Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni-Eddo Lodge
This is the most important book I have read this year and it is difficult to find one word to describe its monumental impact on white and people of colour alike. Critics have described this book as “uncompromising, powerful, devastating, eye-opening, opinionated and pretty kick-ass” whilst the Spectator has praised this book as “A revelation, undoubtedly essential”. For me, Reni’s voice is eviscerating, unapologetic and a call to action for all of us to change the conversation about race. Here’s why this book should be on your essential reading list.
Tensions with race relations have existed for centuries and Reni is not the first nor the last person to write about structural racism, white privilege, and racial inequality. But she is the first who writes with an interesting and resilient voice — a mixture of anger, frustration, and insightfulness. This exposition on race is based on her blog post of the same name, in which she stated a truth universally accepted by people of colour: “It’s truly a lifetime of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are — speak your truth and face the reprisal or bite your tongue and get ahead in life.”
This book starts with an exploration into racial segregation through British history, Reni combines thorough research and empathy in depicting Britain’s struggle with the repercussions and responsibilities from colonization, including the plight of mixed-race children and the coded implication of “mugging” as an exclusively Black crime. From this, she dives into a complex, heartbreaking and thoughtful commentary on the themes of structural racism, white privilege, the intersectionality between race and feminism as well as the relationship between race and class.
Structural racism is a sensitive subject persistently denied or rejected by white people. It is the systematic structural advantage provided to the dominant (white) culture in social, political and economic institutions. Reni writes, “our systems are building a rigged game where no matter how hard you work - if you are not white you are battling in an environment set up for you to fail.” To the white community, this is perhaps a shocking and uncomfortable truth. To me and any other person of colour, this is what we have been taught since we were kids — as Reni reflects: “White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught — often with no explanation — that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we are to succeed.”
I can’t speak for all people of colour but as a child of Chinese immigrant parents, the importance of building and maintaining a hard work ethic was reinforced constantly. My parents reminded me repeatedly that “white children have the privilege of being mediocre and rising to positions of power because of their skin colour, you are not part of that club therefore you must put in 200% more effort if you are to reach the same position/success.” This is not “reverse” racism, it is a reminder that established, predominantly white institutions provide access and opportunity to individuals based on the colour of their skin; any claims by white people that they don’t “see” race is just reinforcing the fallacy of meritocracy.
The next topic on white privilege is perhaps the most crucial lesson for us all to understand. Reni’s clarity of reasoning shows wisdom beyond her years, she writes “if you are white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way.. and you probably won’t even notice it.”
Here is an example of how white privilege sounds (in light of the death of George Floyd and many other African-Americans from police brutality), you keep saying “it’s horrible that an innocent Black man was killed, but destroying property/looting has to stop”. Try saying “it’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent Black men has to stop”, check your privilege, you are focusing on the wrong part of the conversation.
If this still doesn’t make sense to you, reflect on the backlash to the “Black Lives Matter” movement where critics (mainly white) reiterated that “All lives matter.” The problem is, if you are white (or benefit from your proximity to whiteness), your life is already deemed more valuable simply because of the absence of the negative consequences of racism in your life.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement is about highlighting the inherent, sustained and systematic oppression of Black people throughout centuries of lynching, segregation and police brutality. It is not about minimizing white guilt or discomfort, it is actually not about white people at all. Do you feel uncomfortable with addressing violence and systematic brutality against people of colour? If so, check your privilege.
Reni’s critique of the fear of a “Black planet” is uncompromising and a hard-hitting truth bomb. The fear that having more people of colour in positions of power will “tip the scales” highlights the devastating reality of racial prejudice — “it looks normal, it is pedestrian, it is unquestioned.”
If you are Australian, you might believe racism is only a British or American problem because Australia prides itself on fairness and multiculturalism. I hate to burst your bubble but the gap between self-image and reality is jarring; a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 found that although people of colour makes up an estimated 24 per cent of the Australian population, such backgrounds only account for 5 per cent of senior leaders.
In other words, around 95 per cent of senior leaders in Australia who sit in Parliament making decisions for our country have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. This represents the core belief perpetuated by our society where anything that doesn’t represent or promote white homogeneity exists only to erase it.
Reni’s critique of white feminism and it’s ignorance and apathy towards the struggles of women of colour is heartbreaking, crucial and exasperating. White feminist voices are praised as “progressive” and “powerful” because their ideals do not endanger white supremacy. Intersectional feminism is meaningless when white women still struggle to support and advocate for those whose identities and skin tones are foreign to theirs. I encourage you to reflect on Reni’s commentary on the willful ignorance of racism in feminism and re-think whether the positive connotations of whiteness with “objectivity” and “reason” is actually an insidious tool for maintaining power.
I am Chinese-Australian, if you believe that this exempts me from white guilt or it means I do not have to look into my own discomfort due to my cultural heritage. Think again.
I am proud to be part of the Asian community but I am also acutely aware that we are seen as the “model minority”. We are quiet and compliant — a survival tactic whereby we accept the demands of colour blindness to “fit in” whilst doing away with any evidence of our culture and heritage. We exist within a proximity to whiteness that allows us to move more easily through society than our Black, Muslim and Indigenous friends. Although we suffer from the negative consequences of racism, we are also very capable of being racist and benefiting from or perpetuating white supremacy. Our preference to be passive and sit on the sidelines is dangerous, we need to break this cycle of silence and speak up on issues of injustice.
I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for Black Americans and Indigenous Australians to constantly have to justify their existence. I can’t even begin to comprehend the statistics: in the US, African Americans make-up 14 per cent of the total population and 34 per cent of the prison population whereas in Australia, indigenous people make up 2 per cent of the total population and 27 per cent of the prison population.
In a time of repeated and sustained police brutality against Black/Indigenous and other people of colour, I can’t help but wonder when we are going to turn our anger and frustration into education and action. This book is a good starting point to educate yourself about racism, white privilege and systemic oppression of people of colour. Reni’s goal is not to critique white people or evoke white guilt, it is a call to action for all of us to start meaningful conversations about racism, segregation and the often fatal implications of criminalisation based on race.
Racism is an insidious cultural disease that will find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another.
While nobody is born racist, it remains a powerful system of socio-economic traps and cultural values that we are immediately born into. This is why we need to be actively “anti-racist” because we need to fight for a world that recognizes the humanity in every human being, regardless of the colour of our skin.
To everyone who is reading this, this book will teach you how to use your privilege to make a difference. This is not a trend, this is more than an Instagram hashtag, this is about moving beyond social media to show your grief and anger.
Education is the most powerful weapon, learn about systemic racism, look into your own discomfort, do the work — starting with this book.