Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
In her seminal work Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge conveys her frustration at her attempts to explain structural racism to ignorant white audiences. Whilst in no way closing the door on these pertinent conversations, Eddo-Lodge expresses the need for self-preservation against the vilification and condemnation she often received when discussing racism with resistant white listeners.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd we are witnessing a global outcry to topple institutionalised and everyday racism. In order to do this, structural overhaul is necessary, as well as the commitment of individuals to actively pursue an anti-racist agenda and way of life.
The very act of scrutinising one’s own thoughts, actions and language in an attempt to cleanse them of entrenched racism can be challenging. We often need to engage in productive dialogue with others to detect and analyse the subtle but pernicious micro-aggressions that permeate our discourse and commonplace interactions. For many white people this drive to understand and oppose systematic racism, often leads them to seek out black friends, colleagues or even strangers to act as spokespersons on matters of racial prejudice.
This, albeit well-meaning, anti-racist agenda places unfair demands on black people to constantly and continuously explain their traumatic experiences of racism and instil an obligation in them to educate others. Whilst at this time of such fervent activism it is extremely pertinent that we engage with the stories and words of black thinkers and activists, we must avoid demanding that black individuals act as anti-racism spokespersons simply in virtue of the colour of their skin.
To assume that any, and every, black person can or should act as a mouthpiece for all black people is to homogenise. It is to treat black people as interchangeable and equally instrumental in informing your understanding of structural racism. Black people do not share a uniform set of racially informed experiences or have a collective attitude towards discussing these experiences and the structures that underlie them. To assume this is to treat another person as merely a source of information. Not as a person with a unique life and set of preferences towards discussing their life and the racial structures that inform it.
Eddo-Lodge justifiably expresses her sense of resignation following certain strained discussions of racism. Whilst she willingly continues to publically engage in discussion about race, she also upholds the right not to. Discussing systemic and historic oppression is pertinent yet sensitive.
The expectation for an individual to speak on behalf of their race, gender or sexuality is a heavy burden. We must not underestimate the weight of this pressure. It may seem natural to reach out to black friends: to ask them how certain words and actions embody and portray racial prejudices and how to eradicate them. But we must not demand of any individual that they must act as a spokesperson.
To make anti-racism a burden on the very group the movement is trying to free from the shackles of racism is to ignore black people’s need for self-preservation. We must consider the fear of denunciation, the trauma of relaying distressing events and the pressure of acting as a spokesperson when seeking out the testimony of others in our attempts to cleanse our actions and thoughts of entrenched racism. Rather than deterring us from important conversations about race, we are reminded to be more considerate: to listen to those who choose to speak up instead of making black people talk about race.