Are you paying attention? Social media and Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race.

“The progress is healing the wound… they [white people] won’t even admit the knife is there” Malcolm X

The title of Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race refers to her frustration and exhaustion at having to repeatedly explain herself to white people when talking about race in Britain. The book as a whole is a rebuttal of the ignorance, denial and defensiveness that plagues this conversation.  The irony is that since writing the 2014 blog post that turned into a 2017 book, Eddo-Lodge says she has spent more time talking to white people about race than ever before.

The success of the book is of course down to Eddo-Lodge’s skill as a writer but whereas previous polemics about race have failed to capture the attention of the mainstream, social media has this time played an instrumental part in increasing the book’s reach. The actor and activist Emma Watson is amongst a number of high profile people who have shared it with their millions of Instagram followers more than once, and to date there are over 2000 posts on the hashtag #whyimnolongertalkingtowhitepeopleaboutrace.

For many it’s a discomforting read that challenges our sense of self and how we relate to the world; for some it confirms what they already know; while others have said it provides the language and framework to talk about what they have always felt but did not know how to express.

When social media influencers with follower numbers in the tens and hundreds of thousands post about the book I imagine people who will never have considered reading it “because of the title”, or because they don’t think it is relevant to them, might reconsider. And this IS good – only by bringing a conversation about race into the mainstream can change happen.

But while I think it’s positive that the book is being so widely read, I still feel unsettled by some of what I see being shared on social media.

Whatever we share on social media immediately takes on a performative element. Regardless of the intention behind it, content is also there to entertain – in the form of humour, catharsis, support, or education, social media by its nature is something we waste our time with. Ideas are shortened and simplified in order to fit into the caption and so lose nuance and depth.  So when it comes to social media posts about an already charged issue like race, we (white people) have to be especially clear about our motivations for sharing our thoughts.

The truth is that this is just a book for white people – for many people from minority ethnic backgrounds, it is their LIFE. And while white people appear to be selfie-ing their way to self-congratulation with the book and glass of wine on the coffee table, and then move seamlessly on to a “lighter read”, many black and brown people are living this reality. To fail to acknowledge this in glib posts about how much you gained from the book means you’ve missed the point – the book might be aimed (in part) at you, but it’s not for you.

At times it feels like white people are posting about this book to prove we are not racist. In fact we should be showing we understand that through our ignorance or silence, and our resulting complicity in a system that routinely oppresses people of colour, we, as much as we might not like it, are. Unless we are working to challenge and dismantle this system we are part of the problem.

We don’t become anti-racist by having black or brown family members or friends; we don’t become anti-racist by simply saying we are; we don’t become anti-racist by avoiding uncomfortable conversations for fear of offending; we don’t become anti-racist by making excuses; we don’t become anti-racist by reading a book.

With all that being said, I’m sure I’m being unfair. Many (most? all?) people posting about the book have good intentions. People are reading, sharing, and then go on to use the points of influence in their own lives, as Eddo-Lodge always suggests we should when posed the (demanding) question, “what can white people do” to challenge racial inequality. Reading the book might well be a signal that you are ready to engage; posting about it might be shorthand for, “I care, but I’ve no idea what to say”.

But let’s not forget that intention is always a problematic defence – if you punch me in the face by accident, I’ve still got a broken nose. That is, when we post about this book, our intentions might be pure, but I’d argue that isn’t enough.

When people say to me that they’re scared to engage, or worried about making a mistake, I say GOOD! We should be scared. We should be worried. We should be careful. We should not arrogantly assume that we have the right to an opinion on anything that we know nothing about.

The problem with wading in with nothing but good intentions is that too often the conversation gets derailed. It becomes about tone, hurt feelings, or whether we should even be talking about race: aren’t we all one human race after all? This is a waste of everyone’s time – at best it is a distraction; at worst it is hurtful for those who’s experiences are being brushed aside and undermined.

So what do we do? It’s tempting to throw our hands in the air and proclaim, “We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t.” Except, no.

My point isn’t really that white people shouldn’t be posting social media updates about the book. Like I already said, the more people that read it the better and social media can spread the word most effectively. My point is more that we have to reflect more honestly  on our intentions. Social media has trained us to perform – to prove what we are doing and we have to ask ourselves whether we are performing anti-racism? As Eddo-Lodge writes, “don’t be anti-racist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there’s very little praise to be found, is much more difficult.”

Perhaps we could read the book and not post about it straight away? Maybe spread the word by passing your copy on, or buy a copy for someone else. Go away, engage in the issues more deeply, read more books, follow social media accounts that make you feel uncomfortable and I’d strongly recommend you don’t comment, just sit with that discomfort for a while and try to find its origins. Want to do more? Find online opinion pieces that challenge your thinking, attend events (if you are able to) outside of your comfort zone, listen when you’re with black people, speak when you’re with white people, and question your own thoughts every single day.

And then, in the words of the final paragraph of Eddo-Lodge’s book:

“…it’s up to you. You don’t have to be the leader of a global movement or a household name. It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. It can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.”

And if all this seems like too much trouble? Then you might have read the book, but you were certainly not paying enough attention.

 

Places to start

Listen to  the podcast About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – in this she also promotes other podcasts that might be of interest

Visit https://mediadiversified.org and read read read

Visit http://www.gal-dem.com and read read read

Join the Facebook group The Start: A forum for radical social change https://www.facebook.com/groups/190412511596128/. It’s based in the USA but a lot of the conversation is relevant here in the UK too. It is run by white women in collaboration with Rachel Cargle whose Instagram page you can find here: https://www.instagram.com/rachel.cargle/  It is of significance that the group is run by white women as too often the burden of education lands on the shoulders of members of marginalised groups. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves.

Read The Good Immigrant – a collection of essays edited by Nikesh Shukla. You can buy it here https://unbound.com/books/the-good-immigrant/

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