The warm June air outside the Sheldonian theatre buzzed in anticipation of Eddo-Lodge’s appearance. The event had been moved once, then again in order to accommodate the sheer number of people who wanted to hear what one of the sharpest contemporary critics of British race politics had to say. It was incredible to experience the theatre, usually reserved for the most solemn of University business, packed with an excited and racially diverse audience.
It was also a mark of how seriously the University wanted to engage with Eddo-Lodge that she had a prestigious interlocutor. Rebecca Surender (Pro Vice-Chancellor) is a sociologist by training, as well as the University’s Advocate for Diversity. Eddo-Lodge read two extracts from her book – the first was the blogpost that originally jump-started an online conversation and eventually turned into “Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race”. She also cannily decided to read a passage about “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, demonstrating from the off that she was inclined to take the fight to this most elite and white of institutions, rather than be cowed by its grandeur.
Surender’s lines of questioning at times missed the opportunity of having a speaker like Eddo-Lodge. In a set-piece interview, questions ought to 1) allow the speaker to expatiate at length and 2) appear to arise organically (however artificially constructed the scenario is). However there were moments in which Surender had to prompt Eddo-Lodge to “say more”. There were also awkward transitions between pre-prepared questions. In part this stiltedness was most clearly distilled early on, when Surender asked Eddo-Lodge to speculate on why racism exists. In response, Eddo Lodge put aside the philosophical nature of causes of racism and responded that her intellectual interest lay in investigating the social and political expressions of racism. To some degree then, the academic and the journalist spoke past one another.
In my opinion, the more successful part of the event was the Question and Answer session. Eddo-Lodge was careful not to speculate beyond her expertise but is also charismatic and encouraging of genuine curiosity and challenges to the substance of the arguments that have given her a double-edged degree of celebrity. To that end, Eddo-Lodge is circumspect about the success of her first book. It is possible to read this attitude as a strategy for deflecting some of the labour that she is required to do, when speaking about a book that by its cover alone can incite extreme emotional reactions, especially from white people. She was also gracious and engaged, giving patient answers to questions that she is so often asked that she has addressed these patterns of conversation in an afterword to the book. To take an example, the “what should I, qua white person, do about racism?” question was raised – Eddo-Lodge responded sensibly enough that one of the most powerful things that white allies can do is to talk to other white people and challenge racism in white-only spaces, thereby relieving the onus from people of colour of having to do this difficult work. A question from the audience also prompted Eddo-Lodge to talk about her development as an activist, particularly in trade unions. This background was not only fascinating in itself but also made the point eloquently that those fighting for social justice cannot think or act in isolation – the systems of oppression are interconnected and mutually compounding. If I had had a chance to ask Eddo-Lodge a question, I would have asked about her thoughts on ‘intersectionality’. This trendy and often misaligned term clearly animates the analysis of her book and her political modus operandi. Instead, I turned to my friends and had tricky and spirited conversations about race in the pub, a kind of chatter that I felt was completely taboo during my time as an undergraduate at Oxford. That is not simply an observation about how much has changed in the last ten years, but also a recognition of how powerful a force Eddo-Lodge has been in framing and promoting an anti-racism agenda in the national conversation.
Written by Mathura Umachandran
Humanities & Identities