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What White People Can Do Next

Emma Dabiri

Penguin, 2021

Reviewed by Suzanne Harrington


The title of this compact firecracker of a book is misleading, piggybacking on the current raft of ‘anti-racism’ writing riding the BLM wave. Irish-Nigerian academic Emma Dabiri’s second book, following Don’t Touch My Hair, is not a well-meaning guide on privilege-unpacking for white people, or about whether black should be spelled with a B or a b. 

 Instead Dabiri reminds us – perhaps even reveals to us, given how deeply within our cultural DNA the concept of race is embedded – that ‘black’ and ‘white’ are manmade constructs, invented to protect and preserve white supremacy.   She gives us the exact date this happens – 1661 – with the Barbados Slave Code, introduced to smash the embryonic solidarity between colonial workers of all skin colours.

 Race, says Dabiri, exists to protect racism.  “The unconscious tendency to double down on the racial categories ‘black’ and ‘white’, making blanket statements about the behaviours, beliefs, actions and desires of diverse groups of people unified under fictive, generic ‘races’, highlights how many of us still apparently believe that race exists as a natural biological reality,”  she writes.

So instead of earnestly trying to be anti-racist, we need to dismantle the very notion of race itself and instead focus on what really divides us – capitalism. Dabiri asserts,  “There’s a significant gap in access between an Oxbridge graduate who works in private equity and an Amazon delivery person, even when they are both racialised as ‘black’.”

Emma Dabiri hasn’t much time for allyship either, urging us instead to focus on coalition.   Allyship, she believes, just shores up existing structures.   “Coalition building is about identifying shared interests,” she writes. A good model might be ‘Lesbian & Gays Support the Miners’ in the 1980s, where two culturally unconnected groups came together in their struggles under Mrs Thatcher.)   She advises readers to be more like the Black Panther Party who urged white supporters in 1968 to form a White Panther Party;  and to be less inclined towards cancel culture, which achieves little but angry echo chambers.   

She quotes the poet and cultural theorist, Fred Moten, who describes coalition as emerging “out of recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we have already recognised that it’s fucked up for us.”   White people are poor too, but have been racialised to believe that their lack of agency is somehow superior:  “Stripping humans of meaning in their lives, beyond their racial identity, creates a fertile breeding ground for violent forms of nationalism, state, racial and ethnic, to grow.”   It’s how President Trump got in.

We need to interrogate everything, says Dabiri – whiteness, white saviours, capitalism, guilt, denial, false equivalencies.   Challenge racism head on.   Be more than a keyboard warrior.  She quotes the veteran activist Professor Angela Davis: “We have to talk about systemic change.  We can’t be content with individual actions.”  We are allowing what Dabiri terms the “emotive immediacy of the personal narrative” to take up all the bandwidth.  “Instead of organising to create substantive change, we are squabbling with each other over words,” she writes.  Again, those echo chambers.

In order to radically regroup for change, we all need to think more expansively.  After reading this, you will.