Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race

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.

Notable Quotes

“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).

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X-Men, Astrophysics, and Hate

X-Men Siege (Mutant Empire #1) by Christopher Golden

A few weeks ago, I was at Half-Price Books selling a big chunk of my library when, lo and behold, I stumbled across all three books in this Mutant Empire series. I’m absolutely upset with the 1990s version of Marvel Comics’s X-Men and, years ago, I had read another novelization (a cross-over with Star Trek: The Next Generation called Planet X by Michael Jan Friedman), which I really enjoyed; so I knew I had to grab these, especially since they only cost a few bucks.  X-Men: Siege brought me back to those ’90s comic books I so loved, and to some of the film adaptations. There’s much that is familiar to anyone who grew up reading the Uncanny X-men series, but plenty that is unique, too. Magneto has begun his plan to create an all-mutant Utopia, beginning with a remote location off planet earth but with the intention of, eventually, taking over the entire planet. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing for Cyclops’s dad, a kind of intergalactic space pirate, and the Shi’ar Empire. Professor Xavier decides to split the X-Men into two teams, one to take on each of these terrible challenges. For those who don’t already know the characters, especially the liminal ones, it might be a bit of a confusing or uninteresting read; but if you already know and love these stories and characters, then you’ll probably enjoy Siege quite a bit. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, but I do wish the author had found a better proofreader/editor (the number of typos is a bit jarring). 

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I’ve been wanting to read more science books for such a long time, but while I was buried by reading for my PhD, I just couldn’t find the time. So, I was pleased when, right about the time I graduated with my degree and found some time for actual “free reading,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes ahead and publishes a new book! And, as the title suggests, for someone like me who is often, “in a hurry.” What are the odds!? While I can’t pretend to have understood everything in this book, I do think I got the gist of most of it, and that is, I think, the point: to help folks like me who are curious about science and who want to be a bit more scientifically literate, get there. Tyson has an engaging voice and style, and he can explain complex topics very directly and through the use of helpful analogies. Tyson also has a larger purpose, here, which is to explain why science is so important and how dangerous it is for a society to move away from it, the way we here, unfortunately, have been doing for some time. He explains just how much science means to him and how he believes a scientifically literate culture can feel more, not less, connected to one another. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of astrophysics, concisely addressed, and they’re all fascinating. My favorite part, though, has to be the very brief final chapter titled, “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective.” It’s simply beautiful. 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas 

This book: wow. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe this book and my reaction to it. For help, I started to search through the blog-o-sphere (or at least the parts of it that I watch) to see what others are saying, or even just to have links to send you all to for reference and good thoughts, but to my surprise, the majority of what I’ve found = thoughts such as, “I need to figure out how to review this!” Hey, at least I’m not alone! Essentially, The Hate U Give is an incredibly timely and relevant perspective from an honest and creative new voice that is much-needed in our culture right now. Starr is a 16-year-old black girl living in a dangerous city. Her father had been in prison but is now a successful business owner. Her mother is a nurse with great potential. Her uncle is a police officer who lives in a beautiful, gated community. She and her brothers go to private school in another district because her parents are able to afford it. In other words, she lives in two worlds. She witnesses the best and worst possible of all American cultural and societal realities. The worst? She has seen her two best friends killed in front of her eyes. The best? She has a strong and loving family, a boyfriend who loves her, and some* real friends who accept her for who she is and not for the color of her skin. Thomas is giving us such a powerful and important story, here, but more importantly, she offers multiple perspectives, a number of options, and a the sense of hopeful possibility, without proscribing a single ideology or facetious answer to our nation’s complicated racial problems. I can’t wait to see what she does next (I hear a film adaptation might be in the works). 

Thoughts: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

For a long time, Scout (Jean Louise) Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me of Huckleberry Finn. Just a kid from the American south, smart but crass, and willing to live by her own convictions. Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman has solidified this similarity for me. While reading, I repeatedly wondered: could Harper Lee be the love child of Mark Twain and Jane Austen? I know that sounds hilarious, especially considering how much Twain despised Austen’s work, but still. We have here a merging of regional American literature with a novel of assumed propriety and morality (Jean Louise, like many of Austen’s characters, often pokes fun at presumptions of ‘decorum’ or ‘class’). And Scout, like Huckleberry Finn, is often at a loss for what to do – questioning what is right and wrong, and wondering what is wrong with her when she feels that everyone else around her is mistaken about things like race. And, like Huck Finn, she’s willing to write-off her whole town for lost, striking out for New York City just as Huck lit out West.

I’ve heard and seen some say, “this book should never have been published.” Certainly, Go Set a Watchman is not without flaws, and those who loved To Kill a Mockingbird (and who adored Atticus Finch) are sure to be bothered by much of what happens here. But, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. This book shouldn’t be measured by how we felt about another book or about the same characters told from a different perspective (that of a child) at a different time (20 years earlier). While I can understand why the book is upsetting and how it basically pales in comparison to the original, I can’t agree that it shouldn’t have been published, and I don’t know what the point of that argument is, anyway. It has been published: Let’s deal with it.

So, where to start with this one? I would like to begin by saying that Go Set a Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite what some blurbs and reviews would have us believe. It is the exact some book told from a different perspective and a different time. Even a number of the passages overlap, word for word. This is important. What is most important to note, I think, when deciding whether or not to read this, or what to think about it, is this: To Kill a Mockingbird was told though the eyes of a young Scout Finch, a tomboy who adored her father Atticus, and who could see only the best in him. On the other hand, Go Set a Watchman is the story of an adult awakening to her own individuality, claiming her own identity.

As the old adage goes, “we can’t go home again.” This is the lesson Jean Louise learns, with help from her eccentric Uncle Jack, who tells her that “it is always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” (269). We readers, too, need to recognize that the Finch family, and Maycomb County, have changed in the twenty years of narrative time (or fifty of actual time) since we last saw them. The Civil Rights movement in America changed people, changed entire ways of life. Most of us would probably argue that this was good and necessary, but that still doesn’t mean the change was or has been easy, especially for those whose worlds were altered the most.

The first sections of the book tell of Jean’s visit home. There is some romance between herself and a man she’ll never marry. We meet Jean’s Aunt, again, and are treated to a host of delightful flashbacks from Scout’s childhood. This part of the book is like going home again, and it’s wonderful! But from the mid-point onward, we have a different story. Jean Louise is repeatedly struck by how different everyone seems, even her beloved Calpurnia. Her best friend is gone. Her brother is dead. There’s no one there to help her navigate the changing terrain.

Uncle Jack and Jean Louise spend the last section of the book discussing how Atticus had been Scout’s idol, her own self, really, for most of her life. Until now, the idea that she and her father would disagree on anything was completely foreign to her, unthinkable. But now Scout must “shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast” (271). She has to be her own person, which means recognizing her own failures (that she is colorblind – not in the sense we might mean it now, but in the sense that she genuinely doesn’t see how people act, and are treated, differently, like it or not) as well as the failures of those most important to her, little Maycomb, Henry Clinton, and especially her father. There’s a painful break from childhood, and it’s going to be hard for those of us who were there with her, but that doesn’t mean the book is bad. It’s just hard. It’s a challenge.

I definitely think reading Go Set a Watchman is an exercise in suspending our egos. Which is ironic because Jean Louise has a similar task. For many of us, To Kill a Mockingbird was a special experience, and it holds a special place in the canon of American Literature. Atticus Finch is everything a good American should be: a stand-up guy who defends the less fortunate, who teaches his children to be who they are while also respecting others, who puts his own life and career on the line in his effort to ensure justice and a common good. What’s not to love about that? But, realistically, that was the young narrator’s perspective. That was the story told through memories of an adult looking back on her childhood from a nostalgic distance.

Go Set a Watchman is a worthwhile read for many reasons, one of which is for its intimate look at the many types of racism. It seems that every character in this book exposes their prejudices at some point, but each is also prejudiced, bigoted, in a particular way. Some of the characters simply hate black people. Others believe there’s some kind of natural, biological difference which elevates whites over blacks (and popular “science” of the time that explores this theme is referred to in the book). And still others seem reactionary: times are changing, and they respond with fear and resistance – there’s little real malice in this, just a personal anxiety of sorts.

The book is also interesting in how it addresses the Supreme Court’s integration decision, especially illustrations of how different people react to it; most of the southern characters disagreed with the decision, but some, like Scout, still found it necessary. There’s an intriguing look at the ideological differences between “States’ Rights” conservatives and “Federalist” liberals. Considering recent events, such as the newly-raised debates surrounding the Confederate Flag and “Southern Pride,” the release of this book is bizarrely serendipitous as it tackles the very same arguments going on right now. In reflection, it’s also incredibly scary (and disappointing) that these same conversations are still happening, half a century later.

One difficulty I have with this book, aside from my personal reactions to being disillusioned with the reality of Atticus (who, by the way, may be racist, but who is also still committed to justice and nonviolence) is the narrative construction. While Harper Lee’s prose style is still incredibly attractive, much of the book reads as compilations of scenes with fascinating and revelatory flashbacks, but which struggle to work together cohesively. It becomes very clear where, why, and how this book became To Kill a Mockingbird, but it also left me wondering what might have happened had that original classic developed into something twice the size, an epic spanning the length of time that is ultimately covered by the two works, and corrected accordingly. An interesting thought.

I can say that I think this is a fascinating, intellectually and emotionally challenging companion to To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead of looking to Atticus as the hero of this novel, we’re going to turn to Jean Louise and, despite her own racism, try to applaud her courage in standing up to her family, empathize with her growing pains, and hope the best for her. Will she stay in Maycomb, where she might be able to do the most good (as Uncle Jack so presciently notes: “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong . . . they don’t need you when they’re right”). Or will she go back to New York, where she can see people of other races as simply people?

Ultimately, I don’t think Go Set a Watchman works well without To Kill a Mockingbird, which is problematic; still, for those who know the originally or who will eventually read it, this one adds so much depth and reality to the story of Maycomb and the Finches. Lee wades into difficult, muddy, maddening terrain; she does it well, and with her own characteristic flavor.