Reni Eddo-Lodge has been talking to white people about race quite a lot, actually
In 2014, British activist and commentator Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post: "Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race". The post went viral, and the huge response, most of it positive, inspired her to write a book of the same title.
The book rediscovers Britain's black history (including its deep involvement in the slave trade), addresses the "structural racism" that holds non-white people back, and challenges white people to acknowledge how racism and white privilege benefit them, even if they believe they're personally not racist.
These days, of course, Eddo-Lodge spends rather a lot of time talking to white people about race, including the following phone conversation from her hometown of London with Auckland reporter Adam Dudding (edited for clarity and length). On Tuesday she will appear at a public event at Christchurch Art Gallery.
ADAM DUDDING: You say it's not a black person's job to teach a white person how to recognise and challenge racism. Yet that's kinda what you do in the final chapter, when you give some bullet-point tips on how to be an effective white anti-racist [including: offer financial or administrative assistance to an anti-racist group; intervene in bystander situations; be an advocate for anti-racist causes within all-white spaces]. Why did you include that?
RENI EDDO-LODGE: I knew that people were going to finish the book and ask "What can I do?" And they're still asking me, even though I feel I finished the book saying: "Time to get your thinking cap on, readers!"
If white people who feel distressed and upset by these issues outsource the thinking about the solution to the people affected by it, that feels like a repetition of the power dynamic that I take issue with.
But I recognise that in this book there is an element of teaching. Before I wrote it I was being constantly called on to explain things to white people; and it was emotionally exhausting, because I had never agreed to be a teacher; no one was paying me to be a teacher. And there was an entitlement in the request.
This is a collective problem that needs a collective response. So if somebody considers themself to be a white anti-racist it's important they start thinking critically about the space they occupy in society, what they can do to help with the skills they have and the networks they have influence in. That's not something I can answer for every individual.
Now I'm in a position where if anyone ever asks me again about that, I can say get down to your local bookshop to find out what I think about this.
I hear from people who are successful in their jobs and realise that they're one of few. They start to become a bit vocal about diversity and then that becomes their second job – an unpaid one. I think that's a totally unfair burden.
I think that white anti-racists should recognise and and take up some of that burden themselves. If you really believe that racism has to change, you can't say to somebody affected by it, "teach me everything". Come on – the resources are out there at this point. It's 2017.
AD: Your book starts with a discussion of the responses to your blog. So to take the next step, what have the responses to the book been like?
REL: Overwhelmingly positive. People from all different races and walks have been a bit gobsmacked by that first chapter about black British history. In line with some responses to the blog post, I had some white readers say it's like having my eyes peeled back, that it's a humbling experience to read, that sort of thing. And readers of colour who've been interested in reading it have said thank you articulating this on the stage you're on.
There have been some negative responses, but the overwhelming amount has been quite kneejerk and happened around the day of publication, which indicates they're not from people who've actually read it. There's a touch of responding to the headline, which happens so much on the internet these days.
AD: You say the majority of white people in Britain don't accept the legitimacy and consequences of structural racism, and don't know the black history of Britain [from the presence of black people in Britain in Roman times, to the many examples of anti-black prejudice and anti-racist pushback in the past century]. Some of this is pretty recent history. Why don't more people know this stuff?
REL: I don't know. I pinpoint the [UK] national curriculum, because none of this was available to me until higher education. In the national curriculum, when it came to understanding race and racism, we learnt about it in a totally US context, instead of understanding the country that we live in.
More broadly Britain is a country that believes in fair play and meritocracy, and if you're ideologically adhering to that belief, you'll start to discount any information that's contrary to it.
Yet we have such a wealth of information – because we collect data on race and opportunity – and we find that repeatedly people are disadvantaged in a lot of institutions that we expect to treat us equally and fairly.
AD: Are there black people who also don't accept the idea of structural racism?
REL: There some people are more conservatively minded who recognise there's a context of radical disadvantage, but believe it's not beneficial to talk about it, and that the way to beat it is to work really really hard, own a house and become wealthy.
My challenge isn't to the state per se, it's to every individual who thinks they're progressive who perhaps is a gatekeeper in a private organisation, and are not reckoning with the empirical research that shows that if you have an African- or Asian-sounding name in a job application you are far less likely than someone with a white British-sounding name to be called to interview. The challenge really is to white people as well as to the people negatively affected by discrimination.
Sometimes people get in contact with me and say "I'm not white and you don't speak for me: you're successful blah blah blah." And I'm like, "Yeah but I'm not saying that if you're non-white you can't succeed in this country. What I'm saying is the odds are stacked against you."
Also I'm saying that the more successful I've become, the whiter the rooms I'm in have become. It' s not like you can become successful and the problem don't apply to you any more. In fact it becomes more acute.
AD: You've tweeted about the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and Trump's response. The racism on display there is so blatant, and so easy to recognise, I wonder if it drowns out some of the more nuanced conversations you're having about race in your book.
REL: Firstly, we have to see how the nuanced forms of racism can escalate to a situation like that – that the alt-right have felt emboldened to speak out in the past five years in part as a response to somebody like me talking about the nuances of racism.
Something like the alt-right is in some ways a response to Black Lives Matter. They feel like white people are being victimised, even though Black Lives Matters is "please stop killing us on the street" - you know?
There are certain white people who are feeling threatened by a message about institutional racism that points out values that have been invisible for a very long time.
AD: I just saw the movie Lady Macbeth, which has black actors in roles that just a few years ago you wouldn't have seen in a British costume drama. What were your thoughts about that, and some of the other occasions where attention has been drawn to the casting of black actors, like Hermione in the Harry Potter play or, in the case of Idris Elba and James Bond, a failure to cast a black actor?
REL: I've not seen Lady Macbeth, but more broadly the thing about fiction is it's literally made-up, so it should not be controversial, in made-up stories from people's brains, who is cast as who: it's not pinpointed to real life and how real life went. The fact that it's repeatedly controversial, over and over again, in works of fiction we know and love, is down to racism.
There was a furore recently where the alt-right condemned the BBC for including black people in a cartoon representation of the Romans, and [Cambridge scholar] Mary Beard said actually, it's really quite likely there would have been black people – it was basically a cultural melting-pot at that time. It became this huge thing. It's an ideological agenda to refute that fact and pretend it's not the case.
AD: Till I read your book, I hadn't realised there'd been a pushback about the black stormtrooper hero in one of the recent Star Wars movies.
REL: Mmm hmm. [Star Wars] is made up! It's like: "a PC agenda is creeping in, and things are only correct and proper if white people get to be the heroes".
AD: The book starts with your discovery of black British history at university, but for the most part it avoids personal revelation. Have you any plans to write something more specifically autobiographical, maybe when you're older than 27?
REL: No, not really. I've been struggling, since the book came out, with the ways that people have related to me in a new way, like I'm the interesting thing about what's just happened in the past few months. And I'm like, no, the work is the interesting thing – some of the stuff I've been thinking about for past seven years.
I don't think it'd be interesting for people to read about my life. Not much to see here – I'm an introverted thinker and I'm just thinking things.
AD: Do you know anything about New Zealand and the conversations about race here?
REL: Well, not a lot of people have given me warnings about NZ in the way they give me warnings about Australia!
My schedule tells me I have only about 48 hours in the country, but I'm really looking forward to turning up with an open mind. Even though I'm heading over to talk about my work, outside of the hour or so when I'm talking about my work, the rest is going to be me quietly listening.
* Reni Eddo-Lodge, 6pm, Tuesday September 5 at the Christchurch Art Gallery, in association with Christchurch Arts Festival and WORD Christchurch: wordchristchurch.co.nz
- Sunday Magazine