state of the arts

Reading about racism won’t turn you into an ally – but it’s a step towards it

Our columnist Micha Frazer-Carroll on why Reni Eddo-Lodge’s bestselling ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ strikes a deep chord

Thursday 25 June 2020 17:34
Loud and clear: protesters make their voices heard at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London
Loud and clear: protesters make their voices heard at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in London

In 2014, Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post titled “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race”. In 2017, after finding virality, that blog post became a book of the same name. Last week, it topped the UK bestseller list, making her the first black Brit ever to occupy the position. Since the book’s publication, Eddo-Lodge has often joked that the avalanche of publicity that followed her blog and consequent book deal means she talks about race more than ever before.

“I did what felt like dozens of press interviews on publication of the book and I would often speak to white journalists, and they’d say, ‘So, here you are talking to me about your book!’” Eddo-Lodge told Lola Olufemi during a conversation in Cambridge in 2017.

The conditions under which Eddo-Lodge’s book once again climbed the charts last week are objectively tragic; black civilian George Floyd was killed after a police officer knelt on his neck, and a subsequent wave of protests swept the world. Eddo-Lodge herself has acknowledged that the book’s revival is bittersweet: “To know there was a surge of people searching out anti-racism books after seeing what was essentially a film of somebody being murdered,” she said. “I can’t uncouple those two things.” It was confirmation that we live in a world where white people have to see a video of a black man being killed to believe that racism exists. But, as feminist neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer once said: “When something terrible happens, people wake up.”

There is a sense of beautiful symmetry, a dose of poetic justice, about how, in a time of global reckoning around race, Eddo-Lodge’s book is serving its original purpose. It seems the last month has seen reams of white allies asking their black friends and colleagues for unpaid education and guidance. But black people are tired of talking to white people about race when it suits them, so the fact that some people are actually referring to the books, documentaries, articles and movements we’ve been telling them to pay attention to for decades, is in some ways promising.

Eddo-Lodge’s experience of burnout from educating white people is an extreme one, but one I deeply relate to. As a black girl who grew up in very white spaces, I’ve been talking about race all my life, but it really cranked up around 2014 when I arrived at Cambridge and decided to start writing and organising around it. Whiteness, racism and the remnants of the university’s colonialist legacy were a constant daily reality for students. Headline after scandal unfolded as college security would accuse a student, alumnus or academic of being a tourist, criminal or intruder. When I became the students’ union welfare officer, many students of colour who attended counselling told me that they experienced racism on the therapist’s couch. I embarked on a long campaign to change this, and started writing about racism wherever I saw it.

For most writers, speakers, workers or organisers who hold a stake in anti-racism, constantly talking about race like this can only carry on for so long. As Stormzy once said, there is racism in Britain (“100 per cent,” some might even say), and so anti-racist or decolonial thought isn’t usually met with open arms. For me, it was defensiveness, a forcible attempt to turn the ideological tables: I was the true racist. I was the one making everything about something it was not. I was often told this by people at least twice my age. For Eddo-Lodge, defensiveness often manifested in the walls coming up: “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals.”

Of course, there are capital-R racists who represent the “racism proper” that liberals theoretically stand against. In my case, those were scary too – my face was plastered on an alt-right white supremacist website, and I was called a “half-monkey” in the copy. But the racism that I came up against most often, the type that wore me down, was from the people who insisted they were “not racist” (or the slightly more irritating, nominal: “not a racist”). This was racism from my classmates, my teachers, people in management positions, people I saw on the TV or writing articles for centre-left publications – people who considered themselves to be the good ones. It often came in the form of aggressions, both micro and macro, tone-policing, insisting that black people take racism “too seriously” when we call it out, refusing to speak against racist structures or institutions, or seeing anything beyond surface-level commitments to “diversity” as too radical. As I see it, these are also the people who Why I’m No Longer... is for.

In that conversation in Cambridge, which I felt lucky to bear witness to, Eddo-Lodge told Olufemi that white people often expect her to be some form of “cult leader” on the issue (“sometimes I feel like if I said, ‘jump in traffic,’ people would be like, ‘OK!’”). But now is the time for white people to do their research and work it out for themselves. This doesn’t just mean reading Eddo-Lodge, who gives a comprehensive overview of racism in the UK, but those who came before her, from author bell hooks, who explains the necessity of an intersectional feminist movement, to Angela Davis, who has written extensively on black liberation and prison abolition.

We don’t know whether copies of Why I’m No Longer... will be read, or whether they will gather dust on the shelves of white semi-detached households. But what we can see is that people, in their thousands, are wanting to learn about racism. As black people across the world experience the same burnout on a mass scale, all I can do is hope that Eddo-Lodge’s book is fulfilling its original purpose.

Reading a book won’t transform you into an ally – only taking political and economic action can do that – but referring to the evidence, the record of what black people have been saying for decades, is one step towards it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am no longer talking to white people about race. But this past fortnight, as I hyperlink my peers to anti-racist reading lists and articles I wrote in 2015, I’m asking them: have you done the required reading?

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