Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race (which grew out of a blog post of the same name) interested me because -as an American- I tend to view race and racism through the lens of U.S. history. Consequently, I anticipated that Eddo-Lodge’s book would provide a different perspective on race, since she’s British. Yet, as an African correspondent recently reminded me, when the U.S. catches a cold, the world sneezes. Why I Am No Longer… is a good illustration of how the ideas of Critical Race Theory, which itself was birthed in the United States, are now circulating globally.
Race in the U.K.
While there’s no question that race and racism played a huge role in shaping the history of the United States, first through slavery and later through the Black Codes and segregation, Eddo-Lodge argues that it also played and continues to play a significant role in the United Kingdom. The U.K. was a major participant in the slave trade, which sent millions of Africans to the Americas as chattel. Moreover, slavery played a large role in the British colonies until its abolition. Since then, immigration from the Commonwealth has led to an influx of Caribbeans and South Asians to the predominantly Anglo-Saxon British Isles, such that “Black” as a collective category in England can encompass not only people who would be raced as “Black” in the U.S. but also Indians and Pakistanis.
Eddo-Lodge is quite right in pointing out how this fluidity shows “race” is a social construct that varies from culture to culture. However, she sees a deeper significance in that “Blacks” are linked by a common oppression. Because of their perceived race, she argues that “Blacks” or BMEs (“Black and minority ethnic”) are treated differently, subjected to negative stereotypes, denied access to resources, and cordoned off into ghettos. Here, Eddo-Lodge appeals to instances of police misconduct, racial violence, racial disparities, and racial discrimination that bear a striking resemblance to those discussed by activists in the U.S. These are issues that are worthy of careful analysis and should certainly not be dismissed. But the overarching framework through which Eddo-Lodge interprets them is questionable.
Racism As Systemic, Pervasive, and Hidden
When she explains racism, Eddo-Lodge focuses on its systemic manifestations: “looking at our history shows racism does not erupt from nothing, rather it is embedded in British society. It’s in the very core of how the state is set up. It’s not external. It’s in the system” (p. 56), “We seem to think that true racism only exists in the hearts of evil people. We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values, when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power… The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account… Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people [with the same biases], where anyone who falls outside of the culture must conform or face failure” (p. 63-64). “Research from a number of different sources shows how racism is weaved into the fabric of our world. This demands a collective redefinition of what it means to be racist, how racism manifests, and what we must do end it” (p. 65-66). “Racism does not go both ways. There are unique forms of discrimination that are backed up by entitlement, assertion and, most importantly, supported by structural power strong enough to scare you into complying with the demands of the status quo” (p. 98). “Whiteness positions itself as the norm. It refuses to recognize itself for what it is. Its so-called ‘objectivity’ and ‘reason’ is its most potent and insidious tool for maintaining power” (p. 169). “We need to see racism as structural in order to see its insidiousness. We need to see how it seeps, like a noxious gas, into everything” (p. 222).
Similarly, she is critical of colorblindness as an adequate response to (redefined) racism: “Colour-blindness is a childish, stunted analysis of racism.. [It] does not accept the legitimacy of structural racism or a history of white racial dominance” (p. 82-83). “[I]ndulging in the myth that we are all equal denies the economic, political, and social legacy of a British society that has historically been organised by race. The reality is that, in material terms, we are nowhere near equal. This state of play is violently unjust” (p. 83). “In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and to who power and privilege is bestowed upon –earned or not– because of their race, their class, and their gender. Seeing race is essential to changing the system” (p. 84).
White Privilege and Intersectionality
Eddo-Lodge discusses several other concepts that will be familiar to students of Critical Race Theory.
For example, Chapter 3 is entitled “What is White Privilege?” According to Eddo-Lodge, “To be white is to be human; to be white is universal” (p. xxi). This assumption of whiteness as the default and standard for humanity leads to “white privilege” which is an “absence of the negative consequences of racism” (p. 86). It is “the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it” (p. 87). Like Peggy McIntosh, who popularized the term “white privilege“, Eddo-Lodge also calls attention to how it is invisible to those who possess it: “So many white people think that racism is not their problem. But white privilege is instrumental to racism. When I write about white people in this book, I don’t mean every individual white person. I mean whiteness as a political ideology. A school of thought that favors whiteness at the expense of those who aren’t… Racism bolsters white people’s life changes. It affords them unearned power; it is designed to maintain a quiet dominance. Why don’t white people think they have a racial identity?” (p. 116).
She also devotes an entire chapter (5) to “The Feminism Question,” explaining that “feminism was my first love. It was what gave me a framework to begin understanding the world. My feminist thinking gave rise to my antiracist thinking, serving as a tool that helped me forge a sense of self-worth” (p. 151). After she began to be dissatisfied with “tiptoeing around whiteness in feminist spaces” (p. 154), she discovered black feminism and the concept of intersectionality, “‘looking at the ways race and gender intersect to create barriers and obstacles to equality'” (p. 156). Through the lens of intersectionality, she came to see that “Feminism, at its best, is a movement that works to liberate all people who have been economically, socially and culturally marginalized by an ideological system that has been designed for them to fail. That means disabled people, black people, trans people, women and nonbinary people, LGB people, and working class people” (p. 181).
The Horseshoe Theory
There is an interesting hypothesis within political science and popular discourse called “The Horseshoe Theory” which states that, instead of being polar opposites, the arguments of the far-right and the far-left are actually eerily similar. At several points in this book, I was reminded of this conjecture.
For example, postcolonial scholars routinely call attention to the way in which indigenous peoples have been subjugated and oppressed through political and cultural imperialism. In the Unites States in particular, it is taken for granted by those on the left that indigenous peoples are the Good Guys and that non-indigenous people are the Bad Guys. For this reason, reading statements from Nick Griffin, the former president of the far-right British Nationalist Party, absolutely floored me. Rather than fighting the progressive narrative, he embraced it and turned it entirely on its head. On BBC’s Question Time Griffin said: “No one here would dare to go to New Zealand and say to a Maori ‘what do you mean indigenous?’ You wouldn’t dare to go to North American and say to an American Red Indian ‘what do you mean indigenous? We’re all the same’… The indigenous people of these islands, the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh… it’s the the people who have been here overwhelmingly for the last 17,000 years. We are the aboriginals here” (p. 121).
Eddo-Lodge later interviewed Griffin and challenged him for expressing concern that demographic projections suggested that whites would be an ethnic minority in Britain by 2100. She asked “Why do you think that [these] projections are bad news, then?” He replied: “I regard that as a racist question. Because no white person would dare to go to, say, Nigeria, if Nigeria was being flooded with Chinese and say ‘Why do you think it’s a bad idea that Nigeria should cease to be Nigeria?’ It’s self-evident that all the peoples of the world have a right to remain the dominant people, cultural and ethnically, in their own homeland. Anyone who says otherwise, just because we happen to be Europeans, is a racist” (p. 124).
The fact that Griffin has been able to so easily deploy the rhetoric of “indigenous people” and “racism” as an argument for ethnonationalism shows what a dangerous game we’re playing with simplistic arguments that divide the world into “Good Oppressed” and “Bad Oppressor” categories. Obviously, there are tremendous differences between actual colonialism and immigration. But those who scoff at the idea of colorblindness may find that by urging people to view the world through the lens of race, they’ve awakened a far more dangerous demon.
Similarly, at another point in the book, Eddo-Lodge quotes a mixed-race friend who says “when I see an interracial couple, I feel uneasy, even though I’m in an interracial relationship. When I see a white parent with a mixed-race kid, I think ‘Is that child going to get what they need?’ Because I didn’t get what I needed. I think, for white people who are in interracial relationships, or who have mixed-race children, or who adopt transracially, the only way that it will work is if they’re actually committed to being anti-racist. To be humble, and to learn that they are racist even if they don’t think that they are” (p. 107). While discomfort over interracial relationships was once predominantly the domain of racists, it now appears to be becoming more popular –albeit for different reasons– among professing antiracists as well (see this biting satire “When Wokes and Racists Actually Agree on Everything”).
Finally, the way that Eddo-Lodge occasionally speaks about whites is shocking, to put it mildly: “At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are ‘different’ in case it offends us…They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong…It’s not really surprising, because they’ve never know what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own” (p. xiii-xiv). And “It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never-questioned entitlement, I suppose” (p. xvi). If comments like these are “antiracist”, it’s hard for me to imagine what racist comments sound like.
Eddo-Lodge’s book is a reminder that while the history and cultural contexts of the U.S. and the U.K. are quite different, the same critical framework can be applied to both. And in both cases, it leads to similarly troubling results. For Christians seeking a path towards racial unity, this isn’t it.
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