As book titles go, you don’t really get much more controversial than Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race. When I told my husband what I was reading this week he said he didn’t like the title. That comes as no surprise. It’s designed to exclude him. It’s saying that Reni Eddo-Lodge is talking to the likes of me (being of the brown skinned, Indian variety) but not to the likes of my husband. Now I’m your regular peace loving kind of gal. What exactly, I wondered, had I let myself in for with this book?
Almost immediately as I started to read however I was wrong footed. I had assumed that Eddo-Lodge was American because this discourse happens in the US. The after effects of slavery and the causes of historical immigration don’t really get talked about in the UK. And this is the very problem that Eddo-Lodge wants to get to the heart of:
“While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism in globalised into the story of the struggle against racism that we should look to for inspiration – eclipsing the black British story so much that we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.”
I chose that particular quote because I think it sums up a lot of people’s understanding of racism. The fact is, Americans don’t have a monopoly on racism, we Brits have a disturbing history with the R word too. So I guess we have to start with admitting that.
But what is this book about? Eddo-Lodge is a journalist who deals with a number of political issues. Race is one of these key issues. She wrote the book after one day becoming so frustrated with the conversations that she was having that she wrote a blog post titled Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race. One thing led to another and this book was born.
British culture, complains Eddo-Lodge, attempts to hide behind colour blindness. This is a denial of the fact that racism exists. Ultimately trying to brush it under the carpet and hope it will go away. Eddo-Lodge’s message is that racism is systemic. Racism isn’t about skin heads posting turds through letterboxes. It is about the myriads of ways in which people of colour are disadvantaged.
The thing is Eddo-Lodge wrote this book in a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world. She was frustrated with trying to explain to people that racism still existed. Back then, those of us in the liberal middle classes were very smug in our illusion of equality and the appearance of the cosmopolitan lifestyles that surrounded us. Brexit was a rude awakening. This version of the book carried an afterword on the political climate after Brexit. Eddo-Lodge concedes that the conversations she has been long trying to have are now starting to take place. People have been startled into action, into accepting that there are issues that need to be discussed.
No review of this book would be complete without a mention of the book cover and the title itself. I have to admit I did try to hide the cover when I read it on the train. I kind of felt guilty about reading it in front of a white person. I wanted to apologise, to explain that I wasn’t prejudiced or antagonistic. I was just interested in the issues it brought up. I’m sure Eddo-Lodge would say that my reaction is exactly what she is talking about. I’m sure she would ask why I should have to feel guilty about reading a book. I’m also sure that I won’t have been the first person (or the last) to react to her book like this. She could have just as easily called it ‘The Trouble with Race’ or ‘Colourblind Britain’ or anything else that didn’t point a big fat finger in the face of anyone who happens to be white. The fact is she didn’t. She chose that name for a reason. She probably wouldn’t have sold half as many copies without it and this conversation wouldn’t have got anywhere near the publicity it has to date. So the name of the book is a means to an end. It’s provocative, but it’s got us talking about race. In the case of the UK, Eddo-Lodge points out, it is conversation that is long overdue.
Next week I’m going to be reading Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. Come back on Monday for the low-down on this medieval whodunnit.