Tag Archives: racism

Just Us by Claudia Rankine

The pandemic is denying us so much that we value: travel, spending time with friends and family, being part of an interest group, drinking in pubs after 10 … But from time to time we can find things that have opened up new experiences. Many arts organisations have worked very hard to bring people experiences that they would otherwise miss. Some of these are not new, like transmitting performances from before Covid-19. Others are new: on-line courses, workshops and seminars. And also lectures and Q&A sessions.

I miss living in London for the distance it put between me and experiences such as readers’ talks, courses at City Lit as well as lectures and special viewings and my friends. So I bought a ticket to the South Bank Centre session featuring Claudia Rankin, talking about her newly published book Just Us: an American conversation about racism in the US.

Claudia Rankine, 2016 MacArthur Fellow, New York, New York, September 7, 2016

Claudia Rankine on-line

After technical difficulties – where would we be without those? – I enjoyed the conversation she had with Gary Younge. There he was, spot-lit in the darkened Festival Hall, and she was at home on the East Coast somewhere and I was looking in at my kitchen table in Devon. This is so civilised, and unlikely to have happened without the current restrictions.

I had read a little of the book in advance and already had my interest alerted by its unusual layout. The main text of the book is printed on the right hand page. On the left-hand side are notes, fact checks, illustrations, references to points in the text, indicated with a red spot – side notes. In response to a question she made it clear that this was part of an attempt to be conversational, not put off readers with footnotes or notes at the end of the book. Some are included without either comment or correspondence indicted to the main text. Others show up precisely what she is referring to. In the current speak it allows for intersectionality and makes more personal, more individual the experience of living with racism and how racism operates.

Claudia Rankine also made clear that she is not providing solutions to the problems of racism in America (or the rest of the world). But she has produced a book to counter the divisiveness of current discourses on racism, many of which force people into opposing positions. She suggests that demanding defensiveness or justification does not move us forward. Let’s understand together and see how it works, is the invitation to the reader.

She reminded us that racism serves a purpose for some people and they have an interest in promoting the ideas and structure that keep it operational within society. Sadly, education cannot, therefore, be the whole answer. But conversations are essential, and hence the title of the book, which looks at conversations the writer has witnessed or had reported, and invites us into a conversation about it.

The title is, of course, a riff on justice, possibly also just US?

Just Us: an American conversation

Since the evening of the on-line conversation with Gary Younge I have returned to the book, Just Us, several time. Engaging with a book is such a privilege, feeling myself being challenged, and enlightened. It reminds me of studying for an MA some years ago, stimulating and opening my mind.

The book invited such interactions, as I have suggested, through its structure, placing sources and other material alongside the text. The style of the writing is also invitational: poetry, many questions, doubts and inner thoughts, accounts and reflections on events and interactions. 

Color blind?

I have returned to two of these in particular. One concerns white male privilege and how white men understand it, and sometimes defend it, and sometimes defend it aggressively. She explores several incidents in airports when white men, and occasionally women, push in the line for first class boarding. And she decides to ask men about the experience of privilege, trying not to be confrontational. One man tells her about diversity training at work and adds, “I don’t see color.”

All I could think to say was “Ain’t I a black woman?” I asked the question slowly, as if testing the air quality. Did he get the riff on Sojourner Truth? Or did he think the ungrammatical construction was a sign of blackness? Or did he think I was mocking white people’s understanding of black intelligence? “Aren’t you a white man,” I then asked. “Can’t you see that? Because if you can’t see race, you can’t see racism.” I repeated that sentence, which I read not long before in Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. (51)

It seems we are about to enter the debate about privilege and race and possibly gender in the UK as a result of the government’s ludicrous claim that teaching pupils in schools that ‘white privilege’ is an uncontested fact is breaking the law. There needs to be a balanced and impartial treatment of opposing views, according to  Kemi Badenoch, the women and equalities minister, herself a woman of colour. See Guardian report on Tuesday 20thOctober.

to name the problem is to become the problem

The other episode in About Us to which I return concerns a social situation, the dinner party. Claudia Rankine has suggested to the other guests that, rather than an unpredictable electorate, racism played a large part in the 2016 Presidential Election, sometimes under cover of other issues, such as Obamacare, immigration and ‘the Wall’. But the discussion is diverted when another guest tries to move the conversation away from the issues raised by the author, with a reference to beautiful brownies. And she questions whether she should have created this social awkwardness through her challenge or followed the path as invited and thereby colluded by staying silent or accepting a brownie. She reminds us of what Sara Ahmed says: 

to name the problem is to become the problem. [introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion]

‘Am I being silenced?’ wonders Claudia Rankine. ‘I understand inadvertently causing someone to feel shame isn’t cool,’ but she concludes this section with these observations.

Moments like these make me understand that the noncomprehension of what is known on the part of whiteness is an active investment in not wanting to know if that involves taking into account the lives of people of colour. And the perceived tiresome insistence on presenting one’s knowledge on the part of blackness might be a fruitless and childish exercise. Do I believe either of these positions enough to change my ways? Might as well stop the weather from coming. (156-7) 

I also especially enjoyed the section on women with dyed blonde hair and what people see when they look at blonde women. (complicit freedoms)

I found Just Us compelling and erudite while not offending or challenging aggressively my white privilege. I was invited.

Just Us: an American conversation by Claudia Rankine, published in 2020 by Allen Lane. 342pp

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Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton

I am in awe of people who can turn their skills to many different art forms, especially if they are young. And there is a bonus when they are female and black. Here is a memoir/fiction from Zawe Ashton. Many people will know her as an actor as well as a writer, a poet and a theatre producer. How had I never come across her name before she appeared in a list of recommendations from Bernardine Evaristo (see below)? 

Character Breakdown is a fictionalised memoir or a biographical fiction or neither: about being an actor, taken from her own experience but fictionalised. The title is a play on her state of mind as well as the resumés sent via agents to actors for their auditions. 

This is a work of fiction.
But mostly fact. [epigraph]

Character Breakdown

Zawe Ashton was Hackney born and bred and educated at two local girls’ schools: Elizabeth Garret Anderson School and Parliament Hill School. She also attended the Anna Scher Theatre School. She began acting very young, and has had a busy career. 

She was nearly derailed from her career by the bullying behaviour of a bunch of girls who befriended her, she thought, when she appeared on tv. But they planned to beat her up after school.

Mum has to come and get me. They can’t send me home alone. I sit and stare at the motivational quote posters for young women.

‘Young women, young futures.’
‘I am strong, I am worthy, I am beautiful.’
‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken.’

I don’t want to be anyone.

On the car ride home, I decide to stop acting for ever. Nothing good comes of being visible. I have to watch my back, and learn to walk in new shoes. (62)

She gives us the life of a young black female actor in a series of character breakdowns and playlets, sometimes phone conversations with, for example, her agent, or a journalist or a director. The breakdowns are followed by conventional narrative that sheds light upon the character being cast and her response to the role. Some of it is horrific, and some cringe-worthy and there are some challenging roles. There are red carpet moments and humiliations too, like the time she thought she had started a very heavy period while appearing in a West End play. And the moment when she loses her voice.

Sexism and racism permeate her account. Her necessary concerns with her appearance emphasise both of these. 

The very enjoyable narrative drive is found in the quick sequence of episodes, her successes and her failures. We are shown her world, where everything is a little distorted, where actors strive for reality through making stuff up. A bit like fiction. 

Character Breakdown by Zawe Ashton published in 2019 by Vintage. 311pp

This book appeared in a list of recommendations provided by Bernardine Evaristo which appeared on the Penguin site in March 2020.

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Does Queenie deserve its reputation? A recommendation by Bernardine Evaristo is a reliable endorsement. This lively first novel has also been doing well in those literary prizes: Fiction Book of the Year 2020 in the British Book Awards, longlisted in the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, shortlisted for the First Novel Award by Costa, Blackwell’s Book of the Year 2019.

Stig Abell, former editor of the TLS, and a judge of the British Book Awards described its merits in this way:

This is a novel of our time, filled with wit, wisdom and urgency, and unafraid to tackle life as it is being experienced by a young, single black woman in the city. This shouldn’t be filed away as simply a funny debut by a brilliant writer (though it is that); this is an important meditation on friendship, love and race.

It is funny and brilliant and accessible and powerful.

Queenie 

Queenie, 26, is a journalist living and working in London and the narrator of this story. It begins as she and her white boyfriend separate. She believes it will be temporary. The reader knows that it is likely to be permanent, but we understand hope. While she waits for him to decide she embarks on a series of short-lived relationships with men, mostly white, mostly found on-line and including a colleague. 

She is usually somewhat reluctant to get into bed with them, but is persuaded by drink and because they are insistent and she likes to please. Life gets harder for her as the weeks turn into months and she is worried that Tom has not been in touch; that her sexual health may be in danger so she visits a clinic; her work is being neglected and her boss is noticing; and she slips further and further into debt with a friend.

Queenie’s life comes to a terrible halt when it emerges that one of sex partners is actually the boyfriend of one of her best friends. All at once she loses her friend, her job, her accommodation. Not all of this is directly her fault, as some of the men treat her very badly indeed. 

She gradually restores herself and her life with the help of her Jamaican origin grandparents, her friends and a counsellor. Her experience of abuse and neglect in her past is revealed and much of her response to her situation is explained by this. She emerges wiser and bruised.

Reading Queenie

This is a fast-paced book, and one which is easy to read, to keep turning the pages. I liked the way that emails and text messages were included. The Corgis who provide a chorus of comment and advice on her actions are an excellent device. And the interactions of the Jamaican grandparents are very funny: I loved the way they shout out at night if Queenie gets out of bed, and how they are won over to supporting her receiving counselling.

The most endearing quality of this novel is Queenie herself: spirited, doubting, reflective and both revealing and guarded at the same time. Her character is well drawn and develops through the novel. Reading it, I certainly felt that Queenie deserved much better from the men that cross her path and has a valuable, loving resource in her friends.

The story of Queenie is suffused with inescapable racism. Her counsellor, Janet, reminds her that she can’t carry the pain of the whole race.

‘It’s not a burden I’m taking on, it’s one that’s just here.’ I could feel anger building in my chest. ‘I can’t pick it up drop it.’
‘Is that how you see it?’ asked Janet as calmly as she could in an attempt to counter my distress.
‘That’s how it is.’ I started to get louder. ‘I can’t wake up and not be a black woman, Janet. I can’t walk into a room and not be a black woman, Janet. On the bus, on the tube, at work, in the canteen. Loud, brash, sassy, angry, mouthy, confrontational, bitchy.’
I listed off all my usual descriptions on my fingers.
‘There are ones people think are nice, though: well spoken, surprisingly intelligent, exotic. My favourite is ‘sexy’, I think. I guess I should be grateful for any attention at all. […] Do you know how that feels, Janet?’
‘No. Queenie, I don’t.’ (325)

All the black characters are subjected to racism, in subtle or overt ways. I responded to this passage by remembering how outspoken women are treated. Queenie is responding with the multiplier of ethnicity. And her experience is that she is frequently seen as sexually available for all men, much more frequently than white women are. So like Janet, I don’t know how that feels. Which is one reason why novels such as this one are important for white readers.

Like a mantra, throughout the text the message is repeated: We are enough. Each of us is enough. Each person is enough

I look forward to Candice Carty-Williams’s next novel.

Women of ClourQueenie by Candice Carty-Williams (2019) published by Trapeze. 392pp

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Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Dear Reni Eddo-Lodge

Please do not stop talking about race. Please do not stop talking about race to me (a white person). And please do not stop talking about race to anyone. I can see your arguments, and understand why you may need a break every now and again, but please do not stop talking about race. We need to talk.

Best wishes Caroline

The Argument

The argument of the book is that white people on the whole do not accept that racism is structural; that to be a person of colour means you are cumulatively disadvantaged; that by default people are assumed to be white unless indicated otherwise. To be black is to be different. Moreover, racism and discrimination are seen as belonging to a fringe group, or to those rather nasty people who aren’t a bit like us.

And because this is the reaction, it’s hard to go on beating your head against that proverbial brick wall, repeating the arguments, noting the small victories but seeing very little change in the big picture.

It began as a blog. Feeling oppressed and tired with it all Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote her blog called Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race in February 2014.

So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others? (xi)

It proved to be provocative, after all white people do not like being excluded (any more than black people do) and not addressed by stroppy bloggers. And to allow that a system benefits one group at a cost to others implies the necessity both for action and for a possible loss of privilege.

What other people have said

It’s only a small minority of people who are racist. The fringe groups such as the BNP, Combat 18, National Action are just that – on the fringe, some proscribed.

I’m not part of the problem. I’m not a racist. I’m colour-blind.

Many black people are very successful in British society and life. If one can be successful all can be successful.

Structural disadvantage is a myth. Remember Mrs Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’? In 1985 Oliver Letwin, one of her advisers and now a Tory MP, said much the same: ‘Riots, criminality and social disintegration are caused solely by individual characters and attitudes.’ (53). Which is a way of saying that bad people cause problems not poor social conditions.

My reactions

I did not find the argument about structural disadvantages by Reni Eddo-Lodge new. In part, this is because so much of my adult life has been conscious of the structural disadvantages endured by women. And because I have worked in inner-city education for most of my professional life.

Even so I accept that being a white feminist puts me at an advantage over black women/feminists.

And Reni Eddo-Lodge is right to be critical of those who do not act. Above all action should be taken by you and me, our institutions, organisations and our mouths should be forever open.

I got into political commentary because I wanted to change the consensus, to widen the narrow confines of political ideas that were deemed acceptable. But over the years I have realised the futility of this job. Attempting to challenge the racism deemed acceptable in political discussion istacitly tolerated, but making white people feel uncomfortable is impermissible. (220)

And there will be pushback when action is taken. The book was published before the recent Penguin Books incident. Lionel Shriver made some doubtful comments about Penguin’s actions to improve diversity in their publishing. It caused a furore. But it’s a classic. There were suggestions, by Toby Litt for example, that it was a bit much to dilute quality to satisfy some perceived need to diversify. Did someone say political correctness gone mad? The dilution argument ignores the possibility that current practice excludes many excellent black people from the publishing (and other worlds and other achievements). And that this exclusion operates at many levels. Penguin are choosing to act at their level.

I repeat, according to Gunter Grass, it is the job of citizens to keep their mouth open. That includes you Reni Eddo-Lodge. Write on.

This book, Why I’m no longer taking to white people about race is a prizewinner.

THE TOP 5 SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE BRITISH BOOK AWARDS NON-FICTION NARRATIVE BOOK OF THE YEAR 2018
FOYLES NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR

BLACKWELL’S NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE JHALAK PRIZE 

LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NON-FICTION
LONGLISTED FOR THE ORWELL PRIZE
SHORTLISTED FOR A BOOKS ARE MY BAG READERS AWARD

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. I used the updated edition, which includes a chapter on the election of Trump and the EU referendum. 261pp

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The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Reading a novel from each decade shows up the sudden changes in literary practices. One such moment occurred when Doris Lessing’s novel The Grass is Singing arrived on the literary scene of post-war London. Published in 1950 it was like nothing that had come before. Doris Lessing had recently arrived from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. She brought with her Peter, her youngest child, and the manuscript of this novel. Her writing was tough and implicitly political. It was a new kind of novel, new in terms of location, material and treatment. Doris Lessing went on to forge a long career in fiction until she died in November 2014. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen The Grass is Singing for the 1950s in my Decades Project (see below).

The novel The Grass is Singing

The opening chapter poses the question: why did these people behave in the way they did? There was a murder, why wasn’t more pity shown for the victim? Of for her husband, who has gone out of his mind? What did the murder reveal about relations between the natives and the white farmers? This is not a whodunit. Moses, the houseboy confesses when the native police arrive.

In this first chapter we are introduced to the characters, the location (a small farm in Southern Rhodesia), and the attitudes of local white people through the eyes of the newly arrived manager Tony Marston, a young man who is due to take over the management of the farm. Charlie Slatter, who runs the neighbouring farm very profitably and Sergeant Denham appear to be warning him about his reactions to the murder and this alerts the reader to relationships that will be unfamiliar.

From the second chapter the narration becomes more omniscient as Doris Lessing begins to chart the early life, marriage and disintegration of Mary Turner, the victim. Mary had an impoverished and unhappy childhood, but was able to escape to Salisbury (now Harare) where she was happy with a job in an office, accommodation in a hostel and an active social life without intimacy. She was not looking for marriage or children until she overheard her friends suggesting that there is something wrong with her. From this moment she latches onto the idea of marriage and when Dick Turner appears in her life they quickly decide to marry.

She moves out to Dick’s farm where it quickly becomes apparent that she is out of place and that she has mistaken ideas about marriage. And so does Dick. He is a farmer, but has no success. Her role is to manage the house, by managing the houseboy, a native. Brought up with no contact with natives and having absorbed the white population’s distain and fears, Mary is incapable of being decent towards them. Indeed, while supervising the field workers during a bout of Dick’s malaria, she strikes one of the workers when he dared to ask for a break for water. This is Moses who later comes to work in the kitchen.

Doris Lessing leads us towards the eventual breakdown between Mary and Dick, and the disintegration of both Turners.

Reading the novel

Reading this novel for the third time I am struck again by how tough a read it is. Mary’s response to words overheard, to her marriage, to the poverty of the farm, to the heat and the other conditions of life on the veldt, these are described in harsh detail. One can only be disappointed in her inability to see more clearly and to extricate herself from her difficulties. So often she just sits vacantly. The men who turn up at the scene of the murder believe that Mary had ‘let the side down.’

But over all this is the shocking brutality of the racist society in which she lived. What Mary had done was have a relationship with a native. It was a very distorting and unhealthy relationship but

[Tony Marston, the recent arrival] would see the thing clearly and understand that it was ‘white civilization’ fighting to defend itself that had been implicit in the attitude of Charlie Slatter and the Sergeant, ‘white civilization’ which will never, never admit that a white person, and most particularly, a white woman, can have a human relationship, whether for good or for evil, with a black person. For once it admits that, it crashes, and nothing can save it. So, above all, it cannot afford failures, such as the Turners’ failure. (26)

And for ‘white civilization’ read justification for colonization, or for exploitation of the African population, or repeated abuses of human rights.

Doris Lessing seems to be telling us that we are all tainted by this idea of ‘white civilization’, even the poorest of the whites, the most incapable of the white population, and certainly the abused black people, they are all damaged by society based on racism.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, first published in 1950 by Michael Joseph ltd. I used the edition from Flamingo (1994) 206pp

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1960s

I have decided to read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin in July for the 1960s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1970s and 1980s.

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