Reni narration: Welcome back to About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge.
This week I’m talking to him about my transition from blogger to author, and how the world around me really affected that move.
Nish: When did you start blogging?
Reni: Oh I think my first post went up maybe 2009, like political post because I’ve always been writing online and on the internet for my entire life. Try looking for it, don’t worry it’s been wiped. It’s been wiped, my stupid rants of a 13 year old brain but political writing…
Nish: I mean I would, I would absolutely love to read some of that now.
Reni: Nobody needs to read that.
Nish: What sort of things were you writing about at 13? I do obviously want to talk about the political stuff but what sort of things were you blogging about, what was getting your goat at 13/14.
Reni: Pop music and then in my late teens Michael Jackson died, that was sad
Nish: Oh yeah I remember that
Reni: Stuff like that just you know whatever was going on in my head basically.
Nish: So you’ve just always written?
Reni: Yeah yeah, I’ve always had diaries and so when the internet came by I was just using that and like I had blogs of when it was MySpace I’d write in bulletins, yeah I was always, like it was very natural to me and then when I started to care about things going on in the world it was still natural for me to write through it.
Nish: Do you remember the first piece of writing you did about?
Reni: On the political blog? It was 2009 or 2010 and I had started writing for my student Newspaper, because I was, this is so ridiculous to say but I was Women’s Officer, I was chair of the student left network and I was deputy comment editor of the student newspaper and I was doing all of these things at the same time. But I was just like, well I’ve got time you know. And also like it was the kind of environment where like nobody else is doing it so if somebody said do you want to do it I was like, yeah okay fine whatever. So I’d written this piece for my student newspaper like maybe 2008 2009 called Is Feminism a Dirty Word, talking about what people think feminism is and what it actually is, that was it.
Nish: Still relevant now
Reni: Yeah exactly
Nish: The world has not moved on in ten years
Reni: And if you go on my website, you can find it.
Reni narration: For your listening pleasure, I dug up this post. It was published on the 25th March 2010. Here’s an extract:
It could be said that the feminist battle has already been won. Women have the right to a university education, access to high power jobs, the right to vote… the list goes on. But it would be absurd to suggest women and men are now equal. What isn’t absurd is to suggest that we still live in a patriarchal society. A society where young women are indoctrinated with digitally enhanced and airbrushed celebrities, told they’re not good enough, and advised to spend as much money as possible to achieve perfection. A society that finds its young women overtly sexualised from an uncomfortably young age, and judged, first and foremost, on their physical appearance.
I case you’re wondering, yes. I was definitely that person having arguments in facebook comments. This is who I’ve always been! I just try to reserve the strident nature to my work now.
Back to Nish.
Nish: Do you think, I’m doing some cod psycho analysis of you at that time now, but do you think like you were sort of trying to make up for lost time because when you were at school you were sort of, you felt very sort of disincentivized and now suddenly at uni like, it makes total sense to me that you would try and do all that stuff because you’re finding an environment where you’re supported.
Reni: I think that like for the vast majority of my educational career I was perhaps a high achiever but it was very much taken for granted and not fostered in me, particularly towards the end of like sixth form and stuff. So it makes sense that I was just trying to do too much when I was at uni but I didn't struggle to, I have time, you’ve got no dependence you live with people you don't even really like
Nish: You’re living in disgusting, It’s not like nice to be at home
Reni: yeah you've going to keep me yourself busy so.
Nish: What did you, towards the end of uni you start having that conversation about what are you going to do afterwards. Did you have a specific goal in mind.
Reni: I didn’t really know what i wanted to do. I knew what I was interested in, I don't think specifically that I was going to be a journalist but then after I graduated you know the recession had happened it was a mess, I just did a number of like short term admin jobs while still being involved in activism and still trying to write and at this point like a little bit of Guardian exposure as an intern had given me the platform to be able to do a tiny little bit of freelancing but the pay was trash and that’s a massive problem with the industry you know in terms of people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds trying to get in it’s still really tough. So i was just going these rubbish short term admin jobs, my favourite of which was being a campaign intern at the Runnymede Trust, the race equality think tank. Then i just ended up just going completely freelance because there was no 9 to 5 job available to me so I was just like I’m going to make my own job because the world of work was like didn’t want to hire Reni.
Reni narration: Again, this wasn’t just happening to me. According to the Office for National Statistics, Britain’s economic activity dropped dramatically after the 2008 recession. Economic stability was a myth, even if you were established in your career. It felt almost impossible to get a foot on the career ladder. I remember claiming jobseekers for a while after graduating. The most depressing part of it wasn’t needing the money to survive, but dealing with job centre staff who treated you like dirt for needing the money to survive.
Unemployment is compounded by race. Government statistics published in 2015 showed that the unemployment rate for ethnic minorities was 11.3%. That’s twice as high as it was for white people, who’s rate stood at 5.5%.
Nish: By the time you decided to go freelance you decided journalism, this is the thing?
Reni: Well I wanted to follow the stories I wanted to I was interested in. Let’s just say that journalism didn't want me to do that. So journalism wanted to push me into reactionary angry black woman response pieces about life cultural appropriation or this or that or whatnot and what I really wanted was the resources to find interesting stories and follow them and try and expose inequality etc etc which I didn’t really, I didn’t get those resources until I signed the book deal actually. But I think my time freelancing which has taken up the...you know I’ve been self employed now, it will be four years.
Nish: Right okay.
Reni: I was hard, it was hard, the journalism world wasn’t interested in these stories, wasn't interested in commentary about race or if they were it was only in a reactionary way. It was frustrating, I’d argue with editors the pay was totally pitiful it was difficult. I think it’s something that I struggle with now you know, now that the book’s done well the same outlets who couldn’t care less about me four years ago are now like please please come write for us and I’m like but I’m still basically writing the same stuff I was writing four years ago but now that there’s a product behind it you know, you want to be on board so I’m like well i will take your money but I’m not happy about it. I’m not happy about it you know.
Nish: I always think that that period of time, a lot of us who do these types of jobs have that period of time where you’re doing the terrible admin jobs. I always think that that’s the thing that gets left out of cultural conversations, everyone always talks about you know movies that are made about people who we love it’s like the point where they suddenly become you know this amazing thing, we don't talk enough about, it’s so hard, it’s so hard for anyone but especially the time period you’re talking about where you know there’s no jobs around, it’s rough.
Reni: Nobody wants me to write about race and feminism, but I think that like what I’ve learnt now being in this sphere is that, that hard slog is something that only people from working class backgrounds truly experience, and that the cultural sphere is actually populated by people from fairly privileged backgrounds who’s journey has been far easier. And that’s another thing I struggle with as well because I’m like wow fuck you man
Reni narration: Let me quickly cut in with a much needed disclaimer. If you, dear listener, have benefitted from private education, an elite university, class privilege and/or knowing the right people, and you are currently working one of the cultural or creative professions, I want you to know that this fuck you isn’t about you as an individual.
It is, however, a fuck you to all of the above institutions, which through their exclusivity continue to reproduce inequality. Now, I wouldn’t mind if they were just closed off standalone clubs, but that’s not the case. Instead, they appear to be prerequisites to creative success in this country.
It’s far from a meritocracy.
Reni: some people act like, especially when I see people without that resource and I know that I was one of those people without that resource like, because it’s tough and you have to I think I resigned myself off basically for four years, barely saw my old school friends who would meet up multiple times a year for you know dinner and drinks I could never afford to go. I cycled everywhere, I took a packed lunch everywhere because I am so dedicated to trying to get this writing thing off the ground that I will literally just reduce my level of outgoings to nothing and that was my life and you know I was very lucky to have a partner who supported me through that because I couldn’t have done it by myself. I’m only really like getting used to having a normal level of income now like, I’m just like wow so I don't have to go around the whole high street trying to find the cheapest deal on porridge oats, like it was tough.
Nish: What advice would give somebody who’s in your position as you were in then now?
Reni: Well I think things have improved somewhat, it really depends on what somebody wants to write about. Perhaps have some savings before you go freelance, that’s something that I didn’t do, but I was never in the position to be able to get the job to have the savings in the first place. Like maybe I could have saved from my market stall money if I looked back to my teenage years or like Saturday jobs and stuff but this job as a writer has been like my only like consistent career job throughout my entire adult life, I’m 28 now, I never got the chance to have another career the market was not conducive, the market didn't want me so I would say keep going, you don't have to go all martyr and self sacrificial like I did, there has to be some sort of happy medium of course but like you should never stop writing just because someone is telling you no one’s interested. You should never stop.
Reni narration: The world didn’t stop either. 2011 saw the London riots, sparked initially in reaction to the death of a black man, Mark Duggan, at the hands of police. What began as a community protest outside Tottenham police station soon swept the country in the form of the destruction of private property. In light of this, old, white, Cambridge education historian David Starkey took to BBC Newsnight to declare that ‘the whites have become black’.
Reni narration: Starkey was gesturing to the writer Owen Jones while he spoke. Here’s Owen on that moment.
Reni: he pointed to you and he said a great number of the chavs that you were talking about.
Owen: yeah of course, exactly. So it was exactly that. I mean he used chavs in a...you know without inverted commas. He was using it in a way to...and this was the thing I suppose what they were saying was white working class, I don't accept the term white working class used, but young…
Reni: white people who happen to be working class
Owen: Exactly have been corrupted by mass immigration and so-called black culture, as he describes it, has corrupted these working class young people who happen to be white and that explained the riots. I mean that was something understanding of it, I mean basically young working class people who are white have been corrupted by a nihilistic gangster culture which black people are to be blamed for it was racist and classist at the same time of course yeah.
Reni narration: A few years later, anti immigration party UKIP swept up seats in the European elections, gaining 27.5% of the vote. I had to keep responding because I had this outsized belief that if i kept writing, I could change things.
Which leads me to the book.
Alexa: Everybody knows really that publishing is grossly underrepresented as it is in most creative industries, I know that was definitely on my mind.
Reni narration: The voice you’re hearing is my editor, Alexa Von Hirschberg. I’d asked her why, not long after UKIP swept up their 2014 election victory, she decided to take on the book that eventually became Why I’m no longer talking to White People About Race.
Alexa: Bloomsbury has always been I think far ahead of the game in terms of the books that we publish the authors that we publish. I mean we've published writers from all over the world that's always been our thing be it fiction and nonfiction. Khaled Hosseini, Ahdaf Soueif, Romesh Gunasekera, Abdulrazak Gurnah, writers from all over the world, Jhumpa Lahiri. We've always felt that we've done a great deal to publish books and voices that you know we feel deserve to be heard but obviously there's , there’s conversations that have to be had. You know I was reading a lot of books from the states. We published an amazing collection of essays by Kiese Laymon
Reni: I read that, was called How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.
Alexa: America yeah, Brilliant title and he’s a fantastic bold inspiring voice, Roxane Gay, you know writers like that and where are the British voices here? So that was very much on my mind. When your book came in, I was joking earlier that it was called Colour Blind.
Reni: Yeah that’s a horrible title.
Alexa: A Journey to the heart of multiracial Britain.
Reni: Yeah a terrible title
Alexa: I mean immediately it just struck me that your voice was bolds, It looked you squarely in the face. There was no way to squirm away from it. It forced me forced us to look at our communities and our workplaces. And I remember vividly I circulated it for the meeting saying and we think we should take it seriously. These conversations need to be had and this is an amazing voice that could lead the charge you know and I just sat in silence when it came to talk about your book. There was just a silence because I was looking around the table, 95% white people and we didn't always didn't need to have a conversation. We needed to buy your book. We all knew that but when we did eventually get talking about it everyone said this is totally changed my perspective. It was actually a really powerful moment because you know that something's hit a nerve when a silence in an editorial meeting, usually it’s squabbles and fights and but this one it was very clear that this had affected people deeply. So yeah I mean as an editor as a commission editor your job is to convince people that this is a project to take seriously everyone was on board from the start so it makes my job very easy. You had convinced people through your proposal
Reni: Wow, and it was a very bad proposal.
Alexa: I mean I think people, I said I said at the editorial meeting obviously the title has to change and it needs to be structured a little more and I was actually reading back at some of the comments and people were you know worried about the anger. Which is interesting in itself and finding that balance. There was quite a lot of kind of more academic language which needed to be ironed out. But the core of it was that this is a book that's going to change the conversation.
Reni: I think I wrote that propose when I was like 24. So towards the end of 2014 and it was the first time I'd ever embarked on a project like that and I was given a bit of guidance. But you know it was largely something I embarked on by myself and so a lot of my information and research at the time the space in which those conversations were happening were very academic spaces. And I found that in the journalism I was doing I was like one of the sole voices attempted to push for a different perspective in journalism in media and really not going anywhere frankly. But I do remember coming in for the initial meeting with all of you at Bloomsbury and you bounding over to me in the reception like we'd already known each other for ten years
Reni: and being like wow you know this has really changed all of our thinking and I was so surprised to come up stairs into a meeting room where it felt like there was ten different members of Bloomsbury staff grinning at me like
Alexa: you know I do worry about those meetings in publishing we call it the beauty contest when authors go around different publishing houses to meet different people and you sort of feel like you’re being judged but you have to be overboard because ultimately, you know, we're representing your book, we’re going to be publishing. You have to say that we're passionate about it.
Reni: Were you getting many submissions of this nature prior to mine coming in?
Alexa: Every week I was getting books by young white women about feminism. Proposal after proposal after proposal after proposal, very few books by people of color particularly about race. Behind the scenes here. Yeah we are actively looking for new voices, for under representative voices that's a part of our responsibility but it is part of a job. And there's a clear need for it. So we were looking for it. I wasn't getting a lot you know mean in the way it works for publishing houses is you know different editors, we have five commission editors here and each had to see different proposals so I don't know what everyone else was seeing but what was coming to the editorial meeting was books about feminism. There was sort of bold inspiring books about politics but very few looking at directly dealing with race in Britain. It was like there was this strange amnesia which you talk about in your book and you talk about the proposal to the book Why are we talking about it what are we afraid of. Do we think there's a problem. That's why Colour Blind is an interesting title for it initially.
Reni: I mean on reflection it’s a bit ableist. So glad we didn’t go with it. I didn't have a title for it was you actually you know that suggested the title of the book. That's why I'm no longer talking to white people about race which was. And you suggested my own words back to me because it was the title of that initial blog post.
Alexa: yeah actually it was we were having a conversation with the editor-in-chief Alexandra Pringle about the book. We were looking at books you know who made a splash. I mean Kiese’s book, extraordinary title. Chimamanda's book We Should All be Feminists. They’re a call to action and Colourblind was too soft and lyrical for a book, and your voice is so bold and inspiring and also the titles asks the question.
Reni: It certainly makes people ask questions in their head, people take me to task every week about the title and what’s so funny because whenever anybody takes me to task I feel more resolute in, like, in my initial opposition. I don't feel the same strength of anger that I felt when I initially wrote that blog post, I don't because things have changed for me dramatically. But whenever anybody attempts to take me to task without reading the book I'm like well that's why I wrote that initial piece. You know.
Alexa: exactly. This is it, it forces you and I think. I think the reaction to white people, forcing white people to recognise their race is very powerful. And as you write about particularly in the new chapter the paperback it often gets a lot of strong reactions as perhaps you'd expect.
Reni: So what do you think’s changed since then.
Alexa: Well I think it's an extraordinary success story. Your publicity campaign was absolutely astonishing. Everyone wanted a piece of you as you know you can't deny that there's a market for these books that people want to be having these conversations that these debates need to be had. And people have stood up and taken notice for sure. I mean now I'm getting proposals every week about race. So that's the fundamental shift and I do think this publication along with a lot of other things has had a lot to do with it. I mean look at The Good Immigrant and The Good Immigrant hadn't come out when we acquired your book
Reni: I know that for me and and all sorts of different people of colour in the creative industries one piece of feedback that you would always get is there's not a market for this and it was maddening because you knew the people who would consume or engage with that work and I feel, well I'm glad to say both mine and the good immigrant have proved. Yes there is a market.
Alexa: you know, I have been in meetings where people have said oh there's no market for this but there was nobody in the room to, to say of course there's a market for this because everyone in there is white and middle class.
Reni narration: I asked Alexa if she had any advice for those looking to change minds with words.
Alexa: So for an aspiring writer, keep going. This is a great time for you to be writing. There are so many people that want to listen to you. If you have something to say, don't be afraid, go for it. You know it's important to find an agent but just keep writing keep finding people who are willing to listen. Find publications. Don't take no for an answer. Just keep going. And in terms of people trying to get into publishing there's a really useful website both for writers and for people getting into publishing called The Writers and Artists yearbook which gives lots of practical advice. Do a course ,if you can, look at different schemes going on on different websites. There’s a lot of internships, most are paid now. There are also schemes that help people find accommodation while they're doing the internships so check those out. Do your research follow people on Twitter, connect, go to events try and meet people and this is an industry you need to get to know people, you need to get to know the industry. But we are desperate for voices you know for new voices and I think if you are intelligent, passionate and committed you'll find your place just have to keep going.
Reni narration: Before I met Alexa and the staff at Bloomsbury I was used to being on the outside. I had ideas about what a literary gatekeeper might look like, might sound like, and what their priorities might be. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but one thing that I absolutely misunderstood was that I had the power to change their priorities. Which is why i’m so glad i didn't give up. Even though was close to, numerous times.
I’m not on the outside anymore.
Nish: It's a weird thing for you isn’t it, because you've gone from being you were a critic of a system that is now trying desperately to co-opt you into it. Are you conscious of maintaining your outsider status?
Reni: Well I think every time I'm involved in one of these exciting opportunities I'll always try to keep my critic glasses on, like critique the space. I was having a conversation with a friend about that Vogue shoot basically the conversation boiled down to I always try to remember why I found myself in that place in the first place and it was because the writing was radical. So I'm not going to start getting gassed when I'm in that space. Like oh yeah I'm here. I'm not there for any other reason I'm not there because I'm a model you know, I’m not there because I'm you know a hair stylist or a photographer. I'm there because I wrote that book. So that's always in vogue wants to take a picture of me. So I have to remind myself of that and not get carried away I think. It can become very seductive. But for the majority of my life I have been outside of those spaces. I never really was a 9 to 5 in journalism. There was nobody in my immediate family when I was growing up who worked in the Creative Industries at all you know. I really don’t want to take my position for granted here like it's not. I recognise this is just not normal for somebody of my background and so I shouldn't treat it as though this is my new normal now.