I’d had my eye on this book for a while and finally got it a couple of days ago, and it was well worth the wait. It was exactly what I felt I needed to better understand race relations in Britain, as although I have read and watched lots of media produced by black people which specifically centres racism and black experience, the vast majority of it was from the USA. I knew I didn’t have as much knowledge about British race relations and in particular the history of Britain’s involvement in slavery, and as Reni stresses, it’s actually pretty difficult to find if you don’t specifically search for it. One of the many failings of our history lessons at school is the way in which they position Britain as the moral saviour of the world, the narrative being ‘We abolished slavery and fought the Nazis aren’t we wonderful and egalitarian?’. The devastating reality of colonialism is simply left out of the narrative, reduced to a map of the world displaying the Empire, with the countries we brutalised coloured red, without a hint of irony.
I had previously read the blog article that lead to the book, and did recognise the problem of my own white privilege in the way ‘white people’ jarred with my own sense of identity. It’s very easy to get defensive, especially when you know that other disadvantages put you near the bottom of the social hierarchy. The way I try to avoid that defensiveness is to remember that when acknowledging a specific privilege we have, we speak of it in relation to people who face the corresponding disadvantage, but are otherwise in the same situation that we are. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m a white, cis-gendered woman who is a British national, I’m from a working class family but university educated, I’m bisexual but currently in a relationship with a white cis-gendered man, I have mental health issues, I’m 28, I live with my parents out of necessity and although I do work I receive benefits for my low income. When talking about white privilege, all I need to do to contextualise this properly is replace ‘white’ with ‘black’ and think about how being black would make a person more disadvantaged, with all other things being equal. This may sound self-absorbed, and it would be wonderful if we could live in a world where we could easily recognise other people’s experiences without centring our own. However, often the best way to encourage empathy is to try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. The other thing I try to think of is how I would feel if the statement making me defensive was about a group I knew had privilege over myself. Replace ‘white people’ with ‘men’. Even just in the context of the title ‘Why I’m no longer talking to men about gender‘ resonates so hard with me. It might be ‘Why I’m no longer talking to rich people about poverty‘ or ‘Why I’m no longer talking to people without mental illnesses about mental illness.‘ The feelings of frustration, stigma, anger, fear, hurt, and exhaustion Reni describes are so very familiar to me.
Reni comprehensively covers British history, gender, and class, and acknowledges the disadvantages she can’t talk about from her own experience such as having a physical disability which requires the use of a walking aid or wheelchair. She recognises safe spaces as the necessary sanctuaries they are, and encourages people to withdraw when they need to and fight when they can. As an advocate for mental health, I can’t stress that enough. When the world feels awful and you’re struggling, self-care and self-love and going to be your saviours. Reni is right that anger can be a useful tool and fighting is necessary, but I would say that it is also not sufficient for the changes we need. Relying too much on anger can quickly lead to burn out, and recognising when you need a break from fighting is so important to sustainable activism. Recognising that your pure existence in a world that tells you that you are fundamentally wrong is already an act of resistance. Self-love in this context is radical. Cultivating relationships that create a safe support system, that you can retreat to and that you can practice self-love and mutual appreciation within are lifelines which everyone needs and deserves. In order to achieve the world we want to live in, creating that culture now is just as important in working to dismantle the one we are in.
Buy this book. Read it cover to cover, then lend it to your friends, and when they’ve read it, donate it to your local library or school. Start your activism by amplifying the voices we need, in the spaces they are less likely to be heard by buying a book and giving it away. And remember to practise self-care and self-love so you can spread that around too.