Reni Eddo-Lodge on why it really does matter if you’re black or white

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Lucy Foster
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“Welcome to the most ornate café in Walthamstow.” London-born journalist and now-author Reni Eddo-Lodge has sat down opposite me in what could be the most baroque establishment north of St Paul’s Cathedral. There are gilded curlicues on the ceiling, wood tables lacquered to a shine, with mirror, brass and glass covering most other surfaces. Which feels like an odd juxtaposition to the surly waiter with his grubby tea-towel and the transvestite gentleman sat on the next table with over-the-knee boots. This is not where I imagined we would meet.

But during the past few weeks while I’ve been reading, and rereading, Eddo-Lodge’s debut book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, which looks at the systemic racism that runs through Britain today, I’ve been learning not to assume anything. Because as a white British woman, I am finally starting to understand that I have assumed stuff all my life: my position in society, the opportunities presented to me, my status as ‘normal’. And there mightn’t be a more pertinent time for such a straight-talking book to find its way into the public consciousness. The issue of race, certainly through the filters of immigration, globalisation and Brexit, has suffered a backwards step in many ways.

The ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric has found a new foothold and shifted tolerance, normalising what we thought we’d all agreed were obscene viewpoints as if they were suddenly more palatable. Margaret Thatcher used the word ‘swamped’ in regard to immigration in 1979. So, 36 years later it was disconcerting to hear David Cameron, our then prime minister, talk of a ‘swarm of people’ coming across from the Mediterranean in 2015.

I was brought up in a liberal, educated family. I was told that the colour of people’s skin made no difference. I was told racism was bad and racist people were wrong. But I was never encouraged to look at the systems within this country, which immediately put me in a position of power because of my skin colour (‘white privilege’), while putting those with non-white skin, let’s call them people of colour (POC), at a distinct disadvantage.

This is basically the essence of Eddo-Lodge’s book. For instance, the Department for Work and Pensions found in 2009 that job candidates would be less likely to be called in for interview if they had African or Asian-sounding names. Department of Education research from 2013 found that black students would be less likely to be accepted into the UK’s top 24 universities than their white counterparts. And it’s necessary, but far from easy, reading.

The initial spark for the book came from a blog post Eddo-Lodge, 27, wrote as a student in 2014, where having had a bruising few months in an effort to get her message heard, she sat down and spilled out why she no longer had the energy to keep on talking to white people about race.

The effect was instant and huge; and since then, she has done nothing but talk to white people about race. And I am such a white person, and we’re in this rather eccentric cafe in northeast London to talk about just that.

I finished your book.

Fantastic, I hope you enjoyed it. I hope it made you think.

It did. Most of all, I was shocked at how little I thought about my white privilege and how I took it for granted. It’s a bit shameful. The book’s based on, and named after, a blog post you first wrote in 2014. ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ is a provocative title. What sort of response did you get?

[Before I wrote that post] I was really trying to put forward a perspective of why we need a race analysis, not just of feminism but within politics in this country, and I was just getting shot down. The backlash wasn’t just from your right wing trolls, it was from people on the left, people who considered themselves as progressive. I was at a stage of emotional exhaustion and hopelessness and so I sat down and I wrote that [blog] and just thought this is an insurmountable task. And I pressed publish.

I got two reactions. I got a deluge of people going, ‘Oh my god you’ve articulated how I’ve been feeling for the past 20 years’ and then I also had some people who were white who were like, ‘Wow, this has changed my perspective on this issue, I had never thought about it like this.’

I am still an optimist and I believe in good faith and anyone in good faith might want to read it and see where I’m coming from in 80,000 words.

Who do you think is going to pick the book up and read it?

First and foremost, it’s for people who need it as catharsis, of whom there are many. Some people are concerned I’m going to exclude white people with the cover, but I think it’s important to be honest about that feeling of emotional exhaustion.

It’s too easy to be a martyr for the cause: “I’m just going to keep doing this and not talk about how upset it makes me to have to keep raising racism because it shouldn’t even exist any more.” I wanted to be honest and say, “This exhausts me. This is horrible to keep having to do.” As soon as I pressed publish, that’s all white people wanted to talk to me about.

But it’s different now; people aren’t angry, or defensive. They’re curious and interested in my perspective. I don’t believe in mitigating my work in anticipation of white defensiveness and white fear because if somebody perceives the title as a threat then it’s probably not for them. And the point of the title is that it begins with the word ‘Why’ which suggests an explanation.

Watch: Reni Eddo-Lodge on the meaning of life

How do you feel about talking to a white woman about this? Would talking to a black journalist elicit a different response?

I think there are two conversations and the conversation I’m having with you at the moment is that you’re curious and you want to know more. If I was having a conversation with someone who used the book as catharsis, we’d be saying, “Well this happened to me and that happened to me.” It would be more conspiratorial. And perhaps we would talk about the relief POC have shown. Because this is a book I needed three years ago.

I want people who recognise this as a problem to be able to articulate an opposition because it’s hard sometimes. I hope I’ve given someone the language, information and confidence to say, “Yeah I’m going to challenge some crap today.” 

Are you worried about being labelled an angry black woman?

I think there’s no way for me to avoid the label because even if I speak in the calmest manner someone is going to say, “She’s angry.” That comes from having a voice. And more broadly, I think it ties into white fear and this fear that black people are going to attack you and I think that’s when I am accused of being angry or aggressive or a bully. These are all things that have happened in the past five years while I’ve been doing my work. I just don’t understand what white people are so scared of.

But some are scared. I think it’s a fear of being offensive and I think it’s a fear of ignorance because there’s a courage required to say, “I don’t know. You do and I don’t,” and maybe it’s admitting vulnerability to say, “Help me understand”.

I think that’s a problem with our political discourse, full stop. People aren’t willing to say when they don’t know. But back to the angry black woman; I’m sure I’ll get it while I’m promoting this book, even though I’ve said at every point there’s no way I could deliver it in a more deadpan manner. In the line of work I do I’m less fazed by [the label] but I can see why somebody would feel silenced and wouldn’t want to verbalise her discontent for fear of being seen as angry.

I think generally women feel like they should be seen as palatable and sweet and there are some very nasty racial stereotypes about black women, animalistic and masculine, which make you even less inclined to verbalise your discontent for fear of being tarnished with all those labels. I’m less bothered about it as I’m an outlier. I wouldn’t be able to do this work if I wasn’t.

But there must be a lot of black women out there who do care.

Exactly. I recognise that I can say what I think because it’s my job. Some people can’t, and being open about what they think in their workplace or friendship group could mean social exclusion or punishment. I think that’s where the ‘angry black woman’ tag really does silence. There are incentives not to speak up, mostly economic and social. Your landlord is likely to be white, your boss is likely to be white, and other people who have gatekeeper positions in your life might feel personally attacked if you say that you feel structural racism is a problem.

How do you feel about cultural appropriation? Braid bars, for instance?

For me, the issue is about money and class. It’s odd to see beauty or hair or clothing practices that have come from POC communities used in a mainstream profitable way with no context to who created it. POC communities tend to be economically marginalised, more working class, more likely to be unemployed, which just means less money in the pocket.

To then see these beauty trends be removed and used context-less to basically create profit for people who haven’t built it up – it’s a bit galling. But the easy solution is give some profit to the people who created it. Sometimes in these conversations about appropriation we forget to talk about class and economics and how it mixes up with race. It’s not as simple as, ‘Anybody can wear what they want’. It’s about money and who’s earning and who’s not.

Because the system is geared towards me and not you, am I racist by being complicit or am I just complacent?

I would fall on the side of complacency. I think that, similar to any structural injustice, we always have to keep our eye on the ball and over the last 15 years or so, I think those of us who consider ourselves progressive have just been complacent, saying, “Oh yeah, racism is bad and we can agree on that so that’s done.” Or, “Let’s all just be colourblind to be progressive on issues of race.” People don’t talk about it and that’s complacency.

But I’m like, “Look, if you’ve got a broken leg you’re not going to walk on it.” There needs to be, if not a plan of action, some healing. We need to be willing to talk about the more uncomfortable facets of the legacy of racism and how it manifests in our society and how that shapes people’s lives and opportunities. It’s just not good enough to say, “I don’t see race and that’s fine.”

I was certainly told as a child nothing’s different because of the colour of skin. Do you think that has done me a disservice growing up?

White kids are told, “Everyone is the same,” meanwhile children of colour are being told, “You’ll have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts.” POC’s parents know that there are problems out there and even if you are exceptional, which you’ll have to be to even get in the room, you’re probably not going to yield as many of the results as your equally exceptional white peers.

So when you walked into that newsroom and everyone was white, did you just think, ‘I’m never going to get anywhere?’

I did a newspaper scheme to get more BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethic] people into journalism. My mum suggested it but I wanted to test my merit against my white counterparts. But she pleaded and I got a place and was surprised to see that the majority of black people in the building were in cleaning or catering. That’s when I realised things were problematic.

On this issue of recruitment, certainly at Stylist at least, we’ve found that when we’ve posted a job vacancy, there are remarkably less job applications from POC.

I always suggest organisations think bigger about where they place their ads, because there are tons of writers out there who are POC. If you can’t find POC among the experts, it means that there’s probably talent out there but with limited access to training, so be prepared to invest in that. There’s always under-celebrated POC. Headhunt them.

In your book you are critical of the British feminist movement. Regarding January’s women’s marches: there was criticism that it wasn’t viewed through a broad enough perspective. And that was met with defensiveness.

The thing about being involved in activism, you need to kill your ego for good to happen. I hate the term inclusive, because who’s including who? In order for things to be accessible, you have to stop thinking that things are an attack on you when people make sound structural points about how you’re organising. A movement isn’t any one person, it’s about a whole lot of people.

Should the Women’s March have been more accessible for all groups?

Full disclosure, I didn’t go. I wasn’t feeling too enthused by it. On principle, the US President has openly talked about sexually assaulting someone, yes, people need to turn out against that, but I just felt like it wasn’t addressing racial concerns.

I know that the organising committee seemed to try really hard but the thing is about a march full of hundreds of thousands of people – everyone is just joining along one baseline, which is: ‘sexism is bad’, and that’s one thing everyone is expected to agree on. But that’s not necessarily going to say that everyone who is coming under that umbrella gets racism so that’s why I didn’t go.

How can UK feminism move forward and how do we get it right?

I was involved in an activist group called Black Feminists back around 2012 and 2013 and I think we were treated abhorrently by feminism at large in Britain. We were constantly positioned as aggressive interlopers, trying to upset the movement, because we were saying that there needs to be a race analysis in this.

First off, there needs to be some accountability because now everyone is calling themselves intersectional but there were some women who put their necks on the line to advance that analysis of British feminism. When I and other black feminists were piping up about race and feminism they thought it was an attack on their sense of selves. They thought that we were saying you’re racist and that’s not what we were saying.

I felt emotionally exhausted by that and a month later I wrote the essay that became this book. It seems strange that we’ve skipped over that and shrugged and said, “Everyone’s intersectional” and left it at that.

But it’s the same as being colourblind, isn’t it? It’s saying we’ve recognised it but let’s move on.

I think that instead of being paralysed with fear over whether we’re going to upset people, first I would try to understand a perspective. But I don’t need to do that for the ‘white perspective’ because I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life.

If anyone is in the position where they need to understand the perspective of a marginalised group then that suggests that the current system is working in their favour, so just try to grasp that perspective.

How would you suggest people do that?

I can tell you what really helped me understand the perspective of trans people. The TV series Transparent, but before that just listening and reading the work of trans writers online and listening and reading the work of sex workers online also drastically changed my perspective. It made me look at some of the stuff I used to say and ultimately cringe. But I now have a better understanding of sex workers and why they would want decriminalisation.

In terms of race, I don’t really read that many people as I’m very careful not to read someone’s work and then regurgitate it. But I’m always thinking, ‘Whose perspective do I need to understand?’

For instance, when I ended up doing a job where the commute required me take my bike on the train, I realised that everywhere has got steps. There’s no way that you can navigate these things if you’re in a wheelchair; you just can’t physically get around the outskirts of north London if you’ve got mobility issues. It’s not something I’d considered before. It’s ultimately just an act of compassion, isn’t it?

If the framework is inherently racist, which I think you argue pretty effectively that it is, people feel helpless. Are there things we can we do?

Undoubtedly, yes. I used to be more of an activist but now I consider my work to be activism. It’s really important not to lose hope. Everything we do to address injustice contributes towards a wider march towards progress.

Look, 100 years ago women were in a situation where we couldn’t access education. You and I would not be having this conversation. We’d be in the kitchen, with our seven kids. It’s been slow, incremental work that has essentially changed the landscape for women and it’s the same for race so I see no point in collapsing into despondency.

I do think that the framework is inherently racist but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to change. History is on our side with this.

Images: Mark Harrison for Stylist, Instagram/Kylie Jenner, Rex Features, iStock