The ongoing protests in the United States in response to the police killing of George Floyd and discrimination against Black people has prompted an international conversation about racism. Mark Potterton draws attention to a 2017 book by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, pointing out that her observations of “structural racism” offer a timely assessment of current events. It also challenges South Africans to reflect on the continued existence of structural racism in our own society.
The current debates on radio talk shows and social media around the issues of race and identity reminded me of a book published in 2017 called Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race. Unfortunately, the book never received much publicity here in South Africa, but it really is worth a read.
Award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book deals with race and racism in modern Britain. In 2014, Eddo-Lodge posted an article on her blog in which she expressed her frustration with the way discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who are not affected by it. Her post read:
“I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the existence of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.
This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.”
Eddo-Lodge speaks about how white people become defensive when the power dynamics of structural racism are revealed. She adds that it is also not possible for black and white people to enter a conversation about racism “as equals” because the “journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings”.
This “self-censorship”, says Eddo-Lodge, prompts her to approach any conversations about race “incredibly carefully, because if I express frustration, anger or exasperation at their refusal to understand, they will tap into their presubscribed racist tropes about angry black people who are a threat to them and their safety”.
Eddo-Lodge explored these feelings more deeply in her book and set out to understand how race and class are inextricably linked. What I liked about the book was her unpacking of the covert nature of racism: “The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account. It slips out of your hands. You can’t spot it as easily as a St George’s flag and a bare belly at an English Defence League march. It’s much more respectable than that.”
The author prefers to speak about “structural” racism rather than “institutional” racism, explaining that “it is built into spaces much broader than our more traditional institutions”. She offers an example of just how deeply structural racism runs:
“Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly. Structural racism is an impenetrably white workplace culture set by those people, where anyone who falls outside the culture must conform or face failure. ‘Structural’ is often the only way to describe what goes unnoticed – the silently raised eyebrows, the implicit biases, snap judgments made on assumptions of competency.”
Reading her book, I am reminded that our South African rainbow nation’s understanding of race might just distort the idea of equal opportunity. We often cite our progressive Constitution and many South Africans say that they just don’t see race. Some of us feel liberated and progressive by that comment. However, to claim not to see race does not help anyone and may just blind us to the inequality that is still present in our country. Eddo-Lodge’s book reminds us just how long our road to freedom in this country might still be.
Eddo-Lodge’s book helps the reader to understand just why Black people are so tired of the debates I refer to in the introduction, and why they make so many people angry.
Although a great deal has been said recently about the need to transform institutions to overcome structural racism, Eddo-Lodge argues that change needs to begin at the microlevel, providing a measure of hope that each of us can act in small ways that make it harder for racism to continue to be institutionalised:
“If you are disgusted by what you see and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then 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.”
Her conclusion provides a measure of hope. We do not need to feel helpless about the structural racism in our society. Each one of us can do something, no matter how small, to change perceptions, to create opportunities that eradicate racist structures, and to educate ourselves on where we also need to be more open to conversations about race and the struggles that Black people continue to face, even in South Africa 26 years after the birth of democracy.