p214)
I was pleased to see her considerations of what white people can do in the space:
“White people, you need to talk to other white people about race. Yes, you maybe written off as a radical, but you have much less to lose…If you feel burdened by your unearned privilege, try to use it for something, and use it where it counts. But don’t be antiracist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there is very little prize to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful.” (p216).
There was also a measured warning about the of championing causes on social media. “We really need to be honest with ourselves, and recognise our own inherent biases, before we think about performing anti-racism for an audience.”

In the end, her conclusions rang true to me:
“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.” (p219)
So, she suggests, white people first need to be talking about it, then to consider how whiteness has silently aided our lives, but in the end she does not encourage guilt, “I don’t want white guilt. Neither do I want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things. No useful movements for change of ever sprung out of fervent guilt.” Her suggestion is get angry because anger can be useful and you can support those in the struggle rather than pitying yourself.

She concludes, “it can be as small scale in chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. You can be informal. You can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re doing something.”

This book, along with Hamad’s, have caused me to think through these issues in more depth than ever before. I have appreciated the challenges they have raised, and the uncomfortableness they have made me feel. Clearly there is no short term fix for the systemic racism apparent in our communities, but I feel better informed to at least be part of the conversation and consideration for change.


Tom said...

I haven't read the book, so it's not clear whether the shortcomings I perceive are actual shortcomings or things that your review doesn't cover very well. But as far as I can tell, shortcomings there are, especially since it's written in the British context. Obviously I'm a white protestant man so my opinion can be discarded, but I'll give it anyway.

As far as I can tell, the book ignores the intersection between race and culture. This is standard fare for the British left wing, but disappointing in something attempting a serious discussion of racism all the same. This shows up here as a dismissal of concerns about immigration and protecting the British way of life as racist. But these concerns are not racist as such; they are nothing to do with someone's race but with their culture. Protecting the British "way of life" is not about someone's race or where they come from; it is about how well they have integrated into British culture and society. There are things about British culture that I think are better than most other places and are worth preserving; there are many aspects of many foreign cultures that I don't want to see become established here. For this reason, I would like to see government limiting immigration and taking steps to help immigrants adopt British culture and integrate into British society. This is not racism but it is making a value judgement of one culture against another. Such a judgement is very often dismissed as racist. There is a considerable academic literature on the benefits of integrating immigrants well into their new society but this also is dismissed as an attempt to make black people white.

This has lead to horrific outcomes in Britain. It is well documented that gangs of young South-Asian men were allowed to groom and abuse young girls without action by the police or social services because they were afraid of being called racist. Gangs have eventually been rounded up and imprisoned in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and Huddersfield, but last year it was estimated that there were still seventy three such gangs operating in the UK with police apparently unwilling to tackle the problem. Many of those convicted of these crimes claim that they were convicted because white society has set them up (one took this theory all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that police, government, judges, witnesses and jury were part of a racist conspiracy against Muslims). See here for a decent rundown of the issues and links to further documentation.

The second thing that seems rather disappointing is that the book seems to frame racism as a power struggle with white people oppressing non-white people / immigrants. The very term "white privilege" ignores the enormous range of life outcomes for people of different ethnicities. No-one talks about "Chinese privilege" and yet in Britain people of Chinese ethnicity top the charts of almost every life outcome; they do better in education, employment and housing, have better health, live longer and so on and so on. At the other end of the spectrum, those from a Carribean background have horrific outcomes on average. Framing the issue as white versus non-white or "white privilege" therefore seems to be largely an exercise in policy-based evidence making (or at least evidence hiding).

I'd be interested to hear if the book actually covers these subjects well, or whether it dismisses them as part of the "wall of resistance from white people."

Wendy said...

Hi Tom, thanks for your comments. I’d suggest reading the book yourself. She definitely does talk about the idea of preserving the British way of life. As you live there, you might be interested in her analysis. You will have to be the judge of whether you think she covers the issues well or not, and of course, whether or not you agree with her. Thanks.