Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: A conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge

Saziah Bashir talks to journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge about why she will no longer talk to white people about race.

In 2014, Reni Eddo-Lodge published a blog post titled ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ describing why she was no longer willing to do the emotionally exhausting work of speaking about anti-racism. Eddo-Lodge found her efforts were not reciprocated, and instead were met with derailment, denial of the structural nature of racism, defensiveness about white privilege, an erasure of histories of slavery and colonialism, and outright silencing. The response to the post was so great that it compelled her to, as she herself describes, paradoxically write the book.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has been described as ‘searing’ and ‘eye-opening.’ In its pages, Reni creates a conversation about race in Britain on her own terms in sharp and insightful prose. I spoke to Reni about reactions to her work, our respective experiences and understanding of race, and some of the subjects of her book such as feminism and class and how they intersect with race.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is appearing as part of Shifting Points of View, a WORD Christchurch event in association with Christchurch Arts Festival on 5 September, 6pm.

Saziah Bashir: I wanted to start off by saying that my reaction to your book was simply to nod and think yes, yes and fuck yes. So much of what you say in the book resonates with me, yet you and I come from significantly different backgrounds. For context: my parents are Bangladeshi and we migrated to New Zealand when I was young, and because my parents were perpetual immigrants even before that, I’ve never lived in Bangladesh. I’m in touch with the culture – I speak the language and I’m a practicing Muslim – but I’m also a Kiwi. New Zealand and Britain are different too, we’re a settler colony, you’re ‘the motherland,’ as you describe it in the chapter titled ‘Histories.’

However, what you and I do share is the experience of being Othered in the very places we call home. And your book is inclusive, so while you focus on the histories of Black people in Britain and specifically Black women, you touch on the experiences of other people of colour throughout your writing. Is my reaction then, of recognition and being able to relate, a common reaction, for you to come across from other PoC, and if so how does it sit with you given our diverse backgrounds and histories?

Reni Eddo-Lodge: The book isn’t about me and my experiences as a person, it’s about white people and whiteness. So I’m not particularly surprised that PoC who have to deal with racism recognize a lot of what I’m saying, or that it resonates with them. The book’s not really about me, I know some people wish to position it as such but it’s not a memoir, it’s not my life story. It’s about white defensiveness and how we all see it happen again and again. It’s about whiteness and white identity and the way that it defends itself, particularly as a political force, in order to maintain power. I think if you’re not white, you’ll recognize it.

Saziah: So you see it as an exposé on whiteness?

Reni: I don’t know that I see it as an exposé. I don’t think that I’m revealing anything particularly new. I think lots of great scholars and theorists have done wonderful work on this and they’ve illuminated the path long before me. But I would say there are white people who aren’t aware, so maybe it exposes them to the subject.

Saziah: And what’s the reaction been like from white people?

Reni: Varied. Some feel guilty. Some feel shocked. Some feel a lot of empathy and some feel defensive and angry. There’s a quote in the book that ‘whiteness is an occupying force of the mind’ and what I meant by that is we’re talking about a dominant political ideology. So if it doesn’t serve you then you can recognize it better than if it does serve you.

On that basis, I think anybody who is a committed anti-racist, of any race, feels quite strongly about the book and recognizes a lot of that behavior. Some white people who are committed to insisting racism doesn’t exist feel the book is an attack on them. They feel attacked, even triggered, they take offence that this book is even in existence. Interestingly enough it’s often the same people who want to yell and scream about protecting freedom of speech. Yet other white people have been supportive. So yes, white people have responded in a myriad of ways. It’s been an interesting journey.

Part of the point of writing a book is that you don’t have to have that conversation again and again with people who are committed to not listening.

Saziah: How do you engage with someone who is that defensive? Because you say very early on that you wrote this book in an attempt to carry on the coversation.

Reni: The aim of the blog post, and this book, was initially to set boundaries and then to set a new agenda. I just feel that PoC have had to play catch-up with warped, biased agendas on this subject, on whether or not we are even human. I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore. But I do still very much mean what I say in terms of that opening essay. If somebody is wildly defensive I don’t wish to engage with them. I’ve written the book and if somebody’s interested in what I have to say and demands a wider explanation from me, then lucky for them I’ve written about 70,000 words on it. Part of the point of writing a book is that you don’t have to have that conversation again and again with people who are committed to not listening.

When I first started this kind of work I was not a campaigner or an advocate, I was just somebody expressing myself. With some white middle class people I’ve found that rather than being out and out angry and aggressive about me talking about race they would be quite passive aggressive and ask me what seem like very reasonable questions, but with an undercurrent of entitlement – questions along the lines of ‘you must justify yourself, why are you saying this,’ almost demanding, ‘how dare you say this, explain yourself, back up your points.’

Now I’ve done that with this book, so they can’t ask me that anymore. I feel I’ve done my absolute utmost to explain my position, I’ve provided the context, I’ve done the research, I’ve done that work. So white people are going to have to find another tact to approach me or they might just have to engage with the argument on good faith.

Saziah: You mentioned white guilt as one of the reactions to your book. You have no time for white guilt. That was not the point of your book. You call for white people to get engaged and get angry and essentially become better allies. What has good allyship looked like for you, in your line of work or even in your personal life?

Reni: Well in practical terms only a white person who considers themselves an ally would be able to answer that question. Sometimes white people ask me ‘what can I do to help?’ and I would say you’ll have to think about that yourself. The undercurrent of entitlement in that question ‘what can I do to help’ is ‘please provide me with the answers.’ I feel it’s not the burden and responsibility of PoC who have been losing out from the system to then also provide the answers to changing that very system. What about the benefactors of that system? If a committed white anti-racist recognizes they are a benefactor of that system, why can’t they spend some time thinking about what they can do to change things?

I do have tangible examples. I know three young women who have set up a small publishing house who purchased the rights to the work of Audre Lorde which had never been published in the UK, because they were tired of the homogeneity of the literary canon and felt more queer black women deserved to be read. And considering what Audre Lorde writes about, to me that seems like something that a committed white anti-racist would do. They would survey the landscape of where they could have an influence and think of how they could affect that change.

A committed white anti-racist would… survey the landscape of where they could have an influence and think of how they could affect that change.

If these women approached me and asked me what they could do, but I didn’t know them, didn’t know that they work in publishing or about their particular skills and their talents and how they can signal boost and bolster black queer voices, I wouldn’t be able to adequately answer that question. I can assess a problem but I cannot provide the answers to how to solve that problem and this expectation that I can is completely unrealistic.

I end the book in that chapter ‘There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us’ for a reason, which is that we all have a role to play and if somebody considered themselves to be a committed anti-racist then they need to get their thinking cap on about how to actually practice anti-racism in their immediate sphere. I do fear that it is a little bit of a overhang of politician culture or celebrity culture in that we look to one person for the answers or for authority, but I don’t consider myself an authority on this topic at all. I really consider myself part of a movement.

Saziah: Turning back then to reactions to your book. I also recognize that not every PoC’s reaction to your book would be the same as mine. Your book is comprehensive: you explore the history of Black Britain, discuss colourblindness in depth, and you devote an entire chapter to white privilege. But one thing you don’t touch on is anti-blackness in communities of colour.

I’m South Asian, and we’re obsessed with fair skin; we buy into the ‘good immigrant’ trope – the myth that working hard, getting an education and becoming a doctor or engineer will level the playing field, and often we believe some of the most racist stereotypes about other PoC. You describe race as a white problem and I absolutely agree, confronting racism is uncomfortable for white people because they benefit from it. But how do you talk about race to PoC who won’t engage with the subject? Have you found that to be difficult at all?

Reni: Going back to that line in the book ‘whiteness is an occupying force of the mind,’ we are really talking about a dominant political ideology which many people buy into. I don’t seek to deny that many PoC are committed to that ideology. I know it’s not as simple or binary as white people think this and PoC think that. I try my best not to directly, in day-to-day life, try and persuade people who are committed to that ideology. And yes, anti-blackness is absolutely rife. There certainly needs to be space to explore that, but considering where the public discussion currently stands I needed to start here, with whiteness, before I start talking about PoC being anti-black and racist towards people with darker skin.

Those of us who are committed anti-racists are aware of this. I make it clear in the book of the ideology amongst some communities of colour of ‘earn your way out of racism, educate yourself out of racism’; those beliefs have been proved to be wrong again and again. Even Oprah had an incident a few years back where a shop assistant believed that she didn’t have enough money to buy a particular handbag.

There’s just no way to earn yourself or educate yourself away from racist stereotyping. The higher you get up into white elite spaces you’re either seen as a token or not like the rest.

When I draw on research, British based research in particular, even well earning black graduates are still earning less than their white counterparts. So there’s just no way to earn yourself or educate yourself away from racist stereotyping. The higher you get up into white elite spaces you’re either seen as a token or not like the rest. I know for a fact that lots of PoC believe the idea though, maybe to make themselves feel better? But I try to just deal with truth. I don’t wish to deal with delusions or things to make myself feel better about the state of the world. If we are to solve this problem we have to start from a basis of actual context and truth, and what it comes down to is this dominant political ideology, so that’s what I attempt to challenge and critique in this book. It’s an ideology that many people subscribe to, which favours whiteness even if the person espousing it isn’t white. I wanted to start there.

Saziah: The chapter on feminism spoke to me the most, probably because that's the space I struggle in, having put myself out there as a Muslim feminist. I'm familiar with the concept of painting non-white cultures as especially patriarchal or misogynistic – this rhetoric was used as part of the colonizing mission – so it's nothing new. But something that genuinely surprised me in your book was the backlash to the concept of intersectionality. In particular, you've detailed the critique that intersectionality is both too academic and elitist, and at the same time too lowbrow and faddish; a social media phenomenon.

You also write about the idea that bringing race into feminism somehow dilutes or detracts from the feminist agenda, but some feminists are happy to play the race card when they need to control the bodies of WoC by imposing burqa bans and whatnot. It’s similar to the immigration and white genocide question you touch on: how politicians can in the same breath lament that white people will become a minority in their own countries due to high immigration, but still deny that minorities are in any way disadvantaged. For me, the cognitive dissonance is mind-boggling. How do you begin to unpick or challenge a mindset that won’t recognize its own contradictions and hypocrisy?

Reni: Really at the core of a lot of that opposition to intersectional feminism was simply that people didn’t like it. So they would just come up with ways to discredit what that they didn’t like. You’re right in terms of what you outline, that their opposition wasn't particularly coherent. How can something be too academic and also too ‘social media-y’ whereas one is basically inaccessible and the other is super accessible? It was just their weak reasoning for why we shouldn't take it seriously.

I’ve seen a strand of white women who are quite high profile in British feminism doing that repeatedly. They tried really hard to discredit intersectionality, and I think it was because they were so averse to any conversation about race. That response in the sphere of feminism is not surprising. As I point out in the book, it’s largely in line with the culture of white defensiveness. They felt attacked, they felt upset and they felt that by discussing race in feminism that I was calling them racist. I’m glad to report that they failed in discrediting intersectionality and their arguments against it are mostly irrelevant now. As for politicians and how they talk about immigration, as I wrote about in the book it’s a tacit recognition that the status quo is completely unbalanced otherwise why would they fear becoming a minority?

Saziah: Then I guess the issue of class ties into this quite well. The chapter on class, especially your insight into the white working class as a voter base, is particularly relevant in a post-Trump world. I read a great tweet once that asked something along the lines of: ‘What will it take for the white working class to stop blaming immigrants and blacks for all their problems, and start blaming the rich, white, elite?’ Do you want to take a stab at that?

Reni: I don’t know if I want to take a stab at that. I honestly don’t know what it would be. I think Naomi Klein put it beautifully when she said that times of crisis lead to responses that are even more far-right. We saw that with the 2008 crash and how that catalyzed far right movements, but the assumption that the working class is all white is false, that’s simply not the case. The evidence that I’ve read shows that if you’re not white you’re more likely to be working class. That was certainly true for the London that I grew up in, and as I progress to more senior positions in my career the environment becomes more white.

My analysis showed me that some people who believed themselves to be working class were in fact, by Marxist definitions, quite comfortably middle class by way of generational wealth or some savings or being a home owner – they had some form of economic wellbeing. Some people of that demographic do attempt to ventriloquize white working class people’s concerns to justify their own racism, but you have to remember there are lots of people who are white and working class who don’t hate immigrants. But there’s also a new narrative – if you remove all immigrants, and all locally born PoC, bad things wouldn’t happen in your country. Are they saying there would be no crime if immigrants go? That they only want white crime? That just doesn’t make any sense, it’s ridiculous.

Saziah: The thing I loved the most about your book is how you frame the fight against racism not simply as a matter of equality, but as a matter of justice. But this pursuit of justice can be dangerous. I know this work can make you feel unsafe. I recently read a Guardian piece by the young Australian Yassmin Abdel-Magied; she’s only twenty six years old and is receiving death threats and abuse for simply voicing her opinion as a brown Muslim woman. So my last question to you is this: Why keep doing it? Why keep raising that dissenting voice when change is so slow to come? Do you consider what you do as brave, or just necessary, or both? I think it’s both, but I’d like to know how you feel about what you do and what drives you to keep doing it.

People still get angry and upset but in order to do so they have to engage with my work.

Reni: I think that it’s always been quite important for me to articulate this work on my own terms. I think it would be easier for an angry person to target me for a four minute clip from a TV show, or a statement in 140 characters on Twitter, rather than reading 70,000 words of my book where I’m less likely to be misconstrued.

It was always important to me, but that’s just in line with who I am as a person. I can’t remember the last time I was employed by someone. It was a long time ago. I feel quite safe actually, and quite content that I’ve been able to get across what I wish to in this book. People still get angry and upset but in order to do so they have to engage with my work.

I also felt the work was very necessary and I wasn’t able to do anything else until I did this. I’m twenty seven now and this work has taken most of my working life as an adult, but I’m pleased that I’ve done it. It was a compulsion to get this message out because I was very frustrated about how I saw race being discussed around me, without context and in an ahistorical way. This was what I needed to do in order to express myself; this was my creative outlet. When I’m approached by PoC who are struggling with anger, and I think anybody who sees how the world currently works would be angry, I say you have to channel that into something creative. That’s what I’ve done. I wasn’t quite sure how it would take shape, but I’m glad it became a book. I dislike being called brave because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here; lots of people did amazing work before me so that I could do this work.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is appearing as part of Shifting Points of View, a WORD Christchurch event in association with Christchurch Arts Festival on 5 September, 6pm.

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