Interview: Otegha Uwagba on her new essay, Whites
Contributing editor Chinasa Chukwu speaks candidly with Otegha Uwagba about her new essay Whites: On Race and Other Falsehoods
Chinasa Chukwu: 'How are you doing? I’m asking on two levels, first how are you coping with the second lockdown?'
Otegha Uwagba: 'I’m actually good. With the second lockdown, I’m just really bored. I think, like a lot of people, looking back on this year and reviewing it, it feels like it's been thin on pleasures. So now, I’m looking forward to a time where you can do pleasant things without thinking about it. Go out for dinner or on a trip, meet up with people and not worry. But I’ve got plenty to occupy me workwise [laughs].'
CC: 'And how are you doing personally? Because I've seen some of the really vitriolic responses that you've got to Whites. So how are you coping with that?'
OU: 'In terms of those responses, I put them on social media because I feel like it's quite eye-opening for people to see them. But I wasn’t surprised by them at all because I've noticed that whenever people of colour, especially Black people, write about race [those are the reactions]. I've seen those sorts of reviews on other people’s books, so I wasn't surprised at all.
'In a weird way, it was interesting to me. Nobody in my social circle reacts like that to my work, obviously, so it was just interesting to kind of pop my bubble and to see how and why those white people felt quite attacked by the sorts of things I was saying. You can try and argue something really persuasively, but people do just shut down, which I feel is what's happened with those reviews. Thanks for asking.'
CC: 'Considering that you predominantly write about money and in particular how it relates to women, what did it feel like putting this together and then pitching it to your agent?'
OU: 'To be honest, I'd been thinking about writing this essay even prior to this year, and I’d always planned to publish an essay about race and racism at some point in the distant future, after my next book. So, I’d already mentioned it to my agent.
'And then obviously, after George Floyd was killed and white people were reacting in all these really strange, but also unsurprising, ways, I felt like now was the time to say the things that I wanted to say. It was as simple as sending my agent a text asking if now might be a good time to [publish], she agreed that it was [and so] I wrote the proposal [and they accepted it].'
Whites, by Otegha Uwagba. Photo: Waterstones
CC: 'Speaking about the contents of Whites, you have some references to your personal experiences of racism. What did it feel like to revisit those experiences?'
OU: 'You know, all of those experiences are things that didn’t feel particularly raw. People have said, "Oh, this must have been really tough to write", but in some ways, it really wasn't because I had already processed the anecdotes I share in the essay. I did think that they were important to demonstrate what I talk about when I talk about racism.
'I found it cathartic to write, if anything, because it felt like I was just getting a lot of things off my chest. Part of the reason I decided to write it was because I wanted to address what was troubling me about the past few months in a more considered way. I just didn't feel like writing a thousand-word article for a publication that might be edited in a way that I might not necessarily want it to be, and having the room to do that in an essay seemed like the best way to do it. So in some ways it was quite cathartic as opposed to being traumatic or difficult.'
CC: 'You could have put in a lot more examples. I feel like sometimes when writing about topics like this, it can become…'
OU: 'Trauma porn.'
CC: 'Exactly. So how did you decide how much to put in to avoid that?'
OU: 'I think I was always kind of aiming for restraint in that respect. I didn't want it to be purely a personal essay about myself, I wanted it to be looking externally. I felt like the inclusion of personal stories was only a means to an end. I didn't want to just focus on my experiences. At one point I sent it to someone to read early on, they were like, “oh, the personal bits are the most interesting part, you should include more of them.” And I was like, “no, I don't think I will actually.”
'I don't want to bleed all over the page and expose all my trauma for other people, specifically white people, to gawp at. I don't need to share these things with other Black people because they already know, they've been through these things. So, the only people in that context whose benefit it would be for, would be white people and I don't want them to use my stories as a way of self-flagellating.'
CC: 'I think that's such an important point to make because it can get to a place where, as you're saying, the narrative changes from "here's the point that Black people are making" to "let’s feel bad for them. How sad that this happened".’
OU: 'Yeah, exactly. They’re kind of appalled and I’m like I shouldn't have to tell you all these terrible stories for you to be appalled by racism. It’s not that they don't know that stuff is happening.'
CC: 'Why was it important for you to focus on those people who consider themselves staunchly anti-racist, rather than those I call "Molotov cocktail" racists who will spit at you in the street?'
OU: 'I mean this essay absolutely wasn't for them. I wanted it to be as much for Black people as white people and this essay would never be read and bought by really obviously racists like the EDL or BNP types, so they are not my concern. I'm not trying to convert anyone from racism.
'In terms of the white people that this is aimed at, it’s people who consider themselves to be anti-racist and denounce racism. It's very well-meaning, progressive white people, the sort of people that you come into contact with on a daily basis. In some cases, people I'm friends with, who I work with, but wanting them to understand that their actions and their attitudes present a distinctive set of challenges for Black people and people of colour. I think they see themselves as the good ones and I just wanted them to understand that they are also a problem for people of colour. It's not just the Ku Klux Klan or flag-waving kind of racist – on a day-to-day basis the people who make life most difficult for me are not Tommy Robinson types. It's going to a publishing party and someone making an off-colour comment and then me having to deal with that for the rest of the evening.'
CC: 'So was there any relief, as you say in the essay, in rendering whiteness visible? Was there any relief in naming your abuser not as the white person that’s an EDL member, but as someone that's potentially your friend, someone that you work closely with, who tells you that whoever it was that made an off-colour comment didn't mean any offence?'
OU: 'I wouldn't describe it as a relief. I just thought it was important to do, because often when we discuss race, and I mean Black people as well, we do it in oblique terms. You know, we talk about structural racism and implicit bias because we don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We don't want to make anyone feel responsible or complicit. For me, I felt like the only way that I wanted to approach this essay was by being as honest as I possibly could, giving concrete examples that demonstrate the sort of behaviour that is problematic and make clear that I think it applies to most, if not all, white people. I think that was something that I was really trying to get at. As a white person, you're probably not the exception to this rule, you’re probably as guilty of things that are damaging, harmful and hurtful to Black people as anyone else. You just don't realise it.'
CC: 'Something else I noticed was that you had an influx of followers from anti-racist lists. There was obviously quite a lot of frustration with that. Can you talk about why that was so infuriating?'
OU: 'I just thought it was quite dehumanising and reductive. Listen, I understand the logic behind it and I don't think it's a bad thing for white people to read these books and understand more. But I felt like the positioning of any and every Black author as automatically an anti-racist educator was very reductive.
'That had happened even before I had written [Whites]. I suppose I could maybe understand that happening more in light of this essay, but even recently someone tagged me in an Instagram post as an anti-racist educator and I had to correct them. I'm a writer who has written about race. Those two things are not the same. I object to the idea that people of colour just have to function as guides for white people, you know, as sort of educational resources. I really don't like that. I felt like that was how some of these anti-racist reading lists were framing my work and the work of other Black people. They put [women-focused career handbook] Little Black Book on the lists and, yes, it’s Black-authored, but it also doesn't talk about race at all. So where does that leave us?
'In terms of the influx of followers I felt uncomfortable about having this influx of people who follow me only because they think that my day-to-day life can be a teachable moment.'
CC: 'It was like suddenly you were turned into The Truman Show.'
OU: 'Yeah, exactly! That's exactly it. It made me think differently about how I use my social media.'
CC: 'Did you have any fear about writing Whites?'
OU: 'The decision [to write it] was a bit more complicated. I did consider once or twice not doing it just because I find the explosion of allyship literature and information handbooks that have taken off in recent years, and especially in recent months, troubling.
'I felt a bit strange about the wave of acquisitions in publishing that were only interested in commissioning Black writers if they were going to talk about race. I found it galling. For me it felt a bit different because my publisher has commissioned two books from me that weren't about race. I felt quite confident that they value me beyond my ability to contribute to that specific conversation. But I might have felt differently if that was my first book to be commissioned. Because my question is then, are some of these first-time authors going to be commissioned to write second books that aren’t about race?'
Photo: Ollie Trenchard
CC: 'Absolutely. I think what I really gravitated towards with Whites is the fact that, as you said, so many of these essays or literary pieces that talk about race, or artistic expressions in general that talk about race, do it in a very oblique way. And you could have written Whites in a very kind of theoretical, philosophical way, but instead you made it really frank…'
OU: 'I'd like to think I'm generally quite a frank person and I think it would have been out of character had I not been that.' [laughs]
CC: 'And I think that's its strength, is that you can't look away from it, not like a car crash, gawping away, but saying "here's the truth – what you do with it is your business", essentially.'
OU: 'Well, I'm glad to hear you think that. When you're disclosing stuff it’s difficult to make sure you strike the right balance. Because I'm also conscious of the pressure, particularly on female writers and Black female writers, to sell off bits of your identity in your writing. And so I'm always conscious to not do that.'
CC: 'Do you think we'll ever get to a point where the white abolitionist type of allyship will be the norm?'
OU: 'What do you think I think?' [both laugh]
CC: 'I’m going to say no. But is there any hope in you? Because my next question is, if Black people can't abolish whiteness because white people have to relinquish it, but white people aren’t willing to pay the price that comes with relinquishing it, where do we go from here? I don’t expect anyone to have an answer to this, but I want to hear your thoughts...'
OU: 'Honestly, I truly don't know. But I would say that the essay doesn’t end on a particularly hopeful note. That's just how I feel. And that's how I felt when I wrote it. When you write this sort of thing there’s pressure to end on a hopeful note or say here's what we need to do now. But I think, in a way, I have outlined what I think white people need to do, but at the same time I've also said I don't know that they're willing to do it. I'm very open to being proven wrong. I would love to look back at this essay in five or 10 or 20 years’ time and think "oh, that was probably too cynical".
'I'm sure that things will improve. I think standards of what is socially acceptable are changing day by day, week by week, year by year. We saw a lot of people having to resign and get fired this summer. So, standards are changing. That I can kind of have some hope for. But in terms of a critical mass of white people deciding that they are not invested enough in whiteness to continue to perpetuate the system… I’m not sure that’s going to happen.'
CC: 'In order to shift that burden, it would require that kind of critical mass that doesn't seem like it's on the horizon. So, in the foreseeable future while the power rests with white people the burden remains largely on Black people.'
OU: 'And no one really wants to hear that. I have done a few interviews where people have asked, "where do we go next?" I’m like, "I feel like I’ve told you already, I'm not going to give you a happy ending or the hopeful ending that you're looking for".'
CC: 'You know, that was one of my questions as well, you could have had a really pretty call to action at the end…'
OU: 'No, no, no, there was never going to be a call to action. That’s just not how I felt, and I don't feel like the responsibility is on me to create a call to action. I wouldn’t say I set out with that conclusion in mind. In the proposal I said, "oh, I think I'm going to leave it open-ended as a conclusion" and then as I was writing it, I was like, "I have a conclusion actually". It was something that I processed as I was writing it. It would have been a different essay – maybe more polemic – if it had a call to action. I guess that's not my style at the moment. I'm just trying to really accurately diagnose what I see as the problem.'
CC: 'And my final question is, has a white ally or friend ever put themselves on the line for you?'
OU: 'Not to my knowledge. Let me think about that. It doesn't necessarily mean it hasn't happened but no, not to my knowledge. I can't think of any examples. That’s that on that.'