Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
Shame on UK Native Reni Eddo-Lodge for titling her debut with a bold declaration, then walking it back in the book’s second sentence. In this caveat, she clarifies that she’s not abandoning all white people, rather “the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.” In Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Eddo-Lodge laments the ever-widening communication gap between whites and minorities on the reality of racism in 2017. She presents a compelling portrayal of cultural conflicts in Britain and beyond, supplementing the narrative with her own personal experiences and opinions. While the resulting work is very much in touch with our times, it doesn’t present a pragmatic plan for moving the needle forward.
The contemporary media broadcasts no shortage of fierce conversations on the topic of race, largely held in the forums of social media and television. Nearly everything on the topic that could be said has already been said, and loudly. For a book to justify its existence, it should offer a fresh angle. Why I’m No Longer Talking indeed does, through its exploration of the specifically-British history (and present) of race relations and inequality. Surprisingly, even in England, the civil rights curriculum in schools largely focuses on the USA-centric figures of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. Eddo-Lodge had to go out of her way to uncover the story of racial struggles within her own nation. It’s troubling that this historical narrative is largely hidden, making the chronicle of events documented here all the more needed.
As a unique voice, Eddo-Lodge offers her own perspective that mixes well with the historical and contemporary context throughout. The result is a consistently engaging read that is part cultural nonfiction and part memoir, with the latter component never succumbing to indulgence. One heartbreaking account describes her experience at age four, subject to television programs in which all the good protagonists were white and the villains often black, prompting her to one day whimsically ask her mother, “When will I turn white?” The disproportionate racial depiction in the media reflects what Eddo-Lodge calls “fear of a black planet,” permeating the realms of economics, housing distribution, education, and policy toward demographics in Britain. Included in the book is a transcript of a telephone conversation between the author and a prominent white nationalist, who at the conclusion of the chat recommends that she flee the nation and have children in a country more connected with her heritage, so as to preserve the UK’s existing white demographic majority. That people with this mindset exist, and hold positions of power across multiple fields, is disturbing and real. As Eddo-Lodge states, when you’re white you’re an expat; when black, you’re an immigrant.
Why I’m No Longer Talking is rife with the standard vocabulary of race relations discussion: marginalization, representation, complicity, people of color—and though the term “woke” is noticeably omitted, the publisher couldn’t resist including a blurb on the back that invokes it. Eddo-Lodge acknowledges how hard mutual communication can be between (a.) black feminists armed with the vocabulary of a Masters in Gender Studies and (b.) those without, especially when the latter portrays the former’s communication techniques as “[employing] over-stylized and impenetrable language.” Throughout the book however, the language used is consistent and accessible for all, resulting in a clear outline of the UK’s racial history, the often-overlooked nuances of structural racism, disproportionate representation in the media, and the unique struggles of the black community even within the ranks of the pro-feminist movement.
Though the author’s approach is both impassioned yet level-headed, a few flaws in her logical approach weaken the book’s overall punch. When presenting big-picture statistics regarding employment and law enforcement, she insufficiently distinguishes between causation vs. correlation, assigning benefit of the doubt where it suits her thesis. There’s also a scent of cherry-picking among the anecdotes that support her points. One egregious example is the inclusion of internet commenters who rage-argue about the casting of a black woman in the role of Hermione in the stage performance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It’s troubling that the most vile of internet troll commenters are given center stage, with the implication that they represent the white population’s thoughts about actors of African descent appearing in media. As a result the book falls victim to the “social media magnification effect,” whereby arguments are fueled by culling all the most extreme examples of misbehavior on both sides, resulting in a dialogue that only serves to polarize.
An effective way to measure the success of a book of this kind is to evaluate the practical steps it offers toward increasing societal equality. At one end of the spectrum is Ta-Nahesi Coates, who in Between the World and Me espouses the view that things will never improve, that black people should remain forever weary of the evil white legions who will forever stomp on their backs. Is Eddo-Lodge’s entry comparatively more constructive? Arguably, but not by much; especially when the book’s title all but shouts “I give up!” Even with the sentence-two walkback, she intermittently returns to the endorsement of an echo chamber approach, recommending that any frustrated souls surround themselves solely with people who provide safe, comfortable agreement. White people are afraid to be branded racist, and non-white people are afraid to be branded reverse-racist, preempting a great many potential participants to withdraw from the discussion entirely. Herein lies Why I’m No Longer Talking’s fatal flaw: it won’t convert members of one camp to the other, and doesn’t persuade anyone to at least meet somewhere in the middle.