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

12 07 2020

I’m only one of many many people who have bought this book this summer after George Floyd’s death – there were recommendations for it everywhere. The author herself has said she doesn’t “like the idea of personally profiting each time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”, and so asked people to get it from libraries and/or donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund along with their purchase. This spike in purchases made her the first black British person to top the paperback non-fiction chart in the UK, something which she responded to, saying, “The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first… is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry”. I’ve become acutely aware over the last month or two of how white-based my British history education was at school, and how pretty much everything we learnt about our history was in a positive light. So this was a book I wanted to pick up.

Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog article in 2014 which had the same title of this book which was published three years later, and the post is included in the book’s preface. The gist of the sentiment behind the title is that most (not all) white people won’t admit there’s a problem, and won’t listen to engage further in that. I’ve noticed that a lot of people will tell you that while we may have a problem with race in this country, America is much worse, and leave it at that. (As an aside, when looking for books to read on this subject, I had to go into the blurbs to work out if the books were USA or UK based as they’ve give very different backgrounds, and for now I’m wanting to learn more about my country!)

The book is divided into seven chapters (and an eighth in editions printed after 2018). Below I’ve put key points and/or thoughts and/or summaries and/or quotes from each chapter. It was a really helpful book if you want to educate yourself more in this area.

  1. Histories
    A broad sweep of black British history (presumably kept high level as there was so much else she wanted to fit into the book!). It goes back as far as the slave trade and as recent as the London riots, and the vote to leave the EU. (Grenfell happened two weeks after the book was published, and is mentioned in the additional eighth chapter). This is what I feel highly uneducated in and want to learn more of (I’ve bought a couple of other books which I imagine may have a similar outline, so if anyone’s read anything that gives a fairly accessible history of Britain and the colonies, I’d be interested in recommendations).
  2. The System
    The chapters starts with the story of Steven Lawrence. Growing up I was aware of the name Steven Lawrence, and had a rough idea that he was a black boy that was killed, but didn’t know much beyond that. We hear here how his family had to battle and battle to get justice, and how it was nineteen years until anyone was convicted for his murder.
    It then looks at the flaws in our systems, for example the discrimination found when applying for jobs. There’s a great example of when the NFL were required to interview at least one Black of Minority Ethnic candidate for any management position, not to recruit, just to interview, and doing that alone meant that panels saw candidates they may not have otherwise considered, and over the next decade, 12 new black coaches were appointed.
    It also covers the failings in the concept of colour-blindness. “White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught […] that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”
  3. What is White Privilege?
    She describes White Privilege as an absence of the negative consequences of racism, and explains that what some would describe as reverse-racism is just prejudice. The difference between racism and prejudice is that racism is prejudice plus power. She also speaks to a mixed race woman who was brought up without race ever being discussed and how that affected her.
  4. Fear of a Black Planet
    A lot of this chapter focuses on the fear of immigration. She goes for Nick Griffin, and then, because of British defamation laws, gives him a chance to go back, and so rang him. To quote her introduction to the interview: “Our conversation was so surreal that I publish it here in full.” It’s worth a read.
    Later in the chapter in relation to Katie Hopkins: “Freedom of speech means the freedom for opinions on race to clash. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean the right to say what you want without rebuttal, and racist speech and ideas need to be healthily challenged in the public sphere.”
    She also discusses the tendency towards white heroes and black baddies in film and television, and the uproar that came when in the stage show “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” when the role of Hermione was given to a black actress.
  5. The Feminism Questions
    The focus of this chapter is the overwhelming whiteness of the feminism movement, and the concept of intersectionality which is the crossover of two discriminations, racism and sexism.
  6. Race and Class
    I found this chapter really interesting. Traditionally the UK has had three classes: Upper, Middle (paid monthly and own your home), and Working (paid by the hour and rent your home). But in 2013 the Great British Class survey was commissioned by the BBC and discovered that we now have seven classes (which I put here for just general interest!):

    1. The elite
      Wealthiest and scoring highest economically, socially and culturally
    2. The established middle class
      Next wealthiest and love culture
    3. The technical middle class
      Have money but not very social
    4. New affluent workers
      Middle income, but high on socialising and culture
    5. Traditional working class
      On average, the oldest class
    6. Emergent service workers
      Lower in financial security
    7. The precariat
      The most deprived group

    But the focus of the chapter is on how race and class are intertwined: the proportions of people of colour are much higher at the bottom of this scale than at the top, and therefore more likely to be living in poverty. She discusses how the gentrification of poorer areas in London forces poorer folk out, and because of the proportions, therefore people of colour out. As well as the gender pay gap, there’s also an ethnicity pay gap.
    “There is a suspicion laid at the feet of people who aren’t white who succeed outside of their designated fields for black people, those fields are singing and sport.”

  7. There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us
    This chapter wraps up the original book. White people are wondering when there will be an end point to all this, but she says racism will be with us for a long time, any change is incremental – it’s gonna be a long haul.
    “The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem.”
    “I don’t want white guilt. […] No useful movements for change have ever spring out of fervent guilt. […] Support those in the struggle, rather than spending too much time pitying yourself.”
    “If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. […] It can be as small scale as 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. It can be informal. […] It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.”
  8. Aftermath
    This chapter was added a year or two later, and covers the rise of anti-immigrant politics, and how so many things written about in the previous chapters had progressed since publication, and how the conversation has become so much more centre stage – and this is still long before the events of 2020!