To Talk About Race

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race

Renni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury Circus, 2017

 

They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of Black Lives Matter

Wesley Lowrey, Penguin, 2017

 

I must confess that over the past 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 his 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is an extract from a letter by Martin Luther King Jr., which Reni Eddo-Lodge quotes in her book. The words could just as easily have come from her pen. She expresses the conviction that King’s statement is still entirely true. The first and foremost problem is that people refuse to acknowledge the problem. And in his reporter’s memoir of the protests that sparked and fed the US Black Lives Matter movement, Wesley Lowery chronicles events which should have prompted receptive people to do just that. To both, the fallacious term ‘post-racial’ is culprit number one, having allowed the privileged and unaffected to sit back, congratulate each other on a job well done and relinquish all residual guilt with a long-awaited sigh of relief. Both books have sprung not only from the kind of painfully-felt conviction that makes anything compelling, but also from a profound respect for the unadulterated truth. They do not simply stir to action; they educate. Their facts simply cannot be ignored.

Eddo-Lodge uses ‘black’ in the political rather than the ethnic sense of the term (in her own words, ‘I use the word black to describe people who are not white, rather than defining black people in relation to the dominant narrative’), encompassing African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin America, Indigenous and Bi-racial backgrounds. I am using it in the same way in this article. By contrast, Lowery’s book is less a polemic than a history; it is all the more stirring because it is, evidently, still in the making. Only recently the UK saw Black Lives Matter protests incited by the death of Rashan Charles after being pursued by police. And although Lowery focusses purely on the experience of African-Americans in the US, he also refers constantly to ‘black and brown bodies’ and alludes more generally to the grand- scale issue of white dominance. When in July 2015, as he documents, Bree Newsome scaled the flag-pole of South Carolina state house and took down the Confederate flag, it was not simply because it stood for the oppression of African- Americans – it was because it was an enduring, ridiculous symbol of white complacency. How on earth was a flag celebrating a heritage that fought to keep black people subhuman allowed to be officially instated outside a government building? How was the argument that it was purely a reminder of history rather than a current tool of oppression acceptable? The police brutality which Lowery meticulously documents is a harrowing embodiment of the structural racism which Eddo-Lodge demands is recognised: it is her rhetorical narrative made true.

It is fascinating and illuminating reading the two writers in juxtaposition. The US has been dealing with more overt and public manifestations of the institutional racism in the form of police brutality. Of the more than 100 race riots in the US since 1936, Lowery tells us, virtually all of them have been provoked by a police incident. As a teenager, he writes, he and his friends used to ‘keep our wallets in the centre console. That way, we wouldn’t have to reach into our pockets.’ And risk inciting a violent, pre-emptive reaction from the officer, is the implied second half of that sentence. ‘Even with a black president,’ he tells us, ‘my shade of pigment remained a hazard.’ He tells the stories of those at the peaceful protests in Ferguson who voted for Obama twice and were still teargassed.

In fifty years America has gone from being a country in which a black man named Barack Obama would likely have been unable to cast a ballot for president to a country in which he was elected president.

And so Lowery’s argument, or at least one of many, goes: that white attitudes have not been able to keep up with shifts in legislation since the Civil Rights Movement, and that people are still deeply racially prejudiced. Reni Eddo- Lodge takes practically the opposite line. She writes: ‘people’s actions often move faster than social progress.’ In other words, simply because individual white people do not allow themselves to be severely impacted by subconscious bias, that does not mean that black people are just as likely as white people to, for instance, get a high-level job – or even a university place. The University of Oxford is a point in case here. As of 2011, 26% of white applicants received an offer to attend the university, compared with 17% of black applicants – and that was with the same levels of qualification. Recent data, requested last year by former education minister David Lammy, but only recently released, shows that in 2015 one in three colleges admitted no Afro-Caribbean British A-level students. Oriel College only offered one place to one such applicant between 2015 and the last similar data release in 2010. Where Eddo-Lodge and Lowery do agree is that the problem goes deep, and that it is not a question of waiting for non-racial attitudes to slowly seep all the way in: positive action has to be taken to right the existing inequalities.

To do this, ‘white moderates’ – or, to use a more current term, ‘white liberals’ – need to be convinced of the issue’s existence and urgency. This topic has recently been given some airtime in the press surrounding Jorden Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out. The film itself is a pitch-perfect depiction of self-satisfied white liberalism thinly veiling a desperate negation of race issues in order to maintain supremacy. It also seems, to me, to be about cultural appropriation on a very deep level. Cultural sharing is not the same thing as white people adopting desirable or fashionable aspects of blackness for their own gain whilst being ignorant of, and outside of, the oppression. That is, in itself, a statement of the kind of ownership that has its origins in slavery. As Guardian arts editor Lanre Bakare puts it:

The villains here aren’t southern rednecks or neo- Nazi skinheads, or the so-called “alt-right”. They’re middle-class white liberals. The kind of people who read [ e Guardian]… Good people. Nice people. Your parents, probably. The thing Get Out does so well – and the thing that will rankle with some viewers – is to show how, however unintentionally, these same people can make life so hard and uncomfortable for black people.

The ‘rankling’ that Bakare is referencing here ultimately comes down to the issue of liberalism itself. As Eddo-Lodge points out, the face of RACISM (by which she means more overt racism which is easy to identify) is made up out of the BNP, UKIP, and extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Just because they are blatantly racist, that does not mean to say that people who vote centre and left cannot be. The popular demonisation of racism has meant that any whisper of racial inequality or subconscious bias leaves the white liberal squirming under preposterous ‘accusations’. Colin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, was recently expelled from this year’s Super Bowl over protests he made last year. Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem to express disillusionment and to make a call for social justice, especially in the face of police brutality against black people. And the main criticism he faced was for ‘bringing politics into sport’: for interrupting white people’s leisure time, and forcing thought about issues which would preferably be ignored.

Necessarily at the heart of Eddo-Lodge’s text, and evident in the title, therefore, is the issue of discussion. The disparity is between those with whom one should be able to discuss race, and how; and those with whom these discussions actually take place. Freedom of speech, she writes, does not mean freedom for no one to be offended (including white liberals, when told there is a problem), but ‘freedom for opinions on race to clash’. And white fear tries to stop this conversation from happening. Lowery confronts a similar issue: that of how police brutality against black bodies is represented in the media. ‘By focussing on the character of the victim,’ he tells us, as the press so often do (think statements about those who were killed having other minor convictions or having dropped out of school), ‘we inadvertently take the focus off the powerful and instead train our eyes and judgement on the powerless’. In other words, white fear seems determined to place the blame on the wounded and oppressed to avoid admitting any kind of fault at all costs.

Inevitably, the power in this discussion is a matter of voice. Eddo-Lodge makes the crucial distinction. ‘There is a difference between saying “we want to be included” and “we want to reconstruct your exclusive system”. The former is more readily accepted into the mainstream.’ However, of course, that does not mean that it is right. Including black people in a system controlled by white people isn’t the same thing as allowing their voices to be heard.

In a podcast earlier this year for the BBC on intersectional feminism, broadcaster Anita Anand interviews secular Muslim feminist Mona Eltahawy:

White people are not used to having their privilege questioned … [ e problem is] white women through the privilege of whiteness constantly speaking on behalf of everyone, and thinking that they’re representing women.

Activist and writer Liv Little says almost the exact same thing:

The frustration … is because those people who time and time again are given the space to be the face of feminism or the spokespersons of feminism are predominantly white women who can’t step outside themselves.

And this is not just applicable to feminism. As Eddo-Lodge writes, ‘racism is a white problem.’ Why does that seem like such a ground-breaking thing to say? It shouldn’t. As, obviously, sexism requires men’s attitudes to be changed, and homophobia requires the views of heterosexual people to be changed, racism revolves around the views of white people. And not just the views, but crucially, the sympathies. When white people begin to understand that the world is white, dictating everything from beauty standards to social behaviour, it becomes easier to begin to understand the oppression black people face. And this is something Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book does so thoroughly and convincingly – explain the trauma of not being white in a world, as she puts it, of ‘snow’.

‘We did one test for [Get Out],’ Jordan Peele says, ‘and I noticed a striking similarity with the way people experienced it. That brings me a lot of joy … You can ask a white person to see the world through the eyes of a black person for an hour and a half.’ ‘Those with the power need to share some of the privilege,’ Anita Anand tells us. ‘We could all do with being a little more selfless.’ The route to the selflessness is sympathy, and the route to that is awareness: through books just like these.

I myself am white, and have grown up not just in this white western world, but also surrounded by white people. White people need to be aware instead of complacent. We need to keep informed. And we need to sympathise. Because this is our problem to fix. Obviously. As playwright Eve Ensler says, the problem is going to persist ‘until we are willing to be wrong, willing to be lost, willing to be quiet.’ Not ‘quiet’ full stop, but quiet when we don’t, and cannot, speak. Because the issues in question are of our making and not our experience. We need to understand and understand well enough to make way.

It is possible for me not to be ‘another’ white person talking about racism, because not enough white people are talking about it. We are talking over it. We are silencing it, dismissing it, translating it into something which serves our own purposes and leaves us guiltless; standing strong on the moral high-ground. The recent white backlash over black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf ’s comment that ‘all white people are racist’ is a point in case. It is the perfect example of white people fearing usurpation from the moral high- ground, and thus wilfully mal-interpreting the concept of ‘racism’. Bergdorf is not calling all white people ‘Ku Klux Klanners’: she is calling them all prejudiced. Another example is white women equating their struggle with the struggle of all black people. This is not only irrelevant, but also belittling. But white people see it as imperative that they escape all reproof. We are, generally, obsessed with our moral high-ground. The minute we cannot one-up someone else, we are somehow reprehensible. This is naturally not how it works. Admitting a lack of expertise is not the same as admitting ignorance: in fact, quite the opposite.

My debates about writing this piece always ended with the same thought: no one else is planning to write it, and surely it is better written than not. I had read in Eddo-Lodge that ‘solidarity is nothing but self-satisfying if it is solely performative’ and that ‘it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something’. I hope beyond anything that I have not stolen and spoken over voices. This is, in a way, an attempt to make negative the white voice. My being white here is mainly relevant in that I do not have my own experiences of oppression to add. Rather, I have my own blissful privilege to admit. Let us finish, as we started, with more words from Martin Luther King’s letter.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever… I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

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