by Huma Munshi
“White privilege is one of the reasons why I stopped talking to white people about race…the idea of white privilege forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continuing existence”. This quote from Reni’s book captures the struggle many people of colour have experienced.
Talking about race and racism in white spaces can be emotionally draining and frustrating. At times it has led me to withdraw from activist spaces. But Reni Eddo-Lodge new book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race isn’t a book about withdrawing, it is a book to galvanise activists into taking action.
I remember the twitter furore that followed BBC Woman’s Hour when Reni was on with Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project and the feminist writer and campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez. Reni spoke out about the racism within feminism. This was misconstrued and in the aftermath, Reni wrote her viral blog which forms the basis of this book. She had said that she wouldn’t talk about race with white people who deliberately choose to shut their eyes to racism and its impact or refused to accept the structural nature of racism. That viral blog got considerable attention and this book expands on those points.
This book should be essential reading for any activist navigating the choppy waters of society when you’re a visible minority. It describes the journey Reni has been on in her own activism and what led to her awakening. For her it was academia that opened her eyes to the impact of slavery. She also describes what led to the riots of the 80’s and the police response. The US #BlackLivesMatter movement gives a modern voice to a long-standing injustice. Police brutality of black men and women is steeped in historical and institutional racism. Racism does not happen in a vacuum, it happens when racist tropes have been legitimised and perpetuated throughout the years.
Reni makes a cogent case of how racism permeates everyone sphere of society.
I was in secondary school when Stephen Lawrence was murdered. As Reni says at the time, the public still had faith in the criminal justice system. We now know it was a charade. Indeed as Reni notes, the Macpherson report concluded that the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence was “marred by a combination. Of professional incompetence, institutional racism and the failure of leadership by senior officers.” It was through the dogged determination of Doreen Lawrence that the case stayed in the public consciousness.
Later in the book, Reni describes an encounter in a feminist space when black women are looking through women’s magazines and look at how infrequently black women are featured. So being a black woman is rarely seen as the standard of beauty and the default position on beauty, as in all parts of the mainstream media, is whiteness. The encounter is positively uncomfortable for white women who are able to analyse beauty standards in terms of how it impacts women (like them) but cannot – or refuse to see – the impact of racism.
This encounter is just a slight indicator of the experience Reni has encountered in feminist spaces. It is this section that I could most relate to. She initially found great comfort and solidarity in those spaces. It is a movement that provides a structural analysis of the way patriarchy has forced women into gendered roles, it gives voice to the rape culture we all live in which legitimises violence against women, sexualises women and young girls and benefits no one including men who are forced into gendered masculine roles.
However, Reni, like many of us, then encounters either a stony silence or outright hostility in feminist spaces when trying to talk about racism within society. There is a feeling amongst some white women that racism dilutes the movement and an analysis based on race should be secondary (or non-existent) when talking about overturning patriarchal structures.
It is an absurd response. True liberation, as Reni points out, cannot take place without overturning all the structures – institutional and ideological – which oppress minority groups.
Black people experience higher levels of unemployment and worklessness, they are more likely to be stopped and searched, they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. They are less likely to be at senior management levels in all sectors and underrepresented in political offices. True liberation cannot take place without getting rid of the shackles of racism.
In the aftermath of UK general election, there has been some interesting analysis of the power of the youth vote – a record 72% of under 25’s turned out. There was also interesting points about BAME representation. There are ten new MPs from non-white backgrounds elected, taking the total in the House of Commons from 41 to 51. That is still one in 13 but diversity is improving. There was the first-ever female Sikh MP, Preet Gill in Birmingham Edgbaston and Tanmanjeet Singh, of Labour, the first turban-wearing Sikh in parliament.
There are reports of an increased BAME voter turnout. In several seats with high BAME population including Kensington and Chelsea, Croydon Central and Enfield Southgate saw a switch from the Tories to Labour.
Operation Black Vote undertook a provocative campaign with the slogan “Blacks don’t vote” before the election. Despite some of the criticism levelled at the campaign, it is timely to think of the electoral power black people have in changing circumstances. This is what I also take away from this book – acknowledge the injustice and inequality you experience but recognise that there is power in a movement to bring about change. It starts with individuals coming together and campaigning to overturn the unjust society we live it.
Huma Munshi is a writer, activist and trade unionist. She writes on feminism, race and fighting for justice. She is a regular contributor for the F-Word and Open Democracy and has also written for the Guardian and Feminist Review Journal.
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