Looking back at Reni Eddo-Lodge’s talk in Brussels
Author Reni Eddo-Lodge commanded the attention of millions of readers and critics with the title of her debut book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The title of this innovative work of nonfiction challenges a historical, well enforced mandate which requires People of Color to serve and entertain the doubt, condescension, frustration, apathy, anger and denial that we have become accustomed to when speaking with white people about race. Eddo-Lodge’s voice ascends alongside her British contemporaries including fellow journalist Afua Hirsch, and hip hop artist and social entrepreneur Akala, while also resounding with the perspectives of academics like Grada Kilomba, Gloria Wekker, and Fatima El-Tayeb.
Black People living in Europe, including citizens and migrants, have been repeatedly told that race and racism are not European problems. These sentiments are echoed somewhat in alterations made to the original title of the author’s book in French and German. Le Racisme est un problème de blancs, is the title of the book in French, which in English translates to: “Racism is a white problem”. In German the title of the book is Warum ich nicht länger mit Weissen über Hautfarbe spreche, which translates to: “Why I’m no longer speaking with whites about skin color”. In think tanks that I organise for white people so that I can create safer spaces, workshops for People of Color, white Europeans solemnly inform me that the word race is very difficult for them to use or even hear.
On the evening of March 28th 2019, almost twenty-four hours after a tense and problematic presentation of the book in Berlin (the person who interviewed Ms. Eddo-Lodge used the n-word, later stating that she couldn’t be racist and insinuating that this was obvious because she complimented the author on her afro) Reni-Eddo Lodge read a letter addressed to her readers and sat down with writer and cultural curator Dorrie Wilson at the opening of the Passa Porta Literature Festival, where they discussed how a blog post was transformed into an international conversation.
Kitchen Table Activism
One of the first things that you notice and appreciate about Reni Eddo-Lodge as a writer speaking about her work is her ability to employ candor in a manner that is both engaging and endearing. She describes writing Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race at her kitchen table, sans heating, living off of a modest advance provided by her publisher Bloomsbury. This admission veers toward the realities of what it means to be a writer of Color engaged in anti-racist work, as opposed to cliched, and supposedly romantic ideas which summon images of the struggles of white authors and artists.
Working steadily as a young journalist, Eddo-Lodge recalls a time where news media outlets weren’t so keen on publishing features focused on race. They were, however, happy to employ her every now and again to serve as “a talking head” on those rare occasions when the subject of race could not be avoided. When she proclaimed onstage that she now has the means to live comfortably, I along with the rest of the audience applauded her, understanding that it’s one thing to struggle because basically writing is the only thing that you can do. It’s another thing to struggle because your life depends on being employed as a writer, and the tools of this trade are devices which you understand must be used to counter racism and anti-Blackness.
Breaking cardinal rules
As it turns out the legendary blog post, which Reni Eddo-Lodge insists was something that she did not expect to receive the acclaim that it did, was not a factor in the author being contacted to write what became Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. In fact, Eddo-Lodge mentions that the person who initially contacted her was not familiar with the impact of her resounding declaration which many more readers discovered through The Guardian. By now, those of us familiar with Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and the author’s practice as a writer, are well informed of her original intent. A young journalist accustomed to being the only Black woman in the room expressed in a concise, fearless, eloquent manner the trappings of discussing race with a group of people used to seeing and referring to themselves as individuals, who maintain and benefit from racist systems and structures whether well meaning, ill meaning, uninformed, or disinterested.
In her original post Eddo-Lodge writes: “They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not to really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.” In naming what must never be named outside of markers of identity synonymous with whiteness which we sometimes describe as English, French, German, or American for example, Eddo-Lodge breaks a cardinal rule. She connects racist power dynamics to whiteness! The author chose to work with her publisher Bloomsbury because, as she put it, “They were willing to lead this conversation.”
Reni Eddo-Lodge’s demeanor provides clues as to what it’s like to be thought of as leading this particular discussion. At last year’s Women of the World conference Nigerian author and revered feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie jokingly referred to a consensus which expects Eddo-Lodge to have “the answers”. While in dialogue with Dorrie Wilson the author seems calm and resolute responding to this international directive and their expectations Eddo-Lodge exclaims, “I wrote the book, what else do you want me to say?” In other words, everything that she had to say was well researched, carefully constructed and layered into Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.
During her conversation with Wilson Eddo-Lodge seems ever so delighted when Wilson asks her to walk the audience through her research process for the book. “No one’s ever asked me about this before”, she responds thoughtfully. As an African American who has lived in both Europe and the UK like Wilson, I was grateful to read about the experiences of Black and other People of Color in Britain. Twelve epic years living outside of the United States have allowed me to reflect on the power of African American histories, cultures, and frames of reference which some Black British and Afropeans feel detract from their multilocal, national, and continental experiences and identities.
As Eddo-Lodge shared in that interview which she herself conducted, books, and pamphlets were essential to her work. In an age where young activists weary of educating white people sometimes suggest “Google it!”, the author reminds us of kitchen table activism, the burning of Black bookstores, as well as facts and figures available to the public, while at the same time excluded from cultural frames of reference and contemporary understandings of race, racism, and whiteness. Coming to grips with this spells out why “Google is (indeed) your friend”, because it will tell you what you want to hear without referencing that which has been hidden, erased, edited, or deemed unimportant or not worth mentioning, let alone remembering.
Ballooned in and parachuted out
Prior to making my way to the opening of the seventh Passa Porta Literature Festival I had a few expectations which I was certain would be met. The reception would be staffed by white people. Refreshments would be served by white people. The audiovisual team would be comprised of white people. Those responsible for the set up and the breakdown of the venue would be white. The person with the honor and the responsibility of introducing Reni Eddo-Lodge would most certainly be white. Somewhere in the introduction a commitment to actively taking part in “the conversation” would be emphasised. The audience was likely to be predominately white.
Years of attending lectures, discussions, and debates centered around racism have prepared me for these and other dynamics. As a Person of Color, as an artist and a writer who’s work focuses on race and racism I am waiting for institutions in the din and fog of multiculturalism, diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality as these words have been colloquially appropriated, to fully immerse themselves in anti-racist work. This includes but by no means is limited to engaging audiences of Color and permanently employing People of Color who are responsible for making administrative decisions. Too often I think to myself ‘If the only People of Color employed here are those who invisibly labor over the maintenance of the building (the most important job second to administration) in no way can I interpret a sincere, authentic commitment to”... . and this is where I must pause before concluding.
If I had asked Ms. Eddo-Lodge one question it might have been, “What do you mean when you say anti-racist? I’m used to seeing people articulating what they’re against, but in this case what should ‘we’ or what should ‘they’ be for?” It’s clear that we are speaking about the gatekeepers and I don’t have to tell you that they are white because you already know that they are white.
Reni Eddo-Lodge and Dorrie Wilson gave a masterclass in organising, documenting, evaluating, and speaking about race in public. If I didn’t know better I would be encouraged by the volume of voices provided by People of Color in this year’s Passa Porta Festival, but I’m discouraged and rightfully skeptical that we are often absent in the halls of social and cultural institutions, and so you will not see People of Color working at events like these. We will be ballooned in and parachuted out, but we will not command fixed positions which necessitate skill, wisdom, and expertise. I know that we can clean, but can we curate? With a dog eared, heavily worn copy of Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, I hesitated before introducing myself to the author and asking her to sign my copy of the book. What’s the value associated with her signature, I wondered, watching a queue of mostly white people stand before the author with their personal copies, eagerly awaiting her autograph.