Last Thursday, the Festival of Debate focused its attention on the pressing issue of racism and white privilege as part of its fairness and equality strand. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog post and subsequent book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race were central to the discussion, hosted by Dawn Walton.
It was an immense privilege to listen to Reni Eddo-Lodge talk compassionately through her experiences of being a black woman activist attempting to tackle systemic racism and its intersectional impacts. Through the combination of personal experiences and her easy manner, Reni united a lecture hall of people into understanding the difficulties of discussing racism to those privileged enough to have the power of opting out of such important conversations.
The discussion revolved around many themes explored in the book, but what became most apparent was Reni’s feelings of ‘activist burnout’ and her frustration of being the spokesperson, particularly to those that defend and do not want to hear what she has to say. Many of the audience members understandably questioned what had changed for Reni, as she sat in front of a crowd of people, many of whom were white and arguably looked most on edge. What Reni eloquently insisted to be important was that she was now having the conversation on her own terms. While this book was initially written as a tool for self-expression, its wide reach is a reflection of both its relatability and Reni’s skill in articulating the urgency of problems with structural racism and its discourse.
Reni went on to discuss the exclusive nature of white feminism. She exemplified how majority white feminist spaces often silence minority groups and how black feminists in particular are forced to ‘tiptoe on eggshells’ round their white counterparts, should they wish to make a point. To this end, Reni and Dawn discussed the notion of ‘whiteness’ as a political ideology and mentioned ideas of ‘white fragility’ whereby the prioritisation of white feelings stands to threaten freedom of speech.
Reni spoke of the invisible ubiquity of the politics of race and explained that as a society we have attempted to displace gaze from institutions by focusing on interpersonal experiences. She claimed that it is people that make up institutions, as they do society, and therefore we must connect the two in order to prevent blame being assigned to one community, and to both understand and tackle institutionalised racism. Reni emphasised the importance of a more diverse and accurate British history being taught, as a means of identifying the roots of racism, and educating to prevent it.
Reni renders otherwise little known concepts accessible and disarms potentially defensive audiences by using her own experiences both in her writing and at the Festival of Debate event. Watching Reni talk was an engaging extension of discussions raised in her book, and served as an important reminder of the pervasive and covert nature of racism, and our collective responsibility to opt into such discussions.
Image: Emily Doyland