11 September 2018
I was recommended this book by a great Nigerian friend I’ve known since I was 16. Given the nature of the cover, I was ambivalent but decided to give it a go all the same. I did my best to engage the book in good faith, giving the author credit when she made good points, and not straw-manning those with which I disagreed (however strongly).
Here is the crux of my problem with this book. Eddo-Lodge frames her argument in such a way that it’s impossible for a “white” person to have an honest disagreement with any of her premises without 1) her attributing the disagreement to their race, and 2) reinforcing those premises i.e. “You just don’t get it because you’re white. You just proved my point”. It’s the intellectual equivalent of “You’re in denial”, “Why are you so defensive?”, or “You always want to have the last word” (or even the classic last resort that Jehova’s Witness and the Westborough Baptist Church members use when confronted with an argument, “That’s exactly what the devil would say”). In other words, if there is no possible good faith retort that wouldn’t reinforce the very point of contention (e.g. “No, I’m not in denial”, “I’m not defensive”, “I don’t always want to have the last word” etc.) you have inoculated your argument against all criticism. This is the sign of a bad argument, not a good one.
Incidentally, I’m Hispanic, I have lived in three continents, have belonged to both the majority and the minority group for years at a stretch, and as the latter I have experienced prejudice, profiling, and discrimination, as well as immense privilege. Whether I’m “white” depends on who you ask, as well as where and when. The fact that my life story doesn’t fit neatly into Eddo-Lodge’s essentialist picture of “white” people gives me a different perspective on many of the issues she raises, and no doubt some of my disagreements (but also some agreements) are born out of that. However, my gripe with the book is deeper than the sum of my experiences.
In analytic philosophy you’re taught to detect both the explicit premises stated in an argument and the implicit premises that underpin them. The latter are the unstated assumptions that would have to be true in order for the explicit premises to make sense. The more assumptions there are, the more vulnerable the argument is. Eddo-Lodge’s book is laden with such assumptions, generalisations and, rather embarrassingly for a supposed anti-racism activist, essentialist claims about race.
This is not to say that there isn’t also some sharp and valuable insight into the issue of racism in modern Britain (the section about identity in mixed race families being one example), but it’s undermined rather than aided by her style of argument. This is a shame given the real need to address racism across multiple levels of society.
I’m also frustrated by a glaring contradiction in her book that she seems to be oblivious to. This is, on the one hand, the notion presented in her last chapter that the conversation about race will be necessarily messy and uncomfortable, and that we should overcome that in order to address racism. Yet, on the other hand, she advises her target audience to only talk to people who already agree with them about the nature of these issues, and confirms this in her own experience of breaking out of white feminist circles to set up a black-only group simply because of their disagreements about the role of intersectionality in feminist discourse. In others words, we are at once asked to have a “messy conversation” while also being told to seek out and remain inside echo chambers, avoiding engagement with opposing view points. The whole point of a messy conversation is that, by definition, there will be uncomfortable disagreements, and you should be prepared to face them and refine your arguments, not run away because you “can’t be bothered with white people”.
The climax of this diatribe is in equal parts depressing as it is dangerous. Don’t seek unity, she says. Power must be taken by force, and there is no end in sight to the struggle, so please don’t ask me about what my goal is. A perfectly legitimate question such as “what is the end point”, in her eyes, would only confirm her suspicions that you are not a genuine advocate of progress but instead would rather just put a lid on the whole racism thing and continue to sweep it under the rug. This type of all-or-nothing rhetoric has echoes of the Communist Manifesto, and the “by any means necessary” sentiment has more in common with Malcom X than with Martin Luther King (the latter’s call to judge people by the content of their character rather than by the colour of their skin being derided early on in the book).
Her worldview, in part seemingly born out of Marxist conflict theory, is not just incompatible with dialogue, but positively hostile to it. Dialogue with people who hold opposing views is counterproductive as it diverts valuable time and energy away from the movement. In her eyes, white liberals flying the flag of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech are a bigger threat to her movement than the BNP because, while you know where you stand with the latter, the former are a stifling and insidious form of opposition. This is not merely my personal interpretation of her book. She actually says that.
When this is the style of argument employed, there is no possible objection that could be seen as being had in good faith. Every bad argument I protest against is merely a confirmation of her original view that I don’t get it, and I can’t get it, because of my race. Forget the fact that black intellectual heavyweights such as Brown University professor Glenn Loury, Harvard-educated economist Thomas Sowell and the up-and-coming columnist Coleman Hughes have vehement disagreements with her analysis.
Despite occasional citings of research, this is decidedly not a scholarly book. It never seriously engages the counter argument, which is a prerequisite for any serious academic work. It is a political manifesto written by an activist. The lazy argumentation, strawmanning of opposing views and outright calls for echo chambers that reinforce – rather than challenge – confirmation bias demonstrates this in full. If you’re looking for sharp political theory, this is the wrong book. Anyone from Russeau to Rawls or Nozick would be more appropriate. If what you’re after is the writings of a lackadaisical, radical political activist á la Owen Jones, you’re in the right place.
With that said, and in spite of the low rating (mostly due to quality rather to the content itself) I still recommend you read it. The reason is that it’s important to acquaint oneself with this style of argument, particularly as it gains prevalence in schools, universities, the media, and increasingly, mainstream society (particularly on the Left). For better or worse, as this gains political currency, this atomised worldview of humanity will increasingly shape not just the dialogue about race, but the kind of society we live in. If you can borrow the book from someone, do so. If your only choice is to purchase it, I still begrudgingly recommend you do it.
Next I plan to read “Brit(ish)” by Afua Hirsch, which deals with similar issues but which (given what I’ve seen of her on TV) I hope will be argued in good faith.