Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
a book review from the perspective of a PoC writer, sharing how the renowned book by Reni Eddo-Lodge impacted her understanding of race
On a Saturday in February 2014, Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post with a title that would later be embossed on the cover of a bestselling book, a title that would draw eyes as quickly as making them dart away.
It was through this book I fully understood the distinctions between white supremacy, white privilege, and white people. They are not the same.
I don’t hate white people.
I know I shouldn’t need to say that, but having faced conversations where a white person has felt attacked, I should clarify again: This conversation, this book, this Black Lives Matter movement: It is not against a people, but the systems that benefit one people over others.
If someone cannot see that, or will not see that, it is because they are not disadvantaged by the very system being spoken about: The systems of whiteness.
I remember tearing up as my colleague told me how our company was structurally racist, and even though she kept receiving advice and encouragement to interview for a promotion, she kept getting rejected. The reasons did not make sense. I felt the air go out of me, like a punctured tire, wheezing and useless.
I asked her what we should do? Boycott? Yell? Call the tabloids? Maybe we could have done all of those things. But she calmly explained to me that the world is structurally racist, we have to dismantle the system that is fixed crookedly and start again, she could not up and leave her progress looking for a new job unburdened by racist bias. Who knew if she would find it, and then what?
Eddo-Lodge expresses her own struggle with the lack of education on black history. When we are not allowed the full picture of the why, how, when and what-then of events, when we are denied the perspective of non-white history, how can we hope to instigate changes?
It wasn’t until reading this book I really learned about the British West India Regiment and Commonwealth soldiers in the World Wars. I have arrived to this information late, feeling misled and short-changed.
‘I had been denied a context, an ability to understand myself. I needed to know why, when people shouted ‘we want our country back’, it felt like the chant was aimed at people like me.’-
Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, p9.
Privilege (rather the lack therof) is routed out in a hypothetical timeline based on statistical findings. The odds are plotted out to show what a black, male child would have to overcome to reach each stage of schooling, university and employment, to healthcare and old age. Combined with an exploration of the justice system; policing statistics, hate crimes and court cases: it hits heavy in the heart.
Minding the Gap
When reading this book in public I felt awkward and cautious. I was afraid of challenging egos even indirectly. I know that’s not fair; not all white people would be defensive at the title, some may even be intrigued. I assured myself everyone knew what it was, but I couldn’t push the feeling away.
I wonder how many people decided not to read this book simply because of the title? There are people, as Eddo-Lodge addresses, that would choose to take it personally, rather than look at the topic under observation. This is why such a blunt title was chosen in the first place. The whole book is the conversation it claims not to be.
Colour is re-framed in other conversations, because it is not removable from anything, and issues of history, feminism, class, sexuality, cannot be raised above it as if separate because it is in everything, from who you see on TV, to who is earning more or who has a higher risk of dying in childbirth.
Go White or Go Nowhere
There is a global notion of white being better. There are plenty of other disadvantages a person can have, but generally if you are white, your race is not one of them. That is all white privilege is, as is explained in this book. The skin bleaching and lightening industries are continued proof of an idealisation of whiteness and the globalisation of white privilege.
In 2017, the global skin lightening market value amounted to about 4.8 billion U.S. dollars, and is forecasted to reach some 8.9 billion U.S. dollars by 2027.
Gideon Lasco writes an illuminating article on the evolution of colourism. He interviews people that spend 10-20% of their income on products in the hopes that it will benefit their confidence, social standing and advancement. One interviewee even claims it to be an ‘investment.’ He explores why tanning is distinct from skin bleaching in its history and issues, but states that ‘ads for whitening often have racist undertones, those for tanning do not deprecate “whiteness”, or celebrate “brownness” or “blackness.”’
The chemicals used in skin bleaching is damaging to more than just self-image. They often contain mercury which can lead to poisoning of the kidneys and nervous system. There are intravenous treatments intended to lighten the skin which have had to be banned in some countries and officially warned against by the FDA.
And yet it’s still going.
People are noticing and asking why these treatments are necessary, why someone would want to permanently change their skin colour. The “beautifying” treatments are undeniably a consequence of the very successful message that whiteness is better.
Privilege within the minority
I see Facebook posts, street-side quips or posters saying ‘Make Britain great again’ and ‘we want our country back’, all phrases that I am numb to now. Nothing more uncomfortable than road works that you step around or grimace at for their unsightliness before continuing on your way.
I had come to accept this as an unchangeable reality. I had unconsciously disengaged and as a result I had come to understand racism in theory and in specific acts of discrimination. I never really got it before. There was my privilege. I have experienced colourism and racism myself, being a dark-skinned South Indian woman, but I still experience privileges compared to black people.
Eddo- Lodge introduces the topic of mixed-race statistics and experience, weaving in a personal aspect through a mixed race woman named Jessica who shares her experience of growing up with a white family in a predominantly white town, and how this shaped her identity.
It is exactly in these moments that Eddo-Lodge makes the topic of race human and not reducible to statistics; the information does not process as hypothetical or a one-in-however-many, but as people that I can picture before me, sharing their experience.
Prejudice within the Minority
Jug Suraiya wrote an article on the racist roots of the caste system revealing an opposing stance to the common “roles” based system that takes colour out of it. That caste system is still alive in India today. Dennis Webster wrote on post-apartheid South Africa and the economic inequality that is a continued effect of the racial systems apartheid implemented.
I hear so many different things about South Africa, sometimes about the positive aspects of the colonisation, sometimes about the graded experience (how Indian people had it easier than black South Africans), sometimes how the country has apparently flipped the power dynamic so black people are now benefiting the most. There's a surge of uneasiness in me when I hear things like this.
Apartheid ended less than 30 years ago.
When I was really young, I was told not to hug a black staff member. She had HIV and there was a fear around that but it's impossible to remove the racial aspect from that lack of education. I last visited 10 years ago, I still remember my uncle asking me how the black people were in England, calling them that word.
Last month a friend casually mentioned their daughter had been told who she could date- or rather who she couldn't: "no Blacks, no Muslims." I have heard it, friends have heard it and I wonder how long something like this will be said.
I know someone who, for a long time, actively denied they were Indian, limiting the identity to heritage and claiming South African as their only label, despite being raised in a South African Indian community and culture.
I still sometimes feel lost in my hyphenated identity and now I see the internalised racism and colourism that have come into play with that.
Indians have a complicated history alongside black South Africans and it is one that requires care and love in the process of examining and handling.
We have to address our own conditioning and challenge these prejudices which are a consequence of white supremacy. The prejudice may not have been placed there by us, but it can only be removed by us.
Why talking to white people is draining
Race has become so untouchable and volatile, you have people who ‘don’t see colour’ nowadays.
We hear you, Steve, but you do see colour, you’re just saying you’re not the problem and unfortunately that’s not going to change anything. Not seeing colour is essentially putting your hands over your ears and going ‘la la la’ when someone is trying to ask you for help.
We are talking about race. We have to. We can debate the correct way to strive for fairness, but the first step is acknowledging the problem.
Eddo-Lodge’s blog post originally explains that white people tend to engage in this conversation without the consciousness that the conversation they are about to have is different for their POC (person of colour) counterpart. It's personal even if it is in a theoretical context.
The responsibility ends up on the POC to step around defensiveness, ego, reluctance to see things differently, disbelief or a lack of engagement altogether. The book turns this around to place it on the privileged party so that the burden of proof is no longer for the POC to offer up.
What happens when someone comes along entitled to your time, relying on you to make an argument that changes their entire perspective without the pre-existing desire to gather information and reassess their own privilege or prejudice? What happens then? The title, of course.
And so Eddo- Lodge marks the difference between burden and responsibility. I cannot accept nor shoulder someone else’s unchanged view as my fault but I can offer to share what I find in my own education.
I am not a spokesperson for all people of colour in every conversation, though it is hard not to feel that way.
Previously on, Britain 2020
A pained Boris Johnson appeared on screens to stammer out a dismissal of the recent UK BLM protests. He claimed it was to honour the decisions of previous generations. In one interview he claimed he wanted to change the narrative to stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination, quickly including that he wanted to stop discrimination.
“But what we can’t have, are people hijacking peaceful demonstrations and turning them into very ugly attacks on the police or on public monuments. We can’t accept that and the people who do that will feel the full force of the law.”
Boris Johnson, Reuters 2020
The full force of the law will protect the glorification of gruesome histories, but not the right to live peacefully and safely. These people, protesting and changing what has not been changed and would not be changed if it were up to Johnson, are presented as a senseless mob misplacing their anger.
It feels somewhat bizarre to have to explain why the statues are insensitive and yet here we are. While Johnson wants to preserve history and honour tradition, he shows that the horrors they committed do not matter to him.
There are no public statues of Hitler in Germany, so why should there be one of Churchill in Britain?
The statues are a firm comment on where Britain stands on the road to change.
I have read this book twice, and I will likely turn to it again. The feeling this struck up in me is reflected in the fact that I could go on and on but I will stop myself here.
All I will add is that I am reading more. I am listening more.
This book, re-instated on the current must-read lists everywhere, is something I am grateful for.
Black lives matter, and by validating this, learning, moving for change, we can reconstruct systems and dismantle white supremacy.