Photography by Stuart Simpson

Emma Dabiri: We have to stop acting like racism is an anomaly”

In her new book What White People Can Do Next, the writer, academic and broadcaster pours her intellect and years of PhD research into a nuanced examination of race, capitalism and class. Get reading, get learning.

When Emma Dabiri isn’t hunched over her desk”, juggling numerous Zoom calls or taking care of her two young children, she’s fighting racial injustice.

That’s just a regular day in the life of this passionate renaissance woman. When we connect over the phone, the academic, regular contributor to BBC news and current affairs programmes is taking a rare breather. I’m outside during this [interview], so I’m quite excited,” she says, laughing, the sound of traffic, birds and booming sound systems near her home in London filling the background of our call.

We’re here to discuss – and celebrate – Dabiri’s second book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition. It’s an incisive and critical look at race, class and capitalism, drawn from years of lived experience and centred on her ongoing PhD studies in visual sociology at Goldsmiths, London.

Since the triumph of 2019’s Don’t Touch My Hair – which used the power of Black hairstyling culture as an entry point to discuss politics, oppression and liberation – the Nigerian-Irish writer has gone on to change the narrative around natural Afro hair. Continuing her campaign to amend the Equality Act, she has already successfully ensured that pupils who were too regularly marginalised for having their hair in protective Afro styles are no longer wrongly excluded from schools in the UK.

Now, Dabiri has shifted her lens to explore a new and reimagined future, where whiteness”and white privilege” are interrogated. It’s a notion that was shaped following the reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.

In her manifesto, first published via an Instagram post in June 2020, Dabiri writes: Stop the denial, interrogate whiteness, denounce the white saviour, stop trying to be a good’ person, abandon guilt, pull people up on racism, stop reducing Black people to one dimensional characters, read read read, interrogate capitalism, redistribute resources.”

It’s an extensive list. But by chronicling tangible steps for change, her vision is to shift the discourse around race. Talking to The Face, she dives into the topic of allyship, expresses her frustration with performative social media and explains why she’s no longer writing about race.

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Congratulations on the release of What White People Can Do Next. Why did you feel an urgency to write this book?

It draws on research from my PhD, which I started many years ago. Some of the theory and ideas are things I’ve been working on for a really long time – although my PhD isn’t about allyship; it’s about the construction of racial categories. But there has been so much discussion of race in the last year that I wanted to bring to bear some of that research about the process of racialisation to the mainstream conversation, because a lot of it seems like it could do with that context.

In that spirit, I made a resource in summer of last year. It was an Instagram post called What White People Can Do Next. That had a phenomenal and very surprising response. I realised there’s a real desire for this and a real kind of necessity. I also don’t like things not having depth. So I wanted to expand on what I had written and that’s what the book is. It’s like an expansion of that first post.

You’ve mentioned before that, by graduating with a degree in African Studies, by default you’ve become a media mouthpiece on the subject of racism. Does that frustrate you?

Yeah, it frustrates me. On the one hand, I have actually studied all this stuff, so talking about it is what I do. But I think what I feel frustrated about is, rather than people asking me about my work, I’m just asked about my experiences of racism growing up. I just find it really disrespectful, actually, after all of this research, scholarship and preparation I’ve done. Sometimes it’s disregarded because they are like, Oh, you’re a Black person. Tell me about your experiences of racism.”

It’s to the point now, actually, where if things are framed like that I’m just like, No, not answering, this isn’t what I came to talk about,” you know? That wouldn’t happen with a white academic that had come to talk about literature.

Tell me about the title. What White People Can Do Next” has been labelled as provocative. Why did you feel it essential to go with that?

The title is definitely a provocation. One of the things I do in the book is look at how processes of racialisation show up differently in different places. For me, that’s really pronounced being from Ireland and being very aware of how different Irish people are culturally to white English people. And, of course, there’s huge diversity among people within the countries as well. So, when we’re just talking generically about white people, who are we talking about? We need to have more specificity.

The idea of racial differences is an invention, and I just don’t know how we can have so many conversations about race and not have that as our starting point. I would like for us not to keep repeating it and for it to just be mainstream knowledge. We know that we’re dealing with these fictitious categories that were invented to dehumanise Black people, to justify their enslavement, but also to stop class solidarity between exploited people of European descent and African descent coming together.

Why, in 2021, is there still this notion of white superiority?

Because when whiteness was invented, that was the foundational building block. It was the idea that this newly invented white race were superior to this newly invented Black race, who were an inferior position within that hierarchy. While we have forgotten the history that created the situation, we live with the consequences. Of course there’ll be instances of racism, because race was invented to create racism. That’s what it’s intended to do.

You’ve also spoken in the book about performative social media measures last summer – for example, the black square and sudden outpourings of solidarity. How did that make you feel when you saw those actions being made?

Whatever. It doesn’t mean anything. Loads of people were really angry, but I just felt kind of fatigued. It’s kind of a hollow gesture. But then, as I write in the book… online activism, is that not the nature of it? It is performative.

What would have been a more appropriate action to show allyship?

I don’t think what’s needed is white people showing the Black community allyship. Allyship is like this charitable enterprise where a white person can, if they feel so inclined, help the disadvantaged, marginalised” or victim – victim not being my word, but the term I see used in the discourse.

I think one of the proposals I make in the book is there are certain things like police brutality, that while Black people are disproportionately affected by it, it’s actually in everyone’s best interests to have police forces that cannot just act with impunity.

I think we saw that quite powerfully at the protests around Sarah Everard, where there were lots of white women being subjected to police brutality. That was quite a stark reminder that having these kinds of checks and balances in society is not just a favour that Black people need. It’s something that everybody should be invested in.

Social media acts as a platform to promote and to elevate. But in terms of online activism, what’s your stance on it?

Actually, there are loads of things I love about social media. I think social media as a starting point for conversations or sharing knowledge is really powerful. But when it then needs to move to something far deeper and more robust and it doesn’t, it becomes kind of untethered from the environments that generated some of the ideas that we’re talking about. The arguments, concepts and histories become distorted, and often shrill and declamatory.

I also quote Angela Davis. She talks about the fact that all of the information that we can get online, we’ve confused that with knowledge. So many times I’ve seen infographics that are inaccurate being shared like wildfire. Then, I’m seeing that being referenced in the things that people are writing, so you see this fake news or fake information being spread. But if it’s popular and people are invested in it, it can be difficult to be a dissenting voice.

How do you hope your book will change the dialogue on race?

I hope people will draw connections between things that maybe they hadn’t thought about previously. Through doing that, we’ll be able to identify ways in which different forms of inequality, oppression and the very burning reality of the destruction of the biosphere open up exciting possibilities for new alliances and new allegiances between people. What’s key is basically the creation of mass movements.

We have to stop acting like racism is an anomaly and, when we see instances of racism, being surprised. Racism is pervasive throughout our culture and society because of the way whiteness has been constructed. I don’t think we’re going to unlearn centuries of socialisation, things that were put in place hundreds of years before we were born. We need a compelling narrative to believe in something new. It was a really compelling mythology and there needs to be an equally compelling counter narrative, rather than the corporate speech of contemporary anti-racism.

Are you keen to keep exploring your research and publish more texts on race further down the line?

I’m going to finish my PhD this year and then I don’t want to write about race anymore! For my next project I actually want to write fiction.

I love Toni Morrison, like many people, but one of the things I love about her is the magic and the surrealism that animates her stories. Whatever I work on, I want it to be slightly sci-fi inspired. Many of my characters will be Black people, but I won’t be expressly talking about race.


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