I haven’t reviewed all the books on race that I’ve read over the last few years, but I thought I’d make an exception for this one, Emma Dabiri’s What White People can do next.
The title suggests a kind of to-do list for white people who want to make themselves useful in the struggle against racism. There are elements of that, but it doesn’t necessarily go the way readers might expect. Like that embroidered cover image, this is a book that’s doing its own thing.
For a start, Dabiri has a problem with the way racism is addressed in mainstream debates. Often the focus is on individuals, on their privilege or their words. Anti-racism can sometimes be reduced to policing one’s own behaviour and language, leaving racist structures intact. One of the book’s main objectives is “moving the emphasis from focusing on racist actions to challenging racist systems.”
Having read a book or two on race, a lot of white readers might welcome suggestions on what they could do next. And one of the usual answers is to be an ‘ally’. As the subtitle of Dabiri’s book alludes, allyship has some conceptual flaws. It allows people to frame themselves as ‘good people’ who get it, and who then have to prove their allyship in ways that often amount to empty signalling.
A more productive approach is to build coalitions that can actually dismantle unjust systems. There are lots of historical examples of this, where people looked for common ground and fought for shared goals. It keeps the focus on power and where change really happens. Everyone would benefit from responsible and transparent policing. Everyone would benefit from a more equal society.
Well, almost everyone would benefit. Capitalist elites might not, and that’s a key point. As the book explains, ‘whiteness’ serves a political purpose, and that can be read in the codifying of slavery in the US and elsewhere. Whiteness defuses class angst by creating a solidarity along race lines. It creates a false common interest between elites and working classes, united by their whiteness. “A more equal distribution of wealth would be a panacea for much of this, but ‘whiteness’ takes the heat off wealth-hoarding elites while everyone else fight each other.”
The book interrogates this political use of whiteness and its role in capitalism. It refocuses the discussion around addressing structural injustice rather than individual attitudes (something which is important in my own book, Climate Change is Racist). And it does it with wit and imagination. Dabiri is an academic and the book is well researched and ready to dive into theory and history, while remaining clear, readable, and frequently entertaining. It carries its intelligence and passion for justice lightly, and points readers helpfully and hopefully towards a more productive conversation about race.