“Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?”
Over the past few days, these words from the British author Reni Eddo-Lodge have been echoing around my mind. Eddo-Lodge was awarded the 2019 Words to Change Prize at last year’s Blue Metropolis Festival, a prize that celebrates the power that words hold to effect change and shift the conversation around social inequality. That quotation comes from her 2018 book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race—you can watch an excerpt of her reading at last year’s festival on Blue Met’s YouTube page.
In this quotation, Eddo-Lodge speaks specifically to her difficult experience, as a Black woman, having conversations with white people about race and systemic inequality. Her experience is singular and is not one to be co-opted. And in their singularity, her words remind us more broadly of the power books can have to pull us into these necessary, uncomfortable conversations and alert us to social inequality.
I was particularly looking forward to having more conversations about diversity and social inequality at this year’s Blue Metropolis Festival, as celebrating and supporting writers like Eddo-Lodge feels more vital than ever. But amidst growing concern for public health in the current coronavirus pandemic and for the first time in its twenty-plus year history, the Blue Metropolis Festival has been cancelled.
I have been thinking about the words I opened with from Eddo-Lodge as of late because our current moment feels not unlike the sort of alert she was describing. We are in a moment of grave public health concern, but also a moment of reckoning with our economic and political systems. Some of those who will be most affected by the pandemic are already the most marginalized in our society: low income people, undocumented immigrants, those without stable housing, and those in precarious working situations. Confronting this pandemic means confronting the ways in which health and well-being are intricately entangled with the inequalities in our society. As we slow down and isolate ourselves, we ought to listen to the words of writers like Eddo-Lodge and take the time we have to think through the questions she is asking.
Later in her reading, Eddo-Lodge expresses frustration with those who engage in difficult conversations but centre themselves rather than the speaker. “The balance is too far swung in their favour,” she says. “Their intent is often not to listen or learn, but to exert their power, to prove me wrong, to emotionally drain me, and to rebalance the status quo.”
Now, more than ever, we need words like Eddo-Lodge’s to remind us not only that change is possible and necessary, but that we must listen to the voices of those who are most impacted by social inequalities.
– Brennan McCracken