Reni Eddo-Lodge's debut book is an essential read on the politics of racism
I first met writer, journalist and former student activist Reni Eddo-Lodge last summer, when she was midway through writing her first book, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race.
“What I’m proposing in the book title is why I, me, am not choosing to talk to white people about race," she told me at the time, laughing about the reactions to its title. "The title of the book is not why ‘nobody should’. Some people have said it’s reverse racism against white people. But, well, the book’s not called ‘fuck whitey’, the book isn’t called ‘death to crackers’, it’s not called ‘kill white men’, that’s not what it’s called!”
Spurred on by a popular blog post she wrote in 2014, where she explained that she was "no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms", the book is out now, and it's more than I could have hoped for.
Split into snappy essays ranging from the history of race relations in the UK, to the intersection between race and class, and including one fateful interview with Nick Griffin (one of the few exceptions to her “rule” within the book), the erstwhile leader of the BNP who tells her that the identity of white people is under threat from "mass immigration, integration, and, mixed-race relationships". Eddo-Lodge has a flair for accessible, well-researched prose, and was clearly perfectly placed to articulate many of the conversations that have been happening both online and IRL about racism in the UK.
Her words, which aim to manipulate the conversations we have around race to a more developed place, are a blessing to those of us for whom challenging racism is part of our everyday rhetoric. While the book itself has meant that Eddo-Lodge has had to have a lot more conversations with white people about race than she might have predicted, it's a title that can (and should) be sent to every ignorant white person you know. I had the opportunity to speak with her about it further:
Have you gotten over the irony of spending a lot of your time talking to white people about race?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: It’s funny isn’t it. In writing that post three and a half years ago, I was saying that the conversation absolutely needs to change, otherwise I can no longer engage. I can no longer do this. And call me flipping Mystic Meg, because it did change, drastically. I no longer felt myself rushing to catch up with an agenda. Normally I speak to people who are generally interested, curious, of all races, and who are very committed to change, and I think that’s an amazing thing.
On the publicity trail I’m often speaking to a white interviewer and I’m like, well, you know if I was very committed to not speaking to white people about race, would I be here? People who are committed to not having conversations don’t write books and they don’t do a bunch of press interviews, and go on tour. But I’ve put my point out there, and now a bunch of people are gonna be in contact telling me what they think about it. And that’s the whole point of a conversation isn’t it? I hope that beyond that the book prompts people to do a bit of self-reflection, examination and have conversations in their wider community.
Why was it important for you to start the book by covering black history in the UK?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: It was absolutely essential to provide a context for the later political arguments that I make in the book. Whilst trying to make this point more broadly outside of the book over the last few years, I’ve realised there’s a complete dearth of understanding of exactly what the struggle for racial justice looks like in Britain. When I was at school, during Black History Month, I would hear about Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. That was all very inspiring for me, but I didn’t know about a lot of things that happened in the UK. I didn’t know about Harold Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples. So I thought I need to start from ground zero here. I just took many trips to the British Library and the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton and did a bunch of research. I needed to provide that context for people to understand what that legacy looks like in our society today.
In the book you use the term structural racism rather than institutional. Why?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: There isn’t a huge difference between the two, but I think that’s it is quite easy for people to wriggle out of institutional racism because they’re like “well, it’s nothing to do with me”. But structures really are made out of people. We are all are participating in it. Its embedded in institutions and small organisations like our families and friendship groups that then reproduce racism on a massive scale.
“We don’t at the moment have a framework for understanding of racism that goes beyond morality”
What are some of examples of that you talk about?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: We know that black people have a harder time at school, receive much harsher sentences for the possession of drugs in the criminal justice system than their white counterparts – even though white people are more likely to use. We know that black people are excessively diagnosed with things like psychosis simply because of the negative stereotypes about us. We all need to go to school, we all need to get a job, we’ll all come into contact with the NHS at some point in our lives, unless you are in a position to go private, which not many of us are. We all have a reasonable expectation to be treated equally by these organisations and the people working in them, but it seems like that that’s not the case.
So you think it’s fair to say racism exists in all of these places?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: They’re not necessarily populated with people who are members of the KKK, out proud and racists. But still the bias exists. It has a huge knock on effect on our life chances and so we have to have a much more sophisticated understanding of what racism is and how it continues to affect people’s life chances. It goes beyond, “Well you’re a racist you’re a bad person” – which leads to a situation in which people start going “I haven’t got a racist bone in my body”. We don’t at the moment have a framework for understanding of racism that goes beyond morality. What I’m trying to do with the book is provoke some self-reflection amongst those who benefit from racism. It stands to reason that if some people are being grossly marginalised in the system other people are getting a bit of a boost because of it. There can be no disadvantage without advantage, it’s a symbiotic relationship.
The book is intrinsically political. How do you think Westminster politics tends to treat women of colour?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: Well, obviously pretty badly. In the book I talk about the reverse racism row of 2012 when there was a huge press fuel array with something that Diane Abbott tweeted after the Stephen Lawrence conviction (“White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game"). It’s actually ridiculous how much this country wanted to keep pretending that racism goes both ways when it absolutely does not. I mean, that sort of pressure on her doesn’t appear to have let off. I don’t understand how she does it to be honest. She wrote a very good piece in the Guardian a couple of months ago about how the racist and sexual abuse was getting completely out of hand. I don’t believe that we shouldn’t criticise or not hold her accountable. But it’s very obvious that some of the criticism is not coming from a place of accountability, but from a place of hatred.
In the book you made a great point about fake solidarity with other countries that are suffering after terrorist attacks. Did you notice that happened again recently with Manchester?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: I am absolutely behind people expressing solidarity with areas in the world that are undergoing acts of terror, but what I am concerned about is that when people only seem to talk about active terror in the other areas of the world when we are fresh in mourning from a local terror attack. So in the book, the story of the attack on the University in Kenya was going viral for hours after the Bataclan attacks in Paris back in late 2015. I was shocked because, and I’m not saying I am a saint here, but I remember reading out those university attacks in April of that year, and actually sharing it on Facebook and nobody really responding. To see that resurface seven months later was like, ok... This is not about solidarity or terror is it? This is a little bit more self-serving than solidarity for people in Kenya who needed you to be yelling about it in April 2015, not November.
The story was being shared after Manchester was about a bus that had a bunch of Syrian children on that was bombed back in April. People didn’t read through the article properly, they thought it was happening in conjunction with Manchester. It was shallow.
Are you glad that the book is being published in what feels like a particularly politically fractious and buzzy time?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: Am I glad? Well, that would suggest that I am happy about the state of the world, which I am not. I mean who knew that all this stuff was going to be happening. Challenging social racism this is something I’ve been doing for quite a few years now. And I recognise that it feels like the conversation is more pertinent at this moment in time, because of what has happened over the last 18 months with Trump and Brexit. But hopefully those people who are still reeling over what’s happened over the last 18 months can use this book as a bit of context. I mean personally, I’m really not reeling over the events and I think anybody who’s been interested and challenging wasn't surprised either.
“It’s actually ridiculous how much this country wanted to keep pretending that racism goes both ways when it absolutely does not”
Agreed. Did you have any last min fears or doubts publishing? It obviously covers some pretty contentious things that white people are still failing to grasp
Reni Eddo-Lodge: I don’t know, I don’t think anything in the book is particularly controversial to be honest. I know that some people are very very upset about me using the word “white” but I think it’s a descriptor. People have been calling and describing me as black all my whole life and I haven’t shed any tears over it. I think white people aren’t used to being named as white.
Publishing is still an industry where there are still very few black faces. But there does seem to be a new wave coming out of books written by younger black women. What do you think has motivated this?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: The absolute key difference is that anybody can go out there now and at least theoretically cultivate their own audience and their own interest. Without the intervention of a gatekeeper, or without asking for permission of a gatekeeper. But while the internet’s great, and lead to my book deal, black writers still do need to be invested in. The internet doesn’t really give you that opportunity, unless you’ve got independent wealth, and publications aren’t really giving young black writers that opportunity. Instead you’ll get called upon as a freelance head. “Can you do an opinion piece to respond to this thing”. Which I was unhappy with doing that so I basically stopped doing that.