“break-up letter to whiteness”

Arifa Akbar reviewed Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge, for the Financial Times of May 26 2017:

“In February 2014, Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog post with the heading “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race”. The British journalist, then 24, said she was breaking off from the conversation because of the hostility and defensiveness she had repeatedly encountered — a patho­logy that she labelled “white denial”. She could no longer engage with the majority who regarded their “white privilege” as universal experience and who returned her attempts at dialogue with an emotional disconnect: “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals.”

Yet Eddo-Lodge is ready to acknowledge the irony in what happened next. Instead of receiving the “usual slew of racist comments”, her “break-up letter to whiteness” went viral and led her to lift her moratorium almost as soon as it had been declared: “I now spend most of my time talking to white people about race.” The book that emerged suggests some of the same paradoxes as the Netflix drama Dear White People, which similarly analyses whiteness in order to deconstruct its effects on black lives. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race also invites the same question around audience and intent: who is it written for? For the most part, Eddo-Lodge’s voice seems to be addressing white readers, urging them to acknowledge both the racism that seeps like a “noxious gas” across British society and their own complicity in this.

She explains: “white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.” In her focus on the politics of whiteness, she builds on a critical tradition drawn from black American writers such as James Baldwin and WEB Du Bois, the latter of whom is cited for his ideas on “white skin privilege”. The work of bell hooks on the intersect­ionality of race, gender and class is also channelled in a chapter on white feminism.

Eddo-Lodge audits Britain’s record on race, beginning with the slave trade and taking in flashpoints from the Newport riots of 1919 and Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech to the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry. Just as Baldwin wrote of white men who are “in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (“A Letter to My Nephew”, 1962), these chapters give the sense that Eddo-Lodge is digesting history for those white readers who have had their ears and eyes shut to the violence in Britain’s past, and might be released from misunderstanding if they would only listen and see. Her argument is particularly strong on class.

Taking issue with much recent discourse on the “white working classes”, she points out that Britain’s most economically disadvantaged communities are disproportionately non-white. “We should be rethinking the image we conjure up when we think of a working-class person,” she writes. “Instead of a white man in a flat cap, it’s a black woman pushing a pram. It’s worth questioning exactly who wins from the suggestion that the only working-class people worth our compassion are white, or that it’s black and ethnic minority people who are hoarding scant resources at the expense of white working-class people who are losing out.”

White people may not like Eddo-Lodge’s depiction of them, not least because the pathologising of communities in a generic, colour-coded way is usually reserved for those who are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). Yet there are good people among them, she says, and it is these she calls upon: “White people, you need to talk to other white people about race . . . Talk to other white people who trust you.”

And so, in continuing the conversation with white people, she reassigns the problem of race to them. Not everyone will find the answer to racial inequality in Eddo-Lodge’s reliance on white consciousness-raising, but it is an important shift that undermines the idea that racism is the BAME community’s burden to carry. The liberation that this book offers is in the reversal of responsibilities.

When she does speak to the BAME community, the oblique message is one of inaction, or at best, advocacy, because “racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.” “

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