Book Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

It’s never a bad time to read a book- and it’s never a bad time to read this book. Arising out of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s 2014 blog post of the same title, and published originally in 2017 (this (expanded) edition in 2018), it received a second life rising to the top of best-selling book charts this time in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. In 2021, it was certainly interesting to be reading it in the aftermath of the backdrop of the government’s Sewell Report, and when England footballers continue (with official support) to take the knee in solidarity with those experiencing racism; and to be writing it when an England cricketer is – rightly, pace today’s political pronunciations – suspended pending an investigation into racist (and sexist) tweets written a while ago, when he might well have been in a different place but while an adult and certainly old enough to vote, and when the dance group Diversity have just picked up a BAFTA for a routine inspired by #BlackLivesMatter.

In 2021 as in each of those earlier years in this book’s life. And in the many decades and centuries before it, too. This is a recurring theme.

Make no mistake: Eddo-Lodge’s title is not an attempt to shut down conversation or to be racist in itself and neither is it an attempt at justifying isolation. As Eddo-Lodge herself points out early on, she has actually done little else but talk to white people about race since the publication of her book while ‘Aftermath’, a brief addendum added to cover events around the time of publication, and since, is not without hope that the conversation can be – and indeed is being – changed. The entire purpose of the book is to have that conversation about race.

It’s particularly interesting to be reviewing the book in the prism of current events in sport. Sportsmen and women are predominantly young people, some better placed than others to be at the forefront of a national debate but all blameless, albeit highly visible, players in it. Eddo-Lodge’s approach and style of writing is very much to see things in ‘black and white’; there are some grey areas in this debate but very few and none of them at the forefront of it. You are either booing the players (from your own team) or generally feeling uncomfortable about their actions in taking the knee; or else you are applauding them in solidarity with their own efforts to show solidarity with others. We are all on one side or the other in this and, I suspect, a lot can be understood about where we stand on the issues raised generally by race identity by where we stand on the players’ actions on the football field (and also their suspension from the cricket field).

Eddo-Lodge’s essential starting point is that (at least in the Global North, and there may be some caveats which need to be inserted in that respect), there is a link between skin colour and privilege and that, where you are white, you start off with an in-built advantage which few white people ever actually recognise or are forced to confront. For people of colour, in contrast, doing so is a regular, daily occurrence. Setting out the facts about the disadvantage and the prejudice leads Eddo-Lodge to her preferred theory of structural racism in which such disadvantage is a part of the system; and this is of course the issue which is the dividing point. For too many people, racism is in the face, and in the fists and boots, of hard core far-right fascist sympathisers without recognising that this is the easy bit – that the more uncomfortable truths lie in the systemic issues which disadvantage people and which moderates are less likely to see as actionable. A lengthy quote from Dr. Martin Luther King – no militant, he – proves the point (p. 101). Objects like bananas and darts, as reported by Mark Walters after signing for Rangers in 1987, being thrown is something that will not have been experienced by white footballers in this country on the grounds solely of their skin colour. That they are no longer experienced by black players represents progress (of sorts) – but it is not a sign that equality has been reached: not the least, as Walters’s insightful, well-put together, touching and educational programme underlines, because black people were being written out of histories long before the abuse started (and because that abuse is still being levelled, now verbally, at black players). Particularly in one interview towards the end (and with full credit to Graeme Souness), Walters’s film (for BBC Scotland) brilliantly makes Eddo-Lodge’s case about white privilege. Furthermore the desire not to see racism other than in the identity of a shaven-haired street-fighting thug spewing abusive language means refusing to see the wider battles which are having to be fought and which are occasioned by a white-dominant world view in which toleration and ‘colour blindness’ imply no presence of disadvantage as long as people passively ‘know their place’ and do not challenge too strongly.

In elaborating her theme, she moves through the modern histories of black people in Britain and their experiences at the hands of organisations meant to serve the community through to privilege, the ‘fear of a black planet’ and which touches on ‘Great Replacement Theory’, conservatism within the white feminist movement and the links between race and class which also feature in the Sewell Report and which led those authors to a disappointingly different analysis and set of conclusions. Institutional – or structural – racism does exist. In so doing she makes some particularly interesting points around the need for better education on British history (not, for example, seeing civil rights uniquely through an American lens), since the history of black people in the UK did not start with the Windrush but stems from colonialism, and she raises the fundamental question of why white people don’t recognise that they have a racial identity – a ground which the usual suspects from the commentariat are now, inevitably, trying to dominate.

Sometimes Eddo-Lodge’s examples are episodic, even anecdotal, in character which lends a rather personal, blog-style atmosphere to the work, and the interview with Nick Griffin is shallow and rather poorly-judged – but the facts are always on her side. Ultimately, this is an approachable and highly readable account which hits its targets, uncovering as it does not only the extent of the prejudice which exists against people of colour, which may be evident to people who have been paying any sort of attention, but, more importantly, to the unifying force which lies behind them. It may be light on action, but that is not the purpose of the book which is to change the conversation and that is a difficult enough thing to do when, as other footballers have also recently pointed out, there are many competing things in our lives which distract us from having the hard conversations that we need to have. The goal of equality is, it seems, a long-term one and it will not be won as a result of winning a single game and certainly not from scoring a single goal within a single game. The issues remain complex – Diversity’s award was won on the strength of a public vote, while the sound of booing of players taking the knee has, this last week, been drowned out by applause. Here, there are some good signs and more of the applause, please, at Euro2020. Nevertheless that goal does come a little closer each time an open, respectful conversation, which proceeds honestly from the inequality that one side experiences by virtue of their skin colour, is had. If you haven’t yet had that conversation – Eddo-Lodge is a good person with whom to start, even vicariously.

#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

Women’s participation in Up Helly A’: some follow-up

One of the themes of my earlier, otherwise more general, post on Up Helly A’ was the campaign to allow women and girls to march in the Lerwick event, the only one from which they are currently excluded because of their sex (see, for instance, the Shetland Times‘s report on the following week’s Nesting and Girlsta UHA). Crossing my timeline this week was a reference to a new campaign group being set up called ‘Women for Remain the Same’ – essentially, therefore, an anti-inclusion group although its ‘supporters’ are in no way limited to women. ‘Women for Remain the Same’ being open to men when it’s not open to women to join UHA squads and to join the ranks of the guizers is, perhaps, one of the odder and more perplexing aspects to all this.

Things being what they are, this is a Facebook campaign and, because I don’t subscribe to Zuckerberg’s data mining operation, I can’t see what the group says or why they’ve decided to set it up. It would seem obvious, however, that the purpose would be to illustrate that there is not ‘community support’ for the inclusion of women; and that the campaigns in that direction would therefore appear to have progressed far enough to get someone, or a group of people, somewhat rattled.

The arguments around the careful establishment of ‘useful’ groups to slow down progressive change are well-trodden ones – as a letter writer to the Shetland Times points out, there were anti-suffrage groups, too; probably all movements for change are faced with the need to overcome the sclerotic forces of conservatism.

The direction in which this blog’s sympathies run on this issue ought to be very clear.

A campaign for things to remain as they already are doesn’t readily lend itself to activism and declamatory sloganising, and it isn’t designed to get the juices running and people on the streets – indeed, its purpose is actually the reverse of this. However, the song can’t always remain the same, as Robert Plant – coincidentally appearing at this year’s HebCelt, by the way – would perhaps report in connection with his post-Led Zep career. Organisations, especially social ones – and the Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee is a social organisation – need to evolve, especially when confronted with pressures to change, or they risk becoming not only anachronistic but also ossified where they are deliberately exercising the choice not to change, once asked to do so.

If ossification is not to result, those arguing that the Lerwick UHA does not need to change need to come up with greater justification for a lack of movement than things are fine as they are. (Since they are clearly not fine.) Amongst other things, they need to say how they think allowing women and girls to march will change the character of the event. Tradition only takes us so far (and not least when women are able to march in all Shetland’s other UHAs). Furthermore, the joy of UHA night, after the pageantry and the drama of the day’s events, is the right to dress up in outrageously silly costumes, with numerous WTF? moments, entertain people in the halls with song and dance, and simply have fun. Those that want to keep things as they are need to justify why those same rights cannot be extended to women – and the answer clearly does not (and should not) lie in that this will stop lads dressing up in dresses (because I bet that it won’t). Squads dressing in fishnets and short dresses to pay homage to Tina Turner in her 80th year (Squad 25), or as 18th century society ladies to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th (Squad 36), or in pink tutus (the magnificent Swine Lake, again: Squad 42) will still not only be able to do that once women participate – but will still be doing so.

IMG_5208 (2)

Guizing isn’t for everyone – the night is long and, for the main squad, the whole day can be gruelling even in good weather – but stamina and fitness is no respecter of sex and, when you’re having this much fun, why would you want to choose to deny those who want to do so the opportunity to join in? And the answer to that is the same for one person as it is for 300.

Above all, people need to explain why they think it is perfectly feasible to direct girls towards achievement, and goals, and participation, and on an equal basis to boys – but direct them around the time of the Lerwick UHA into the kitchen instead of marching and guizing. Equality is nowhere unless it is everywhere; and equal rights to participate don’t take away the existing rights of others to do so.

The bigger Lerwick UHA gets and the better known it becomes, and the more people start to talk about building a wider Viking festival around the Lerwick UHA, the more questions will start to be raised about the desire to make the event ‘more public’ – surely a euphemism for allowing women and girls to march. The exclusion of women and girls from marching in the Lerwick UHA, and their confinement to roles instead in the halls, not least the kitchens, will come under ever-closer scrutiny. Those defending the status quo will need to come up with some proper answers than that things should ‘stay the same’.

#LetWomenMarch