Reni Eddo-Lodge's blogpost-turned-book is an unapologetic response to a tired conversation.
Reni Eddo-Lodge, photograph by Amaal Said
Living in a racist world is exhausting. Explaining that to people who don't quite believe it can be like calling your ex to explain again why you broke up. They're not listening and before you even started speaking they were mad at you.
In an act of self-preservation Reni Eddo-Lodge published a blog post in 2014 to explain why she was no longer going to talk about race to white people. The post was unapologetic and declarative, refusing to couch her decision in apologies or exemptions. What's more it resonated and quickly went viral. Now she's published a book of the same title, expanding on her explanation but refusing to back track on the original sentiment that she is going to save her time and energy for better discussions with people who actually listen.
VICE: You wrote the blog Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race in 2014 and I wanted to understand what brought you to the end of your tether. Why did you write that?
Reni Eddo-Lodge: It wasn't something that I said lightly. I was at a point of emotional exhaustion. I'd found myself in activist circles, feminist and otherwise, constantly attempting to try and articulate arguments around race, challenging the white dominance of those environments and just being shut down. I sort of started to realise that it was really difficult to have a conversation about the nuances of a problem with people who didn't want to accept there was a problem in the first place. After experiencing that and going through a very public monstering (that I talk about in the feminism chapter) I made a decision that I can't do this anymore.
I think it can be easy to see the title and think oh god, how dare she cut white people out of the conversation. But it wasn't for want of trying, let's put it that way.
The very public monstering. Could you expand on that briefly?
On New Year's Eve 2013 I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour about the year in feminism, alongside Laura Bates of the now very notorious Everyday Sexism project and Caroline Criado-Perez who that year had campaigned in a very high profile way to have women on banknotes. In that campaigning she had got quite a bit of press coverage for it and had been targeted quite nastily by people online, most of whom were anonymous, who would send her horrific death threats and rape threats. So she went from somebody who'd campaigned to get women on banknotes to somebody who was now constantly in the news for receiving targeted online harassment.
On the programme the question was put to me, the only black woman on the panel: so what is intersectionality? I reiterated why it was very important feminist activism have an analysis on race because not all women are white. I didn't think that was a particularly controversial thing to say. But then my point was quickly picked up on by Caroline. She said this perspective is very important, but it's also important people know that people have been using this perspective to bully me online. That's what she said. So then the question was put to me: what's my response to that? I was put in a position where I had to account for people who had been harassing Caroline Criado-Perez on the internet.
Because you wanted to talk about race?
Exactly. Because I wanted to talk about race. I am now implicated alongside a bunch of people who have been harassing her. As you can tell I wasn't particularly happy about that. We left the studio, I looked at the internet and a storm had erupted in which there seemed to be two sides. One which believed I was one of Caroline's harassers for talking about race. Another which was very angry at Caroline for even attempting to implicate me in that. Louise Mensch, a former member of parliament, got involved online to say [I was] the aggressor here and should be apologising to Caroline. At that point Caroline had publicly said, look, I didn't meant to implicate you or suggest that you'd been party to any of that because you haven't. Unfortunately it was way too late at that point. A narrative had been set – I was tantamount to a harasser for daring to talk about race on national radio. I was very much socially punished for it.
So that happened and then about a month later I'd written what became the opening essay of the book, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I mean looking back there's a clear correlation there.
Can you tell us a bit about untold Black British history and why the stories you include in the book start long before the typical Windrush point?
I just think it is really important that we have a context for these conversations. One of the biggest barriers that I found in attempting to talk about race and racism was people saying that it is an American thing – they're the ones who did slavery and all the bad things. It was called transatlantic, the clue is in the name. I think there's a great denial about that in this country. When we learn about Black history in our schools, at least from what I remember, we learn a lot about black American history. I thought that a context, earlier than Windrush, in terms of Britain's relation to race was hugely important for how we're having this conversation today.
People don't know that after both World Wars people from Commonwealth countries, black and brown people, literally came to plug up labour gaps. And then when there were race riots targeted towards those people who had fought for Britain the government responded with a repatriation drive in the early 20th century.
There's a moment in the book where you have a really strange conversation with former BNP leader Nick Griffin. He goes on about white genocide, accuses you of asking him a racist question, and finally ends up suggesting you get out of Britain because it's 'utterly fucked'. I'm wondering what made you pursue that conversation and include it?
I think that in the last five years we've essentially seen a resurgence of ideas he was pushing 15 or 20 years ago. What's worse, in that resurgence certain political commentators have not really been condemning it but saying these are legitimate concerns. I felt it was important to remind my readers where these ideas come from. Just because they're more popular now doesn't mean we have to accept them.
Can you talk us through the relationship between race and feminism for you?
Well I was a feminist activist. I say 'was' because I don't really consider myself to be in feminist activism anymore or maybe if I am it's through my writing. But that's what really politicised me first and foremost when I was 19 and that's what I really threw myself into head first all those years ago. Quite quickly, in the first few years of me doing that there was a real conflict between me and the almost all white women that I was organising or finding myself with at feminist events. They didn't really seem to think that race and racism was a problem, but for me it wasn't an option to discount it.
One thing about white people and race is that if you talk about race and racism near them they immediately feel implicated and attacked, because we all know that even just feeling like you're being called racist is infinitely worse than actual racism.
Despite the title of the book you've by no means entirely stopped talking to white people about race. Which conversations have you decided are important to keep having?
As soon as I made the declaration and posted it I was very selective about the kinds of situations I was in and I was clear that it didn't mean I was going to socially isolate myself. It just meant that if I was around white people I wouldn't talk about race. I would talk about anything else: the weather, Eastenders, what I ate for lunch.
After I pressed publish on the blog post and it sort of went viral I found myself speaking to white people about race more often, but the conversations were way more productive and people were entering them in good faith. That's because people actually wanted to hear from me.
When white people demand a conversation about race that you don't want to have, how do you refuse that?
IRL I'm just very blunt. I'm in a position where I can call this work so I just say, 'I don't want to talk about work'. I'm a firm believer in setting boundaries, so when we people try to draw me into these conversations online I control my device and social media accounts and I don't have to have any conversations that I don't want to.
When you look around you today what anti-racist work makes you excited?
People working very closely with refugees. There was this organisation that I heard about a few years ago called Women Seeking Sanctuary in Wales. They were recent refugee women getting together and supporting each other. There's another organisation called Lotus Flower, headed up by a woman refugee, which provides practical support to refugees who've just entered the country, many of whom – despite the myths – have no recourse to public funds. Things like that give me hope in humanity moving forward.
You talk about the recurring question of what an "endpoint" to racism looks like. What do you think about that question?
When people are like 'When is this racism stuff going to finish?' it suggests to me a tacit recognition of the state of play but also a general wish that we didn't have to talk about it. Fine, I can resonate with that but it's a bit childish. Huge structural issues that are denigrating our society are not going to be changed in a year or five years.
Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race is published by Bloomsbury.