The reality of racism in modern Britain
A bold new book by Reni Eddo-Lodge tackles race and racism in Britain both past and present.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2017 edition of New Humanist.
For a person of colour, racism makes everyday life a minefield: there’s always an alternative version of events that could be true. Perhaps you didn’t deserve the job you interviewed for? That stranger could have barged anyone out of the way. Maybe the shopkeeper didn’t see you first in the queue? In some ways it’s easier to believe these rationalisations than confront the idea that means no matter how high you pull your socks up, it will never be enough. It is both a comfort and a source of outrage to understand that while the effects of racism shape the parameters of your life, ultimately, the problem is really not about you.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, a much-needed new book by the journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, places discussions of race and racism within a British context, and begins to explore some of the complexities of what it is to be a person of colour today. Inspired by a viral blog post of the same name that Eddo-Lodge wrote in 2014, the book holds a mirror up to white privilege, the “suffocating blanket of power that envelops everything we know”, and the ways in which it shuts down productive conversations about systemic racial injustice. The book also seeks to disrupt a historical amnesia that sees Britain so often stuck on the Windrush narrative: the period after the Second World War during which many emigrated from the Caribbean. Instead, Eddo-Lodge holds Britain to account for its colonial history and slave-trading past, the eugenics movement and the continued pathologising of black people, no better demonstrated than by continued acts of police brutality and disproportionate arrest rates. It is a weighty reminder of the legacies we have inherited – and continue to interact with today – and gives a spotlight to the black British story, so often overshadowed by African American narratives made universal.
The book also documents some of the author’s past speaking appearances and responses to articles she has written – as well as contributions from other black writers, academics and teachers who have had to negotiate their work within predominately white spaces. These conversations highlight the intellectual labour that has been undertaken to move the conversation forward about race. A fitting example of this is the work many black feminists have done to increase awareness of the concept of “intersectionality” in the UK. Coined by American theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the term advocates for understanding the different and overlapping ways in which people experience oppression according to race, gender, class and so on. The term may today be a progressive buzz word, but Eddo-Lodge recalls the initial fierce resistance to the concept.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race offers some much needed nuance to the debate. Eddo-Lodge reminds us that racism is about more than far-right marches, physical violence and other such extreme instances, and shows how it operates at a systemic level. In her words, structural racism is “dozens or hundreds or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. [It] is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people, where anyone that falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure.”
So while racial slurs are unpleasant and still happen far too often (I’m looking at you, Anne Marie Morris), Eddo-Lodge brings the conversation back to more sinister aspects of structural racism, and examines the way they affect people of colour throughout their lives. For example, while black students are more likely to move into higher education, they are still less likely to get into a Russell Group university than their white counterparts, despite having the required qualifications. This inequality is also pervasive in the world of work, where the rate of unemployment for both black men and women is double to that of their white peers. It is, after all, through the silent behaviours, deep-entrenched bias and decisions made behind closed doors that these inequalities will continue to persist.
The irony is that despite its title, much of the book’s content is largely for white people. Systemic racism, discrimination and unequal life chances are all topics that people of colour are wearily familiar with: nonetheless, this book has a vital role as a tool that people of colour can refer others to, particularly when called upon, yet again, to parrot the ABCs of racism. It is conversational in tone, which means this is the book to give to your problematic family friend/neighbour/uncle. While the title may get you some looks on the bus, it is only hard hitting because of its honesty. Eddo-Lodge cites documents in which the police call black people hut-dwelling “pests” that should be “ejected from society”, talks about the “nigger hunters” of Notting Hill, the murder of black seaman Charles Wootton, which led to the government sending 600 black people “back to where they came from”, and the institutional racism that led to the botched investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder.
Let’s hope this marks the beginning of a national conversation that many have been trying to have for a long time. One that acknowledges the legacy of Britain’s colonial past and recognises that, as a result, we are living in a system that doesn’t enable people of colour to thrive. Really, Eddo-Lodge is making an invitation: let’s stop repeating ourselves and, at last, move forwards.
“Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” is published by Bloomsbury