Friday, March 29, 2019

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People - (Very) Rough Notes

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Bloomsbury published it in Britain in 2017, it became a bit of a trans-Atlantic phenomenon, I read it because it was mentioned in Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club, and now it has come out in a German-language translation. To celebrate, the German publisher Tropen Verlag held a book presentation event here in Berlin. I attended it on Wednesday, March 27th. The book is about racial bias in Britain and about how difficult it is for a black person to speak about racism, even with liberal people, because she or he will encounter so much resistance and misplaced guilt.

Apologies for the postmodernist presentation of these notes. In the end, I felt that it was the most direct and truthful representation of the event that I could muster; any attempt to string them together seemed to dump in more after-the-fact analysis that I can't be sure is accurate.

- 7 p.m.
- Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus, Friedrichstraße 90, in Berlin Mitte
- Friedrichstraße overground S-Bahn station, restaurants with glass façades, tourists, lights, after dark
- people milling about around islands of books segmented into genres, with stairs leading between 4 levels (5 including the café)
- stage in basement café (Kulturbühne?): capacity 200, overfilled
- overspill crowd in front of large video screen with good sound waiting to be let into basement, then realizing that we'd just be watching the screen, as previously announced on Facebook
- a portly older man in a suit grumbling that the high number of attendees was not good for security
- at least 2 ushers
- people sitting on the floor or standing in front of the screen
- young woman apologizing to friends for not joining them on time - she'd needed to finish work
- plurality of demographic likely young women, but plenty of young men and older men and women; no children except perhaps a baby that occasionally wailed
- at elevators and entrance to the English language books section, with vertical garden behind the screen

Image from Tropen Verlag [Klett-Cotta]

- Reni Eddo-Lodge sitting down with an elderly white German lady for the interview
- interviewer lists all the prizes the author had won, mentions that she had written a blog post and that it had gone viral (author later mentions that her blog was linked to Twitter, and it was the Twitter post that went viral and led to many people thanking her for saying what they'd been thinking)
- asks what was the conversation that was the breaking point and led to the book
- author replies that if one reads the chapter about all the frustrating conversations she had while being active in feminist circles, one would understand what led her to write it

- interviewer mentions that back in 1995 there was already a discussion about the repression of black voices in the feminist discourse (around a certain prize?)
- mention of author never having been taught about the British slave trade in school, just hearing about it in an elective course at university
- interviewer asks about author feeling isolated at university (a characterization the author takes issue with but that the interviewer insists is in the book) and wonders where the other black women were - they both talk about the bias that leads to there being very few black women in teaching roles at universities ('Let's say they shouldn't all get on the same airplane,' joked Reni Eddo-Lodge, before saying that there are about 20 [if I heard correctly])

- author stresses that she is not calling individual white people racists; she is saying that black people are disadvantaged by a system that people may not be conscious of. Black schoolchildren may be marked down by their teachers, for example, but this does not mean that the teachers are evil. It just means that they have a subconscious bias

- interviewer asks whether author felt frustrated that she had to use such violent language in her blog post to get her point across - author says that she does not feel her language was violent, perhaps "striking" [Note: reminded me of 'Angry Black Woman' stereotype, criticized e.g. by Audre Lorde in her 1981 speech "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism".]

- interviewer talks about German banks' role in financing the slave trade from Hamburg, and about how she was shocked that this is not more widely known
- interviewer asks about the idea of black people 'taking over' and draws parallels to fears that arose when [800,00 sic?] refugees entered Germany in 2015; also mentions that in Portugal, a former colonial power, you can see more people of colour walking around (the interviewer said 'coloured people' and there was an interruption from the audience, inaudible to those of us on floor above, but objecting to that term) than white people
- also, I felt, an outraged reaction in the crowd where I was
- discussion about the interviewer's antiquated terminology; author asks interviewer to clarify if she meant black people or people of a darker skin colour generally, and interviewer opts for the latter

- author states that she does not believe that a predominance of black people leads to much of a shift in the power structures; the same people will continue to employ privilege. She believes that some black people wholeheartedly support a racist system. The system needs to be changed from within. Also, she does not believe that white Britons have any claim to demand an ownership to Britain considering a long history of denying other peoples' claims to ownership of territory that they have also lived on for centuries (in the colonies).

- author flatly refuses to prescribe solutions; it's up to the readers and the public to do that.

- interviewer asks if things have become better or worse with regards to racism, considering that for example the election of President Obama seemed to bring such hope, but that when he entered office, it was used as a trigger to unleash a vast amount of racism?
- author says 'You're probably asking the wrong person. I've only been around for 29.5 years' and can't tell the trend of history. That says, she has spoken to people who have been activists for longer than she has been alive, and they have told her that there is a level of understanding that is unprecedented, so that's hopeful

- question from audience: do you think that white people read the book and genuinely learn from it, or do you think that they believe that it's about every other white person? also, why did the interviewer distance herself from white people in her questions and seem to believe the problem did not lie with her?
- answer from author: she has no power over how people react to the book, although she hopes to convince people through it
- another answer from author: she does not feel too concerned about terminology [reference to the 'coloured people' problem], because she gets that it changes every five years; the important thing is the effort and thinking about the bigger problems

- question from audience: questioner speaks both German and English; he noticed that the translation of the title into German was not 'Why I'm No Longer Speaking to White People About Race' but 'Why I'm No Longer Speaking to White People About Skin Colour.' Did she approve of this?
- answer from author: she was told by the publisher that 'race' has very different connotations in Germany because people immediately associated it with the Nazis - she did not want her book to be associated with Nazis! And as race is a social construct and does not exist, she has come to wish that she had used the words 'about racism' instead of 'about race' in her title. But she wrote her blog post, which furnished the book title, on the spur of the moment. Speaking of which, she emphasized that she had no very deep thoughts or calculation when she wrote those words - they were her reaction of the moment, and not finely-aimed to be the most provocative ones to white people.

- question from audience: lady who is originally British and has lived more than 15? years in Germany: Germany is more racist than Britain because she will have conversations with people where she says that the words they use are racist, and they simply refuse to be convinced (no agreement or disagreement from the author), and she insists that 'race' is the mot juste for the title

- question from audience: mostly women in the audience; do you know why that is?
- answer from author: she's found to her delight that women like to support other women, she publicizes herself on venues that aren't as confrontational and perhaps masculine and shouty as radio and television, and there is an intrinsic affinity between feminism in some understandings and anti-racism, it being no coincidence that the first chapter of the book that she wrote was about feminism

- question from audience about Robin DiAngelo: is author aware of this American author, and what does she think of her?
- answer from author: she's read the book, it's fine, and if people want to read a white person saying exactly the same thing she herself does, they should go for it

Screenshot from "Emma Watson Interviews Reni Eddo-Lodge"
October 15, 2018 [Our Shared Shelf Group - YouTube]

- comment from audience about more people being in the room upstairs; would author agree to answer questions from the upper room since a microphone isn't available?
- answer from author: sure she can, later, but she's no oracle. She believes we can also learn a lot from each other, and she hopes that events like this can build a community amongst those of us who attend them
- another comment from the audience about more people being in the room upstairs who couldn't get in, who were often young black people unlike the people in the lower room; an argument amongst us in the upper room had been that black people deserved to be in the lower room with the author more, did the author agree?
- answer from author: she has no control whatsoever on who picks up her books and engages with it, and if white people learn from it, or if black people know they're marginalized and can use her book to finally be able to support their arguments with facts and wordings, both are great. She cannot choose one or the other.

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