I, like so many people in the last few weeks, have added a lot of anti-racist books to my reading list. The majority of them were the sort of books that I should have read a long time ago but I’m really bad at reading non-fiction. Not just political or social non-fiction. There’s something about non-fiction that makes it seem so intense. It’s not the kind of reading that I think really works when you’re struggling to stay away. But, in the wake of yet another death at the hands of an American police officer, I knew that I had to do better. At the same time, I’d joined forces with some people I knew on Instagram to try and start a conversation about racism. We decided that we would all read this book and then talk about it as a group and with our followers. I know, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot but it’s all about making positive steps right now. Ideally, I’d be out showing my support but I can’t. So, I’ll use what small platform that I have to help spread a positive message. To help share other people’s stories. Starting with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
There are bound to be people who will read the title of this book and take massive offence. The same people who regularly bemoan leftist snowflakes will see this title as a racist attack on their white identity. But, using writer Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words, I’d quickly like to point out why that’s not true.
This is the difference between racism and prejudice. There is an unattributed definition of racism that defines it as prejudice plus power.
Obviously, the title of the book isn’t really an indication that Reni Eddo-Lodge is disowning white people. After all, one of the reasons that she wrote her book was to engage with white people on systemic racism and white privilege. These are things that she doesn’t need to teach black people about. They are all too aware.
It is merely an indication of her frustration at the backlash or stubbornness she is faced with when talking to white people about these issues. It’s more obvious to see in our society right now than it might have been a few years ago. We are getting updates about the Back Lives Matter protests which are being met with half praise and half criticism. You see it in all of the responses saying that all lives matter and not just black lives. Or the people angrily telling the Yorkshire Tea social media manager that instead of standing against racism they should be focusing on an issue that they care more about. Whether everyone sees it or not, we are living in a society that still refuses to accept the racism that has been secretly growing from its foundations for centuries.
But is Reni Eddo-Lodge’s the right book to change the conversation? Not entirely. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great read and a really good introduction to the issue of race in Britain. The way that she approaches parts of British history and relays modern events from her own perspective is bound to get people thinking about their own approach. The writing isn’t you traditional academic language, so people won’t feel alienated by an over-reliance on statistics and dates. Yes, she has clearly researched this but the book cares more about presenting this using her voice. It’s about what this information means to her as a black woman living in Britain.
There are plenty of white people out there who, whilst not overtly racist, would rather just not discuss race at all. This is problematic. Ignoring that a problem exists means you are, whether you mean to or not, buying into a system that has continually worked against non-white people for hundreds of years. They’re probably not even aware that they are doing it. As we see in the book, British history lessons are carefully tailored to present our colonial past in a positive light. Students hear about our daring missions to discover new places but are quite sketchy on the details. We hear about slavery and abolitionists through American history instead of our own. The closest we get the conversation is to quickly mention that Britain abolished slavery 33 years before America did. No, we like to paint over all of the unsavoury parts of our past and focus on the good.
But Reni Eddo-Lodge is here to show British people exactly how high the odds are stacked against non-white people in Britain. She does so in a way that she clearly hopes will strike a chord with readers. She is almost gleefully asking for rebuttal and it’s great. She pushes her side to a point that almost breaks through to attacking but always manages to bring it back. You get the feeling that this is a book written for a specific audience. Namely younger people. There are some fantastic sections where she makes terrific points but, most of the time, it feels as though she is barely scratching the surface. The most interesting sections have enough scope that they could fill a single book so it’s disappointing to delve into them so fleetingly. I also felt that the final sections were a bit rushed. Black feminism, in particular, is a weighty and important issue, which just seemed to be shoehorned in.
That’s my only real reservation with this book. People seem to be celebrating this as the kind of thing that every white person should read. I get that but I also think it should be said, this is only a conversation starter. There is a sense that this lacks the necessary depth and power need to make it a really pervasive anti-racist text. It’s got plenty of merit but it’s certainly not the end of the conversation. I think what I’m trying to say is, this is the kind of book that will resonate with people who already or are almost ready to buy into the idea of white privilege. However, it really isn’t going to change the mind of someone dead set against the idea. It’s full of great insights and really great quotes. I just wish it had more of a punch. I’m lucky enough that I studied Britain’s role in the slave trade when I was at university, so maybe it’s just me. I just felt that a lot of the points that she was raising had been made by other people in a stronger way.