Whites: On Race and Other Falsehoods Book Review
This is the first time I will be reviewing a book as part of the Breaking White Silence Book Club. Every time I read a book that I think other people might find interesting (and relevant), I add it to my resources page. This time I intend to dive into the book, as I will do every month with one book in particular, and open up the discussion on Instagram to hear your thoughts too. As always, let me know what you think.
Whites: On Race and Other Falsehoods by Otegha Uwagba is a short, sharp, punch in the faces of those that need it. Myself included. Many of the antiracism literature available try to coax or gently guide white people to take antiracism seriously. Other books can make you feel almost proud for doing something positive whereas this book isn't about praise. Listening to Otegha talk in an Intelligence Squared podcast about her new book, she points out that this book was also written for black people; Whites being a nod to the sweeping generalisations some white people make about black people.
In the book she talks about the need for:
Abruptly ripping back the bedcovers from the many systems and institutions that have anti-Blackness at their core.
Otegha's motivations are sincere and passionate, and she unafraid to call out any tokenism. In fact, if there were one thing I took away from this book, it was just this. In each essay, her indignance over passive, ineffectual, optical tokenism from both individuals and institutions is unambiguous. For anyone who feigns antiracism, whilst simultaneously failing to speak up or act in meaningful ways, this book is making a stand. Indeed, she does not seem particularly comforted by the new wave in antiracism:
This sudden concern over racial injustice felt too long overdue, and I resented the choices that had allowed them to remain so oblivious for so long.
She is also keen to call out those institutions who think that their recent antiracism, or antiracism gestures, suffice:
We have to learn about it along the way, so it’s galling to realise that its main perpetrators and beneficiaries have not fully grasped its inner workings.
Many people could read this and think this doesn't apply to them. That the work or reading that they are doing is in fact enough. But there are some quotes that I think are particularly important for those who are complacent or arrogant enough to come to this conclusion:
Writing for The Atlantic, Saida Grundy observes that consciousness-raising through anti-racist reading often constitutes ‘mere filibustering–white people learning about their privilege and power without ever having to sacrifice either’, that it can actually undermine progress ‘by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse’,
But racism is so all-encompassing, so deeply rooted, so goddamn big, for lack of a better word. It seems obvious to me that it can’t and won’t be undone by white people performing these relatively modest actions, that to dismantle something of that magnitude requires opposing actions of a similar scale.
How to tell white people that going on marches, patronising Black-owned businesses, reading Black writers, and amplifying our voices–that all of that is not enough? That if they take allyship seriously, they stand to lose the privileges that are as integral to their lives as breathing. That losing those privileges is necessary. That allyship will cost them the shape of their lives as they know it. That I do not think they are willing to pay that price.
The point is that reading lists, speaking up for black people, using positions of power and privilege does not demonstrate your commitment to antiracism. You cannot use those actions to admonishes any part you have played in the perpetuation of racism. It may be a start, sure, but as racism is so BIG, the reaction needs to be BIG. Much bigger than the aforementioned tasks.
The intellectualising of racism and antiracism is reductionist and, although important (I personally feel that I've learned a lot in the last few months), it is quantifiable, significant, impactful action that will really change things. It makes me reflect on those Instagram pages that quote antiracism literature or particular quotes without adding their interpretations or actions.
There are few other excellent points put across in this book. Since absorbing as much antiracism literature as possible I have always been reflective and have tried to apply what I have learned in my everyday life. What is important though is that we don't seek out black authors only to satisfy our antiracism needs. I have recently written about how we should be increasing our empathy, appreciation and openness to black culture by reading black authors, listening to black musicians and buying from black businesses etc. As Uwagba points out:
The value of writing by Black authors becomes determined by its ability to be of service to white people.
We must not seek out diverse authors to only satisfy our antiracism needs.
I don't spend much time on social media but I can understand her anger at another display of tokenism. When white people post a picture of a black person and a white person holding hands, for instance, they commonly express romanticisation. It displays an ignorance understanding of racism when they profess their adoration of something so lovely or cute.
Whites want to demonstrate empathy but this lack of appreciation highlights a shallow tokenism.
White people must also be much bolder and braver in their actions and communications. There has been quite a bit written about white denial, white fragility and white excpetionalism but I particularly like Uwagba's candidness. When black people talk about racism they often have to dial down their language so as to not offend white people. As she says:
In moments like this it’s best to speak in vaguer terms, about ‘structural’ racism or ‘implicit bias’, to avoid anyone feeling too attacked.
To summarise, we must increase our awareness of the impact of whiteness. We indulge in ignorance because the systems of oppression suit us to, while, for the oppressed, ignorance is not an option. In her last essay, she talks about race traitors, who "Are those white people fully committed to the abolition of whiteness". We should not fall into the trap of thinking that we've done enough. Would black people, or other marginalized people, think the same? We must accept the struggle as our own.
For those people that have sensitive egos, this book may be a little challenging. If you're new to learning about racism, there are books that introduce complex issues with the white person in mind. I would also recommend, as we eluded to before, that reading black literature that isn't about antiracism is also really helpful. As we said, black people shouldn't be used exclusively to serve your antiracism needs.
I would thoroughly recommend this book. It is certainly blunt but necessarily so. Otegha Uwagba's writing is personal and absorbing. Each essay is concise and articulate, and each have their own distinct themes. The thread running through it is her restlessness, her impatience and her anger. For her, it was clearly important to express these, without pulling any punches. Racism doesn't pull any punches so why should her writing? I found it a refreshingly honest and I am genuinely grateful for the insights.