The first half of lockdown was weird – I felt unable to concentrate on a book, I was obsessed with news cycles, if I wasn’t watching the news I was on some kind of social media group call – it was all a bit manic. Fear was quite a big driver there I think – looking back, I was scared. But, the novelty wore off, the fear diminished, normality started feeling more normal and I started reading again.
Then – the death of George Floyd and all that came with it. The anger, the riots, the protests, the marches, but most of all, the conversations. I started talking about racism, the meaning of racism, the meaning of White privilege, with my friends, with my family but mostly, with myself. That kicked off a whole new range of reading and watching habits – I felt totally helpless in the great scheme of things and it seemed the only thing to do was to find someone who had written some words which might make sense and read them. So I did my research and I started reading. Blogs, social media posts, threads on Twitter and Insta, everything I could get my hands on that might help me navigate through this incredibly complex subject.
One of the books I committed to reading was Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I’d started reading this back in 2018 but just couldn’t get my head round it – it was like my brain wasn’t ready for what she was saying. However, during lock down and the riots and protests and conversations, it was absolutely the best thing for me to be reading, so I picked it up, shook myself off and read.
First off, it gave me exceptional clarity about White privilege – it helped me accept that I benefit from White privilege. It almost normalised the phrase for me, whereas a few years ago it genuinely made me feel uncomfortable. It made me think about the times that I clearly benefited from my White privilege, in the work force, the way when I was younger it just seemed to me that I was able to say, oh I think I’ll go for that job, and more often than not, got it. That’s White privilege. When I was in a position to hire people, did I possibly gloss over names that I found hard to pronounce? Maybe. (Makes me squirm to say that, but I think that’s the point isn’t it). Working in an industry like Advertising, and not being aware that Black and Brown people found it harder to break in to the industry, working in all White offices, not even questioning it – that’s White privilege.
Hand wringing is a phrase comes up in the book, used to describe White people having conversations with Black people about race. Did you notice how I said that through gritted teeth? Because here’s the thing about this book – it is a fucking challenge to read, I spent quite a lot of it muttering under my breath, I got cross with her, I argued with her, I got a slight sickening in my stomach quite a lot. But – I am aware that that is why she felt she had to write the book. Because of the very reactions that I displayed to her words. I have had conversations where it may be the friend considered me to be a bit hand-wringy. It makes me squirm, but equally, in certain situations I have felt like I am not in any position to talk about racism, or that I am unqualified to discuss it. Because of the colour of my skin. Hand wringing is a terrible phrase.
There was one section which I took real exception to though. She talked about the 2015 Paris attacks and used the subsequent social media coverage of the attacks in Kenya (which took place 7 months beforehand) as an example of White people demonstrating ‘shallow, performative anti racism’. I fundamentally and strongly objected to this. I hadn’t seen anything about the Kenyan massacre before this (I accept that the lack of coverage on the story is part of the institutional racism that the media is guilty of) and when I did, I was appalled. My horror at the death of 147 Black students at the hands of al-Shabaab militants was no less than my horror of the loss of 130 lives in Paris at the hands of suspected Isis militants. That made me cross and frankly, it got my back up. My instinctive reaction was how bloody dare she lump me, her reader, in with all the dullards who may well have shown shallow, performative anti racism. What a phrase. How one phrase can write off an entire section of society. The mind boggles.
Throughout the book, I found myself asking, this is all very well and good, telling me where we’ve gone wrong in the past, but I feel like there’s a huge majority of people now who are not prepared to sit back and just be non-racists – there are loads of us, who are active anti racists and this book doesn’t account for that. She literally stopped talking to us about racism, because she’d had so many conversations which ended in her feeling like the White person just wrote her off as an angry Black woman. But I don’t think I’m being naïve when I say that the conversations have changed. I have pledged not to be a handwringer. I have pledged not to ask my friends of colour how I should be going about combating racism. I have pledged to ensure my children grow up to be Anti-Racists, to see colour and to acknowledge that there are issues that need to be addressed. I have actively held back from documenting these efforts on social media (to a point, I mean, I’m only human) in the hope that my friends of colour know that we are just getting on with being allies as part of our everyday lives. I am not alone in this, I’m a very average middle aged White woman living in South East London, so I know that if I’m doing it, so are thousands of others who are just like me.
It came as somewhat of a relief to read her authors note at the end, to see her acknowledge that things have changed slightly since she started writing her blog and subsequently her book. She struggled with the title of her book, until (I think) her publisher said, just call it the same as your original blog post, which was where it all started. So she did, and I challenge you to deny that when you first read it (the title, as a White person), you thought something along the lines of ‘oh, here we go’.
The angry Black person is a stereotype which has come up time and time again in the last few months, and I admit I’ve had to tune a few voices out, in order to hear the voices that resonate the most. But Reni Eddo Lodge, although being an angry Black woman, and I say that with no judgement, has clarity, experience, knowledge and intelligence wrapped up in her words.
Normally I would give no spoilers, but this is different and the end message to this book is that as long are you’re doing something, it doesn’t matter how small it is – it’s just not enough to be doing nothing. I feel like my unlearning and re-leaning is the beginning of something. And that is why this book is important.