Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, is one of the most important books of the year. Inspired by a blog post the British journalist and author wrote with the same name, which went viral in 2014, the book is an unflinching and unapologetic look at the history of black people in the U.K., race relations, class, feminism, and education. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s crucial for you to figure out why.
I worked with Eddo-Lodge last year, when she contributed to my essay collection The Good Immigrant. She was working on the piece between drafts of her own book, and was brilliant to work with and get to know. In Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, she writes much as she talks, in an instantly quotable way, her words filled with nuance and compassion and knowledge. And what’s more, is her work is deceptively accessible — it never shies away from going deep into subjects, or presenting incredibly complex ideas, but does it in a readable way.
And it’s fair to say that the work is resonating. It’s already a bestseller at various stores around the U.K., with coverage everywhere from ELLE to The Guardian, and a quote from Booker winner Marlon James on the cover. Just mention the title on Twitter, and you’ll be met by trolls who take umbrage at the title rather than the contents. The book demands you engage with the nuances of Eddo-Lodge’s writing. As a reader of color, I found it incredibly cathartic. White readers may find it life-changing.
In a June phone conversation, Reni talked to me at length about the reaction to the book, and why she wanted to create a vital contribution to the canon of black British writing.
It was inevitable, I feel, that this book was going to be essential and important. How has the reaction been?
I mostly feel very happy. I achieved what I set out to do, which was fundamentally change the starting point from which we have conversations about race in this country. For a long time, I felt frustrated at the collective forgetting, whitewashing, and ignorance of the political establishment in the ways they spoke about race and racism. It was always from the perspective of white fear and white anxiety. I wanted to change that. What I’ve been seeing at events in particular, is people from all walks of life, all types of demographics, turning up, who are excited about the conversations the book is having.
How do you deal with people who only read the title and say, “I believe in only one race — the human race…”
If someone reads the book in good faith, with curiosity, they might understand why it’s called what it’s called — the deep frustration I felt, that I still do feel. The title is “Why I’m no longer…,” because of my frustration with huge power imbalances. In the book, I lay out those imbalances clearly — I’ve had people say [that] they’ve had a couple of arguments while reading the book, and I think, Now you see where I’m coming from!
It’s deeply frustrating to continue to have conversations with people who are committed to wilful ignorance and refuse to recognize that structural racism exists. I still stand by the title and the opening essay. Of course, the quality of conversations I’m now having with white people are infinitely better than ones I used to have. And now the anger mostly comes online, from people who don’t want to read it. But that’s not my concern. There are always people committed to misinterpreting things or not understanding the arguments of their opponents. I could have titled the book Please White People Listen To Me Pretty Please and they would have still been upset. I wanted to ensure that the stall I was setting out was unapologetically decentering whiteness, and I’ve definitely achieved that.
There isn’t much of a contemporary canon of British writings about race — often my references are American. I remember you saying to me that you wanted to write about the black British experience. Could you expand on that goal?
I wanted to make black British civil rights canon in the same way Harriet Tubman is canon. I had to ground the first chapter in that context otherwise none of the others would make sense. I read a review from a reader who declared himself to be older than me, saying he was cringing reading the first few chapters because he remembered all of that stuff happening. He was questioning himself, saying, “Have I failed in telling my children about this? Why is Reni writing this as if it’s going to be new to her readers?” And I think that’s an insightful comment. Yeah, Britain has failed. We seem to have gone from that time period of “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish,” nigger-hunting, repatriation drives, colonialism, and the Bristol bus boycott, to a few decades forward where people say, “We have no problem with racism here, we’re color-blind.” I wanted to make that note. Britain has failed — has whitewashed that history — and we’re going to keep making those mistakes unless we recognize our past.
And currently, we have people having a problem with Diane Abbott’s comments from 1988 [she said that that Britain was "one of the most racist" nations] — but also not realizing that in 2017 there are still a lot of problems.
These people who think Britain no longer has a race problem have never thought about it beyond the end of their own nose. What frustrates me is people who say these things from a place of ignorance, and talk about as though they’re an authority. I’m not going to go on TV and talk about rocket science, because I know nothing about it. There’s a wilful denial about what structural racism looks like in this country. You could call this a battle of patriotism. Is it patriotic to pretend your country is guilty of no flaws? I don’t think it is. It’s more patriotic to recognize the flaws and the oppressions that the country has participated in, and work to overcome them and address them and be honest about them.
“Britain has failed — has whitewashed history — and we’re going to keep making mistakes unless we recognize our past.”
One of the things I think is great about your book is that it doesn’t homogenize racism and race and diversity into one big box of people of color. Which I think tends to happen.
The one consistent thing in all of these discussions is whiteness and how it maintains power. That’s what I wanted to discuss in the book. I’m less interested in exploring identity, apart from whiteness and the power hierarchies it continues to maintain.
I really hope this book gets to teenagers. It’s written in an honest and accessible way, rather than an academic one. Were you conscious of that?
I wrote like I speak. I’ve been interested in these things for a long time. There was a time in my life when well-meaning forces in my life were pushing me towards academia but I didn’t want to do that. Academia, by design, is behind a table. I decided to take the more precarious route. Which wasn’t very successful because no British media outlet wants to invest in work like this. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. So it became a book.
Why doesn’t British media want to invest in work like this?
I’m just not seeing young black or brown writers being absorbed into British media establishment to focus on the issue of race. Publications in the States have specific race and ethnicity reporters doing interesting in-depth work. We don’t have the same tradition here.
How do you hope this book will be seen by people of color?
I really want it to be a tool. I want it to be a thing of catharsis for people of color, first and foremost. For such a long time I felt unease — discomfort of having opposition to something but not knowing how to vocalise it, knowing that the history I was being taught was wrong but not having access to the right things. I provided them all in this book and I hope people of color can reel off with confidence things about race relations in the last thirty years, in the way we can about stuff that’s gone on in the States. The thing that makes me feel this book is a success, beyond reviews, beyond sales, is at events, when black and brown people are like, “This is it, this is what we needed. Thank you for doing it.” And that’s amazing to me. That’s what I needed. It didn’t exist. And so that’s what I set out to do.
I felt the same way with the book we did together. So many young people of color came up to us after shows and thanked us for representing them. In White Teeth, Zadie Smith writes, “there was England a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie without reflection.” These books are that reflection. I wish we had these books when we were younger too.
I literally had to go and rifle through archives to find these things out. I’m so happy that this is what people are telling me, that means job done. And anything else that happens beyond this is a bonus.