WHY I’M NO LONGER TALKIKNG TO WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACE by Reni Eddo-Lodge
I’ve used the cover of the book as my heading picture, and it might not be obvious from a 2D picture that the words ‘to white people’ are in white and that central section of the title is not blank. The actual cover has the words reverse-embossed so that they’re ‘hollow’ and therefore more obvious. I think it’s a clever cover design, provided you have a printed copy.
My husband bought the book and hadn’t time to start it so handed it to me to read first. I thought it deserved a longer review than my usual few lines.
In the first section, on history, I didn’t learn anything. I already knew the broad sweep of what the author was describing and explaining, though of course I didn’t always know individual stories.
Then I realised that she was saying she didn’t know all this when she started researching as a young academic and journalist. That made me sad, because it seemed to negate all the work I and a lot of other people had put into anti-racist education. Reading further, it dawned on me that her lack of knowledge at that age stemmed from the way the national curriculum in UK changed the way anti-racism was tackled in schools. That started just as I left my job in the anti-racist education movement, and it is, I think, responsible for that negation of our work. I am not sure whether this was by negligence or design. As I read more of the book, I began to suspect design, at least on the part of a few highly-placed individuals who wanted to stem all efforts to fight for equality and who had influence on the way the new curriculum was being developed. Conspiracy theory? Perhaps, but most of the evidence points that way.
When I talk about myself and others I should explain that I was a member of a team of anti-racist activists, employed by a local authority. I was responsible for teaching and lecturing, both in schools and in higher education, and was involved in producing anti-racist teaching materials and then both trialling them and encouraging their wide dispersal. We worked together as a small team under a superb leader (Burjor Avari) who got an MBE awarded for his work in the field. We were in touch with other similar teams, and also worked closely with people who ran conferences and national seminars, funded both by government and by charities. I should probably also explain or admit that I am white, British, middle-class and highly over-educated.
So I read on, with an increasing sense of anger directed at those in power who had effectively wasted all the effort we had made, whatever their motives.
The rest of the book was also full of information that would probably be new for many readers, but mostly not for me. I have a postgraduate qualification in anti-racist education and also used it as my main theme when I did a counselling certificate. However, there were a number of things that were both interesting and new. Anything that had happened after I took early retirement in 1997 had probably crossed my radar in my reading of the news but had not been something I had studied in any depth.
I was impressed by the way the author took an approach that combined meticulous academic research with a style that made the book accessible to readers who were either not academics or not familiar with the jargon which so frequently creates problems for people who are not actually involved in that particular area of academia. I know that jargon is essential in some respects and that most academic books grow out of research and are bound to be presented in that way, but this important subject certainly deserves wider reading.
The book deals first with the history of black people in Britain, then goes on to explore the institutional racism of the British system of justice, employment, social services, etc. It next talks about white privilege and what it means, following this with an explanation of the ‘fear of a black planet’ which permeates the ideas of the far right and is increasingly being ‘sold’ to the general population via some parts of the media.
Having shown how the system perpetuates those privileges and fears, the writer goes on to investigate the intersectionality of race, class and gender. Again, none of this was new to me but it was extremely well presented and when I was teaching and lecturing I would really have liked this book to refer to as a text for my adult students.
Reni Eddo-Lodge goes on to discuss how people can fight the system, and I was relieved to realise that I had in fact done everything she suggested. I often felt overwhelmed by the task (something she predicted) and as I explained above, saddened by a kind of failure, but at least I tried. So did my colleagues.
The book grew out of a blog post that talked about the author’s exasperation with the white people she spoke to, and how she had decided not to engage in further discussion, but to sit back and recharge her batteries. I could empathise with this but am pleased at the same time that she was persuaded to expand her thoughts into this book.
The book gained fame (and awards) and initiated widespread discussion. And then, just after it was published, two things happened to make the final chapter a necessary new addition.
‘Aftermath’ (not in the first edition) deals with the Brexit vote in UK and the election of Trump in US and the subsequent normalisation of racist rhetoric and actions. Reni still claims to be optimistic because at least the discussion of the issues has reached the mainstream, and many of our politicians are aware of the need for reform.
I hope she is right. I hope a lot of people read her book. I’m glad I did.