If you are looking for a new literary classic that perfectly summarizes the history of race relations in the UK while also breaking down how racist institutions are preserved by refusing to discuss racism then my review of “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” is for you.
I don’t remember where I first learned about Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race but I do know that the title instantly grabbed my attention. It reminded me of when you’re a kid and you become upset with someone and tell them “I’m not your friend” or “I’m not talking to you anymore”. Followed by crossing your arms, pouting your lips, and stomping away only to return within moments to tell them why. With that in mind and solely judging the book by its title I expected it to be an absolute pandering mess of nonsense. But when I read the summary I got the author’s point and I better understood her perspective and intentions when I began reading the book.
Eddo-Lodge explains that the book’s title and concept came from a blog post that she wrote to explain her change in mindset. Previously she’d engaged in discussions about race with the intention of not just expressing her thoughts but also getting White people to understand racism from a Black perspective. But, she found that while some were receptive, many were more interested in explaining to her why she was wrong. They were intent on doing everything possible to downplay racism and deny the existence of White privilege. She decided to stop after becoming frustrated by trying to have meaningful and productive conversations with people who were being deliberately obtuse.
In speaking with obtuse people your first instinct might be to rephrase, reframe, and restate your points in hopes that something gets through. But that only works with someone who honestly doesn’t get what you’re trying to explain to them. It’s not as productive for people who don’t want to understand. Though we might try to do the opposite, it’s often easier and more effective to change your expectations and behavior. In this case, it made more sense to stop engaging with these people who weren’t open to having honest conversations.
The first thing that caught me off guard was that Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race focuses on race relations in the United Kingdom (UK) with a particular focus on England. I was surprised because I was ignorantly under the impression that racism, prejudice, civil rights violations, etc. are an American problem and not an issue in the UK. My family is from countries in the Caribbean that were former British colonies but we’ve never discussed race in the context of living under British rule. I have family members and family friends who live in the UK and they seem to be financially comfortable, some are in interracial relationships, and overall everyone seemed fine. And because we never discussed the Black experience in the UK or Europe for that matter, I assumed that all was well.
In recent years, news coverage of Brexit and related issues has shown that as in America there is also a far-right conservative presence in the UK. But reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race really opened my eyes to just how closely the facets and timeline of race relations in America and the UK mirror each other. The author is from the UK and thus focused the book on race relations in the UK. My knowledge and experience are primarily based on America so while reading I mentally compared and contrasted the two.
To start, Britain abolished slavery in the colonies before slavery was abolished in America. But taking a closer look at the timeline, the difference is just about 31 years. And looking even closer, the focus is often placed on the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. Yet, I had no idea until reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race that there were actual slaves in England. Before I even made any real headway into the book I had to reevaluate what I thought I knew about the UK and its relationship to slavery, racism, and current race relations.
America is often portrayed as being the poster child for slavery and racism. This is a rightly earned reputation as the country was built on a foundation of both. The UK and other European countries get somewhat of a pass despite profiting from slavery in the so-called “New World” as well as imperialism in Africa and Asia. This is because the bulk of their dirty laundry took place far from their shores thus allowing those countries to maintain a facade of humanity.
Just look at companies such as Lloyd’s of London and Barclay’s that are well-respected now but were heavily involved in the slave trade. The people who work for those companies now were not around at the time when they were participants in the slave trade. But the companies as institutions profited handsomely and those revenues helped to sustain and propel the companies forward. This is also the case for other institutions and societies that benefited from the profits of slavery. It is also the case with institutional racism where the unfair advantages of the past compounded over time and helped to build a foundation of unearned privilege that still benefits some while disadvantaging others in the present.
In my ignorance, I somehow had the idea that Britain and other European nations, maybe except for Germany, were more evolved than America and didn’t have a similar history of racism. It was very eye-opening to read about the history of Black people in the UK and to realize that their fight for civil rights occurred along a similar timeline as that of America’s. A lot of attention is paid to the people who fought in the World Wars but the participation of Black people is often overlooked.
The reality is that Black people fought in both wars hoping that aiding the fight against tyranny in Europe would bring about change and more opportunities at home. But instead of being welcomed as full participants in the wars, members of the West Indian Regiment were initially segregated while serving and assigned grunt work. When the war ended it didn’t bring about the anticipated change but instead gave rise to riots and lynchings as White supremacists attacked Black servicemen.
Over the next few decades, the British government would avoid acknowledging that there were racial problems which allowed a delayed response to protecting the rights of Black people. Over time flawed and racist logic would result in Black people being regarded as criminals and trouble makers. Various laws were also introduced that were aimed at prejudging Black people and allowing law enforcement to harass them at liberty. This allowed White supremacists to promote racist ideologies and carry out acts of race-based violence. And also enabled police officers to brutalize Black people and offer a built-in excuse for the violence they experienced.
At this point, I think we understand the conditions that lead to riots so that’s not new territory. But the discussion of the investigative reports and proposed solutions in the aftermath of the Brixton Riots were informative. Downplaying racism allows the people who perpetuate racist institutions to persist. Outcries against police brutality are met with talking points that racist incidents were caused by a few bad apples within the police force and didn’t point to a larger problem. The response was to push multiculturalism rather than anti-racism though it would be proven that prejudiced views were held by multiple members of law enforcement.
I finished reading Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race maybe a week before the failed coup d’etat at the US Capitol. But the two situations struck me as being quite similar in that they made clear that some of the very people tasked with policing Black neighborhoods hold racist views. How realistic is it to believe that people who hate or at the very least have negative views of Black people will be unbiased in policing Black communities?
Multiple examples of police brutality and racially motivated attacks are provided. Yet, there is a refusal to acknowledge the reality that institutional racism allows for over-policing of Black people along with harassment but no real effort to prosecute crimes committed against Black people. Whether through personal experience or observing how others are treated by the police, police harassment and brutality leads to Black people distrusting the police.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race drives home the point that there is an often greater concern with not being called a racist than there is an effort to not be racist. The more accurate and effective concern is to be anti-racist. This means moving from thinking about not being racist as a passive activity where you don’t partake in prejudiced or racist behavior to actively working against racism. While racism might manifest in some White people, it is embedded in the very structure of many of the world’s societies. Thus to better address and completely eradicate racism, it’s not enough to only focus on extremists or even just individuals. Instead, it is necessary to identify and eliminate all forms of racism no matter how subtle or deeply embedded.
The breakdown of the various obstacles in the path of a Black child coming of age in England was en pointe. It helps to illustrate the reality that because of the way opportunities and expectations are set up, it is incredibly difficult for a Black child to succeed. The reality is that a Black child must indeed be twice as good to get to just the baseline. When we discuss disparities between racial and ethnic groups, often the response is to work harder and pull yourself up by the bootstraps. But, this ignores the reality that structural racism results in beginning life from a different starting position. It’s like having two runners in a race where one begins at the starting line while the other sets off from the halfway mark and attributing the starting line runner losing to them not training or running hard enough.
Terms such as “playing the race card”, “reverse racism”, and being “color blind” are often used to shut down attempts to have conversations about race. The problems are plentiful and the solutions are not always straightforward so some prefer not to have these discussions. Throughout history, White people who are not racist extremists have sometimes called for moderation and tolerance in dealing with racism.
This comes from a place of privilege in that they acknowledge the injustice of racism but because their lives are not directly and/or adversely affected they can afford to be patient or passive in the quest for change. They approach racism from a place of comfort, not necessarily with racist ideas and actions, but the advantages or rather lack of disadvantages they experience as a result of racist power structures and institutions. It’s far too easy to ignore racism, act like it doesn’t exist, or claim to not see race if you’ve never been on the disadvantaged end of structural racism.
That’s is not to say that White people can’t understand racism, be in loving and respectful relationships with Black people, or raise Black children. But, to be fully vested in any of those things requires a commitment to being anti-racist. It requires overcoming the default of assuming that how you experience the world is how everyone else also perceives and experiences the world. This means not assuming that your views and experiences are the right or only way but trying to see things from the perspective of others.
People are often resistant to this because it can sometimes mean admitting that you’re wrong or that you as an individual might not be as special as you think you are. If your identity is based on your position in the world and the things you’ve accomplished, you might experience an identity crisis when having to deal with the reality that these things were based on the chance of birth rather than any real skill or ability.
White supremacy operates in two ways, telling White people that they are superior due to being White and then defaults positive attributes to Whiteness. Conversely, it then defines being Black as the opposite and defaults negative attributes to Blackness. Thus without showing any special aptitude or skill, White people are assumed to be competent and capable while Black people have to fight against assumptions of incompetence and lack of capabilities. This is White privilege in its simplest terms and serves as the foundation for White supremacy.
For the most part, it’s no longer socially acceptable to be a blatantly rabid racist so racist ideas are expressed more subtly and often in coded language. This makes it easier to be passive-aggressive and say or do things with a racist undertone while having the option to deny any racist intent. It can go so far as people who call attention to racist innuendo and actions being deemed the troublemakers.
People say racist things and then complain about political correctness and how it infringes on their right to freedom of speech. But as with many rights, people believe they should have unabridged rights while the rights of others should be curtailed if they hold opposing views. It’s like they have the right to speak but you should be silenced if you don’t agree. They have the right to express themselves but shouldn’t be held accountable for their problematic views or actions.
Responsibility for eradicating racism often unfairly falls on the shoulders of those negatively impacted by racism. But, it’s like fighting against a shapeshifting foe in the sense that it can be hard to define. The focus shifts from how Black people are negatively impacted to them needing to be forgiving and sympathetic to racists as well as how they need to change or conform to protect themselves from future racist attacks. Acceptable solutions for dealing with racism are less about addressing racism directly and more about assimilation and respectability politics. It’s more about what and how Black people should change rather than how to change racist systems.
In reviewing movies I’ve stated on multiple occasions that I think Black audiences, actors, actresses, directors, etc. should focus more on creating the projects they want rather than just complaining about the lack of diversity in mainstream media. To be clear, I watch mainstream media projects and have no issue with Black people appearing in them. I just think it’s better to have Black people also explore the independent route as it offers more opportunities for talent and options for creative variety.
There have been stories about people of color adapted for movies and television shows that star White actors and actresses or shift the focus of the story to ancillary White characters. People comment on it but Hollywood continues to make such projects. Yet, there’s often an uproar when stories that traditionally feature a White character are reimagined with Black actors/actresses. Generally speaking, I don’t like remakes regardless of who stars in them but they don’t offend or upset me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Harry Potter books but came to them rather late as I didn’t start reading the books until after I graduated from college. But as a mild Harry Potter fan, I thoroughly enjoyed Eddo-Lodge’s breakdown of viewing my favorite character, Hermoine, as a Black female rather than the assumed default of a White female. It was a bit of a tangent but completely blew my mind and I was here for all of it.
The book’s chapter on race as it intersects with gender drives home the point that to achieve true equality, the war against inequality must be fought on multiple fronts. Society and institutions as we know them must be completely overhauled. Quite often the fight for equality with regards to race or gender is framed in terms of achieving parity with White men. But, if White men are deemed as being privileged, achieving parity with White men is not achieving equality but rather trading one oppressor for another or becoming the oppressor yourself. The simplified aspects of the racial and gender equality movements have become more acceptable over time because they compromise by assimilating into the unjust system rather than demanding the system change.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race comes full circle in the penultimate chapter where it discusses race and class. The reality is that the very concept of race and the resulting racism comes from the need to maintain the division between those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When the poor in the UK were just White, they were regarded as a drain on society and their problems were blamed on their failings rather than circumstances.
With the advent of slavery, dividing people based on the social construct of race ensured that they would not join together to question why resources were being accumulated among the few at the top while the masses toiled and struggled at the bottom. There is a long-standing ulterior motive of keeping power and resources concentrated under the control of a few people at the top. And by continuing to thwart attempts to have honest conversations about race, it allows the continued sleight of hand of using Black people, immigrants, and others as scapegoats. Attention is diverted from the practices that negatively impact the poor and middle class while allowing the continued flow of resources to the rich.
There is a thread throughout these various social issues that conversations aimed at changing racist and/or sexist structures are stonewalled. But, your movement might be humored if it concedes to token wins and acceptance into the fold in exchange for not demanding substantial changes to the status quo. For example, if you look at Black athletes, entertainers, public figures, and even professionals who achieve success but then shy away from or completely deny the effects of racism. Some go so far as becoming quasi-spokespeople for this post-racial society fantasy. It’s like a chosen few are granted access and are then trotted out as examples of how we’ve overcome the battle against prejudice and racism.
I haven’t followed rap in over a decade but this entire book is like the hottest verse ever. It’s like you’re nodding along, everything is connecting, and there are just these incredible punchlines where you have to stop and run it back or in this case, re-read the sentences. I’ve been on a roll lately with my reading list and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has continued my hot streak. It perfectly articulates the finer points of the frustration of trying to discuss racism.
A lot of books in this category are either geared towards Black or White people but are rarely capable of speaking effectively to both audiences. What I like about this book is that I connected with the content as a Black person because it perfectly reiterated aspects of the feelings of the Black experience as it relates to racism. But I think it could also be relevant to White people who are interested in learning about not just the history of racism in the UK but also how Black people feel and experience racism which are two interrelated but different things.
I don’t take the phrase lightly but I would deem Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge to be a modern classic. It is flawless from beginning to end, worth reading, and likely worth re-reading in the future to gauge if and/or how things have changed. I highly recommend reading this book.
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