All the good people were white…

by Rose-Anne Clermont

Guilt (Issue II/2019)

It is a personal, often quiet decision that many of us who have spent time thinking and writing about racism have reached, whether temporarily or permanently. Journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, however, announced quite publicly, in a 2014 blog post, that she was no longer talking to white people about race.

“I can’t talk to white people about race anymore because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?”

Carrying the same title as her book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ Eddo-Lodge’s blog post quickly went viral. Not only did she receive responses from people of colour who commiserated with her experiences and thanked her, she also received pleas from white commenters to do anything but stop talking about race. “Please don’t give up on white people,” one comment read.

Despite feeling intellectually and emotionally exhausted by personal as well as public debates about racism in Britain, Eddo-Lodge invested five years of research into a book that explores not just the “explicit side of racism, but the slippery side of racism – the bits that are hard to define.”

Starting from Britain’s role in the slave trade, Eddo-Lodge draws a bold line from the systemic practice of keeping blacks as property, to subsequent segregation, inequality in education, housing and the job market, to police brutality of racial minorities to present-day scapegoating of immigrants.

Yin and Yang

Eddo-Lodge was born and raised in London by a Nigerian mother, and her early beliefs about race ring familiar to anyone who has read literary accounts of black girls struggling to find images of beauty and goodness that resemble themselves. When she was four years old, Eddo-Lodge was crushed to discover that she would not turn white “because all the good people on TV were white, and all the villains were black and brown. I considered myself to be a good person, so I thought I would turn white eventually.”

The lack of positive black role models is a topic that many women of colour — born before the 1990s— have written extensively about, whether they have been raised in London or New York. “The default is white,” Eddo-Lodge observes. “Because we are born into an already written script that tells us what to expect from strangers due to their skin colour, accents and social status, the whole of humanity is coded as white.”

Eddo-Lodge’s childhood experience opens her chapter on white privilege, perhaps the most important and complex chapter in the book. This segment vividly describes her experiences with white people denying their complicity in the structure of racism, whether or not they have ever had a negative thought about a person of colour.

“When I write about white people in this book, I don’t mean every individual white person. I mean whiteness as a political ideology. A school of thought that favors whiteness at the expense of those who aren’t. To me, it’s like yin and yang. Racism’s legacy does not exist without purpose. It brings with it not just a disempowerment for those affected by it, but an empowerment for those who are not.”

Privilege and accountability

This chapter also devotes much attention to the murder case of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was killed in a racially motivated attack by five young white men in 1993. The men refused to answer questions about their involvement and thanks to much negligence and corruption on the part of the police, they were released. Nearly a decade later, when the case was re-opened, two of the five suspects were convicted of murder in 2012.

In a Twitter exchange about the case with black MP Diane Abbott, Eddo-Lodge complained that the term ‘black community’ was being used lazily in the press. Abbott, although she conceded Eddo-Lodge’s point, warned her about a ‘divide and rule agenda’ and eventually tweeted: “We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.”

Abbott’s tweet erupted into a controversy, with Abbott being accused of reverse racism. Even her allies in the Labour Party described Abbott’s tone as “combative”. The conviction of two of Lawrence’s white murderers, in a historically significant case, could have “sparked a national conversation about race”. Instead, she says, the conversation was about “’racism against white people.’”

Eddo-Lodge devotes so much time picking apart this story, as it demonstrates the heavy burden people of colour have to bear while minding white people’s feelings around race, even in a heinous, racially motivated crime in which a black boy’s family had to wait a decade for justice. People of colour, as Eddo-Lodge so correctly notes, “have bitten our tongues, exercised safe judgement, and tiptoed around white feelings in an effort to not rock the boat.”

Starting, Again, to Talk About Race

As one reads about the badgering that Eddo-Lodge has experienced on social media and in the press, (being called a “bully” for example, when pointing out racism among white feminism), it starts to become clear why she no longer wants to have these conversations. But, lucky for us, she heeds the words of African-American feminist and poet Audre Lorde who asks: “’Who wins when we don’t speak? Not us.”

This is where Eddo-Lodge addresses the very people she was about to give up on and offers some advice.

“I understand that after white people begin to get it, it’s even more uncomfortable for them to think about how their whiteness has silently aided them in life,” she says. “But I don’t want white guilt. . . . You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. It can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.”

Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race. Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury Trade, London, 2017.

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