Books

Why I’m No Longer Talking to Anyone about Anything

A Black Lives Matter protest in New York City in 2016. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s response to racism is self-defeating.

Reni Eddo-Lodge is tired of talking to white people about race. And judging by the reception to her first book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, she isn’t the only one: It won three awards and sold to several thousand readers — many of whom, as it happens, were white.

Why the weariness? Well, white people simply don’t listen. Articulate your experience as a person of color and “you can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals.” Britain and America were built on racism, and white folks don’t want to admit it — “even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening.”

Ironically, Eddo-Lodge holds a special resentment for the white people who don’t see wish to see her as black. Their “shallow understanding” of racial history frustrates her more than actual racism. And “worse still is the white person who might be willing to entertain the possibility of said racism, but who thinks we enter this conversation as equals. We don’t.”

How to cure these specimens of their illness? Don’t dare speak a word, or they might have the audacity to converse with you as a human being. The only way to strip white people of their privilege is to dismantle the structures that gave it to them. “The mess we are living in is a deliberate one,” Eddo-Lodge writes. “If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a selfish, hoarding few.”

This is a rare moment of insight in a remarkably confused polemic: Almost every human society was built upon brutal exploitation, and social justice consists of repairing those mistakes. But it leads Eddo-Lodge to the alarming conclusion that attempts to get past race are “tantamount to compulsory assimilation.” They do nothing to address “structural racism,” the hidden features of society that distribute power and privilege on racial grounds. “Equality,” then, simply “doesn’t quite cut it” — Eddo-Lodge doesn’t want to be included in Western culture; she wants to “question who created the standard in the first place.”

Her answer, of course, is white people — not individual white people, but all white people. In her view, a white baby born into a working-class family tomorrow will grow up to be as responsible for today’s racism as the slave owners of the 18th century, because both uphold the same racist institutions that “people of color are subject to daily.”

Nobody should have to point out the stupidity of such a position: Inner trauma and tyranny are not passed through generations via melanin. But it is worth pointing out that it is also morally reprehensible — and, worse yet, a recipe for social disaster.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that white people are responsible for their ancestors’ actions — let’s assume that every white person, rich or poor, has a duty to alleviate the “burden” of “their unearned privilege.” According to Eddo-Lodge’s own ideology, that duty can never be fulfilled. There is no undoing history; slavery cannot be eradicated from the past. And if the “impenetrably white” nature of British and American culture renders any attempts to place less emphasis on a person’s skin color part of the problem, then the only path left to whites is to view their very existence as a fixed obstacle to progress. One wonders what Eddo-Lodge might think of the 360,000 white Union soldiers who died in the fight against slavery in America. Were they just ignorantly upholding a supremacist hierarchy, or might they have been human beings who sacrificed their lives precisely in order to undermine it?

The answer is the latter, in case there was any doubt — but Eddo-Lodge’s diatribe certainly wouldn’t give you that impression. She readily defends atrocity after atrocity in order to shift the blame from bigots onto an all-pervasive white pathology. The systematic rape of young white girls by Asian gangs in Rotheram is dismissed as a consequence of “Western objectification of flesh;” the absence of black girls in mainstream softcore pornography is labeled a regrettable symptom of white beauty standards. Eddo-Lodge’s book is not a path to combat racism, but a defeatist apology for it. Racists are no longer agents, but the puppets of an omnipresent sin.

People of color are turned into puppets, too. There is hardly a mention of their remarkable achievements, perhaps because that would be playing into the narrative that the pervasiveness of racism in society has altered over time. Instead, we are told that “to be white is to be human; to be white is universal” — “their skin color is the norm and all others deviate from it.” Racism, for Eddo-Lodge, is a particular phenomenon located in a specific place in time, so justice can only be achieved by redressing the unique historical differences between groups. It follows that “seeing race is essential to changing the system of white supremacy” — striving for color-blindness offers nothing but the illusion of racial progress.

Except that it doesn’t. Color-blindness is the very ethical aspiration that has enabled racial progress. Clearly, it is an illusion — human beings will always see color. But the goal must always be to stop humans from forming tribes on the basis of such a superficial trait. Though there should be no need to make this point, I will do so anyway: We must learn that the differences between groups pale in comparison to the differences between individuals.

Our societies did not begin that way, and that is our original sin. But the path to atonement is racial unity, not more division. There is a pressing conversation to be had about the continued existence of racism in Western societies: on our streets, in our institutions, and in our national stories. We need to talk about race precisely in order to ensure that we can stop talking about it one day — the horrors of history are not a trap, but an instructional tool.

What’s so painful about this book is that it rejects the possibility that people of all colors should continue this fight together. It makes the assumption that peaceful pluralism is the historical human default, and that a balance sheet is required to find a path toward reconciliation. The reality is that bloody misery has always been the default, and tolerance the exception — progress is an ugly but necessary struggle. To adopt Eddo-Lodge’s own phrase, “solidarity is nothing but self-satisfying if it is solely performative.”

When she concludes, “I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race,” Eddo-Lodge caveats her statement with “not all white people” — only the “majority” that apparently “refuses to accept the existence of structural racism.” “Structural racism” is a term that even she admits can “feel and sound abstract,” and yet nowhere in the entire book does she explain how she arrived at the conclusion that the “majority” of white people deny its existence. Her own usage of it often conceals the fact that structures are created and implemented by people. If you wish to improve those structures, you can either solve particular problems or create something entirely new — you can either build upon faulty foundations or try your hand at utopia. Disparities between races are not necessarily the result of structural bias — the real story is usually far more complicated.

In the opening chapter, Lodge describes her visit to a former slave port in the British city of Liverpool. “Walking past the city’s oldest buildings, I felt sick,” she writes. “Everywhere I looked, I could see slavery’s legacy.” I found her words incredibly moving, but I could not help but wonder whether she’d consider the pit in my own stomach legitimate. I won’t mention my skin color, because I don’t believe it should matter. All I know is that I felt sick reading of slavery’s atrocities, too. I felt sick when I visited the Cambodian killing fields and saw the trees that the Khmer Rouge used to hang children. I felt sick listening to the testimony of an Auschwitz survivor. A person’s skin color does not make him less able to feel a wound. We should all be thankful that it does not make him less able to help heal a wound, either.

This kind of ritualized anti-racism is what truly provides the illusion of racial progress. Who counts as an ally in the fight for justice? Anybody who can help justice win. Challenging bigotry is a struggle, one that takes broad coalitions. People’s suffering should not be commodified on the grounds of their skin pigmentation. If we decide that our ancestors have cast limits on our conversations, we will lose the ability to talk about anything at all. And that, far from freeing us, will only help those who wish to set our divisions in stone.

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