In the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death, there has been a renewed focus on the social obligation we all share to educate ourselves of the ills of systemic racism. Books tackling race relations and racial inequality have dominated best-seller lists across the globe in recent weeks, and information about the Black Lives Matter movement and instances of police brutality have spread across social media like wildfire. The bold front cover page of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has become instantly recognisable – ‘marketing gold’ in the current climate, according to one literary reviewer from The Times. It was in the spirit of educating myself – with a particular interest in Britain’s problematic racial history – that I began reading.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is, in essence, an expose of structural racism in Britain. It contains seven essays – both self-contained and inter-connected – that tackle topics from white privilege, fear of immigrants and the intersectionality between race, gender and class. The first essay – ‘Histories’ – functions as an illuminating synopsis of the struggle faced by black people in Britain over the last half a millennium. It is a tale of slavery, lynchings and police brutality. Eddo-Lodge writes in an angry, passionate and stark manner, from the perspective of an individual who has both experienced and intensely studied her topic.
As a white, anti-racist reader, I found the book particularly challenging in that it asked me to come to terms with my complicity in a racially unequal social structure. Eddo-Lodge’s argument is that maintaining anti-racist sentiment is not enough, and that white people should first come to terms with their unrealised biases and prejudices, using this moment of realisation as a launching-point for enacting future change. It is uneasy to read something that plainly accuses you (as reader) of wrong, but the bold and accusatory nature of the text is one of its main strengths.
The author’s explanation of ‘white privilege’ really stood out to me. She describes it as an ‘absence’ – not something to be gained, but something that white people are fortunate to live without.
“White privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost.”
After all, there are millions of disadvantaged, working-class people in Britain who face poverty and deal with social inequality. But they can be confident that their race will not negatively affect them in the same way. The figures are startling and shocking: ‘According to the Department of Education, a black schoolboy in England is three times more likely to be excluded than the rest of the population’; ‘between 2012 and 2013, the highest proportion of UK students to receive the lowest degree-ranking… was among black students, with the lowest proportion being white students; research shows that individuals with white British-sounding names are more likely to be called back for interviews than those with African or Asian-sounding names, despite having similar skill-sets, education and work histories.
Eddo-Lodge’s diatribe against structural racism concludes by suggesting that the burden should not be carried by black people in purging racism from our institutions, but that the white British population should take up the mantle and spread anti-racist ideology, whether in the workplace, the streets or in the home. She contends that rage is more powerful than guilt, and so her final message to readers is: ‘get angry’.