In the first chapter of her book Eddo-Lodge recounts a story from 1919, seven months after the end of the First World War. In Liverpool, where post-war employment opportunities were scarce, a hundred black factory workers lost their jobs without warning. White workers refused to work with them. The same month “a Caribbean man was stabbed in the face by two white men after an argument over a cigarette”. Street fights and police raids of black homes followed, culminating in the tragic death of a twenty-four-year-old seaman called Charles Wootton. A white mob threw him into the water and, as he attempted to swim to safety, he was pelted by bricks until he sank. In the following days, white mobs marched the streets of Liverpool.
Later in that same chapter we read of Guy Bailey, a nineteen-year-old Jamaican man. In 1963 a local youth worker arranged a job interview for him with the Bristol bus service, having first confirmed that jobs were available and that Bailey possessed the necessary qualifications. On arrival, as Bailey recounted in a BBC interview almost fifty years later, he heard the Bristol Omnibus Company’s receptionist tell the manager “your two o’clock appointment is here. But he’s black.” The manager’s response was “Tell him we have no vacancies here.”
What makes Bailey’s story more remarkable – in that it stands out from a long, grinding history of such racism – is what followed. A local group had helped arrange that interview, and after its denial they arranged a press conference, and gathered support and sympathy from local students, politicians and press. Despite this, Guy’s experience and the group who championed his cause were ignored by the Transport and General Workers’ Union as well as the bus company itself. These two groups, ostensibly defined by a dynamic which pitted them against one another, were united by racism. Eddo-Lodge writes: “Racism had infected worker solidarity, with a union representative at the time insisting that more black workers would be taking away jobs for prospective white employees”.
The campaign continued for several months and included a boycott of the bus service by the city’s West Indian community. On August 27th, 1963 – the day before Martin Luther’s famous “I have a dream speech” halfway across the world – five hundred employees of the bus service met and agreed to discontinue their unofficial colour bar. This was rapidly affirmed by the bus service’s general manager. It was a victory, but one over antagonist organisations which have not, to this day, apologised for what Bailey experienced.
The first chapter of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is titled ‘Histories’. It begins with the author’s admission that “most of my knowledge of black history was American history. This was an inadequate education in a country where increasing generations of black and brown people continue to consider themselves British (including me).” The stories of Wootton’s lynching and the 1963 Bristol bus strike are not widely known. And another result of widespread British ignorance of our country’s history of racism is that it lends itself to exceptionalist thinking.
One example of this is the British notion that Britain’s record on the slave trade is better than most countries, whether because it led the way on abolition or still more spurious reasons. Another is the idea that – perhaps because historical Civil Rights movements in the USA were so prominent, perhaps because the post-Emancipation Proclamation horror stories of racist violence and murder in the US are quite widely taught, or perhaps a variety of other historical and contemporary reasons – that racism in the twentieth century has been largely an American problem in the Anglophone world. Yet another is the prominence of “colourblind” thinking that, in presupposing a ‘post-racial’ society, blinds itself to actually existing racism (an illustrative example of this outside the Anglophone world can be found in Salvage.zone’s interview with Selim Nadi of the French Parti des Indigènes de la République).
To put it concisely, by “eclipsing the black British story so much … we convince ourselves that Britain has never had a problem with race.” So in part this book attempts to be a corrective to such high-handed and superficial grasps of history. We begin with an exploration of black British history because that is where Eddo-Lodge herself began. And as good readings of history inevitably do, they guide our understanding deeper into new avenues of thought. We see how racism does not manifest from thin air, and is rather “in the very core of how the state is set up”.
In the chapters following ‘Histories’ Eddo-Lodge patiently unpacks, in clear and precise language, other concepts and areas of thought that are significant in holding an informed understanding of what race means in Britain today.
‘The System’ explores the systemic nature of racism in Britain. First the lived reality of this is illustrated with the Stephen Lawrence case and the Macpherson Report’s acknowledgement of the “institutional racism” of the London Metropolitan Police. Then the basic concept of what is meant by “structural racism”, and what it means to those who are subject to it, is outlined. An important breakthrough in any grasp of what racism is lies in grasping this concept, without which the foundations for receiving more sophisticated ideas are weak. ‘What is White Privilege?’ also attempts to define an idea that can be conceptually difficult for white people to grasp: “It’s so difficult to describe an absence …. an absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost”. This chapter covers the history of the term, compares it to other ‘invisible’ privileges, and provides personal anecdotes that illustrate the everyday nature of white privilege and its implications in social interaction and discourse. We are given insight into the experience of mixed-race people and how some people have been let down by the “colour-blind” worldviews of their parents.
‘Fear of a Black Planet’ tackles organised British racism in the form of the National Front, UKIP, the BNP and sundry other short-lived groups. This might be regarded as an easier argument to make, but Eddo-Lodge uses their rhetoric and the fear that motivates or under-girds it to turn the mirror on mainstream organisations, businesses, culture and politics. This includes those who have internalised an identity as socially liberal and anti-racist, but who nonetheless can behave in defensive or reactionary ways when challenged on (often unknowingly) racist statements, opinions or actions.
‘The Feminism Question’ addresses the importance of intersection between race and feminism in activism, theory and culture, beginning with how the white feminist perspective can be so easily centred and the ways in which this public discourse can be so easily poisoned by a lack of intersectional thought and reflection. Again, both personal experience and broader examples support the patiently articulated argument. This is followed by ‘Race and Class’, an answer to the question “what about class?” that “follows me everywhere I go. In it is an implication that it’s class, not race, that is the true battle to be fought in Britain – and that we have to choose between one or the other. I totally reject this assumption.” Eddo-Lodge breaks down the myth of the “white working class”, arguing strongly against this construction as neither representative of nor beneficial to the people who actually constitute the contemporary British working class, tying it back to the fears described in ‘Fear of a Black Planet’.
The book’s conclusion begins with a student asking when we get to the end point. They mean when racism is dealt with and is no longer a problem. The real conclusion is that there is no such ending, only a constant engagement, for the self a perpetual trying driven by learning and empathy, and for the community constant work to understand and deconstruct “warped power relations”. It’s not an easy or comforting answer, but it is the only honest one.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a valuable read whether you are only beginning to learn how to question yourself and how to engage critically with the power structures that surround you, or whether you already consider yourself on that journey. That it is moving and thoughtful as well as valuable only makes my recommendation of it more firm.