Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Back in June, amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Mater movement, Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first black, British author to top the UK book charts. Although I purchased the book a few years ago, I felt like there was no better time to read it than now. This post is a little long but bear with me, because it is an important book with lots to unpack. You can fast forward to the snapshot pros and cons if you wish!

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

Reni-Eddo Lodge

Bloomsbury, 2017

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The long review

I’m going to start with the content, as I feel this really makes the book excel. Reni Eddo-Lodge takes a thematic approach to frame her argument and the entirety of the book. Essentially, she argues that the types of conversations we have about race in Britain need to drastically change. Instead of just acknowledging racism, white people need to realise the extent of their own unconscious bias and how deeply embedded this is within the parameters of British society.

Eddo-Lodge explores this argument with many different angles, including a brief historical overview of race in Britain, the criminal justice system, and analyzing the weaknesses of traditional feminist and class frameworks. Creating a thematic approach really enables the reader to understand how racism has been so built into our present system and what me must do to de-tangle it.

I particularly enjoyed reading the feminism section as it was truly eye opening and made me realise the limitations of its traditional white origins. Eddo-Lodge argues, “Feminism needs to demand a world in which racist history is acknowledged and accounted for, in which reparations are distributed, in which race is completely deconstructed.” I also really benefited from her explanation of white privilege, “Neutral is white. The default is white” and know that I will use this understanding to frame my own discussions I have with people about race.

Image: Women’s march, 2017, via Wikimedia

I also particularly enjoyed the section exploring race and class and how they are so interlinked. In Britain, the working-class paradigm is often presented within a dominant white framework, excluding people of colour. When importantly, people of colour share these struggles, but also are even more disadvantaged than the white working class, because of the colour of their skin. Someone who is white and working class, is more likely to get an interview for a job, than the same black candidate who applied – and Eddo-Lodge shows this through her use of alarming statistics. Thus, it is essential to include race within working-class discussions and identities because it is so relevant to Britain’s political consensus (Brexit, for example) and widening the debate.

Eddo-Lodge writes with clarity and a wealth of knowledge which makes the book incredibly digestible. Her argument is clear and carried throughout all the chapters, and it’s hard to come away not feeling completely compelled by it and further, questioning everything you have learned about race and the history of this country. It’s a book that undeniably makes you think at every stage and will cause you to re-assess everything about your own identity and attitude towards race.

The book was born from an initial blog post which was given the same title, but the argument remains the same. Eddo-Lodge argues that until we change the way we talk about race, due to the lack of ’emotional disconnect’ fostered from white people, and their refusal to accept structural racism, the types of conversations about race had are simply not worth having. The book was born from this frustration and I can see why she chooses to frame it in this way. In the first instant that the reader lays eyes on the title, they are encouraged to question their own potential bias and misunderstandings about race.

Image: Cover of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s podcast, that can be found via Spotify

The narrative of struggle outlined by Eddo-Lodge is laced with emotion and frustration and this becomes evident with the direct language she uses. It makes the reader unable to hide from the realities that she presents and is in many ways, a good thing. However, I do not think this approach would be preferable to every reader and fear that those who could perhaps benefit from reading this the most, are left out of the conversation. Of course, I understand that she is frustrated about talking to white people about issues they can never understand and how one sided this can be, however, not all white people are like this and I think this polarisation does not benefit the importance of widening the conversation.

Nevertheless, everything is explained in such a clear way, that I completely see why so many people have been drawn to this book and used it as a starting point. It is very accessible but at the same time, full of detail and complexity. Above all, she provides an essential and nuanced framework for discussing race and what it is like to be a person of colour today, but particularity living in Britain. Britain very much needed this book – and everyone could benefit from reading it.

Image: Pixabay

Pros

  • The structure provides a clear overview of Britain’s racial history and the problems faced today within every aspect of society
  • The language and approach is easy to follow, making it an accessible read for everyone
  • It provides an explanation of the best language to use when making these important discussions about race which I found very useful
  • It is a book which will always be relevant – and is framed in a way that is timeless and essential for people to understand how Britain got where it is today
  • It’s short and concise so will not take that long to read
  • It’s bold language and statements will make you challenge everything you know about race and your own privilege – it will make you think, re-assess and make changes

Cons

  • Although I understand the purpose of the title and the reasoning behind it, I don’t necessarily feel it is the best way to get more people to read this book. It is deliberately inflammatory and I can appreciate why, but not everybody will. Some people will just refuse to read the book, based on the title alone
  • Her bold and assertive approach will not be for everyone and may not work for those who perhaps could benefit the most from reading this book

Key quotes

“We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.”

Colour blindness does not accept the legitimacy of structural racism or a history of white racial dominance.”

Feminism will have won when we have ended poverty.”

Like many others, I am still learning about the best ways to talk about race. As always, If you think I need to phrase something differently or I’ve said something out of line – please let me know. I won’t take offence but will be thankful you have pointed it out.

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Currently reading: a tag

I came across this neat little tag from Blair’s blog, you can see the post here. Looked like fun so I thought I’d join in… Here goes.

How many books do you usually read at once?

Now, when I was younger I used to be so bad at this and find myself reading five or six books at once. I’ve learned to reign this in a bit and now usually read between 2-3. Most of the time I read one fiction or one non-fiction or will be breading one physical book, mixed between an eBook on my Kindle.

Do you ever switch bookmarks partway through a book?

Nope – to be honest I struggle to use a bookmark most of the time I read.. Usually it’s a random piece of paper or a sticky note! Or worse.. a folded down page (:o)

Where do you keep the book(s) you’re currently reading?

They usually end up all over the place to be honest! But I tend to place them on the arm of the sofa where I like to curl up and read, or my Kindle will be on my bedside table.

What time of day do you read most?

It tends to be in the morning – during isolation I’ve been reading first thing when I get up as my brain feels freshest, I usually use this time to read non-fiction. I tend to read more fiction in the evening or before bed as it requires less concentration…

How long do you typically read in one session?

If it’s a short snippet, anywhere between 30-50 pages. If I read for an hour or so it will be more than that, but it depends on the book (and if I’m enjoying it or not haha)

Do you read hardbacks with the dust jacket off?

Always try and avoid hardbacks at all cost but YES the jacket has to be removed so it doesn’t get scuffed and flap about, can’t deal with that.

What position do you mainly use to read?

Usually curled up on the sofa or in my bed with my knees up, resting the book on a pillow. But I can read on my Kindle in any position as it’s so lightweight.

Do you take your current read with you everywhere you go?

Usually – yes. When I’m working I like to read my book on the commute and on lunch breaks. But alas, I am not working at the moment due to COVID-19.

How often do you update your Goodreads reading progress?

Usually only at the end, but the other day I did a mini review in the middle of a read, which was interesting. Sometimes it can be nice to know what people think mid way through a read I think.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

  1. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  2. Green and Pleasant Land by Stephen Shahbazian (a Reedsy book, still awaiting publication)
  3. Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac

I tag… (and anyone else who wants to do it too!)

Book Review: Why I Write

Title: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1946/2004

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview

Why I Write is an extended essay by George Orwell, that discusses a range of topics. Orwell begins the essay with outlining his motivations for writing. Famously, Orwell wanted “to make political writing into an art”. (Hence Animal Farm and 1984…)

Orwell gives the historical and political background to England, writing during the context of World War Two, with the rise of Fascism across Europe. He discusses the ‘Nation’ and why it fails as a concept in England – mostly, he argues, because England has forever been a country of equal wealth, thus we can never be regarded as a common entity.

Orwell also discusses socialism in the practical and ideological sense. In simple terms, economic socialism believes all commodities and ownership should be regulated by the state, rather than private companies and individuals. In theory, this should reduce the inequality that capitalism naturally produces, when wealth is in the hands of a few. Socialism also promotes equality, freedom, and opportunity for all.

Additionally, Orwell focuses on the influence of the media in shaping political opinion and includes the construction of language in this. The use of language is deliberate and its connection to politics is undeniable – it influences political understanding through the construction of events. Orwell argues, it has a strict purpose, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” – any of this starting to sound very relevant?…

Orwell ends the essay with a set of writing rules to avoid creating false meaning, which is often fostered by political rhetoric.

Orwell’s writing rules
Source: Rough House Media

Above all, this essay makes the imperative case for socialism, set in the context of World War Two. Although miles apart from today, the sad endurance of his argument reigns true.

Review and analysis

I’ll say it straight away – I loved this essay and wanted to commit every sentence to memory. Orwell has the capacity to say everything with such coherency that I always almost think about giving up on the ambition to be a writer… Will there ever be a greater communicator than Orwell?

It was the relevance of this essay that made me enjoy reading it so much. Although it was written a long time ago, and in an incredibly different context, the message for political change is something that transcends time. Orwell argues for the necessity of socialism, something I also believe in, but he does so in such an eloquent and damning way, that I think even the most staunch Conservative could get behind him… (possibly!)

Orwell outlines the reasons for why the general public are against socialism and identifies this as its failing point, if socialism can never be mainstream, then how is it ever going to achieve change? I found myself making stark similarities to today’s political climate in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the most ardent champion of socialism in the Labour party for a generation, was unable to win a General election (twice) – but the party’s membership was the largest its ever been.

Labour Party Rally
Source: Labour List

In the last election (2019) Labour had a massive defeat and was criticized for failing to get the masses on its side, as the election was overshadowed by Brexit. This and voters’ opposition to socialism resulted in another Tory majority. Orwell argues that people are opposed to socialism as they perceive of it as taking away from their livelihood (in the form of paying more taxes). People think in terms of individualistic economics, rather than the greater good. And what has changed there?

Orwell also includes a four point program for political change, which has striking similarities to Corbyn’s Labour manifesto’s.

On his agenda is nationalization, limitations of income and a minimum wage, educational reform and the dismantling of private education, and an alliance of equality with India. The last point is an anomaly, given that Orwell is writing before de-colonization, this was the only thing I had a problem with. He isn’t radical enough about India and destabilizing the Empire – as he disagrees that India should have free reign from Britain. But again, context is key. This kind of paternalism enforced on other nations, was still in mainstream thought at this time.

As well as outlining the merits of socialism, Orwell describes the failures of capitalism in its creation of unequal wealth, which is unable to allow the progression of the masses. This results in vast, historic, class inequality in Britain, and negates the idea that Britain is a, ‘nation’ of solidarity, but in fact, a country hugely divided by wealth and opportunity.

Orwell goes on to outline the problems with achieving political change and the inherent obstacles that are in the way – most notably, privilege. This is embodied within the origins of mainstream politicians, journalists and lawyers that run the country. Thus, it appears, we are still raging the same battle, which is depressing, but just goes to show how Orwell’s ideas transcend generations.

Furthermore, the failures of socialism are also discussed, the main one being the lack of mass appeal. Which I have always thought is ironic, as socialism is about the masses. However, Orwell makes a valid point in that unless socialism becomes the political mainstream, change will never happen. Centrist Labour policies are essentially a continuation, and thus, socialism needs to be at the centre of any Labour agenda (RIP Corbynism…)

Finally, I found the link Orwell makes between language and politics fascinating. He argues that, “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language…” in the sense that language can distort truth, and influence the political consensus. He brings to light how the language of nonsense and “fluff” can be used by politicians to distort reality and detract from blame.

Lack of understanding is therefore deliberately constructed to deliver false meaning. (*Coughs* Boris Johnson… *Coughs* Matt Handcock…) Which becomes pertinent when thinking about our mainstream, Conservative politicians we have the pleasure of sharing evenings with in the UK, for our daily COVID-19 briefings….Just listen to one of these, and Orwell’s argument about language and politics will be demonstrated.

Too often politicians use the language of buffoonery which alienates their responsibility of answering the question and facing up their reality of failure. Therefore, the public are left in the dark and truth is obscured.

This is a classic Orwell essay, with a message that reigns true. Which is both worrying on the one hand, but on the other, pays homage to the efficiency, clarity, and enduring message of Orwell’s thought. It transcends historical and political contexts and puts forward the type of change we still need today.

“it is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free.”

My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.