A number of years ago, I watched a Ted Talk that discussed where the societal responsibility of gender related violence (sexual assault, domestic violence, relationship abuse, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children) rested. Regardless of those subjected to abuse – men, women or children – the perpetrators were overwhelmingly male, leading Jackson Katz to posit that gender violence should be seen as a men’s issue*.
Back in 2014/5, when I first read the essay that lead to this book, I felt a similar sense of a shifting mental landscape. Issues regarding race have long been regarded as the purview of those who have been subjected to racial abuse, prejudice and societal disadvantage. Placing the emphasis on those who have benefited from structural racism, the lingering effects of colonialism and those who foster – deliberately or not – inequality seems far a far more logical starting point for conversation and change.
Like the essay that preceded it, this polemic does the opposite of what it’s title implies (though let’s just take a moment to really appreciate the glory of the book sleeve – a perfect reflection of the content). Eddo-Lodge traces the evolution of this book from her original anguished blog post – where for reasons of self preservation, she decided to stop discussing her experiences as a black British woman with those less likely to want to engage openly and honestly and are most likely to take umbrage – through a whistle stop tour of the history of race and racism from a uniquely British perspective.
There are 7 distinct essays, as well as an afterword – a reflection of the book and authors journey since since 2014, through publication and beyond –
- The System
- What is White Privilege?
- Fear of a Black Planet
- The Feminism Question
- Race and Class
- There’s no Justice, There’s Just Us
Eddo-Lodge has a voice that is at once informed, uncompromising and eloquent. The tone – particularly of the earlier essay’s – was more reminiscent of American authors than British ones (e.g. her preference for and explanation of the phrase ‘structural racism’ rather than ‘institutional racism’). Her style too lends itself more towards journalistic reporting than an academic assessment. Here there is no apologetic politeness; muting even recent atrocities in order to mollify the majority of her audience. Her writing is crisp, determined and compelling. And her anger is palpable.
Personally, I resonated more with the later chapters. While I found the first three sections interesting, I was aware of many of the case histories that the author used to demonstrate her positions and would have preferred fewer examples explored more comprehensively.
The section covering Britain’s colonial past was fascinating to me – as the product of two colonies I have no great respect or affection for the Empire-that-was and certainly cannot be accused of donning rose-tinted glasses. It would have been positively DELIGHTFUL to read something so in line with my own thoughts…except that the subject matter is so horrifying and has pernicious tendrils that extend to the present day (*I* helped pay off the reparations to slave owners. Me. You too, if you were a tax payer prior to 2015. This disgusts me viscerally).
The third chapter paints a picture of a group so determined to ignore race that the perpetuation of gross inequality and discrimination becomes the more attractive route. Having spent a period of time as a (privileged) minority in a country where race still determined so much, there wasn’t much here that I didn’t agree with.
‘Fear of the Black Planet’ and ‘There is no Justice, There is Just Us’ were the two sections that most impacted on me. There is a bitter humour to the idea that those resolved to deny the impact of racial division are most determined to avoid ‘having the tables turned’. ‘Race and Class’ summarised to me that intersectionality must extend beyond gender and orientation to encompass racial issues, or it cannot claim to be truly inclusive.
While each of the sections are well written and informative, it is not a comprehensive history and I was a little disheartened that so few recent campaigners were acknowledged (then again, this isn’t what the book is about). There again, perhaps disheartened is the very least that I should expect to feel!
I regard this book as an essential starting point for those interested in discussing race and race matters – highlighting useful guidelines to participants. White people have – not as a default, but after centuries of a hard fought and cruel campaign – been very used to leading any discussion on any topic, regardless of relevance or knowledge. This book alternatively suggests, demands and REQUIRES that when faced with the life experiences of people of colour, those of us of the caucasian persuasion listen more and take a less defensive stance.
For those calling for this – the winner of the Jhalak Prize in March 2018 – to be included in every school library, please add my voice!