Are You A Racist?
The question seems to raise an almost innate and vitriolic response inside one’s body. No, you may feel like shouting. No, I am not a racist. And how could you be? You at no point move away from a black person on a bus, feel threatened by an Asian man in the street or use derogatory epithets to refer to people with a different skin colour to yours. And yet, the question remains, lingering awkwardly:
Are you a racist?
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Sunday Times bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is essential reading for anyone, no matter how certain they are about their response to this question. Racism, Eddo-Lodge highlights, is not simply the active disdainful prejudice that the mind so often conceives it to be. To be clear, racism is, undoubtedly, that. Racism is a history of Britain that is littered with disgusting intolerance and uncomfortable stories. More than that, however, it is a system. A system of power that values whiteness because of cultural, social, historical and political factors. A system that requires only implicit acceptance, not formal endorsement.
And yet, I am still not a racist. I do not feel like a racist. I do not act like a racist. I cannot be a racist.
But perhaps this has more to do with the connotations of the word, racist, than it has to do with its content.
Over eight chapters, Eddo-Lodge confidently demonstrates that racism and being a racist are not necessarily what we might consider them to be, or, equally, what we might want them to be. If racism was much more easily recognisable, then solving it would be considerably simpler. However, race in Britain is a complex issue, and ‘colour-blindness’ a fallacy perpetuated to ensure that it can never be fully addressed. Discourse on race is almost necessarily unpleasant and intimidating. I am not a racist, but I do not want to discuss racism; I don’t see race. I do not wish to say the wrong thing, to insult or to oversimplify. And perhaps this is why only the work of a young black woman could really resonate on this topic. Moreover, the outrageous title of this book alone puts the reader on the back-foot, and it continually makes undeniable the reality of systemic racism and white privilege in contemporary Britain. The book is broken down into a number of topics, including history, gender and class.
Britain’s history with race is not something to be proud of. Yet it is difficult to imagine for many people that racism ever really was that problematic. This is why the example of Stephen Lawrence is so effectively utilised. Lawrence’s racially-aggravated murder in 1993 remained without prosecution until 2012 because of police incompetence and structural racism. His mother, who already had to deal with the death of her son, spent 20 years fighting for justice for him. That this could happen within our lifetime reminds us that we are not living in a post-racial society. Moreover, the stories of the past, the 1940s, 50s, 60s and violent race riots that were witnessed, highlight aspects of our collective past that are conspicuously overlooked in the British education system. The recent Windrush Scandal highlights that the ignorance of our past even afflicts our political leaders, and shows that tacit racism can plague all aspects of our society.
Another topic that is described throughout the book is the notion of white privilege. Necessarily an awkward and uncomfortable topic, Eddo-Lodge attempts to show that diversity initiatives and affirmative action programmes are not an attack on the ‘white working class’, a phrase which implicitly encourages a division between BME working class individuals and white workers. Surely, the problem for the ‘white working class’ is not a brown man or black woman getting an internship, but the structure of society that concentrates wealth and removes ladders after climbing them? The artificial creation and perpetuation of such divisions serves only those at the top of society, and is thus something we should all attempt to recognise and reject.
Eddo-Lodge also highlights the problem of white liberal feminism, a dominant faction of the developed world. She shows that this fails to incorporate considerations of what it is like to suffer not only because of your gender, but also as a result of your race. This notion, which Kimberlé Crenshaw coined as intersectionality (Cooper 2016: 1), has been a thorn in the side of this account of feminism for decades, and is still hotly debated. The book highlights the importance, therefore, of having a space in which black women can discuss their experience of racism and misogyny because ‘white feminism’ does not have the analytical tools to accommodate that discourse. This can damage efforts to present a ‘united front’ to the patriarchy, but shows the fundamental problem that can arise from ‘gender-blindness’: it can make discourse impossible. Rather than making it easier to talk to one another, ethnic minorities can feel that the discussion is incredibly narrow and thus exclusive.
It might seem confusing that we should reject racial distinctions among workers, but not among feminist groups. However, I think that this is to misunderstand Eddo-Lodge’s complaint: The issue is not that these distinctions do not exist, but it is about who recognises and articulates them, where the space is for discourse surrounding them and how we can progress society through such distinctions. A black woman talking about feminism from the perspective of a black woman in a group of white women deserves space. Conversely, articles published at the behest of the wealthy elite complaining of mass immigration afflicting workers does not.
The book therefore challenges our conception of racism by showing that the ignorance of our history, the language we use and the support we give to ‘racial blindness’ can implicitly buttress racist institutions. That is to say, Eddo-Lodge is arguing that unless we are actively and vocally anti-racist, then we are complicit in making decisions that are racist.
This conclusion is a challenging one to read. Once more, there is a voice within that is offended and angered at this suggestion. That this is a difficult task is clear. It requires frank self-evaluation and discourse that is grounded in good intent. But it is also clear through her book, that this is the only way that progress will be made on this issue. Self-imposed blindness on racial issues serves only to perpetuate structures that are deeply problematic and antiquated. We should not be afraid of encouraging black people to rise to the top, to install pathways for minority ethnicities to the fore and to recognise the institutional benefits that white individuals of society are born with.
Solutions to these problems are not readily available, and they are not to be found in this review or in the book itself. However, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book does provide an essential platform for anyone wanting to understand the racial history and present of this nation, and how we might be able to improve it for tomorrow. Moreover her work highlights a broader sense that there are so many issues - the environment or foreign military interventions - where the reader takes principled stands whilst failing to act. Again, such problems are not easily solved. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the global climate catastrophe and rampant homelessness in Britain are among these challenges. But simply noting that you were on ‘the right side of history’ without actively engaging in the issues of your generation feels, after reading this book, increasingly difficult to justify.
Cooper, B. (2016), “Intersectionality”, in L. Disch & M. Hawkesworth (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.