Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge looks at a variety of issues in modern British culture. I think what makes it particularly effective is that it doesn’t try to cover everything, it doesn’t go into theory or the history of race relations (though it does highlight some of them). Rather, it’s easy to absorb and understand the issues, no matter how much you’ve been aware of them.
I picked it up as part of Read Harder 2019, number three on the list is ‘a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary prize in 2018’. This book won the Jhalak prize, celebrating British BAME writers.
I think if I had read this before being a union rep, I might have had a different reaction to this book. I would hope I would have been dismayed. However, with the experience of being a rep, it reflected some of the structural inequalities I witnessed. It was largely unsurprising, which made it all the more distressing as such inequalities are so pervasive.
I have no doubt in my mind after three years of representing people across all manner of HR policies that I had a huge amount of white privilege. The behaviours I demonstrated every day and was praised for, landed someone with black or brown skin in a sea of trouble. I’m reasonably certain I’ve faced my share of bias (unconscious or otherwise) by being a woman, but it was nothing compared to some of the women I represented.
The thing I’ve learned and maybe people will learn from this book is that it’s not good enough to be nice. Sometimes, you have to be that person in the room (who has the personal capital to spare) to highlight where something could be or is biased against someone who isn’t white. It’s deeply uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to the constant stress of someone who is continually undermined in subtle (and not so subtle ways) for being the wrong colour, gender or for being disabled (not to mention all the other ways you could be discriminated against). The thing that got me down (and I had to take a break for a variety of reasons) is that when your caseload is majority non-white with a majority white membership, you can calculate the statistical improbability of the situation. And it’s like the book says, it’s not people being overtly racist, but it’s all the subtlety of white privilege being denied to those who aren’t (and the structures reinforcing it). And don’t even ask about the success rate, that’s a whole load of other depressing.
What I really liked about the book was the last chapter, which resonated with me quite a bit. Even though I have a better appreciation for the discrimination that black, brown or asian people face, I don’t have to suddenly become this activist (which I don’t think I could be for a variety of reasons). But everyone can do something to combat the inequalities that exist. You can think of how you can use your personal political capital to do something that will benefit someone in incredible ways.
And yes, sometimes that will be really uncomfortable. For example, getting vague and ambiguous, qualitative remarks about someone’s performance at work. Question it and if you think it’s unconscious bias, say so. Or, if you need to prioritise giving feedback to someone, prioritise the person who will benefit the most, who is least likely to either get feedback or good feedback. The thing that always struck me when dealing with union cases was that my BAME colleagues were almost never given the benefit of the doubt. So just give some extra thought before you jump to any conclusions, like the way you’d do with a friend.
I’m still trying to think of the ways that I can better help friends and colleagues. Lots of them are strong, confident people and often they just need you to agree that someone said something awfully stupid. Or, like a good manager, sometimes you just need to be the bullshit umbrella for someone else.
I think everyone should read this book, especially people who want to make their workplaces more diverse. There are big things that can make a workplace terrible but death by a thousand cuts is equally awful, it’s just a longer and more painful process. And instead of it being one racist dickhead, it’s the people in your team, your programme and your entire workplace.