Monday 6 July 2020

Hilary Mantel, Winifred Holtby and Reni Eddo-Lodge

Please excuse the mess in the background!

I have recently read Mandoa, Mandoa!, by Winifred Holtby.  I loved South Riding, and I enjoyed Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, which was a sort of biography of Holtby, with whom she was close friends.  I suppose it was because Brittain relies so heavily on Mandoa, Mandoa! that I wanted to read it.  Possibly though, the frequent references were due less to the quality of the writing and more to the fact that there is apparently a lot of Holtby’s own personality in the book.  The main female character is a young(ish), politically-aware journalist and she has a sort of unrequited love for one of the male characters – which was apparently much the way Holtby lived her own life.

    It’s probably clear that I was not a big fan of this book.  It did pick up halfway through, with all the explanatory information out of the way, but sadly the satire went right over my head; it was wasted on me.

Also, Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  I’ve had this sitting around for ages.  It’s on The Guardian’s ‘best books of the century so far’ list (in fact, it was no.1), and I saw the TV series, which was brilliant, so I was determined to give it a go.  It’s such a tome though…  Much like the Winifred Holtby – like any novel, for that matter – there was a bit at the beginning where I struggled with characters and titles.  And it has one of those enormous cast lists at the front, like Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which is intimidating just in itself.

Mantel also has something strange she does with Cromwell’s character – she’ll be talking about someone else, and then she’ll say ‘he thought about this’ or ‘he did that’, and you assume the ‘he’ refers to the last character mentioned, but actually she means Cromwell.  She also writes in the present tense and sometimes seems to switch into the first person(?)  It is quite effective at entrenching the reader within the mind of Cromwell, but it took me a while to get used to.

Anyway, after I got over all that, the book just sort of took off.  It must be the first time I’ve read such an enormous book without continually thinking ‘am I near the end?’, ‘how much longer?’, ‘are we there yet?’  I’d have been quite happy if it had gone on for another 600 pages, which is lucky because there is a sequel, Bring up the Bodies, then another one after that.

And finally, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge.  I feel like anything I say about this book will already have been anticipated and despaired of by its author.  Indeed, if Reni Eddo-Lodge had wanted everyone to stop talking about race, she could have done worse.  She seems to be in two minds about this – insisting that ‘messy conversations’ [213] need to take place, but at the same time that white people need to just listen and learn. [xii]  She has the various white responses already snippily pre-categorized: mine, for example, is skating precariously close to ‘Nice White [Person] feeling silenced by conversations about race’ [xi-xii].  I’ll move on.

The chapter on ‘Histories’, and the following one which covered Stephen Lawrence’s murder, were particularly good, and I wish they had been longer.  There has been some discussion recently about changing school curriculums to ensure they reflect the experience of different ethnicities.  Ironically, when I was a child, I remember arguments about history curriculums in schools: Margaret Thatcher wanted the focus to be on British history; other, more left-leaning opinion wanted a European, even an international, focus.  Now it seems that perhaps the Tories had the right idea – we ought to be teaching British history, particularly the damage done by slavery and British colonialism.

There were other things I took Eddo-Lodge’s point on.  That racism isn’t just about discrimination, for example, but discrimination with power behind it – so the idea of reverse racism against white people in the UK is a nonsense.  That colour blindness is a ‘stunted analysis’ of race, which does little to assist in fighting against racism.  That removing statues of people who directly contributed to and profited from slavery is not erasing history (these people still appear in museums and history books), but changing who, as a society, we choose to celebrate.

Furthermore, the book often made me feel that I hadn’t grasped the reality of the problem, where it described instances of casually expressed, non-violent racism, revealing how often such attitudes emerge in ordinary conversation among people who do not apparently consider themselves to be racist.  There’s the reaction to the idea of a black Hermione Granger [136-139]; and MP Liz Kendall’s election campaign statement that she wanted to support white working-class children. [201]  Another of these instances arises in relation to Jessica – an interviewee who’s father is black, and her mother white.  Jessica’s mother talks approvingly of the stereotype of black men being better endowed, [105] and some of her mixed race friends have white mothers who believe it’s acceptable for them to use ‘the N word’ because they have black children. [106]  One of the things that surprised me the most was how much overt racism actually exists in the UK outside the extremes of the BNP, UKIP and Louise Mensch.

So there are important points to be made about overt racism.  But the author is most concerned about what she calls ‘structural racism’ [64] – like institutional racism but wider, concerned with large numbers of people rather than institutions, and existing as an often unspoken political ideology.  Indeed, a large part of the reason for the persistence of structural racism is its invisibility.  ‘Most white people,’ she says, ‘move through the world blissfully unaware of their own race until its dominance is called into question,’ [xvii] and, in their ignorance, lend their tacit support to a discriminatory system.

The way she deals with this is by effectively opting us all into racism from the outset, by default as it were, so if a person feels that doesn’t reflect their own views, they have to expressly opt out.  Except that, of course, it isn’t as simple as that: they might verbally opt out, then continue to enjoy their white privilege without troubling themselves any further.  ‘Opting out’, to be meaningful, has to be an ongoing process.  I did feel a bit sorry for the boyfriend of Jessica, the lady referred to earlier.   Her partner, she said, was different from other white people: ‘he is the kind of white person who will do that unlearning and unpicking’. [107]  Presumably, he doesn’t win many arguments in that relationship.

Nonetheless, this idea that society is weighted towards white people, and that by failing to address that and challenge it, white people collude in it – I doubt that’s very far wide of the mark.

Eddo-Lodge defines ‘white privilege’ as ‘an absence of the negative consequences of racism.’ [86]  ‘When I talk about white privilege,’ she says, ‘I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty.  But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way.’ [87]  I would question the way she moves from ‘absence of negative consequences’ to ‘positive impact’, and then onto ‘benefit’.  Are they all the same thing?  I suppose one could argue that not having a detriment is the same thing as having a benefit; that it’s a question of emphasis; that emphasizing the benefit to white people rather than the detriment to ethnic minorities shifts the burden of responsibility and draws attention to the fact that white people need to be proactive against racism.

Perhaps then, this flexibility of language is unremarkable.  I think though, that the shift in emphasis draws attention to the fact that Eddo-Lodge is arguing a ‘position’ as much as anyone else; she brings her own cultural baggage to the table; just as she ascribes particular prejudices and blind spots to white people, so as a black person, she may have her own.  ‘It must be a strange life,’ she writes, ‘always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen.  It stems from white people’s never-questioned entitlement, I suppose.’ [xii]  But whilst all white people in this country may have white privilege, not all white people have ‘permission to speak’.  There are ‘intersectional’ problems there too – but Eddo-Lodge does not seem to recognize them if they do not relate to race.

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