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Talking about race is exhausting. It is emotionally draining, stressful, awkward, painful, scary, and sometimes really dangerous. To have a conversation about race, or any hard topics like gender, sexuality, and class, requires a level of vulnerability that demands patience and practice. People from different sides of the spectrum often come to the table with lived experiences about race, gender, and class etc. that shape the way they want to talk about these issues, as well as the thresholds they have for certain discussions. To say the least, these hard conversations require a balancing act that is extremely important, however, most of us are ill-equipped at executing any kind of good footing. Most times, our lack of understanding comes from complete and utter ignorance that is either a willful rejection of hard topics and their existence, or a lack of competence and understanding in the topics up for discussion.
When I started to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s novel it felt refreshing to have a discussion about race, gender, and class from a country outside of the U.S. It is not to say that the U.S. is not filled with problems (or other countries are not). To paraphrase Eddo-Lodge’s argument, the U.S. is often at the forefront of discussions about gender, race, religion, sexuality, and class. While there are some universal themes and ideas that can be taken away and applied throughout the world, it is always important to have a discussion and to really think about how these issues work in your home country. The emphasis that Eddo-Lodge makes about Britain’s racially charged past is that whilst it is similar to the U.S. it is in fact, not. Britain has its own rich history of struggle against racism, sexism, and classism just like every other country in the world. It is always important to learn from our neighbours, however, it is even more important to understand how our own geographies and cultures play a role in the way we fight and challenge these social issues.
I have read widely on a lot of issues relating to feminism and gender, race, religion, sexuality, and class. The way that these issues are discussed can sometimes be seen as universal, yet they are also so extremely nuanced and sensitive to location. For example, when I talk to people in Switzerland about feminism and a fight against sexism most Swiss people argue that feminism is not needed, “There is no sexism here,” they exclaim. When questioning them further about what they think sexism is, they instantly start naming things like America’s cat-call culture or the ludicrous policing of girls’ clothing choices in U.S. schools. In these examples they were doing exactly what Eddo-Lodge warns about in her book. By only using U.S. examples of sexism it means that it is easy for them to dismiss the idea that sexism exists in their own country because they assume it can only exist in an American definition of the term. In case you are wondering, sexism is RIFE in Switzerland, but you won’t have anyone yelling at you to “Show your tits!”.
When we think about discussions about race, geography has to be part of the discussion on a macro and micro level. For example, to talk about Blackness in most African countries is not going to compare to discussions of Blackness and race in The United States. Most Nigerians, for example, don’t have to think about being black in Nigeria. They are the majority. Although, to also say that racism and colonialism does not impact countries like Nigeria because the questions of Blackness is not the same as in the U.S. is minimalising and simplifying race relations in that country.
Similarly, when I turn to my own home country, Australia the same things apply. The way that racism functions is extremely complex and Australians need to have discussions about racism against immigrants and a discussion for racism against indigenous Australians. Even a discussion on colourism and lateral violence in Australian indigenous communities cannot and should not be the same as in the U.S. because whilst the histories of these two countries have similarities, they are not one-to-one comparisons.
By reading widely, we can learn about the struggles of other countries and peoples and how this might apply to our own country’s struggles, however, other countries’ struggles against social injustice should not be used as a benchmark to define how sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia, etc. work in different places. The same can be said for definitions of feminism. Feminism is seen as a universal cause, however, the reality is that feminism must be nuanced in its approach to dismantling social injustices. To simply apply American feminist ideals in Australia without taking into account the social, economic, historical, political, geographical, and racial climate of a place means that feminism will struggle to succeed. Again, this is not to say there are not similarities. On the contrary, our similarities should be used in positive ways to help each other overcome social injustice, however, they should not be used to minimalise or even erase the real and very different struggles countries face when tackling injustice.
Have you read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book on race, gender, and class in Britain? If so, what did you think? How do these issues affect your home country? As always, share the reading love.