Check your privilege
A provocative argument about race relations
Reni Eddo-Lodge is an incisive and uncompromising commentator on the iniquities of oppression. A black, feminist, working-class, London-born woman still in her twenties, she is a regular pundit in the print and broadcast media. Her first book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, aims to refresh the debate about race in Britain for a new readership. It is not only an intellectual exercise but a personal one. “I am only acutely aware of race”, she says, “because I’ve been rigorously marked out as different by the world I know for as long as I can remember.” The book’s title, so gloriously provocative, is marketing gold in our #blacklivesmatter climate. The work began life, in 2014, as a blog post that went viral. It focused on the author’s exasperation at discussing systemic racism with white people who denied its existence: “They’ve never had to think what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront”. Her post touched a nerve. The response from white people surprised her: “The Internet equivalent of standing outside my bedroom window with a boom box and a bunch of flowers, confessing their flaws and mistakes, begging me not to leave”. Since then, she says she has done almost nothing but challenge white people who “move through the world blissfully unaware of their own race until its dominance is called into question”.
And she doesn’t hold back. Eddo-Lodge lambasts a Britain that is “profoundly uncomfortable with race and difference”. The book’s seven chapters neatly encapsulate the key issues: Histories, The System, What is White Privilege?, Fear of a Black Planet, The Feminism Question, Race and Class, There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us. Comprehensive and journalistic, the book leaves a devastating trail of case histories, statistical and anecdotal evidence, personal stories and opinion about the manifestations of overt and covert racism. She introduces us to the concept of Structural Racism, an American term that replaces Institutional Racism to reflect its being “built into spaces much broader than our traditional institutions”. It encompasses policies, practices and attitudes that function to oppress black lives; it is “the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap judgements made on perceptions of competency”. White privilege is a growing area of Critical Whiteness Studies, itself a field of study that has expanded considerably in the past twenty years or so, that seeks to make visible the invisible structures that perpetuate white supremacy, including, “an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost” and complicity and complacency about “the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way”.
Reviewers so far have sought to place the book on a shelf next to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, but Eddo-Lodge connects more clearly with the African American writer Roxanne Gay, whose essay collection Bad Feminist
BERNARDINE EVARISTO but “struggle to understand whiteness as a
R e n i E d d o - L o d g e WHY I ’ M N O L O N G E R T A L K I N G T O WH I T E P E O P L E A B O U T R A C E
272pp. Bloomsbury. £16.99.
978 1 4088 7055 6
(2014) treads some of the same ground. Like Gay, when attempting to discuss white privilege, Eddo-Lodge encounters denial and defensiveness – this is, she says, “one of the reasons why I stopped talking to white people about race. Trying to convince stony faces of disbelief has never appealed to me”. Gay is more circumspect. “We need to stop playing Privilege or Oppression Olympics”, she says, “because we’ll never get anywhere until we find more effective ways of talking about difference.” Indeed, Eddo-Lodge nuances her own stance: “I am also an insider in so many ways. I am university-educated, able-bodied, and I speak and write in ways very similar to those I criticise”. This begs the question: if we accept that privilege is “relative and contextual”, as Gay suggests, do we need to re-examine the notion and naming of white privilege? What ideological and semantic shifts might political structure in the very same way . . . . My blackness [is] as much a part of me as my womanhood, and I [can’t] separate them”. For black women intersectionality is a lived experience, not a feminist theory.
Many, here, will experience déjà vu. Earlier generations of black British feminists, including my own, have organized and railed against these same issues, although you would not know it from this book. The author draws on historical African American feminist literature but completely overlooks its British counterparts. What about The Heart of the Race: Black women’s lives in Britain (1985), edited by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe? Or Charting the Journey (1988), whose editors included Jackie Kay, Gail Lewis and Pratibha Parmar? Or Heidi Mirza’s Black British Feminisms (1997)? In one chapter, EddoLodge passionately advocates the muchoverlooked teaching of black British history – “Faced with a collective forgetting, we must fight to remember” – yet, while her book is resolutely unacademic, aiming to reach a wider readership, it would itself have benefited from more rigorous research, particularly into the past. Unlike her other chapters, “Histories” feels sketchy and laboured. She offers a potted
Black Lives Matter protests at the Toronto Pride Parade, 2016
achieve better results, by enrolling everyone in a more productive dialogue?
Both Gay and Eddo-Lodge give a damning critique of the all-white first series of Lena Dunham’s Girls, which first aired on HBO in 2012. Gay says it “disturbs and disappoints”. For Eddo-Lodge, it was hard to take commentators seriously when they insisted it was “the most feminist television show in decades”. White feminists, “women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness”, are a particular bugbear; she is exasperated by those who acknowledge the patriarchy history of race in Britain – including its roots in slavery, the formation of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931, and various riots dating back to those of 1919, when white and minority workers clashed in Britain’s major seaports – but much of this is already well documented in books and the media, from Edward Scobie’s Black Britannia (1972), Peter Fryer’s Staying Power (1984) and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s Mixed Blessings (2001), through to David Olusoga’s recent Black and British documentary series and accompanying book (reviewed in the TLS, November 25, 2016). As
Eddo-Lodge acknowledges, not everyone will be au fait with the timeline; I had to remind myself that black British history must be repackaged for each generation.
Eddo-Lodge writes fluently about the fear in Britain that the “alienated ‘other’ will take over”, and argues that it is becoming increasingly normalized. “Multiculturalism has become a proxy for a ton of British anxieties about immigration, race, difference, crime and danger.” Her points of reference are wideranging. She is as adept at discussing the “angry black woman” stereotype as she is the controversy surrounding the casting of a black woman as Hermione in the recent play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, while a particularly shocking section, drawing on research commissioned by the Department for Education and the Human Rights Commission among others, demonstrates how the odds are stacked against black people, especially black men. “At the age of eleven, when he is prepared to take his SATS, research indicates that he will be systematically marked down by his own teachers – a phenomenon that is remedied when examiners who don’t teach at his school mark his papers”; he will also experience higher unemployment, harsher sentencing and prejudicial treatment in the mental health system. Even the well-educated black man will find himself in a British university system where “70 per cent of the professors” are both white and male. “It’s a dire indication of what universities think intelligence looks like.”
Eddo-Lodge is a gifted writer, with a talent for bringing together debates around race, gender and class in a timely and accessible way. Books like hers surface rarely in Britain, so expectations are high. Trevor Phillips, one of the godfathers of British race relations, reviewing it in the Sunday Times, threw a few punches that challenged Eddo-Lodge’s thesis and pursued his own preoccupations with Islamism, the links between race and voting behaviour, and how high-performing minority pupils can raise other students’ attainment in Britain’s schools. I hope that future works will look at the gaps in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. What is the responsibility of black people in creating change for ourselves? Without also taking responsibility, we are dependent and powerless. What about the numerous positive developments since Windrush? And for someone such as me, who often has a seat at the table, what is the role of tokenism, which I consider to be one of the most egregious and insidious pillars of oppression? Social media is the global platform for marginalized groups. It is certainly where black women communicate without being brokered by the mainstream – the white editors, producers and institutions who decide whose voices are heard. Online, our ideas and experiences are shared, honed and validated between ourselves. It is no coincidence that Reni EddoLodge arose out of this blogosphere full of chutzpah. But it is a sign of the times that such a forthright book about Britain has been taken on by a major publisher. One hopes it will open the door to many more.
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