The news hit last week that Reni Eddo-Lodge had become the first black British author to ever top the UK paperback non-fiction charts. It’s no coincidence that her 2017 book Why I No Longer Talk to White People about Race has gained more attention now than it did after being published — in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by white police offers, which kick-started the Black Lives Matter protests and a flourishing (long overdue) movement. On one hand, Eddo-Lodge is correct that this is a damning indictment of the typically white male publishing industry. On the other hand, it’s a positive sign that the public want to educate themselves about race.
I read this book when it was first published —and being half-Indian, the topic of race is close to my heart. Since childhood, I’ve experienced racism from a multitude of people. In school, in the workplace, on the street, and even in my own family. But I typically haven’t talked about race or my experiences to many people. Yet, if this movement has taught us anything, it’s that we need to speak up about our experiences … even if what we’re saying is uncomfortable to hear.
As Eddo-Lodge points out, we must face up to some difficult facts when it comes to schooling, the workplace, and the media. Firstly, the “history” taught in schools often only tells children part of the picture — the “white side of history”. When we learned about WWII, no teacher mentioned that 600,000 African soldiers and 2.5 million Indian soldiers fought for Britain. We need to start updating curriculums to teach the real version of history, not the version that makes us look glorious.
Secondly, inherent structural racism is subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) lurking in education and the workplace, preventing people of colour from accessing or gaining courses, jobs, promotions, and board-level positions. When I was at university, there was only one other BAME student on my course other than me. Efforts to enforce positive action in recruitment were met with “it should be the best person for the job”, ignoring the fact that the best person was likely to be the one who had been given the best chances in life. No prizes for guessing that it was white men. We need to start levelling the playing field — and that will undoubtedly mean changing the entry criteria for jobs, universities, and senior positions.
Thirdly, large parts of the media stir and incite racist attitudes. An obvious example of this is the media’s recent suggestion that BLM protests would “recklessly” cause a second wave of COVID while the same potential effect of VE parties and anti-BLM protests were largely ignored. Less obvious is the media’s focus on race and religion when a non-white person commits a crime. For example, a 2019 study found that 78% of Daily Mail stories about Muslims were negative. Likewise the strong undercurrents of racism in the Brexit debate, where media arguments that “we want our England back” were thinly veiled hatred for immigrants.
These issues are what Eddo-Lodge describes as structural or institutional racism. Where white people have historically had power over other ethnic groups, it has created a systemic lack of opportunities, imbalanced policing, disproportionate imprisonment levels — among many other consequences. Finally, the world is starting to take note of such issues, and it’s long past time.
Eddo-Lodge argues that racism only occurs in power + privilege situations and that prejudice isn’t racism, leading to her conclusion that “racism doesn’t happen both ways”. As unpopular as this might be, I disagree. By definition, racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized” and “the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities…to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.”
While Eddo-Lodge may feel that prejudice is not as pervasive or damaging as structural racism, it is a type of racism. It is pre-judging people because of, and solely because of, their race. While it’s typically directed at minority groups, typically doesn’t mean always. Feelings of superiority aren’t mutually linked to privilege. An example of this is Romany gypsies who, despite being white, still experience wide-scale racism due to other people’s perceptions of superiority. If we want to distinguish between the two, perhaps we should call it “prejudicial racism”.
In fact, the book’s discussion on being mixed-race brings racism from a structural level into the context of the family. Eddo-Lodge covers this complex topic in eight pages (half of which are based on her one friend’s experience where the white side of her family don’t accept her). While it’s understandably not the key focus of the book, this provides a frustratingly limited view and didn’t resonate with my experiences at all. Nor might it with the millions of mixed-race people in the UK.
In my experience, my non-white grandparents refused to accept me, not because my white privileged ancestors colonised their country, but because they see themselves as superior and me as “impure”. In the familial context, racism can happen both ways, and while some people may perceive this as “just prejudice”, rejecting a child because of their race can be incredibly damaging.
As a mixed race woman in the UK, I’ve struggled to find any nonfiction books that represent my experience. As Eddo-Lodge points out, the publishing industry has been largely dominated by white people, and when it comes to nonfiction, predominantly white men. While black women top the fiction and nonfiction book charts at the moment, there is still a dearth of books from BAME writers. The publishing industry needs to do far more to welcome writers of colour and ensure that a range of voices are heard — be it black, Asian, mixed, Romany gypsy, or any other under-represented ethic group. Personally, I invite BAME aspiring nonfiction writers to get in touch and let’s make sure your voice is heard.
Until we see racism in all of its forms — and admit that it can be directed at anyone so long as there is hatred, prejudice, or injustice on the basis of race alone — then we will not end racism for everyone. If we only see racism as relating to power or privilege, then we run the risk of ignoring those stories that don’t fit in with our idea of racism. If we’re going to fight racism, which we are, then let’s fight all of it.
Importantly, we need to better educate ourselves and the children of this country. We need to address, reconfigure, or even tear down if necessary the structures that have oppressed people of colour. Whatever race we are, we need to look deep inside ourselves and recognise our privilege and our prejudices. And we need to get talking about race.
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