Why I’m grateful for black people talking to me about race

I’ve just finished reading Reni Eddo-Logde’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.* As a result I feel I need to update some of what I’ve recently written. Eddo-Lodge does an excellent job of articulating how ‘whiteness’ can – possibly should – be viewed as an ideological structure similar to patriarchy. She argues that being white conveys all sorts of advantages, some subtle, some obvious while not being white results in equal and opposite disadvantages, and, because being white comes along with all this good stuff, white people, wittingly or otherwise, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Whether through naivety or wilful ignorance, I’d come to think of racism as unpleasant, antiquated, outmoded vestige of a less civilized past, a bit like public executions, or small pox, but the book makes a powerful case that what Eddo-Lodge calls ‘structural racism’ still exerts a powerful and pernicious effect on anyone who isn’t white. The definition of racism in the book is ‘prejudice plus power’. She readily admits black people can be prejudiced, but argues that the only power a black person can over a white person is strictly limited. Certainly it’s impossible for black people to systematically adversely effect the life chances of white people. This is clearly true.

The problem is, that for me and other white people, the effects of our whiteness is invisible. There’s an assumption of whiteness in society that means we only tend to notice our skin colour when someone who isn’t white is in our immediate vicinity. Because it’s very easy for white people to cocoon themselves in whiteness, it can be very hard to see how structural racism might operate for those who don’t share our advantages. The book makes clear that white people can be disadvantaged in all sorts of ways: we can live in poverty and be discriminated against on grounds of gender, physical ability, sexuality or any other of an almost infinite variety of factors. But nonetheless, our whiteness still makes our lives easier.

Like most white people I know, the idea of using racial slurs or actively discriminating against any individual because of what colour their skin happens to be is so bizarre and abhorrent that It’s hard to understand the motivations of those that don’t share my sensibilities. But this isn’t enough. Without ever explicitly saying so, Eddo-Lodge suggests that unless we are actively anti-racist, we’re helping to prop up the political structures that unfairly advantage those who are white and disadvantages those who aren’t. This is the argument that being white means you are a de facto racist until proven otherwise.

Predictably, I found myself bristling at this, but Eddo-Lodge does an expert job of anticipating and countering all my objections. She sees my defensiveness as evidence of my racism. There’s a paradox that unless you admit that being white makes you a racist, you’re a racist; the only salvation is accepting your racism. The case she makes the continued existence and power of racism is compelling and hard to ignore, and I found my accepting the racism inherent in our political and cultural structures. While I want to believe that I’ve earned everything I’ve achieved through my own merits, it’s undoubtedly true that my ride through life has been made easier by virtue of my skin colour.

While the were aspects of the book I’ve not accepted, I can understand how defending myself against charges of racism has helped to perpetuate the structures of ideological whiteness. I find myself feeling more than a bit embarrassed about writing this paragraph:

At the time of writing, there’s a group of people on Twitter calling me a racist for writing this blog post. This feels pretty awful. The violence of such a term is hard to quantify, but it’s left me feeling shaky and anxious. Some of the comments are so hateful that reading them feels a bit like being beaten up in my own home.

This was a disingenuous and thoughtless thing to say. Yes, being called a racist is pretty shitty, and yes, some of the people doing the name calling behaved contemptibly, but I can see that my hurt feelings were, in large part, the product of being confronted with having a layer of the privilege I usually take for granted stripped away. I can see how expressing myself in this way is offensive. That said, the points I was clumsily trying to make still stand; in fact, having read Eddo-Lodge’s book, it seems even more obvious that people of colour experience systematic discrimination which must adversely effect their educational outcomes.

So what’s the point of all this? First, I want to apologise for my ignorance and commit to doing more to be actively anti-racist. This won’t be easy and I’m sure I’ll find it easy to forget this commitment. All this has, however, helped me appreciate a comment Dylan Wiliam left on my blog which contained Robin Richardson’s “Memorandum to Oppressors”. I think it’s worth reproducing here:

A relationship, interaction or social system is oppressive if it involves gains, benefits and advantages for some, at the cost of losses, frustrations and harm for others. Oppressors are individuals, groups or classes who have more than their fair share of gains. The oppressed are those who have more than their fair share of losses. The archetypal oppressor lives in the northern hemisphere; is middle-class; is white; is male; has a senior position in a hierarchical institution.

Whether you are an oppressor or not depends on your location in an oppressive structure, not on your intention or wish. The question is what are you doing to transform the structure, not whether you wish to be an oppressor.

1 Seek confrontation and opposition

Over and over you get things wrong. You are deformed and blinkered by your location and experience. You cannot trust yourself, not your eyesight, not your judgement. Seek out people who have very different location and experience—that is, the oppressed—and heed their critiques, criticism and challenges.

2 Flattery and chance

Day in and day out, people flatter you. For you control goods and goodies which they desire. The consequence of this flattery is that you suppose with pride that you are in your present position through your own merit and achievement. But no, you are where you are through chance, not choice. You live in a society in which people with certain attributes (gender, race, class, nation) get rewarded and flattered.

3 Don’t divide and rule

There is a diversity of interests, concerns and priorities amongst the oppressed, and many are prevented—for example by the mass media and by the educational system—from knowing the dimension and contours of their oppression. You must not take, let alone seek, advantage from this diversity and lack of awareness.

4 Selfishness and self-interest

All human beings defend their self-interest, yes of course, and all in this do things which are morally wrong. But only oppressors have the power to define which wrong actions are crimes. Also oppressors have the power to define the signs, symbols and conventions of courtesy and considerateness. In consequence of this dual power, oppressors typically think they are morally superior to the oppressed. They are not. Never forget this.

5 Positive action

Regardless of any formal equal opportunities policies which may be around, you should be engaging continually in positive discrimination. Do everything you can to distribute power, influence, resources and goods to or towards the oppressed. You will often have to do this covertly rather than openly: so be it.

6 Acknowledgements

Everyone peppers their discourse and conversation with bibliographical footnotes—references to people from they have learnt, and/or people who are big names. Make sure that you yourself, in your footnotes and references, give credit only to the oppressed. This means—amongst other things—that you should indeed reckon to have your mind nurtured only or mainly by the oppressed.

7 The climate of oppressor opinion

Transformation of the system will come, if it comes at all, from the oppressed. You yourself have only a small part to play. But one thing you can do, and should do, is criticise, cajole, badger, pester, speak out, in the forums, informal as well as formal, of the oppressor. But watch out: don’t let them dress you in the cap and bells of a court jester, or the stiff righteous collar of a prig.

8 Double-agents

As long as you stay where you are it is possible that you will work, whether you wish to or intend to or not, against the interests of the oppressed. For example, and in particular, you are part of the velvet glove round the oppressor’s iron fist; you may be containing resistance, buying time for the oppressor, that’s all. One consequence of this is that you have no right or reason to expect gratitude, sympathy or trust from the oppressed.

9 Lifestyle

Look at your possessions, your personal time, your personal space and mobility: you are very comfortable, and very corrupt. You cannot completely change your lifestyle as long as you stay in your location. But you can keep it modest and frugal; you can share it; you can treat it lightly; and you can—and you must—risk it.

10 Words and platforms

The essential educational task is to equip the oppressed with words—the ABC, the first two Rs, Shakespeare and all that. Part of the essential political task is to provide them with platforms—a hearing in the places and spaces where a rule is to listen (words + platforms = communicative competence). Often you yourself should be silent, or at least your memoranda should be unmemorable. But sometimes you may speak, you may use both words and platforms. Choose them, choose them with care.

There’s no doubt I have enjoyed more than my fair share of gains and it’s very hard to accept that this is at the expense of other’s losses. Being silent is especially hard for me. Forcing myself to ‘listen’ to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s point of view without being able to ague back was an object lesson in vulnerability and humility. I’m sure there are points I haven’t yet understood and others I haven’t done justice to, but I feel richer for having given her a fair hearing and, I hope, changed by the experience.

Finally, I feel it necessary to reiterate that environmental differences caused by structural racism – structures implicitly endorsed by schools and teachers – are resulting in people of colour (as well as other minority groups) being educationally disadvantaged. The sooner we all acknowledge and work against this, the better.

* Hat tip to Jeffrey Boakye for the recommendation.

55 Responses to Why I’m grateful for black people talking to me about race

  1. Abena says:

    Refreshingly humble. An interesting and informative read.

  2. I think it’s a dangerous thing (& wrong) for people to assume that a white person needs to actively prove they aren’t racist. I also take issue with the position held by many that a white person can’t be subjected to racism, only prejudice. A white woman walking down the street gets “white, trailer trash” shouted at her by a BAME person is a victim of racism as far as I’m concerned (& probably the law too). I admit that BAME can suffer at the hands of structural racism in U.K./US in a way whites don’t but at an individual level every person, irrespective of skin colour, can be a racist/victim of racism.

    • Michael pye says:

      That was unexpected and interesting. Not sure I agree but that seems to be expected. Need to consider prioritising reading the book.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Naureen

      I guess this is a definitional issue – it depends on what we decide racism means. I think it might be more useful to accept the definition Eddo-Lodge uses. I’d be very interested in your view of her book if get time to read it.

      • If and when I read her book I’d love to discuss it with you. At the minute I don’t think it’s useful to accept her definition over the legal one. I really don’t think it serves humanity to say people of one colour are incapable of being racially abused. It does help to have lived in countries where people of different skin colours are in majority and see how they react to people of the other colour.

        • David Didau says:

          Oh, I agree that people of any appearance can suffer abuse because of their race. I’m not sure that’s the same thing though. I also what it’s like to live in a country where my race has put me at a disadvantage. I lived for 2 years in Japan and there’s no doubt that being white marks you out as gaijin. I knew very quickly that nothing I could do would ever make me accepted. I also spent time recently in Nigeria and, while everyone I met was super friendly, I was acutely aware of being very powerless. I was told that I couldn’t go out without a driver and was driven between various guarded compounds. It was disconcerting to feel so dependent and helpless because of the colour of my skin.

          • This is where I’m coming from https://arollerintheocean.wordpress.com
            I think if two people suffering the same type of abuse should be treated differently & that one has suffered racial abuse while the other has suffered prejudice and I base this distinction on the colour of skin of the victim then I’m being racist too. We go down this route then that means if a 5 year old white child is called racist names at school by a BAME child and teachers don’t record that as a racist incident then I think we are getting into dangerous territory and perhaps breaking laws.

      • I find the definition of racism as prejudice plus power objectionable. This definition is always the position of people who want to say white people cannot be victims of racism and that non-whites cannot be racist
        It is a racist position.

    • Incident in city where I live. Two BAME women abused and attacked a white woman. This was not a racist incident.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    I wonder what kind of an unreal world Dylan Wiliam lives in. I’ve lived and worked with people of various races and cultures, and although I wouldn’t pretend to understand what it’s like to be in anyone else’s skin, the overwhelming impression this has left with me is that once you get to know a person, the colour of their skin is something you hardly think about. You react to them just as you would to anyone else–your judgments are based upon their own personal qualities. As a rule, every race and sub-group of humanity has its share of saints and sinners, with most falling somewhere in between.

    People like Eddo-Lodge and Dylan Wiliam are doing us all a great disservice by banging on about racism. You’ll never feel comfortable with someone when your overwhelming reaction is how much different they are, and that you should be ‘checking your privelege’.

  4. ad says:

    This looks awfully like a ritual self-criticism. Were there Red Guards standing around the keyboard?

  5. Glad you took the time to read this and update your followers. As Abena said above, it’s refreshing to see someone willing to acknowledge where they might have had a gap in their learning/understanding and how a view may subsequently change upon learning more. Given that you’ve written so much about confirmation bias in the past I was surprised that your original instinct was to reject those voices who tried to challenge your earlier blog posts – even the very polite ones! – but still look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi – what made you think I rejected those who challenged my views? I always appreciate (polite) challenge and try to take the time to look at alternative perspective wherever possible. In this case I’ve taken quite a bit of time to read, think and critique. Surely you wouldn’t expect me to change my mind immediately?

  6. stan says:

    I think this is a great response. I am off to read the book. Would you consider that sometimes impolite challenges can be worthwhile? Your blindspot might be someone else’s open wound. Their anger may tell you just what you need to know. (They might also be just plain unpleasant but you will only know by offering lots of charity.)

    ps I think the link labeled comment is broken.

    • David Didau says:

      I wouldn’t know if the impolite challenge is useful because I don’t listen to it 🙂

      • Stan says:

        And you cut yourself off from all those that are on the wrong end or what Reni Eddo-Logde has lived but are not as patient as her with people who don’t understand.

        If you follow the logic of what she writes then we the white guys should aim to be much more patient with people who have every reason not to be. This doesn’t apply just to those we can identify as minorities. Once upon a time in the UK someone’s accent marked them for discrimination.

        A corollary to your byline Always remember you(we?) could be wrong:

        The last thing we want to do is cut ourselves off from the people who are most angry when we are wrong.

        • David Didau says:

          I’m more than happy to wait until someone can explain a position in a way that isn’t rude and abusive. Giving encouragement to lynch mods and hate mongers is bad for society.

          • Stan says:

            But isn’t putting personal happiness ahead of figuring out right and wrong something you decry? I also think you are setting up a false dichotomy here that lets you dismiss all critics based on tone, again something you decry.

            If I read each of Robin Richardson’s points with the question: what should I do when I don’t like the rudeness of a response to me, I don’t think disengaging should come up as the answer. Taking your time for sure.

            I am not saying everyone can be reasoned with. But on this topic there are people legitimately upset about the status quo and ignoring them because of their rudeness doesn’t seem to fit with what you quote here.

          • David Didau says:

            Stan, you must do as you please. The most useful heuristic I know to avoid being sucked into recrimination and accusation is to ignore the most virulent and aggressive of interlocutors. Go well.

        • ‘They’ might be wrong, too.

  7. Christiaan Venter says:

    Thank you for this.

  8. The person above is quite correct, this sounds exactly like self-criticism from the Cultural Revolution.
    When will you learn David? The people who have been calling you names are not reasonable and are not arguing in good faith. It doesn’t matter how much you apologise it will never be accepted, it will only encourage them to continue to mob you and others in the future.

    They are deliberately trying to change the use of the word racism so it is denied to a large section of the community. Let’s stick to the dictionary definition rather than a version invented so people can push their own agenda.

    If people of colour are so discriminated against, why do Indian and Chinese children do so much better than White children in their GCSEs? https://ollieorange2.wordpress.com/2014/07/30/the-chinese-way/

  9. Graham says:

    Hi I read this book a month ago and it is superb. Yes some people who are systematically discriminated against do really well in part perhaps because other parts of their life counter the discrimination for example and also because often their view of education is a means of escaping the discrimination so they work harder to get to a place that more privileged people get to with less effort. The same could be applied to others parts of society too. Highly recommended book.

  10. Michael pye says:

    Larry he changed his mind after reading a book, not after people called him names. True, that book was read as an attempt to double-check his own ideas. Discounting arguments because they were badly put forth by some people is called the fallacy-fallacy and it is common error.

  11. Tom Burkard says:

    This whole discussion reminds me of the mixed-race couple in Cromer who were told that they couldn’t adopt an Asian baby because the Asian wife said that she had never encountered discrimination, and was hence unfit to adopt because she wouldn’t be able to prepare the child to live in a racist society. I lived in Brum from 1973 to 1983, and working in the building trades it was almost impossible not to have good friends who were either West Indian or Sikh. The notion of ‘checking your privilege’ in the building trades is risible. As an immigrant myself, we naturally talked about England and why we came here; almost invariably, it boiled down to the fact that there were far more opportunities here than where we came from. This isn’t just a matter of this being a wealthier country: time and time again, I’ve heard that corruption, cronyism and racism made it impossible for most poor people to get ahead. One can only wonder why so many people–especially Guardian columnists–are desperate to exaggerate racism in the UK all out of proportion.

  12. Hello David. I’ve read your blog for a while, and it has been influential in challenging many of my own views of education. Contrary to what other people here think, I don’t think you were forced to write this from the “Red Guard,” but instead are practicing what you preach: asking yourself, “what if I am wrong?” I can’t comment much on race and racism, as I am not familiar enough with the debate to comfortably do so, but it is heartening to see a blogger I admire is willing to still challenge his own views.

    I am a Canadian, but living overseas, so unfortunately I cannot attend ResearchEd Canada, but I’ve noticed at least one of my professors from teachers’ college is signed up to present. I am quite pleased the movement has spread to Canada (and would be even more pleased if an event was held in Southeast Asia). Are you still planning on speaking at ResearchEd Canada?

    • To be open minded is good, but one should not be open to manipulation. Having experienced racism I cannot agree that unless the racist person has power we are talking about prejudice. Racism takes many forms, this definition is one of them. It is utterly racist to say all white people are racist and oppressors, there is no other way to describe that statement.

      • David Didau says:

        I envy you your certainty.

        • I, with Cromwell, am capable of asking if I am wrong. On this one experience suggests I am not. Racism is racism whoever it is directed at and whoever by – someone BAME is just as likely to be racist as anyone else against ‘out’ groups. Here’s one: this is my late mother-in-law entirely embarrasing me in front of liberal friends. She is East African Asian and says ‘we would never let a black man marry our daughters’. Racist, without a doubt, and if said by a white person it would be roundly condemned. (Btw I loved her very much, and she was a nice lady, but this left me very uncomforable to this day.)

    • David Didau says:

      No, I’m afraid I won’t. I’ve pulled out due the online abuse i was getting and because I didn’t want to jeopardise the conference going ahead. It’s not like I was being paid and it just seemed like way too much grief. Perhaps another time.

      • I want to put it on record that I’m very sad at the online abuse you received and the fact that you pulled out. Nothing in your post justified the abuse. I wish you well and hope Canada will get a chance to hear you in the future.

  13. Probably too late, but you should not pull out of something because of trolls on the internet. It feeds their self importance.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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