Personal reflections on “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race”
I’ve recently read “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Reading it has compelled me to write about my reaction to the book, the issues it raises and the self-reflection it has led to. I probably started the book in a different place to where I finished it, and I openly acknowledge that I am only just starting my journey from being (comfortably and quietly) not-racist to becoming anti-racist.
Before I continue with this piece, I have to say that I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone to write it. In all honesty, I have put off writing it because I am scared of saying the wrong thing or using the wrong language or upsetting someone with my views or clumsily expressed comments. But, if I let those fears hold me back, then I really haven’t moved very far from where I started. So, I am going to write it anyway. And I’m not saying that because I want a pat on the back for pushing myself, this is not about me. I wanted to admit that I have found it a difficult topic to write on because racism and anti-racism isn’t something we talk about openly.
One of the things that I worried about is the language I should use to describe people from different ethnic groups, recognising of course that any aggregate term hides a multitude of granular views and experiences. Reni Eddo-Lodge uses people of colour in her book and so I will do the same.
Is the book a balanced view from every perspective, exploring counter arguments to the issues it puts forward? Well I don’t think it is – and I’ll admit that as I started to read it, my initial reaction was “well what about the other side of the argument”? And then I realised what I meant was “I’m sure there were reasons behind the behaviours of those white people”. And as I read on, I quashed those thoughts because they were the exact white reaction that Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about – a tendency to push things under the carpet and quietly pretend they aren’t happening. And so, it is absolutely appropriate that this book is written from a perspective that doesn’t look for the reasons why white people/white created systems behave in the way they do – in ways that disadvantage people of colour. The book is unapologetically not about excusing or explaining white behaviour and reading it made me listen to what was being said and it made me ashamed that these experiences have fallen on seemingly deaf ears for so long. This book is the most immersive thing I have read or encountered about what it feels like to be a person of colour. In fact, as I read it, it dawned on me that I have never had an honest conversation with a person of colour about their day-to-day experiences – I am/have been far too white British to approach such an uncomfortable subject.
Reni Eddo-Lodge describes white people as emotionally disconnecting when a person of colour describes their experience. She describes us as defensive and bewildered when someone talks about an experience different to our own. She says “You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.” Her conclusion is that this “stems from living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm”. She tells us that the “positive affirmations of whiteness are so widespread that the average white person doesn’t even notice them.” Surely the most heart-breaking image in the book is Reni’s account of her 4-year old self asking her mother when she will grow up to be white.
Did I see myself, or the things that I say, reflected in her somewhat scathing account of how white people approach issues of racism? Yes, I did. Did it make me feel uncomfortable? Yes, it did. Do I think that the author would consider me a bad person? No, I don’t. But what she has made me realise is that I have never had to actively think about my colour before I decide how to act, the decisions I make or the things I do. So unless I consciously think about, and find out about, how it feels to have an opposite experience, how am I ever going to recognise how I can change the things that have such a negative impact on the lived experiences of people of colour?
Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 – I was 19. I remember it being a “bad thing” but I didn’t feel like it had anything to do with me. It was something that “happened over there”, it was tragically sad but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I sort of understood what was being said about institutional racism, but I felt it wasn’t part of my world or my responsibility. It wasn’t that I didn’t care – like most, I was shocked and saddened (he was the same age as me so I related on that level) but I didn’t understand the enormity of it beyond one family’s tragedy. Roll forward 27 years and I look at my 13 year old daughter’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd. She is 6 years younger than I was when Stephen Lawrence was killed but she is angry, she is outraged, and she is prepared to be public with her views. She has put herself out there on social media, criticising people who mounted White Lives Matter or All Lives Matter campaigns in response to Black Lives Matter. It drives her crazy that people try to dumb down or counteract the Black Lives Matter movement – the point is that a black person’s life didn’t seemed to matter at the hands of white police brutality. At first, the “comfortable, white, don’t rock the boat” me was thinking “be careful, don’t put yourself out there, you’re too young to cope with the backlash you might get from disagreeing with people”. Then I read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s powerful book and now I am deeply proud of my daughter’s willingness to speak out and be anti-racist rather than just “not racist”.
I’ll give another example of the difference between me and my daughter on the issue of race and racism. We both love to watch EastEnders and there was recently a story line where Keegan, a black young adult, is repeatedly stopped by police and questioned. The story line reaches a pitch where Keegan is wrongly accused of assaulting a police officer. Coincidentally his white uncle in law (Jack) is a senior police officer and eventually secures a copy of the video footage that will clear Keegan’s name. He gives a copy to Keegan and asks him to keep it to himself, assures him that the evidence will clear his name, the issue will go away quietly. That’s ok right? Jack did the right thing (under the radar) so he gets to a) feel good about himself and b) keep his job. But that’s not enough for Keegan – he wants to tell the world about the injustice he has suffered and posts the footage on social media. As Keegan goes to press send, the white middle-aged me sitting comfortably in her own skin (pun intended) on the sofa is screaming, “don’t do it, keep the peace, don’t get Jack sacked – he (Jack) did the right thing, you (Keegan) should be thanking him, you shouldn’t be risking Jack’s job”. Meanwhile my daughter is 100% delighted that he posts the footage – “it needs to be out there, people need to know about the injustice” she says, “so what if a white guy loses his job, he should have spoken out for Keegan, not just given him the video footage”. So, BAM it hits me – right there I am that person that Reni Eddo-Lodge talks about in her book. The one that doesn’t call out the systemic problems. The one that simply hides behind personal outrage that other people are treated badly but doesn’t confront the perpetrators. The one who shuts her eyes and fills her ears with treacle. The one who experiences the whole thing through the eyes of the white police officer rather than the wronged black young man. Looking back just a few months, I can’t believe in that scenario my inclination was to create white Jack as the hero. Sure, he did a bit of the right thing but not enough. I am ashamed of that now. I genuinely don’t think I would have felt like that if I had read “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” first.
The book talks about how the various systems in our society are not equal and how they systemically favour white people – as a white person I didn’t see this until it was pointed out to me, and now I need to think differently because me being not racist in the corner won’t be enough to change things. The NHS, the Police, education, housing associations, bus companies, are some of examples in the book where a systemic and cultural bias which favours white people has embedded inequality and unfairness into our organisations and the fabric of our society in ways that I suspect are invisible to many of us.
So, I think that people with the privilege of not having to think about the colour of their skin should read this book. But that’s not enough, we can’t just nod sagely and say how terrible it must be to be a person of colour in this unfair world. We should go much further and commit to what we are going to change as a result. For me it starts like this:
- We need to be far more conscious of, and honest about, the experience of people of colour being pushed down the agenda, dismissed or simply not thought about.
- We, particularly those of us in positions of influence or power, need to stop and think about what our decisions might mean for people who have a different lived experience to us by virtue of skin colour. And more than this, we shouldn’t assume that we know how to do this without properly speaking to people of colour about what our decisions mean to and for them.
- We need to acknowledge that, when we sit in a meeting and are faced with a sea of white faces, we are not hearing all voices. If we do not hear and listen to all voices, we will miss out on valuable insights, information and knowledge. A room full of white people will not make the best decisions. All white meetings are far too common an occurrence and this needs to be acknowledged and changed. We need to do much more to genuinely and authentically bring people of colour into the conversation and into the room so that a broader range of contributions is allowed to feed into decisions.
So, I commit to open my eyes, to clear my ear canals of treacle and to hear what people of colour are saying. I accept that at times it could be uncomfortable, that I might not like some of what I see or hear or know how to respond to it. But I will really try not to push this down or be defensive to protect myself from the experiences of others.
Miranda Routledge, Director of Planning
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students