With everything that’s been going on in the world recently, I, like many other people, wanted to educate myself on the issues of race and racism that are prevalent not just in the US but around the world. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, I chose to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race.
As someone who studied a lot of literature by authors from a range of ethnicities covering their experiences and histories, I thought I was already quite well educated on the issues addressed in these books. Turns out, I was wrong.
Whilst I have read and studied a wide variety of literature covering very similar topics, my interpretation and understanding of them was very different when read through the lens of my degree. Reading these books 4 years on from university study, and with some very real and present issues close by, I was surprised at my reactions to them, which I’m going to try to put into words.
Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo
From a literary point of view, I loved this novel. I write it over and over again on here, but there’s just something about books that delve into the lives of their characters that I just love. Girl, Woman, Other tells stories of experience from 12 different points of view, spanning generations, decades, genders, sexualities, professions and more. It speaks to a shared experience for black British women (plus a white woman and a non-binary person), whilst highlighting the fact that these are individuals, the same as everyone else.
It’s easy to lump the “black female experience” into one neat box (just as it is to do with the white female experience, the Jewish experience, the African American experience) and forget that within this group are unique women from a variety of backgrounds with their own life experiences and histories to share. Whilst many of the issues are the same for these women – many of them have difficult starts in life, for example – the women they are and the ways in which they deal with their experience are so different; some follow creative paths, some emigrate, some find success in a white, male dominated world.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
A lot of the issues that I started thinking about whilst reading Girl, Woman, Other became unavoidable with Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. The issue or movement that struck me most was the one about intersectional feminism; something that obviously comes up a lot in Evaristo’s novel. The idea that there is a right or wrong kind of feminism baffles me. To me, it seems obvious that race and gender intersect; of course black women will face different, and more, adversity than white women, so of course feminism will take a different form.
I found myself thinking “of course” a lot when reading this. The privilege I have of being educated and well-read I think has led me to have a broader understanding of different experiences in a lot of ways. At the risk of sounding arrogant, things that seem obvious to me, aren’t all that obvious to the general population. That being said, there was a lot I didn’t know, or perhaps haven’t acknowledged before. For example, I’d never really thought about the fact that most of our understanding of “black experience” comes from America. I learnt so, so much about black British history reading this, and the issues that face black Britons are not the same as those that face African-Americans, even though there is, of course, overlap.
Whilst the injustices of the USA of course make me sad and angry, reading this book, and realising how close to home some of these race issues are made me really emotional. Which I then felt annoyed at myself for when I read the closing chapter, in which Eddo-Lodge says she’s not out to make people upset or guilty, she’d rather people take action. Which is a great sentiment, and something I will act on by donating to charities and speaking out where I can. But I can’t help but think it misses a little of what makes us human. Of course, reading this as a privileged, middle class white person, I felt a little guilty. Growing up, I never had to think about the colour of my skin or being treated differently. And it wasn’t until very recently that I ever thought to really do anything about it.
Despite this, though, I thought Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race was really informative, accessible, well-researched and well-written. It’s definitely eye-opening, no matter your educational background or how many books you’ve read. And, even though some of the conversation around Black Lives Matter has died down, it’s still important that people read books like this, and educate themselves. I think for people struggling to find a place to start, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is the perfect book to get you thinking and find a part of the conversation to really identify with.