Reni Eddo-Lodge on understanding race and white privilege in the UK

I have been involved in several social media conversations over the past couple of weeks which have started with someone in the UK sharing a helpful US perspective on understanding and responding to racism/white supremacy, and have gone on to ask where the equivalent British analyses were. I received Reni Eddo-Lodge’s new book, Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) yesterday lunchtime, and finished reading it before lunch today. It is at least one answer to that question, and a compelling one at that. I want to write a decent summary, but here are the quotations I took down as I read: [On slavery] ’…unlike the situation in America, most British people saw the money without the blood.’ (5) ‘…many Brits lived comfortably off the toil of enslaved black people without being directly involved in the transaction.’ (6) ‘But the recipients of the compensation for the dissolution of a significant money-making industry were not those who had been enslaved. Instead it was the 46,000 British slave-owning citizens who received cheques for their financial losses.’ (6) [On Black British history] ‘But most of my knowledge of black history was American history. This was an inadequate education in a country where increasing generations of black and brown people continue to consider themselves British (including me).’ (9) ‘…until I went actively digging for black British histories, I didn’t know them.’ (54) ‘While the black British story is starved of oxygen, the US struggle against racism is globalised…’ (54-5) [On systemic racism] ‘It seems that the root of the problem of both the under-representation of race and gender is essentially the same, but the solutions proposed for each are radically different.’ (78) ‘Colour-blindness is a childish, stunted analysis of racism.’ (82) ‘Colour-blindness does not accept the legitimacy of structural racism or a history of white dominance.’ (83) ‘In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by the negative stereotypes about their race, and to who power and privilege is bestowed upon [sic] … Seeing race is essential to changing the system.’ (84) ‘I don’t want to be included. Instead, I want to question who created the standard in the first place. After a lifetime of embodying difference, I have no desire to be equal. I want to deconstruct the structural power of a system that marked me out as different … The onus is not on me to change. Instead, it’s the world around me.’ (184) [On white privilege] ‘How can I define white privilege? It’s so difficult to describe an absence. And white privilege is an absence of the consequences of racism. An absence of structural discrimination, and absence of your race being viewed as a problem first and foremost…’ (86) ‘But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.’ (87) ‘The idea of white privilege forces white people who aren’t actively racist to confront their own complicity in its continuing existence. White privilege is dull, grinding complacency.’ (87) [On ‘reverse racism’] ‘There is an unattributed definition of racism that defines it as prejudice plus power. Those disadvantaged by racism can certainly be cruel, vindictive and prejudiced … [b]ut there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people…’ (89) [On race and class] ‘We should be re-thinking the image we conjure up when we think of a working-class person. Instead of a white man in a flat cap, it’s a black woman pushing a pram.’ (201) [On ‘urban’] ‘The word “urban” here was coded … [u]rban here, as it is so often used (in music particularly), was code language for “black people live here”.’ (195) [On racism as a white problem] ‘Discussing racism is not the same thing as discussing “black identity”. Discussing racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety. It’s about asking why whiteness has this reflexive need to define itself against immigrant bogey monsters in order to feel comfortable, safe, and secure.’ (215) ‘…racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.’ (219)   I should note that the longest and angriest chapter is on intersectional feminism; I’ve not excerpted that at all...

Read More

On Charlottesville and home again

The horror of Charlottesville for American friends was the visibility of things they had believed and hoped were confined to history. Is there anything similar in recent UK history? Unfortunately, yes. Do we have examples in recent times of people introducing explicit Nazi language and images into our political discourse? Yes. Katie Hopkins, a journalist who has written for many of our most popular press outlets, casually tweeted about the need for a ‘final solution’ recently—it was too much for one of her media employers (LBC), but she still writes for the British press. In a very similar vein, this week Trevor Kavanagh, the former political editor of our best-selling daily newspaper, wrote an article depicting ‘The Muslim Problem’. Kavanagh is a very experienced journalist, and the idea that he was not conscious of echoes of Nazi language of ‘The Jewish Problem’ when he chose his slogan seems merely incredible to me. It appears that, like Ms Hopkins, he depicted an aspect of our present multiculturalism using language that echoed Hitler. Again, one of our allegedly-mainstream political parties, UKIP, published a poster last year which apparently echoed German Nazi imagery. Nigel Farage, the then-leader, proudly unveiled the poster, and defended it in the face of predictable outrage. Farage remains something of a ‘media darling’, very regularly invited onto our mainstream broadcast media to express his views. Of course, it may be objected that these are relatively isolated incidences; I do not accept that, but even if they were, consider our most significant political decision for many decades, last year’s referendum on our membership of the European Union. From the start, on the ‘Leave’ side, there were three arguments on the table: an abstract notion of ‘sovereignty’; the amount of money the UK gave to the EU; and immigration. Whilst the second of these informed the, now infamous, bus slogan, the third was the meat of the campaign. But it didn’t work. Mass migration from Eastern Europe was indeed a reality of British life, and it was indeed uncontrollable, but pointing this out made no difference to the polls, which showed a comfortable ‘Remain’ lead about six weeks out. Then someone hit upon a new tactic: Turkey. Turkey was, and is, a candidate nation, desiring to join the EU. There was, and is, no serious expectation that it will join anytime soon—the problems run very deep. However, the imagined possibility of Turkish accession offered a new argument to the ‘Leave’ side: the uncontrolled hordes of Bulgarian and Polish immigrants might be joined by uncontrolled hordes of Turks—and they have brown skin and middle-eastern sounding names. It is a matter of record that, for the last 4-6 weeks of the campaign, this (entirely imaginary) threat of Turkish immigration was, essentially, the sole message of the ‘Leave’ campaign. Michael Gove gave an, astonishing, 90 minute TV interview, where he responded to every question the audience asked him with ‘Turkish immigration’; the infamous final leaflet of the campaign, delivered to every home in the UK, pressed this message, extraordinarily crudely. This focus on the (imaginary) possibility of mass Turkish immigration turned national opinion, shifting the polls by 5-10% The ‘Leave’ campaign chose to threaten us, however implausibly, with brown-skinned neighbours with middle-eastern sounding names, and this straightforwardly racist tactic changed the game. Let me parse this clearly: a genuine and real possibility of uncontrolled immigration by very poor communities from Eastern Europe did nothing to improve the ‘Leave’ vote; an entirely imaginary fantasy of immigration from Turkey was the decisive move in the campaign. Our most significant political decision for decades was determined by an imaginary fear of living close to people with brown skin and middle-eastern sounding names. This plays three ways: first, something like a million of us were convinced to vote ‘Leave’ because, although presently-actual uncontrolled immigration of poor white people from Poland or Bulgaria did not trouble us, we felt threatened by imaginary possible immigration from Turkey. If there is a way of narrating that decision that does not involve the category of ‘racism’, I can’t find it. Second, something like sixteen million of us either were entirely untroubled by a campaign that was explicitly racist, were ignorant enough of the debate to not realise what the campaign had become, or were sufficiently convinced that the goods of leaving the EU were so valuable that voting for an openly racist campaign was still the right choice. Third, the rest of us were either sufficiently uninterested to not get involved, or, at best, unwilling or unable to demonstrate convincingly just how racist the campaign had become. The aftermath of the vote was predictable: good friends of...

Read More

On Charlottesville and home

Today was the first day of the new school year here in Fife. Two of our daughters attend a school named ‘Madras College’, where our church congregation also happens to meet of a Sunday morning. It is a very ordinary state-funded Scottish high school which, like many thousands of British institutions, owes its odd name to an old connection with someone involved in the Empire. Most of its buildings in desperate need of replacement, although there is one fine quadrangle of great architectural merit and real note. I have forborne from commenting much in public on the—horrific—scenes enacted last weekend in Charlottesville, VA, scenes sparked by the intention to remove a monument to someone who was revered by his contemporaries, but has been judged more harshly by history. I have praised courageous friends—one in particular—who have taken a stand, and made the assumptions that every British person has made, that the rights and wrongs are obvious and clear, but I have not wanted to say this too loudly—because I have wondered what is as obvious and clear from far away about my life, my culture, my home, that I don’t see, and whether I would have the moral courage to confront it if I could see it. The fine quadrangle at the heart of our girls’ school, and the odd name, both owe their origins to the Revd Andrew Bell (1753-1832), who was born on the street that the school now stands on here in St Andrews. His admiring biography was written in three volumes by Charles and Robert Southey after his death. He was educated in town, went to the university here. Upon graduating, he accepted a post as tutor to the sons of Carter Braxton, a tobacco farmer in Virginia. Braxton owned, of course, many slaves—as a young man he owned a ship and had at least attempted to become involved in the slave trade. Out of his profits, he paid Bell a salary—some of it in shares in his tobacco enterprise. Bell grew moderately wealthy on the immoral profits of slavery. In 1781 Bell returned to Britain, fearing for his life in the War of Independence. He was ordained within the Church of England, served briefly an Episcopal congregation in Leith (near Edinburgh), but then in 1787 set sail for India, armed with a newly-minted honorary doctorate from my own university here in St Andrews. He landed in Chennai (which was then called Madras), and harvested several lucrative chaplaincy contracts with local British regiments. His great work in India, however, started two years later, when the East India Company opened its ‘Male Orphan Asylum’ at Egmore Redoubt, Madras, for ‘the orphaned, illegitimate, and abandoned sons of British officers’. Bell became Superintendent, and served with great distinction, devising a model of education that he named ‘the Madras system’, where older boys served as ‘monitors’ (or tutors) and instructed younger boys. He talked about educational advantages for the boys in public—and about savings on teachers’ salaries in private. He served the Asylum for seven or eight years before returning to Britain because his health was deteriorating. He was clearly loved by his boys, who were born into desperate situations, and who he helped greatly. That said, and although chaplain to the regiments of many of the boys’ fathers, he did not, it seems, ever query whether British soldiers should be routinely raping native women and leaving them destitute, or disowning the children born as a result of such assaults. He grew very rich in the Raj, so much so that when he sought an acquaintance’s help in securing a pension from the East India Company, the reply was tart: ‘[t]he very little [influence] I have, I would rather reserve to help the helpless, than in adding more rupees to the enormous heap you have brought home with you.’ (quotation from Southey & Southey, II.34). He obtained his pension, nonetheless, and so had both vast capital and comfortable income gained from the immoral profits of the Imperial occupation of India. He believed his real treasure, however, was the system of education he had developed, and set about recommending it to various poor and charitable schools. My university encouraged him, and awarded him a further honorary doctorate; his success may be gauged from the fact that his funeral was held in Westminster Abbey, where his grave is under the central aisle of the nave. In his will he left money to found a school using the Madras system in St Andrews. The bequest was handsome, and the Madras College began on the street where Bell had been born, in a fine quadrangle, which survives to...

Read More
get facebook like button