Reni Eddo Lodge’s 2018 Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has scooped six literary awards and received near-universal praise and Lodge has recently been voted one of the Sunday Times’ Women of the Year 2020. The book offers an uncompromising attack on whiteness and fits into an emerging canon of third-wave anti-racist literature spearheaded by US thinkers like Ibram X Kendi and Robin Di Angelo, with notable British contributions from writers including Akala and Afua Hirsh. The book covers black British history, systemic racism, white privilege, white fears, the relationship between race and class and the pitfalls of white feminism, all interwoven with Lodge’s negative personal experiences with whites who are in a state of racial denial.
While the book is probably accessible and appealing to those who share the author’s totalising vision of race, it lacks sociological depth. Its factual assertions are tightly wrapped up in events experienced, words said and emotions felt. This means that any criticism levelled at the book risks eliciting a charge of insensitivity. Worse still, as with Robin DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility, it also, as Jonathan Church has pointed out, sets a Kafka trap for those who question its claims. Just as, for Di Angelo, rejecting the notion of white fragility is itself a tell-tale sign of white fragility, Lodge implies that those who question her assertions are demonstrating “white denial.” It is important to withstand this kind of gaslighting, since the author’s ideas—like any other ideas—are open to a range of objections.
The Book’s Audience
The book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race seems to be pitched at two distinct crowds: first, the already converted—those passionately committed to antiracism and pessimistic about racial progress; and second, actual racists. It might be argued that, as racists probably will not read the book, engaging with their ideas is a waste of time. I disagree. Since the Overton window can shift, racist ideas need to be challenged lest they begin to pervade public consciousness again. A further point in Lodge’s defence is that black intellectuals who offer critiques of British society are often met with a torrent of racist abuse, so challenging racist ideas serves an understandable therapeutic purpose. Even so, the work would have been strengthened by more engagement with the intelligent middle—people who recognise the role of racism in British society, yet do not see it as so powerful a force as Lodge does.
The Use of Anecdotes
Anecdotes are a dime a dozen. They can be used in the service of many different conclusions. For example, Lodge attests to the difficulty in finding material on black British history when she was younger: “I was hungry for more information. I wanted to know about black people in Britain, post-slavery. However, this information was not easily accessible. This was history only available to people who truly cared, only knowable through a hefty amount of self-directed study.”
However, given its dizzying breadth, most history is only truly knowable through a hefty amount of self-directed study. Also, what is asserted by anecdote can be rejected by anecdote: Lodge is six years younger than me and grew up in London. I grew up in Avon, in an area that was not even remotely multiracial. When I developed an interest in racial politics and history in my teens, I did not have a particularly hard time finding the relevant books.
A Whiff of Conspiracy
Lodge argues that one should not have to seek out such information, that it should be readily visible within the broader culture. But her suggestion that the education system and our media institutions are keeping us ignorant on these topics, while perhaps a fair comment in the 1990s, has increasingly come to lack both relevance and plausibility.
Hollywood movies (which we Brits consume avidly) have been exploring racism for decades (see list) and, even within British broadcasting, there is a wealth of programming addressing societal racism and black British history. In 2016, while Lodge was writing her book, the following shows were broadcast by the BBC alone: That Black British Feeling (BBC Newsbeat), A United Kingdom (BBC films), Black and British: A Forgotten History (four-part BBC2 series), Black is the New Black (four-part BBC2 series); and Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? (BBC). The fact that Lodge’s claims to the contrary resonate with audiences in 2020 despite the increasing amount of such content suggests that a significant number of people are more committed to believing that things cannot change than to noticing when they do.
As for education, even Black History Month—a unique corrective within the education system—is barely recognised as progress. Reflecting on her conversation with Black History Month’s UK founder, Lodge writes, “it felt like she was sceptical of the values of current-day Black History Month activities. It wasn’t about hair … it was history month, not culture month.” This gives the impression that all is not well in the classroom and that across the country, during the month of October, trained educators with a passion for history are talking about how great cornrows, box braids and Bantu knots are. They aren’t.
Hostility towards Evidence
Lodge at times expresses hostility towards evidence. In one section, she discusses how she came to lose faith in the humanity of a friend:
I told her about an experience of being passed over for a job I’d interviewed for and finding out through mutual friends that the position had gone to a white woman my age with almost identical experience to me. I had felt the slap in the face of structural racism, the kind of thing you only hear about in statistics about black unemployment, but never hear about from the people affected by it.
In her eyes, it is obvious that, given two equally qualified job applicants—one white, one black—if the white person gets the job, it must be due to structural racism.
Research on labour market discrimination has shown that bias explains a subset of rejections, but in individual cases one simply cannot know. After graduating from a top university with top grades, I myself was rejected for over 100 job applications and spent long periods unemployed and couchsurfing before I found minimum wage work. Had I been of Lodge’s cast of mind, this would have seemed like a function of systemic racism—except that I am white.
When Lodge’s white friend expresses a wish to remain agnostic with regards to the individual case presented to her, Lodge appears to diagnoses her with white fragility: “If I’d argued with her, I would put myself at risk of no longer being welcome.” Her friend’s sin was to fail to understand the world through the eyes of an oppressed black woman. Worryingly, this implies that assertions of racism by black people should be blindly accepted, rather than judged by the evidence. This makes idiots of us all.
The Concept of Whiteness
The conclusions we reach often depend on the definitions and concepts we use. There is a lack of philosophical rigour in excavating racial concepts within the book. There is no careful attempt to parse the difference between systemic and structural racism, nor any satisfactory attempt to explore the pros and cons of white privilege rhetoric and why this framing has come to take prominence in recent discourse—or what purpose such rhetoric serves at the level of group psychology. Even the handling of perhaps the key concept of the book, whiteness, seems confused. Predicting that her musings may be seen as antiwhite racism, Lodge writes: “When I write about white people in this book, I don’t mean every individual white person. I mean whiteness as a political ideology.”
Yet, as the title itself demonstrates, the relationship between whiteness and white people in the book is unclear. For example, Lodge states: “The BBC announced plans to increase the representation of people of colour in their ranks in an attempt to tackle the over-representation of whiteness on- and off-screen.” In this sentence, is she talking about whiteness as a set of ideas or actual white people? We could easily substitute the phrase white people for whiteness here—so why not just use that phrase? Critical Race Theory—of which Lodge is a disciple—takes a word that in everyday vernacular means essentially the state of being white (e.g. being a Caucasian) and defines it as inherently immoral, in what Neil Shenvi summarises as a “socially constructed racial caste system that assigns greater value to groups deemed ‘white.’” You can probably see how this could get confusing.
Furthermore, if, in the above quotation, Lodge is referring to whiteness as a set of ideas—as a culture or ideology that supports an exclusionary racial hierarchy, does this mean that the hundreds of black people we see on TV on a weekly basis are supporting or performing whiteness? Also, is whiteness—as Lodge conceives it—the same as white supremacy or something different—white supremacy-lite perhaps?
Lodge makes the case that black people cannot be racist, arguing that when black people hold or even act upon anti-white attitudes, this is mere prejudice. However, racism is, by definition, racially motivated prejudice. Even Lodge cannot help slipping into this usage: “there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people.”
Lodge is correct that power and population dynamics make equivalences between anti-white and anti-black racism naïve. But it would be more parsimonious to simply argue that, given that they are a minority group in the UK, blacks are not able to implement widespread intuitional or structural racism, rather than saying that they cannot be racist.
Lodge’s Racial Schema
Lodge has an iron-clad racial schema. She appears to view all negative interracial interactions as influenced by the full weight of 350 years of white supremacy. In one section of the book, she discusses how she was received during her appearance on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “Simply using my voice was tantamount to being a bullying disgrace. Old racist stereotypes were being resurrected, and I found myself on the receiving end of them. I was a social problem, a disruptive force, a tragic example of a problem community.”
While the Woman’s Hour host erred in requiring that Lodge address the topic of “women being horrible to other women,” the spin placed on this interaction is unfalsifiable. Any disagreement in any context, on any topic, could be seen as portraying one’s interlocutor as a “disruptive force.”
Similarly, Lodge states of her white interlocutors that, “Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.”
There is a kind of racial Barnum effect in operation here—the perfectly general is seen as embodying the racially specific. Things that could apply to any heated disagreement are seen by Lodge as uniquely racial. Of course, there are often negative dynamics in interracial intellectual exchanges—for one thing, black people are generally outnumbered in many settings—but forcing everything into this grand historic schema strains credibility.
This leads us to another objection: the author’s penchant for hyperbole. It is true that writing is often at its most impactful when it goes a little too far. My favourite line in the third-wave anti-racist canon is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” That is a powerful sentence and Lodge has a few such up her sleeve. But these thrilling turns of phrase obscure the boring truth that racism is still a pernicious influence in the lives of many non-whites—but not to the horrifying extent such rhetoric suggests. Lodge writes, for example: “To be white is to be human; to be white is universal. I only know this because I am not.” The slogan black lives matter suggests that western society subtly undervalues black lives, whereas this kind of statement (of which there are many in the book) depicts white society as still beholden to the kind of thinking found in the plantation writings of eighteenth-century polygenist Edward Long, in which blacks are described as little more than apes. If a young black person does not see herself as a victim before picking up Lodge’s book, on putting it down, there’s a good chance she will.
The Us/Them Dichotomy
White people as a group do not come across well in this work. Some guilt-ridden white liberals will no doubt take this on the chin—they may even find themselves connecting with and then exorcising their inner racist demons. Others may think that she isn’t talking about them. But Lodge’s group-level denouncements risk contributing to the creation of us/them thinking.
We should not, of course, bar all discussion of race for fear of reifying the concept, but the way in which the conversation is conducted is crucial. Some whites certainly have an allergic reaction to discussions of race. They are, I suspect, a lost cause. But Lodge’s generalisations and moral indictments and her vocabulary, which encourages racial essentialism, may cause many to become further entrenched in their respective identity camps. She concludes one chapter with a line that would probably resonate with self-described white advocate Jared Taylor, “Why don’t white people think they have a racial identity?” An awakening—or reawakening—of white racial identity is not something we should welcome.
I agree with Lodge that colour-blindness—while a laudable goal—is not currently practicable. To paraphrase John Wood Jr., in acknowledging the complexity of history and accounting for the material deprivations of today we cannot help but name race. This is true in both the US and the UK.
But, if colour-blindness is not the correct present-day approach, neither is racial synaesthesia: the tendency to see colour refracted in all aspects of the social world. Just as those with the neurological condition of synaesthesia merge sensory inputs between, for example, colour and sound, racial synesthetes merge all the complex social forces that account for differing group performance into those generated by racism.
Obviously, this is an imperfect analogy. Nonetheless, we need to be careful to both see race and not see it too much—to be able to tell when outcomes are generated by racial bias or animus and when they have other causes—and in cases where multiple social explanations apply (most cases), we need to be able to weight them such that our policy recommendations have the greatest chance of moving us toward equality of opportunity and past race.
The Role of Structures
I agree with Lodge’s definition of institutional racism as a subset of a broader problem called either systemic or structural racism. The question then is whether, and to what extent, such systemic racism exists. Much of the book’s moral outrage relies on the axiom that structural racism is a monstrous evil. Lodge’s evidential case for this relies on racial disparities.
To back up her conclusion that present-day British society is firmly set against the black individual, she includes a speculative narrative of a black man moving through life, incurring obstacles at every turn. While some of the disparities she cites are derived from relatively reliable sources and we can be reasonably confident that they result from accumulated racial bias, other disparities have multiple explanations besides or ancillary to systemic racism.
Consider Lodge’s assertion that teachers undermark black students, which is confirmed by the research undertaken by Simon Burgess in 2010. Blacks, especially Caribbean blacks, are not stereotyped as studious. Even if exams are marked double blind, students’ performance can still be affected by having been previously stereotyped in this way, Burgess argues.
But before concluding inequitable treatment by teachers, we must not only pay attention to some bizarre ethnic wrinkles in data on student attainment but also be sure that there are no other factors at work. Do black children behave differently on average in educational settings than their white peers? If whiteness and blackness are performative, is one of these identities more conducive to positive teacher appraisals? Is there anything to the acting white thesis: that students may feign less academic prowess within school settings to preserve their status within their peer group? There may, then, be racial but nonracist factors at play.
Now, take health disparities. Before we attribute varying outcomes to cumulative racial bias, we need to control for all the confounding variables that can impact such outcomes: cultural environment, lifestyle choices, family size, immigration status, religiosity and trust in modern medicine and medical institutions. These all complicate a straightforward inference from differential outcomes to structural racism.
There is a sense in which Lodge is correct about structural racism. If we were found ourselves about to be born into present British society, behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, and were ask to choose, it would be rational to opt to be born white rather than black. While there may be some metrics by which you fare better for having being born black, generally speaking, being born black means that you are more likely to be poor, more likely to be born into a single-parent household, more likely to be the child of a recent immigrant and exponentially more likely to experience racism.
But this is not what Lodge means by structural racism. The structural and cultural factors I have outlined above create structural disadvantage, but the activist definition of structural racism is more specific: accumulated racial prejudice or bias is the immediate cause of all current disparities. That is much more doubtful.
Lodge states that blacks are more likely to be born into poverty, as this research confirms. But this does not establish that being black—or rather being racialized as black—is the proximate cause of said poverty. As Inaya Folarin Iman has argued, to understand how much of a role current day racial bias plays in such class outcomes, we need to consider the impact of immigration and compare black immigrants to white immigrants with similar histories and socioeconomic status and carefully factor in the parallel and divergent effects of both xenophobia and racism.
Lodge asserts that “your life chances are still drastically influenced by your race and class.” That is certainly true—but does the claim remain true if class is removed from the equation? if you are born into a professional, middle-class, two-parent black household—as, for example, Afua Hirsh was—how much will racism impact your life chances? How many fewer years will you live? How much will your education and career suffer? Will you be affected? I would say yes. Drastically? I doubt it—I know too many successful black people to believe that.
If you live in a city like Birmingham or London, it is easy to forget that Britain is not very multiracial. In both my own and Lodge’s formative years (the 90s) Britain was a staggering 95 percent white. The 2011 Census states that around 3 percent of the population of England and Wales is black (excluding from this definition black/white mixed-race people). Based on prior population growth statistics, we may hazard a guess that around 7 percent of the UK’s 2021 population will be racialised as black. Living in a white majority country means that, statistically, white people will make up the overwhelming majority in most areas of social life. Nevertheless, Lodge seems constantly shocked by the abundance of whiteness around her: “When white people pick up a magazine, scroll through the Internet, read a newspaper or switch on the TV, it is never rare or odd to see people who look like them in positions of power or exerting authority.”
The implication here is that we do not see many media depictions of black people in positions of power. But is this true? For one, much of our media diet is cooked up in the American kitchen and America’s black population of around 45 million dwarfs our own. This means that we are inundated with images of powerful black people through cinema and online streaming services. In fiction, the examples are countless. To take depictions of the US president alone: Morgan Freeman has played both the president and God; in The Fifth Element, the president of the world is a black man; in 24, David Palmer plays a black president and even the BBC has depicted two black presidents. In the real world, a graceful black family occupied the White House for eight years. It is not at all rare or odd to see black doctors, black detectives, black political leaders, black superheroes and black captains of intergalactic space vessels. This is not tokenism. This is common practice.
Even in the UK, positive depictions of black people in positions of power are not freak events. Some broadcasting understandably focuses on the lived experiences of many people in black communities in the UK, which can be challenging—but it’s not all woe. For example, the Powerlist, launched in 2007, is featured in a range of newspapers. The BBC also has a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion, recently ratified by the Diversity Commissioning Code of Practice Progress Report and backed with a considerable £100m. Channel 4 also has a new Inclusion and Diversity Strategy, dating from 2019. This is institutional anti-racism.
Some of these media examples postdate Lodge’s book, but they are the result of trends that were already evident in 2018.
We can trade cherry-picked examples all day. But what we really need—and what I did not find in the book—is data: what percentage of media content shows black people in powerful positions compared to whites and what is the suggested benchmark? Should these depictions be proportional to reality or to aspiration? Lodge argues for the latter: “some like to cite the racial demographics in Britain, saying that because the minority of the population isn’t white, that percentage and that percentage only should be represented in organisations. This mathematical approach is the true tokenism.”
It would certainly be ridiculous for employers to turn away talented members of ethnic minorities because their groups are overrepresented. Our sports and music industries show that this is not a general rule. But it also seems strange to dismiss population benchmarks so quickly when they are elsewhere used as the gold standard for assessing systemic racism. Also, by not specifying an acceptable level of media or real life representation, Lodge has potentially created shifting goalposts and a never-ending game of progress denial.
Britain is a society with an imperial and white supremacist past and remains a white majority country. There is still a significant amount of interpersonal racism running parallel to a growing fondness and accommodation for all things non-white. There was a cultural reckoning in the 60s in which many whites adjusted their attitudes—but many did not. There is systemic racism (cumulative bias) to be found here, alongside its corrective, institutional anti-racism. Britain is no egalitarian paradise: when the harsh realities of unjust global development meet the British class structure, your average black person, the descendant of immigrants, incurs a greater likelihood of encountering structural disadvantage. Vigilance about racial discrimination remains a virtue, but addressing broader structural disadvantages will require conversations and policies that transcend the modern incarnation of anti-racism epitomised by Eddo Lodge’s work.