Despite being over three years since first published, one has only just got around to reading Reni Eddo-Lodge’s literary debut. Recent events such as the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing hoo-ha surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has propelled the book towards the top of the best-seller lists and, no doubt, the provocative title also assisted in this regard. Indeed, the zeitgeist seems to have appeared to have elevated this body of work as the “go-to” authority on matters of race and racism to the uninitiated. Thus, one was intrigued.
The roots of the book lie in a blog post she published of the same title, in which she articulated her frustrations at the “emotional disconnect” of white people regarding racism and the associated lived experiences of people of colour (I hate this term; is it any different from the now de trop term, “coloured”? That is a topic for another time, but one shall use it as it is au courant – annoyingly). To a large extent, I agree with her on this particular point. Racism does not affect white people, so I don’t expect them to relate. Human beings as a whole can be remarkably ignorant when it comes to stepping into another pair of shoes. It takes an effort to do so. Her chapter on “White Privilege” is a good read, as many white people are automatically affronted when this term is uttered. For those that do not get the concept, and are willing to learn, it would be most enlightening. That being said, I detest how it has been used by many on the left to shut-down debate. Shrill cries of “white privilege” is not a contending point to an argument. The tenor of debate on topical matters has become a shouting match where the various political tribes shout their trite buzzwords, to the point where they are rendered meaningless.
The book is well written with Eddo-Lodge displaying impressive clarity of thought. It is accessible and an easy read. Arguably, this is where it both succeeds and fails. Its simplicity means that its concepts and arguments should be easily understood by the reader, even if said reader disagrees with its promulgations. In fact, I would recommend every white person reads it, if only to see where people of colour are coming from, when they allegedly ‘bang on’ about race. However, a subject like racism and its associated issues is never simple and it is in this aspect that the book has its failings.
The book begins with a chapter on black British history in the UK, which is both interesting and informative, delving back well before the traditional post-Windrush narrative up to relatively recent times, touching on, amongst other events, the movement of slaves through British port cities, unequal treatment of West Indian soldiers who fought for Britain in World War I, and the first lynching of a black man on British soil. Granted, the chapter is only a summary of this area, and it could only ever be that, but it is an important one nonetheless. It’s a chapter which very much sets the scene for her arguments. To the uninitiated, it is essential reading, and for the curious, it should pique their interest to find out more.
The next chapter titled “The System” argues, in summary, that the organisations and institutions that underpin Britain are structurally racist; that this structural racism is formed from the biases of the hundreds and thousands of people that make up said organisations and institutions, where “an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people” engenders failure for “anyone who falls out of the culture.” I don’t deny that people that make up organisations have their biases. It has, for example, been a proven fact that those with foreign sounding names have to send out a greater number of CVs than their white counterparts to get a particular job. Black people are discriminated against by landlords when it comes to accommodation. Statistically, black people are more likely to be stopped and searched by police (although this is not a black and white – no pun intended – issue as is often portrayed). Thus, racial bias is a fact of life for those of an ethnic minority background. However, from the narrative promulgated by Eddo-Lodge, one would think that ethnic minorities in general, and black people in particular, exist in a morass of perpetual oppression, lacking any sort of agency unable to determine our own destiny. It is this narrative that she peddles, along with similar from commentators of the likes of Afua Hirsch et al, that one finds particularly galling.
Ethnic minorities, and for that matter black people (a demographic that myself and Eddo-Lodge inhabit), are not a monolith. One would find a plethora of opinions on topical matters, including the subject of race. Some of us, in fact many of us, do not define our lives in this country in terms of racial strife. Yes, racism is real and it exists. However, many of us do not let its existence arrest our goals, ambitions and the way we live our lives, or let ignorant people upset out mental balance. There are many of us in this country that have reached the top of our professions and keep on striving, despite the obstacles – real or imagined. Peddling the narrative that “your life chances are obstructed and slowed down if you’re born black in Britain” is disingenuous and unhelpful. In effect, she is saying that young black people in this country may as well give up because “The System” has got you fucked. She would do well to ask herself, how many of us would have the opportunities that we have in this country were we to be born and raised in the countries of “our roots” – educationally or otherwise? Does she think the likes of Maggie Aderin-Pocock, Dr Nike Folayan, Yewande Akinola, David Waboso, Chimay Anumba, Dr Amber Hill, David Adjaye et al would have ascended to their positions with this “victimhood” mentality that Eddo-Lodge seems to harbour? Granted, prima-facie, the statistics, as Eddo-Lodge covers, do not appear favourable to black people in both the educational system and the field of employment. However, can this solely be put down to racism? This is a matter for deeper analysis. Correlation is not necessarily causation. She cites a Department for Education report that affirms that “a black schoolboy in England is three times more likely to be permanently excluded compared to the to the whole school population.” To just put it down to racism is disingenuous, especially as when, if we are to break down the ethnicity classed as “black”, African heritage kids are amongst the highest achieving demographic, educationally. Why the difference when compared with their Caribbean heritage counterparts? In fact, going further, why are white working-class kids amongst the lowest achieving demographic in the educational system? There is much nuance to the issues raised in the book that Eddo-Lodge seems to ignore, and which in the interests of objectivity and intellectual honesty, requires more in-depth coverage. Interestingly enough, she has a section titled “Intersectionality”, in which she asserts that a combination race, class, sexuality and gender intersect to create a monster of oppression. If race, as a conduit for iniquity by “the system”, is as big a factor as Eddo-Lodge seems to assert, then why the big differences in educational achievement between different ethnic groups and with respect to certain demographics in the white majority (notably the white working class)? Why, for example, is there a preponderance of Asian doctors compared to any other ethnicity? It would be interesting to know Eddo-Lodge’s take on this.
One does wish Eddo-Lodge was less disingenuous in the examples that she uses to back up her points. For example, she writes on the brouhaha when it was suggested that the Rooney Rule (a scheme to increase the number of black managers in the NFL) be applied to English football. Indeed, certain notable figures within football voiced their opposition to it, as Eddo-Lodge mentions. Among the football figures she cited as opposing the rule were Karl Oyston, Richard Scudamore and Keith Curle. Of the aforementioned, it should be noted that Keith Curle was black, which Eddo-Lodge seemingly overlooked. One would not have known this unless they were into football. In fact, two notable up-and-coming black coaches, Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble, are on record as saying that they do not want the help of the Rooney Rule, the former quoted as saying “I don’t want to be interviewed because it’s filling a quota.” Once again, this is another example of Eddo-Lodge oversimplifying an issue and ignoring nuance to make a point.
Whatever biases, unconscious or otherwise, exist in “the system”, and they do exist, there are plenty from ethnic-minority backgrounds that are battling and winning. We have the gumption to do what we want to do and overcome the obstacles placed in our path. There are many examples that prove this. Inhabiting a mental prison of “oppression” or “victimhood” is self-defeating.
Yes, racism is a fact of life for ethnic minorities in Britain. We deal with it and we continue to fight it in our own particular ways. Eddo-Lodge is just one opinion amongst many Black Britons. Yet it is the likes of her, Afua Hirsch et al, that are only ever given an airing. She does not speak for all of “us”. Eddo-Lodge would do well to speak to a tapestry of black opinion on the matters she raises. She may find it enlightening.