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Emma Dabiri: ‘When race begins and ends with social media, we have quite reductive, distorted interpretations of what we’re dealing with’


‘I had already been angry, had spent most of my life angry,” Emma Dabiri writes in her latest book, What White People Can Do Next. She’s talking about her reaction to the murder of George Floyd in America last May at the hands of a police officer, and the subsequent protests that broke out around the world.

ow, though, she no longer gets angry. Last summer’s events were, Emma reflects, in terms of racism, “just business as usual”.

She recalls wryly now how people contacted her in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

“So, for me, it’s completely horrific, but why was it that murder that sparked the world? State-sanctioned killing has been happening regularly for centuries; that one captured the public’s imagination,” she says.

“I had people messaging me saying ‘this time must be unbearably distressing for you’, and I’m like, well, why is it wildly more distressing than any of the millions of other times this has happened? Because you happened to hear of it this time? Because this time it happened to move you? Why do you think this is the first time I’m engaging with something like this?”

Broadcaster, author and academic Emma, whose father was Nigerian and whose mother is Irish, was born in Dublin but moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she lived before returning to Ireland with her mum when she was four. She grew up here in the 1980s and early 1990s, before moving to London when she was 19.

“I experienced racism from quite a young age. My response to those experiences was to read, and try and make sense of what I was experiencing through reading,” explains Emma, who left Ireland to do a degree in African studies and post-colonial theory at SOAS University of London.

She understood racism at an early age: “These weren’t things that I decided, or discovered recently, I have been living and working with and through this stuff for many, many years.”

Initially, she says, racism does make you angry, “because it’s inherently f**ked up and wrong, but that anger is not sustainable, it is not something that you can live with for decades.

“I think it’s a completely understandable early reaction but it morphs into something else. You start to reflect on the nature of anger and the generative possibility of it, as I do in the book, and sort of see that once you move through and beyond anger you have a different response to things. Which is where I’m at now.”

Which is what brought her to write her second book, a follow-up to 2019’s bestselling Don’t Touch My Hair. In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, amid the protests and conversations it sparked, Emma saw potential for real change.

At first, she created an online resource to provide answers to the many queries she receives. This then grew into the bestselling book What White People Can Do Next, which is a mixture of ideas generated over her years as an academic and further informed by her own life, and published in April of this year.

“Most of us, I’m sure, can sense that we’re on the verge of something,” Dabiri writes in the opening. “The dawn of a civilisation ready to be remade anew.”

The book, a fascinating thesis on how systemic shifts can be made, was “a proposal to usher in that new world” with chapters such as ‘Stop the False Equivalencies’, ‘Interrogate Whiteness’ and ‘Abandon Guilt’. It is also intended to be a practical resource for people who want to do something more tangible than just talk about the issue.

Emma brilliantly critiques the conversation that arose last summer around anti-racism, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough. The potential of the “historic opportunity to make changes” that presented itself was, she tells me, at risk of being squandered.

One of her central points is that just saying you’re anti-racist does not undermine what she describes as the “truth status” of race, something she points out is in fact a social construct; something invented to support capitalism and colonialism.

It is key, Emma says, that we understand race as a social construct, and the reasons why it had been socially constructed.

“I felt that necessary information was almost entirely absent,” she says of the conversation last summer. “As a result of that being absent, what we were seeing was the reinforcing of race as a biological reality, which is the foundational logic of racism.”

If real change is to be achieved, it is necessary to undermine this idea of race itself, which she believes to be a myth. The point is, as Emma so eloquently puts it, being “anti-racist” suggests the status quo is maintained.

Her approach is one of coalition against a system that oppresses us all, rather than one of division according to race. ‘Recognize This Shit is Killing You Too’ reads one chapter title, referencing the American cultural theorist Fred Moten. The subtitle of What White People Can Do Next is ‘From Allyship to Coalition’.

“Little in the mainstream anti-racist narrative focuses on challenging the idea of ‘white people’ itself,” she writes. “Rather, it takes the category as an unassailable truth, with the emphasis on making white people nicer, through a combination of begging, demanding, cajoling and imploring.

“You can diversify unequal systems; you can make exploitative systems inclusive, and anti-racism seems more concerned with that. It doesn’t really challenge the current status quo; it just seems to make it a more diverse place.”

Dabiri also provides a fascinating dissection of some of the terms that are used so extensively at the moment, particularly on social media platforms – which, she points out, incentivise outrage and division. She has mixed feelings about social media.

“It’s a weird one because in many ways it has facilitated bringing these topics to the mainstream. The problem is, while it creates awareness, it rarely goes far enough.

“If it were like a stepping stone, where awareness was created and then people used that as a bridge to facilitate further learning or understanding of these issues and topics – but when it begins and ends with social media, we have quite reductive, distorted interpretations of what we are dealing with.”

Dabiri draws on her own life to write of the “almost unspeakable isolation I experienced when I was growing up”.

“As one of the very few black people not just in my school or in my neighbourhood but in the whole goddamn country, I was achingly aware of race, every goddamn minute of every goddamn day,” she writes.

“I think my natural disposition is actually quite joyful,” she tells me now.

“So that’s my natural setting, but because of circumstances and experiences, I think I often did feel unhappy and isolated,” she says of herself as a child.

“For me it wasn’t even so much that I experienced racism, which I did in many different forms, but what really compounded it, and what I personally found the most difficult was that I didn’t have people experiencing the same thing, family or friends.

“There were so few black people in the country that I really just felt so alone, so isolated and so abnormal.

“When I left Ireland and went to environments where there were black people, like Atlanta, I was so Irish culturally, in the way I sounded and the way I spoke, and the way I acted, I also felt like a complete weirdo.

“I was like, ‘who even is black and Irish? Like it barely exists, there’s nowhere to belong’. So, it’s so interesting now seeing black Irish identities emerging, and seeing so many young black Irish people with Irish accents. I always felt that my experience and my accent were completely at odds; it didn’t make sense to people.”

This is not her imagining things, she points out, but direct experience.

“People were always like ‘what?’ They were shocked to hear me speak, both in Ireland where people would be like ‘oh, Jaysus, I thought you were going to be Jamaican, I thought you were going to be whatever’, always anything but Irish.

“But also when I travelled, people were like ‘what is your accent?’ It wasn’t something that people had any frame of reference for.”

Close

Emma Dabiri working on a Channel 4 production in 2017

Emma lives in London with her partner and two children. As well as her writing, her work includes both academia – she is currently finishing her PhD, and broadcasting.

She has presented a number of television and radio documentaries, including BBC Radio 4’s Journeys into Afrofuturism and BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces.

“I’m not teaching anymore, as I took maternity leave last year and then I didn’t go back because it’s actually too much, I need to finish my own PhD this year. I will go back to teaching when I finish the PhD,” she says.

“I do find it challenging, especially with two small children and living in London with lockdown. It’s a balancing act.”

In her writing, Emma questions the orthodoxy of the nine-to-five.

“I really don’t glamorise the grind. For the past few years my schedule has been pretty gruelling, but my dream is to make it more liveable. And more leisure time. Leisure is liberation.”

In the past, she has questioned whether she would ever move back to Ireland.

“Now I have this huge sense of longing for Ireland,” she says. “I left for university when I was still a teenager, and in many ways that was motivated by the isolation that I described. It was suffocating.

“There was so much projection and obsession with my race, like it was a constant – even when people were being ‘complimentary’ – which was far from always the case at all, it was still this obsession.”

It was exhausting, she recalls now.

“I just wanted to be somewhere where people weren’t so obsessed with my race. But I guess the cost of that is… being an immigrant is actually quite difficult in many ways.

“At this stage I really miss home, and really miss living in Ireland. I realise a huge part of the reason, probably the primary reason, I left was because of the racism I experienced, and also, I think, why I felt I couldn’t necessarily come back.

“I would come back now, definitely. Definitely, I think,” she laughs.

 

‘What White People Can Do Next’ by Emma Dabiri is published by Penguin and available in bookshops now



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