She has become the first black British author to top the UK book charts, partly prompted by the fallout from George Floyd’s death. Here she explains why her success with Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has been bittersweet.
Where were you when you heard that you had made history – and who did you tell first?
I was on my way back from B&Q when my editor sent me a very excited WhatsApp. The news had been public for hours but I had no idea. My housing situation has been mad since January – the life of a renter is never secure – and I’ve just bought my first place, in the middle of everything going on, and moved in last week. I wasn’t paying attention to the internet. I told my boyfriend first.
It seems an incredible yet bittersweet moment – the fact that it took until 2020 for a writer to achieve this and that it was prompted, in part, by a tragedy. How do you feel about it?
It’s absurd, it’s exciting, I hope the Guinness Book of World Records send me a plaque but it is mad – especially when you consider the black British authors that have come before.
To know there was a surge of people searching out anti-racism books after seeing what was essentially a film of somebody being murdered, I can’t uncouple those two things. I think there is something very poignant about the seismic shift it has been a catalyst for, but ultimately the kicking-off event was watching someone die, and that is quite a source of conflict for me. The aim of anti-racism work isn’t to make me personally wealthy, and so some of this capital flowing my way will go to donate, to contribute to the cause in some way.
Yet George Floyd’s death has resonated in a way we haven’t seen before. And the ripple effects are real and ongoing in terms of policy change in the US, and protests across the world. Why do you think that is?
I personally didn’t watch the video. Call me sensitive, but I’m not interested in seeking that out. I don’t ever want to see images or videos of someone being harmed or killed. We don’t need to see footage of someone being raped to understand that feminism is needed. In general, I have a big problem with the way videos of black people being murdered seem to be shared so freely. I tried hard to avoid that video but I saw it on BBC Breakfast. I just wouldn’t see a video of a white person being murdered on BBC Breakfast while I’m eating my granola, you know?
Do you think lockdown conditions may have played a part in forcing people to confront this brutality? The slowdown has delivered reflection and rage, as if partly due to the time and space people now have to really think about and understand racism.
I agree with that. You have to ask yourself – Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012 and we have seen so many names dying since, in the US and the UK. So with George Floyd’s death, yeah, I do think some of it has to do with the fact that people haven’t got anything to do right now. I do find it distressing that it took that to legitimise racism for a bunch of people who weren’t paying attention before.
There seems to be a lot of energy dedicated to ensuring that George Floyd’s death isn’t just part of a cyclical trend of shock, spotlight, anger, fatigue. Does this moment feel different to you?
I feel we need the benefit of hindsight to look at this moment, maybe ask me that in five years: what was the difference between the news cycles and attention we saw before and what we see now. Certainly, something feels different. People in organisations who appear never to have spoken about anti-racism before are throwing their hats in the ring. I have people close to me who feel differently and think it’s super exciting to see a global uprising of anti-racism and I can totally understand that perspective. If I wasn’t me, I would feel the same. But as someone who has been trying to do the work for close to a decade, I’m not sure it feels genuine and heartfelt and that makes me feel angry and resentful.
The work of anti-racism requires a level of self reflection that I don’t feel is coming from all the people or organisations that now say Black Lives Matter. Being involved in feminist and anti-racist work, you notice very quickly that you have racism but no one who admits to being racist. We have one in four women being raped or sexually assaulted in their lives, but no self-confessed rapists. We see the structural impact of how these things affect marginalised people, but we see nobody admitting to participating in the marginalisation.
How do you think companies and organisations engaging with BLM should be held accountable?
One thing that has been great to see is that their ex-employees have been calling them out left, right and centre. It’s like the middle-class version of a riot because similarly to a riot or looting, detractors will say: ‘Why are you pulling down your own community? Why would you take away those opportunities from yourself?’
The conditions are very similar: people have been eating poop for a very long time, putting up with awful conditions and suddenly the tectonic plates have shifted. The calling out of companies like Condé Nast has been really interesting. That is an organisation at the top of its game and for those black employees calling out racism, there may not be anywhere else for them to go on to with their skills. I don’t think it’s a fair ask for people who want to change things to have to make huge sacrifices and put their necks out, but I thought that was interesting and commendable.
With the books industry in particular, it prompted #WhatPublishingPaidMe – where writers disclosed the sums of their advances online to show the stark disparity between black and white authors. Do you think that honesty will help in the long run?
I don’t think it will be positive in the UK because there was a huge void of white British writers who refused to participate. I’m sure they saw it happening and they chose not to engage which I think tells you everything you need to know the industry. It might be different in the US, where more people were forthcoming and more people were transparent.
It’s not just publishing. It’s the media, too: how can there be a black Brit topping the non-fiction bestseller list, if UK journalism isn’t really interested in investing in black non-fiction writers? It’s a huge systemic pipeline problem. I had to live on £10,000 a year, for many years, stupidly and recklessly making sacrifices, in order to write the piece of work that is now the top-selling work in the country. I wouldn’t wish that on any writer.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to progress?
That the opposition to anti-racism is masked in passive-aggressive politeness. We live in a country that tries to pride itself on fair play but is really resistant to any attempt to analyse what fair play actually looks like. It’s a faux politeness that is really invested in the proper way to do things, rather than justice.
If you’re really interested in creating anti-racist change, you have to look around you and see where you hold the influence and that is very different from one person to the next. We all know, for example, in the media the answer is to fundamentally shake up the industry with diversity, all the stuff people have been saying for years.
Consequently, what have you found encouraging?
Black Lives Matter protests in rural areas. I saw a protest happening in an English village surrounded by greenery, and that’s not usually an environment you see BLM protests happening. Angela Davis said on TV the other day, that she’d never seen anything like this in her lifetime. And I thought, if Angela Davis is going to be optimistic, I will be.
Do you find the conversation has evolved since you published the book? For instance, intersectional feminism and the understanding that female oppression is also layered by race, class, religion, disability and so on, seems more widely understood. Have you had any apologies from the feminists who criticised you before?
Back then, everyone was very buoyant on the back of Caitlin [Moran]’s book How To Be A Woman and feminists were excited by this tweeness. They felt black feminism posed an extreme threat to the organising they were trying to do and kept calling us divisive. I found it strange that presented with a perspective on feminism that didn’t fit with their priorities of shutting down lapdancing clubs and banning pink toys, they were very hostile. I think that generally in, say, relationships when you’ve been alerted to being in the wrong, you might accept that usually that leads to some level of accountability. You might think about how your behaviour was harmful to another person, and how to do better. I’m not really seeing that.
You’ve refused dozens of requests to appear on TV, radio and so on, since this story broke. Would you like to explain why?
The conversation in Britain is geared up to be an entertaining shouting match. I think it’s stupid and I refuse to participate in it. In the book, I tried to keep everything I said evidence-based and it is very obvious in Britain that when it comes to issues of race and racism, that is not what most people are interested in doing. There is a compulsion to try and turn these issues into a culture war – and I do think our government is absolutely engaging with that. To see [Munira Mirza] who is heading up this new racism inquiry, like we don’t have dozens already, is like asking Jack the Ripper to weigh in on feminism.
This is a game to some people and, if it is, I don’t want to play. I think there is a specific arrogance that comes from the British media class in which many of them are willing to weigh in on anything, willing to weigh in even if they don’t know anything because they feel they are entitled. It must be a nice life always having permission to speak and being indignant when you’re finally asked to listen.
But people look to you for answers, there is a sizeable audience that wants to know what you think and what you have to say right now.
I’m not interested in that. I’m not looking to tell people what to do. People are very willing to give up their agency and look for leadership when they feel impassioned about something and I don’t want that at all, I want them to use their critical thinking skills to challenge racism and I can’t tell them how to do that.
Imagine you had a partner who you were hoping might be able to improve their perspective on something, and instead they say, “just tell me what to do”. That tells me that person isn’t willing to take on any level of responsibility and I guess what I’m trying to do is prompting people to take responsibility for racism. That takes initiative and using your own brain.
What would you have done differently, if you were writing the book now?
I might have written it under a pseudonym for my own sanity. I don’t like being a public figure, it was naivety on my part.
How much has your own life changed in the process?
The success of this book means I can work at my own pace, I think of the royalties of this book as backpay. I’m a lot more leisurely. I used to feel guilty about it, especially as I am with someone who does shift work and has a clear delineation between when he is working and not working. I’ve bought time to think and not worry and play with ideas. There was a point where I kept getting asked when the next book was coming but it will come when it comes. I can’t force it.