Reni Eddo-Lodge is that rarest of delights – a young, working-class black woman from Tottenham with a voice in public life. She’s written everywhere from The Telegraph to The New York Times and won various awards for her work to open up the conversation about systemic racism in Britain. Her debut book – Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – is an important collection of essays on the topic.
It started as a blog post in 2014 when, frustrated at walking on eggshells when discussing race with white people, Reni wrote: “I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white – so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact they interpret it as an affront…”
Exploring everything from class to feminism to the racial bias that is usually swept under the carpet in this country, the book is a real eye-opener when it comes to Britain’s hidden history of discrimination. And Reni doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to naming and shaming the unsisterly white feminists she’s come across along the way. She's someone I greatly admire for going against the grain and speaking up for what's right. Below, we had a conversation about her process, and about why a book like this matters now.
Paris Lees: So I guess you’re talking to a lot of white people about race now?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: I think I’ve been talking to white people about race ever since I published the post that said I don’t want to talk to white people about race anymore – it had the opposite effect! But one thing that it did change was the quality of the conversations I was having about race with white people. They got a lot better.
Do you think there’s an entitlement to that – like no one wants to hear what you’ve got to say until you don’t want to say it?
Definitely. Sometimes I think of it in the context of a strike. The withdrawal of labour. Then everyone is like "Noooo!" But what I found in the comments under the original post was people saying things like, "But you’re taking something really important away from us if you do that" and I was thinking, if it’s so important, why was I just constantly being shut down? So I think in that initial post and the title of the book, it was me really saying that there needs to be a new way to discuss these issues because the way that we’re all so used to is really unhelpful and destructive.
The book challenged my understanding of racism – and maybe it’s a very simplistic interpretation – as having ideas about people based upon their race. Usually bad ideas. I feel like what you’re talking about in the book, though, is white supremacism and white privilege?
To me, racism is about structural disadvantage. It’s about the fact that a black boy is three times as likely as the rest of the school population to be excluded from school, it’s about the fact that black people in the criminal justice system receive harsher sentences for possession of drugs, even though white people are much more likely to use drugs, it’s about the fact that if you have an African- or Asian-sounding name you’re much less likely to be called to interview when you’re applying for jobs than a white person with an English-sounding name with identical qualifications and experience. It’s about the fact that black people are much more likely to be sectioned in mental health services because of stereotypes that we’re aggressive and uncontrollable. We can’t avoid education, we all need a job, and it’s likely that we’re going to come into contact with the NHS or policing or the criminal justice system at some point in our lives. So I’m really talking about structural bias, which means that if you’re not white, you’re more likely to lose out in those systems. I think lots of people also have personal prejudice and I tell that anecdote in the book about finding myself in a café with the black man telling me, "I save the best cuts of meat for us and not white people". The fact of the matter is he was prejudiced.
But would you call that racism?
In its literal terms, it’s prejudging on racial prejudice. But he’s not in a position of power to negatively affect those white people’s life chances, if you know what I mean? I think lots of people have racial prejudice, but white people are more likely to be landlords, more likely to be CEOs, more likely to be in positions of power. So if you need a job or you need a home or you need an education, they’re the gatekeepers. I think racism is prejudice plus power, that’s where it really takes hold. Racism is a byword for prejudice and interpersonal nastiness, but I want to look at the bigger picture of institutional bias.
That section on bias in the education system made me really angry because my brother’s in his final year at uni, and mixed race. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s 21 – he’s got his whole life ahead of him and it’s just so wrong that, the evidence shows, the odds are stacked against him due to the colour of his skin...
I talk in the book about the fact that young black people are more likely to go to university but much less likely to get into the best, and when they do graduate they’re much more likely to graduate with lower grades, and earn less. You could interpret these stats and say, "Well it’s just because they’re not very good" or you could say, "The system is fucked, the system is biased". And there’s also evidence to show that if you come from poverty, regardless of your colour, that’s the case. Some people like to go on about meritocracy but the reality is that there’s a really homogenous group of people – basically middle-aged white men – who are hogging the positions we equate with talent.
Right, and do we really believe that those people are inherently more talented than the rest of the population?
I’m really glad that you also break down the idea that people of colour are coming over to Britain to grab all the resources. It’s like, "Hello! We’ve always had a class system in this country and the people who’ve got resources have never given a shit about the people at the bottom. If you take away all the people with brown skin, that system’s not just going to suddenly disappear!"
Well I wanted to talk about this idea of the "white working class". And I’m not saying that white people aren’t working class, but I am saying that not all working-class people are white, so can we ditch this phrase? Because it’s not accurate and I feel like it’s there to further anti-immigrant sentiment.
On that point, your interview with [former BNP leader] Nick Griffin is insane. He basically tells you to get out of the country and "go have kids" somewhere else. I didn’t know whether to be outraged or just laugh at how ridiculous he is?
Well I’m not about to go anywhere – I’m a British citizen mate!
Can you believe that he said that?
Well yeah, I can believe that based on what he’s been putting out into the public sphere for the past 15 years. I just look at it from the perspective of a jobbing journalist, sometimes you’ve just got to take the interview, you might not like the person, you might find them repulsive but you want your quote. Thank you and goodbye Nick Griffin. I wasn’t particularly cut up about it, I didn’t even take it seriously, even though I think he probably was being serious.
He comes across as paranoid and just generally confused.
I thought it was important to have that interview with him because we can see the legacy of his [anti-immigration] rhetoric that he was pushing in the mid-2000s. And now it’s taking place in a much more watered-down manner but a lot more commentators are now saying, "Well that’s a legitimate concern" whereas maybe 15 years ago they were saying, "This is terrible, this is abhorrent". But now there seems to be a new brand of Conservatism tinged with this brand of white supremacist theory, basically. And we’re supposed to say that this is a normal political position, when actually it’s based on genocide. We have clear evidence in the last 200 years that white supremacy basically leads to mass graves. Let’s not joke about it. It’s very serious. And I thought it was important that we talked about at least the recent origin of how we got to where we are today. There are certain political leaders in this country who are on good terms with Marine Le Pen. And we’re supposed to just nod our heads and be like, "Oh yeah, legitimate concerns".
Yeah. The day Marine Le Pen lost the French election, LeaveEUOfficial’s Twitter account tweeted "RIP France". Now, I just thought LeaveEU stood for leaving the EU? Not the National Front! What? That’s very disturbing to me.
What was the most shocking thing you discovered in writing the book?
Not much surprised me, because I’ve had access to anecdotal evidence of racism while growing up. I’m from Tottenham and I’d hear a lot about "sus" laws and how that was being used to target black people. Sus laws were basically a clause in the 1824 Vagrancy Act that were used quite a lot in the '70s and '80s, and sort of gave the police the power to arrest and detain some people who look suspicious. And I’d heard quite a lot of people saying they’d been stopped using that. I also heard a lot about housing discrimination. I think if you grow up black in Britain, you know that something is up – and when people didn’t have access to the census data or the Office for National Statistics or Department for Education, they knew. I was in a position to go out and find that information, and it confirmed what people had been telling me basically all my life.
I think most white people don’t understand what it’s like to grow up knowing that the system is rigged against you, knowing that no matter what situation you find yourself in, the colour of your skin could disadvantage you. The only thing I could do reading your words was compare it to the people in my family who’ve had those experiences, and to my own experience of being trans, but I think if I didn’t have those two things, I’d be even more clueless than I am now. How can we increase people’s empathy?
I think that more broadly, the system is not set up to elicit sympathy for the people who are not winning out of the system. I talk about fiction in the book and fictional representation. It’s one of the most effective vehicles for empathy that we’ve got in the modern world. As somebody who’s always been a fiction lover, I learned very quickly to empathise with white stories, because they were everywhere, and white people were at the centre of every narrative I read. But I think very few white people have learned to empathise with non-white stories. And that’s evidenced in the extreme backlash each time that a casting director or a novelist or someone like that attempts to blackify a beloved white character. People start saying it’s political correctness or it's multiculturalism. And it’s like I do believe that there’s lots of elements of the human experience that all of us can relate to, but they have thus far been communicated through white eyes.
There’s a great line in the book where you talk about people getting upset about Hermione being cast as a black girl in a stage production of Harry Potter and you say, "The imagination of black Hermione’s detractors can stretch to the possibility of there being a secret platform at King’s Cross station that can only be accessed by running through a brick wall, but they can’t stretch to a central black character." It just shows how blind people can be to their own inconsistencies.
As a final question, I wanted to ask you: what would your advice be to anyone reading this who wants to wake up?
First off, don’t look at the bigger picture and then feel demoralised. In fact, feel defiant. I think that’s really important. Find a support network. Find ways to switch off when you need to. And get stuck in, in whatever way you feel you can best bring change, whether that is literally by giving financial support to a chronically underfunded organisation that is working on these issues, or whether that’s admin support, volunteering, or having difficult conversations with people who are much more likely to listen to you than others. Just do what you can, when you can!