Freedom of speech doesn’t mean the right to say what you want without rebuttal.
It has been three years since this book was published (and six years since the original blog post that spawned this book was published) but, unfortunately, none of the sentiments in it are out of place in 2020. This is made clearer by the fact that it recently topped the UK book charts, three years after publication, making Reni Eddo-Lodge the first black British author ever to do so.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that 2020 has been an absolute dumpster-fire of a year. The worst year since – well, if we’re being honest, the latter part of this decade has been pretty lacklustre. Things have been building up for a while. People have been saying “next year is my year!” for the past five years. And each time a new year began, it became evident fairly quickly that it was going to be full of the same
bullshit injustices we’d seen before. This year is a culmination of all previous years. All the bad that’s happened in the past has come to a head and, as a result, we’ve been introduced to the very worst of humanity.
Sure, John Krasinski’s Some Good News was one of the most heart-warming things to come out of the pandemic. It showed the very best of us. But all of that was trumped pretty soon after. Sometimes, the news likes fanning the flames, fear-mongering, making everything worse. But in some cases, there’s really no way to spin things except how they’re playing out.
The pandemic had already affected people’s emotions. Everyone went a little more insane with each day that passed. And then Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who felt confident enough in his position and the concessions he’d be granted, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Long enough to lead to Floyd’s death. This was covered worldwide, and the ramifications are still being felt, especially in some US cities – like Portland, where POTUS, Donald Trump, has ordered more aggressive action against protestors.
I write all this to frame my review of Eddo-Lodge’s book in the context of today’s world. Back in 2017, when it was published, things were slightly different. Racism was a problem, of course, as it always has been, as well as prejudice and discrimination. But this book wasn’t a direct response to any particular event that happened. It was more general, focusing on the history of racism (mainly in Britain) and other issues connected with it.
Reading it now, even though it focuses mostly on Britain’s relationship with racism and discrimination, it’s impossible not to relate it to everything else. I think that a person of colour, no matter which country they come from, if they are a minority, they will be able to relate to all that Eddo-Lodge has written. But what is so brilliant about this book is that it also speaks of racism and its relation to class and feminism. Eddo-Lodge separates the book into seven essays (Histories; The System; What is White Privilege?; Fear of a Black Planet; The Feminism Question; Race and Class; There’s No Justice, Just Us) and each of them does their job well, offering up several nuggets of wisdom. I started highlighting quotes that really stood out to me, and suddenly found myself highlighting every second paragraph.
The children of immigrants have quietly assimilated to demands of colour-blindness, doing away with any evidence of our culture and heritage in an effort to fit in. […] We’ve kept our gripes to ourselves, and changed our appearances, names, accents and dress in order to fit the status quo. […] Forget politician-speak about Britain being a tolerant country. Being constantly looked at like an alien in the country you were born in requires true tolerance.
I am not black, and I’ve always felt uncomfortable calling myself a ‘person of colour’ because I am white-passing, but I have felt discrimination before. Nowhere near as bad as some others, but I do understand the feeling of being judged before you’ve even spoken, of stereotypes being assigned to you and everyone in your community. Every time I meet someone’s eye as I pass them on the street, my instant reaction is to smile, just to prove that I am a nice person, a good person, that I don’t pose a threat. It’s truly exhausting, feeling like you have to earn your place in the world, or be given permission to exist.
Reading this book was both eye-opening and infinitely relatable. I learned so much about the history of racism in Britain, and how the English compare themselves to America, forgetting their own actions in the slave trade. Like musician Dave says in his piece titled Black, “They say ‘you should be grateful, we’re the least racist.’ I say, the least racist is still racist.” I think Australians emulate that to an extent too – claiming that Australia is doing better than the US when it comes to racism, inadvertently sweeping everything our country was built on under the rug. It doesn’t help when our actual Prime Minister says we have no history of slavery.
There is also an important discussion about white feminism, and the idea that white female feminists often forgo including POC women into their narrative. Eddo-Lodge writes about her experiences with feminism groups that became defensive when she tried to connect with black feminists, like they felt she was going against everything they stood for, or purposely trying to create a divide. What they failed to understand is that there already was a divide. A woman can relate to another woman, of course, but the struggles of black women compared to white women are different. Whereas it is only a matter of gender for white women, black and other women of colour have to fight two battles. This is not an attempt to discredit feminism. Rather it is a way to make white women understand that feminism is not feminism if it fails to recognise the struggles of minorities and POC. Feminism, at its core, advocates for equality among people, no matter their birth and background. It is disingenuous to say that we shouldn’t separate it into sub-categories. The separation is there. Not acknowledging it will just make it harder for the right work to be done, to allow for a true feminist utopia to emerge.
Not only does Eddo-Lodge have brilliant and highly intelligent insights, everything she discusses is backed up by multiple studies and statistics, which all paint a rather bleak image of both Britain’s past and present.
When the Trades Union Congress looked at data from the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey, they found that black employees where dealing with a growing pay gap in comparison to their white counterparts, and that this pay gap actually widened with higher qualifications. Black people with education up to GSCE level were paid 11 percent less. Black people with A-levels saw an average of 14 percent less pay, and university-educated black graduates saw a gap of, on average, 23 percent less pay than their white peers.
Many of the information is shocking but, at the same time, not surprising. If you’ve paid any attention to any time in history, everything written in the book will stir up many emotions inside you – I know that happened to me – but it won’t be unexpected. It’s like foreshadowing in fiction. When you read a well-written book, you don’t pick up on the foreshadowing elements, but when you get to the end and there’s an enormous reveal or plot twist, it’ll all link up in your head. Because your brain picked up on those hints throughout, even if you didn’t realise it. For us, in the present, we can look around and wonder how racism became such a prevalent problem in our society, shake our heads at the injustice of it all, be in disbelief about how anyone can treat others as though they’re inferior. But really, we only have to cast our minds back a few years, a few decades, and we’ll find all the foundation that was laid out, all the foreshadowing hints that were sprinkled all over the pages of history. What else could all of that have led to?
But the book is not completely without hope. We cannot change the past. All we can do is learn from it, and work to never repeat it. Eddo-Lodge wraps up the book with suggestions about how white people disgusted by the truths she’s speaking can be supportive.
Anti-racist work […] needs to be led by the people at the sharp end of injustice. […] White support looks like financial or administrative assistance to the groups doing vital work. Or intervening when you are needed in bystander situations. Support looks like white advocacy for anti-racist causes in all-white spaces. White people, you need to talk to other white people about race. Yes, you may be written off as a radical, but you have much less to lose. … If you feel burdened by your unearned privilege, try to use it for something, and use it where it counts. But don’t be anti-racist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there’s very little praise to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful.
It’s such an important distinction to make – that POC and minorities should be at the head of causes and organisations, and that white people should act as a support, because white people, no matter how hard they try, they can never truly understand the plight of a POC or a minority. It’s not possible because the colour of their skin has given them a power that they didn’t ask for, but they have anyway. Even if they’ve had struggles – as everyone has had – that doesn’t put them in the position to lead the fight against injustice. White people, it’s time to step back. Let POC and minorities step into the spotlight and listen to what they have to say.
One thing white people shouldn’t do is keep touting that old phrase, “I don’t see colour.” It is this sort of colour-blindness that will lead to a halt in progress. We have to see colour because seeing colour means seeing people. It means seeing the struggles of POC and changing our ways to make POC lives better. And, let’s be honest, nobody actually ever means it. It’s basically impossible to not see colour. So let’s all stop pretending, and instead start confronting our own prejudices, biases, unearned privileges, and learning what we can do to be supportive allies, people who champion the diversity in the world, and shine a light on differences in others.
I can go on talking about this book forever. I have a whole document with tonnes of quotes, but I think it’d be better to just encourage everyone to read the whole book. It isn’t a long book. The pages fly by because the subject matter is so interesting, and well-written. Eddo-Lodge’s writing is captivating and very readable. Nothing is bogged down with too many numbers or names, and there are discussions/interviews with white people, and mixed-race people, which help add to the overall narrative. In the newest version of the published book, she’s written an aftermath – an epilogue that outlines the kinds of changes and events that happened in the world after the book was published – which I found very enlightening.
If you’re British, you have to read this book. If you’re white, you have to read this book. If you’re a POC/a minority, you have to read this book. If you are a part of the human race, you have to read this book.
If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be as small as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. It can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.
Resources for further reading/watching/learning: