Rating: 5 stars
Wow, this book. I’d heard it was good. I didn’t expect it to be this good.
I think of myself as reasonably clued up about the history of Britain’s treatment of people of colour. I’m a social and economic historian working in a museum with a specialism in industrial history that’s focused on Manchester’s textile and engineering past. I know how King Cotton got his riches. I know how the city got its imposing architecture and its educational institutions. I know it’s not the chest baring, Mother England story that I was taught at school.
One of my earliest political memories is of the Toxteth riots in Liverpool. My sister was a medical student in the city, living in a shared house on Aigburth Road in Toxteth. On her return to the house after the summer break, there was a perfectly round hole in the living room window. I was ten and had questions about what was going on. Having an openly racist dad made asking about it at home difficult. My primary school teacher, Miss Pickering, had some answers. Black people, she said, were unhappy with the way the police treated them and with the lack of opportunities they had.
I grew up in a former mill town that has a large black and Asian population thanks to the textile and engineering industries located there. There was only one black pupil and one Asian pupil at my primary school. There were two black students at the music centre I went to on Saturday mornings. Our white fascination with their hair and the way their palms were paler than the backs of their hands was tolerated by them, but I cringe now to think of it. There was no malice in my curiosity, but no appreciation that my fascination with their difference might be insulting, either. At secondary school, there were no black pupils and maybe half a dozen Asian girls. Endemic racism keeping different communities separate from each other in the suburb where I spent my childhood and preventing people of colour from accessing the educational and professional options I’ve followed, allied with my own unwillingness to leave my comfort zone, means I don’t socialise much outside of my own skin tone and consequently I don’t have many friends who aren’t white.
That’s what Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book is about. The way in which white people are privileged in ways we don’t even realise, and the equal way that people of colour experience life differently as a consequence of our unthinking whiteness.
As I got older, I still thought about the riots of the early 80s and what was at the root of them. I started to read more about Britain’s history and the ways in which we had abused people from Ireland and India to Africa and Australasia. I started to understand that white people feel no guilt about the actions and consequences of empire building and wealth gathering. Our culture is predicated on the belief that white is superior to any other skin colour. In my own family, I’m apparently the only one who thinks that white Britain owes a debt to our fellow citizens of the Commonwealth, for the way we’ve used them and their land as cheap resources, for the way we’ve denied them their humanity. My parents and my older siblings have, on different occasions, expressed opinions that boil down to “why should we let them enter our country, take our jobs, and change our way of life?” It’s mind boggling, the insularity of people who call this island theirs.
So I went into reading this book thinking that it would confirm things that I had already come to understand about my culture and the experience of people of colour within my culture. I didn’t expect to encounter increasingly shocking facts that, until now, none of the histories I’ve read have reported.
The opening chapter brings together a brief history of black experience in Britain. Having every stage of the white systemic abuse of people of colour laid out as a chronology is startling. Having new depths of awfulness added to what I already knew about has been numbing. The manner in which Eddo-Lodge writes about these things had an effect on me equivalent to the feelings I experienced when reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. I’m sure both Eddo-Lodge and Coates feel anger at their core, but their writing is calm and so well structured that I fail to see how anyone white reading their words could fail to see the world from their perspective, and then continue to fail to feel ashamed.
A trivial thing that’s actually very important: I learned that the word mugging has a very specific meaning. It’s not simply street robbery. It’s an imported word that was born in the USA to specifically describe street robbery carried out by black people. It came to Britain to help further demonise black communities in the 1970s, sitting alongside the use of the sus laws to detain and charge young black men for no evidenced reason. It’s a word that I’ve used to describe street robbery in general terms. It’s a word that we should stop using.
I liked Eddo-Lodge’s differentiation between institutional racism and structural racism.
I choose to use the word structural rather than institutional because I think it is built into spaces much broader than our traditional institutions. Thinking of the big picture helps you see the structures. Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people, where anyone who falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure.
It’s bullying writ large.
The chapter of the book that this quote comes from made me think about the race relations organisation that exists in my city, that works with communities to give them a voice and make their experiences real to the white people they live among. I can’t fault the work it does in educating white people and representing the cultural mix of Manchester’s population, but I have always found it counterintuitive that the heritage professionals that are the permanent employees, and a majority of the project workers, are white. Here is an ideal opportunity to open the door to people of colour who struggle to enter the heritage and information sector. I heard two of the (white) project workers speak at my professional body’s conference last summer. They spoke of the difficulties they had in gaining the trust of the Bangladeshi community they were working with, and in explaining the white concept of reminiscence to them, because there isn’t even a word for reminiscence in Bengali. Perhaps heritage projects like this one are another example of white people trying to assimilate black and Asian culture into our own structure to make ourselves feel less racist. Which makes me think about the attempts I’ve made at work to engage people of colour with the museum’s archive collections during Black History Month. Some were attempts to show that black and Asian people are represented in the archive collections, and could be called my attempt to make white culture seem more inclusive. Others were attempts to open the collections to different groups for them to take the lead in responding to what the museum holds, and could be called my attempt to listen to what the collections I care for mean to people whose life experience is different to that of the majority of people who come through the museum’s doors. Neither one is perfect, but the latter has been more successful. Eddo-Lodge gave a shape to my feelings when she described whiteness as
a faux neutral, objective power … the self-appointed, self-referential arbiter of racial problems.
Eddo-Lodge also writes about her fear of bringing up the subject of racism in conversation.
Raising racism in a conversation is like flicking a switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person you’ve just met, or a person you’ve always felt safe and comfortable with. You’re never sure when a conversation about race and racism will turn into one where you were scared for your physical safety or social position.
That made me reflect on my own fear of talking about racism with people of colour. My concern is that I will say something that causes offence, or that I will seem patronising speaking from my position of privilege. I have never once felt afraid of being attacked or shunned. Because I am white and, although my working class ancestry is one of exploitation, it isn’t one of violence as a reaction to the colour of my skin. I can only imagine, having read Eddo-Lodge’s words, what that must be like. I can’t know it.
White privilege is a manipulative, suffocating blanket of power that envelopes everything we know, like a snowy day. It’s brutal and oppressive, bullying you into not speaking up for fear of losing your loved ones, or job, or flat. It scares you into silencing yourself: you don’t get the privilege of speaking honestly about your feelings without extensively assessing the consequences. I have spent a lot of time biting my tongue so hard it might fall off.
This I do understand, from the perspective of being a white woman in a culture set up to privilege white men. I have been the only woman in a room of men. I have felt invisible. I have as though I should bite my tongue or play along with the conversation in order to not create tension, going against who I am and what I believe about myself. When I have spoken about the female experience in this male privileged society, I have found it difficult to control my emotions, but still done so because women who express themselves passionately in opposition to male privilege are bitches, or shrill, or over emotional. I have had current affairs that involve gender issues explained to me so very patiently by men, and had my assertion that men cannot speak for women on the subject because they cannot understand what it is to be a woman in a man’s world met with uncomprehending blinks and an end to the conversation.
It can only be harder than I find it for people of colour, harder still for women of colour. And indeed, Eddo-Lodge addresses the problem of white privilege within feminism in her fifth chapter, including a quote from Audre Lorde that explains the problem neatly.
Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of colour to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought.
When Eddo-Lodge wrote her original blog, a number of white people contacted her, saying, “Please don’t give up on us!” It seems to me that they missed the point. White people need to actively listen when people of colour talk to us about race, and we need to stop arguing against the lived experience of people of colour as though we are the experts on being black in a white society. Until we do that, until we accept that racism, in the sense of white privilege plus prejudice underpinning society, is an action we comply with whenever we unconsciously enjoy our privilege, there is no point in talking to us about race. Read this book if you don’t believe me. As well as the Audre Lorde statement quoted above about it not being the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people about their existence, there’s a quote from Dr Martin Luther King Jr about the stumbling block well-intentioned white liberals present.
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season”. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
One of the more surprising things about the book is that Eddo-Lodge includes an interview with former British National Party leader and MEP Nick Griffin, although in the context of the last two sentences in the King quote it makes sense that she would. She describes the interview as surreal. I found it bewildering. None of it makes sense. He contradicts himself, invents bizarre analogies, presents an ill-defined conspiracy theory, and offers Eddo-Lodge some weirdly avuncular but still utterly racist advice about how to secure a better future for herself and any children she might have. At the end of it I laughed. Not in mirth. It was a single bubble of laughter that contained fear, confusion, embarrassment and disbelief. How can you have a rational conversation with someone so paranoid?
My favourite passage is when Eddo-Lodge talks about being an angry black woman.
I used to be scared of being perceived as an angry black woman. But I soon realised that any number of authentic emotions I displayed could and would be interpreted as anger. My assertiveness, passion and excitement could all be wielded against me. Not displaying anger wasn’t going to stop me being labelled as angry, so I thought: fuck it. I decided to speak my mind. The more politically assertive I became, the more men shouted at me … There is no point in keeping quiet because you want to be liked. Often, there will be no one fighting your corner but yourself. It was black feminist poet Audre Lorde who said: ‘your silence will not protect you.’ Who wins when we don’t speak? Not us.
My favourite learning point came when she unpicked what white people mean when they say working class and what the reality now is. Her anger at the way politicians co-opt the issues of those who struggle most to be seen and heard in order to score points over their rivals is palpable. She uses it as a rallying cry to action, to encourage people to dismantle racism.
She’s an inspirational writer. I borrowed the hardback edition of the book from my local library. The paperback version is out now. Apparently it has a new chapter. I’m sorely tempted to buy my own copy.