In mid-July I read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. It is a hugely important book and one that everyone should read. In it Eddo-Lodge explores black British history, structural racism, White Privilege, white people’s fear that black people will ‘take over’, how race intersects with gender and class, and what we can all do about tackling racism.
Eddo-Lodge sets out why the term structural racism is the best way of describing the problem because it goes beyond the term ‘institutional racism’ (used in the Macpherson enquiry published in 1999 in response to the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence). This is much more than a problem with traditional institutions - it is about the survival strategy of systemic power. She points out that we tell ourselves that good people can’t be racist and that racism is about moral values, when actually white workplace cultures are set by white people, and are where anyone who falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure. Neutral is white, the default is white, Blackness is considered ‘other’ and is suspected. This is why when she was only four years old, the author asked her Mum whether she would turn out white, as all the good people on TV were white and all the villains were black and brown.
The book has the most helpful explanation of white privilege I have seen. She defines white privilege as the absence of the negative consequences of racism and an absence of structural discrimination. It is the fact that if you are white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way and you probably won’t even notice it. She explains how this idea forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continued existence. This really hits home when she states that white privilege is ‘dull, grinding complacency’. Eddo-Lodge points out that when white people pick up a magazine, scroll through the internet, read a newspaper or switch on the TV, it is never rare or odd to see people who look like them in positions of power or asserting authority. The positive affirmations of whiteness are so widespread that the average white person doesn’t even notice them.
There is a brilliant chapter about Feminism’s response to black women, that took me back to reading bell hooks at University 25 years ago and to how Feminist theory responded to the critique of women of colour. I had lost track of Feminist debates since then and she brought me right up to date with what she describes as white Feminist distaste for intersectionality (the intersection of race and gender discrimination, or race and class discrimination etc), which led to what she argues was a hatred of the idea of white privilege within Feminism. She argues that black women’s interventions in white British Feminism were not welcome and black feminists were racistly characterised as aggressive disruptors. She points out the hypocrisy of Feminism understanding the Patriarchy, yet so many Feminists struggling to understand whiteness as a political structure in the very same way. She defines ‘white Feminists’ as those who identify as a feminist but have never questioned what it means to be white and are incredibly defensive when the analysis of race is levelled at their whiteness, despite their own ‘impassioned rhetoric against the analysis of patriarchy’. As she says, ‘You’d have to laugh, if the whole thing wasn’t so reprehensible.’
In the chapter on class there is a very interesting discussion on the rise in the use of the term ‘white working class’, which suggests that the only working class people worth compassion are white. She shows how the class privilege of middle and upper class white people is not challenged when we focus on the plight of the white working class – instead it shifts the focus of the problem onto black and brown people.
In her reflections towards the end of the book she argues that notions of equality don’t quite cut it – ‘Asking for a sliver of disproportional power is too polite a request. I don’t want to be included. I want to question who created the standard in the first place … I have no desire to be equal. I want to deconstruct the structural power of a system that marked me out as different.’ She discusses what white people can do to change a racist system and points out how unhelpful it is for white people to indulge in self-flaggelation, and argues that white people who recognise racism cannot play their part in dismantling it if they are wallowing in guilt. Instead they need to provide support to the groups doing vital work and to advocate for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces.
She says ‘I used to be scared of being perceived as an angry black woman. But I soon realised that any number of authentic emotions I displayed could and would be interpreted as anger. My assertiveness, passion and excitement could all be wielded against me. Not displaying anger wasn’t going to stop me being labelled as angry, so I thought: fuck it. I decided to speak my mind.’ I am so glad she did.