In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge weaves the narrative of Britain’s black history, white privilege within the system, and intersectional feminism. The result is an illuminating examination of what it means to be a person of color in predominantly white spaces. Eddo-Lodge’s book, which was seven years in the making, stems from a February 22th, 2014 viral blog post of the same name. In it, she wrote:
Why I’m No Longer Talking is somewhat of a paradox. Despite its title, Eddo-Lodge wholeheartedly encourages the discourse of race. More importantly, she emboldens readers of color to enter these conversations on their own terms. In the book, the British writer offers insightful examinations of structural systems that will leave readers reeling for days, weeks, months.
Of the system, she searingly writes: “I have no desire to be equal. I want to deconstruct the structural power of a system that marked me out as different.” And of the “dull, grinding complacency” of white privilege, she writes: “White privilege forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continuing existence.”
Eddo-Lodge’s analysis of feminism is equally compelling: “At the point in which feminism has become a placidly white movement that claims to work on behalf of all women, but doesn’t question its own overwhelming whiteness, we really need to think about starting again.” At a time when Time’s Up and #MeToo have been criticized for gaining influence solely due to wealthy white voices, Eddo-Lodge’s words strike a resilient chord.
In a Skype call with the London-based writer, I spoke to Eddo-Lodge about all things Why I’m No Longer Talking, Meghan Markle and the monarchy, and the creative work that shaped her political understanding. Below are insights from our interview.
On self-preservation when talking to white people about race:
“I’m very much from doing it on your terms. The blog post was me coming from a place of emotional exhaustion, and I still feel that every day. For me, the creation of the book was […] very much about entering the conversation on my own terms. What I say to readers of color particularly is find your tribe. Find the people you can organize with who get you and organize collectively on this. I wholeheartedly recommend my readers of color, in particular, to not get dragged into bad, fake conversations about race, in which there are many.
I have many white readers [who have] also — you know, the books been out now in the U.K. for 8 months — initiate those conversations by themselves. Emma Watson being one of them. I don’t know if it’s as simplistic or binary as, ‘White people won’t do anything and people of color have to do all the heavy lifting,’ [but] I’ve made it clear in the book that white readers who claim to be anti-racist — if they are doing it in an apathetic way, it’s not anti-racism at all. White people who can see that, surely there can be an urgency on their shoulders that they’ve got to do something now. You can’t just be leaving it to people directly affected.”
On reconstructing the exclusive system:
“For the last few years, I’ve been attempting to fundamentally take peoples ideas about what race and racism actually mean to our society. And now I’m concerned: Is it just gonna be consumed into the status quo, or are we actually gonna see some radical change?
I think about the opportunities that I have to speak and how I can then issue it amongst other voices that I know are saying more interesting things than me. These are things that people who are interested in reconstructing an exclusive system have to consider. I’m interested in how we can look back to the movement, pay back to the movement. I think Angela Davis has this quote, ‘Radical simply means grasping at the roots.’ Always looking to the root of things and examining the institutions that we’re in and asking ourselves: Why am I doing this? What is the point of this institution I’m in?
[Use] your skills, resources, and knowledge to try and change these structural problems in whatever place that you hold influence. I do consider myself to be part of the movement—part of the collective, participating in the movement. I’ve been doing that long before this book. I think I’ve made a contribution, [but] I don’t think I’ve provided a solution.”
On effectively and collectively discussing white privilege:
“[When] I set about the writing of this book, my aim was just that I’m gonna get it down on paper so I’m not dragged into these conversations where I have to dance around people’s feelings. That chapter on white privilege is, I think, 10,000 words of, ‘This is the clearest definition I can give you on this.’ The problem with these conversations with white people is they don’t want to listen. And I always say that reading is active listening. I’m not really convinced that a one-on-one conversation is the best way. Thus far, what I think is effective is getting the message across in creative work.
When I set about writing, it was a wholly therapeutic process. There’s a wealth of writing and artwork and film and television from creators of color for you to dip your toe into. The writings of James Baldwin explain these issues perfectly. If, as a person of color, you are feeling cornered, bullied, [or] harassed, then I don’t believe you have to engage in that conversation. You have the right to walk away. Make pointers to them: ‘Here’s something you can read. Here’s something you can watch.’ In the creating, you get to get your message across without somebody screaming at you. If you’re ever feeling cornered by these conversations, channel that frustration into something creative. That can be your contribution. I don’t believe in this face-to-face combat, argue it out nonsense people are pushing these days. I’m a sensitive person, so.”
On Meghan Markle’s historic addition to the British royal family, and whether she’ll retain her openness on racial identity in her new role:
“No, I don’t think she’ll be outspoken. Remember that Harry is probably not going to be king; [there are] too many people in line. Honestly, I’m not really one for the monarchy. I think it’s nice that they fell in love and got engaged. That’s lovely; I love love. I feel reticent to talk about the implications of this […] in the United Kingdom because it’s not like we elected our first black political leader. Instead, a prince chose somebody to be his wife. So, I’m reticent to put it on the same footing.
So no, I don’t have any predictions that she’s going to continue to talk openly about social issues since that’s not currently happening. Prince Harry is continuing to try to talk about social issues, but you’ve got to remember that one of the things about the royal family is they’re not allowed to be political. They can talk broadly about social issues but they can’t come out in favor of a political party or anything like that. But at the same time, they aren’t the couple who are in direct line for the throne, so I don’t want to second guess.”
On creating spaces where immigration is approached with compassion:
“Just totally reject the agenda of the [right-wing] on this topic, which is talking about immigrants like they’re here to drain resources. Donate to organizations [that] are supporting immigrants and refugees. Listen to the stories of immigrants and refugees. We’ve got this really interesting thing happening in the U.K. Well, it’s not so much interesting as utterly disgusting and devastating: First-generation immigrants who have been here for 30 years, 50 years, raised families here, are being deported. And it’s disgusting. And those are voices and stories that need to be boosted. Home is a very fragile place, and it’s gonna continue to be a fragile place.”
On the book that shaped her political understanding:
“The first book that fundamentally changed my understanding of the world is very old school: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. [It] provided me with the groundwork of my political understanding of the world today, in that structural oppression is a relationship. Particularly, she’s talking about the relationships between straight men and straight women, and how straight men benefit from [the oppression] of straight women. Straight women are dependent on straight men, which allows men to do the oppression. That discussion of the relationship between privilege and oppression is so important.
Structural racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a survival system of structural power to compound whiteness in power. They rely on racism to hang on to positions of power. That understanding of the relationship between those two things are like yin and yang. The Second Sex really gave me that.
Another thing she spoke about [was] how potential is hindered for women, and I figured that is something that is so applicable to all forms of oppression in society. And probably is one of the most grueling things about structural oppression. People’s life changes are hindered by it. People with great potential face roadblocks to [realizing] their potential. Meanwhile, those who benefit from systemic privilege—the most mediocre get to rise to the top. It’s totally unjust and something that needs to be utterly dismantled.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” is out now.