I can’t remember exactly when or where I first heard about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race, but I do remember thinking, “I need to read this soon.” As a white male feminist, I am always trying to listen more and talk less, both about race and about women’s issues. I don’t mean that I’m silent about issues (far from it). I talk about equality, social justice, etc. all the time, and rather loudly, to the chagrin of many of my social media followers, I’m sure; but I prefer to listen to the voices of women when there is a conversation about women’s issues, to the voices of black men and women when there is a conversation about race, to the voices of native Americans when there is a conversation about indigenous peoples’ rights, etc. So, I have been inspired by the #MeToo movement, by the rampant misogyny exposed by our most recent presidential election, and by the racism and white nationalism that is becoming ever more public and present in our society, to make conscious efforts to listen harder and to read more, so that I can be informed about others’ experiences and what I can do to be an ally (the same consideration I hope folks give to LGBTQIAA+ issues).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a title from an intelligent and accomplished black feminist woman who said she has stopped talking to white people about race. Who needs to hear the message more than white people? How could she do this? Why is she giving up? All of these rather selfish and short-sighted questions arose immediately upon seeing the title, so I purchased the book in hopes to find answers. What I got, however, was not just the writer’s rationale for turning her attention elsewhere, but a host of thoughts on issues about intersectionality, race, gender, class, and British history. In addition, there was excellent insight as to what I can do as an ally, personally, but also how I can encourage positive ally behavior in others. I don’t know if these last benefits were even intended by Eddo-Lodge, but I hope to take the lessons and run with them anyway.
The book itself stems from a 2014 essay that the author first published on her blog. So many people begged her not to stop talking. Others completely agreed, understood, and supported her. And still others tried to turn the conversation and make it about themselves (no surprise to anyone with a history of feminist thought or activism, right?) I think the most important feature to come from the expansion of the post into a more formal, critical work, is the exposure of Britain’s deeply-rooted institutional history with racism. In many ways, Eddo-Lodge’s analysis of British history reminded me of what our own history of race has looked like in the United States, especially our issues with structural racism and the misunderstandings about it. The real damaging power of racism is not what happens on the individual level, but within all the systems that our citizenry, society, government, politics, and economy rely on to function.
In every area, white people (and white men, especially) have had an advantage. But the conversation keeps stalling at the point where individuals feel targeted. When we mention “white privilege” or “male privilege,” to someone who benefits from these, for example, they often take it as a personal attack and feel offended that we are blaming them for something they have no control over; on the contrary, where the conversation needs to go, Eddo-Lodge says, is beyond the personal and to the structural: we are not talking about your racism or your gender, but about the systems in which we all exist and where some people have a distinct advantage because of race and gender (and class). So, how do we help advance the conversation and encourage people to move beyond their first reactions based on their own personal and identifiable experiences (I was poor, too – I worked three jobs – I paid for my own college – nobody gave me the promotion, I worked 10 years for it – my family came from nothing – etc. etc.), and toward the bigger issues?
I’m not sure Eddo-Lodge answers the question. I’m not sure there is any single answer to this question. But perhaps writing books like this one, reading books like this one, and encouraging others, who would not normally pick up books like this one to do so, is as good a start as we can possibly make. Have the hard conversations. Welcome people into the difficult and sensitive conversations.
Michael Oatman once wrote, “it’s odd to educate oneself away from one’s past.” History, written by the winners, is a powerful tool, and it hasn’t often told the whole story. Maybe the best thing that allies can do is to begin helping others, and themselves, to fill in the gaps and widen the lens. I hope people like Reni Eddo-Lodge keep talking, and writing, because their voices are crucial to this goal, and to the eventual possibility for a more just society.
“When I talk about white people, I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (87).
“White support looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations. Support looks like white advocacy for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces. White people, you need to talk to other white people about race” (215-16).
“Combing through the literature on clashes between black people and the police, I noticed another clash – one of perspective. While some people called what happened . . . a riot, others called it an uprising . . . I think there’s truth in both perspectives, and that the extremity of a riot only ever reflects the extreme living conditions of said rioters. Language is important” (53).
“When swathes of the population vote for politicians and political efforts that explicitly use racism as a campaigning tool, we tell ourselves that huge sections of the electorate simply cannot be racist, as that would render them heartless monsters. But this isn’t about good and bad people. The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands easily, like a water-snake toy” (64).
“I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional [racism] because I think it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions” (64).