Racing ahead to Book 12 of my 20 Books of Summer project, and it’s starting to feel like I might actually do it, especially as I was originally planning to get to Book 14 by the end of this month and then the last six are novels. Anyway, I was going to review this short book alongside Wednesday’s “Anti-Racist Ally“, having lazily thought they were on similar topics. But no – although they’re both about fighting racism, they take very, very different angles and approaches!

I bought this book on 1 April 2021, according to my note inside the front cover – I have a feeling I pre-ordered it when I spotted it. I loved Dabiri’s “Don’t Touch My Hair“, which used both her experience growing up in Ireland looking very different to her community and her academic research on African civilisations to interrogate black hair (her TV programme was also very good but quite different. Here, she puts her extensive academic and discursive skills to powerful effect..

Emma Dabiri – “What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition”

(01 April 2021)

We don’t all have to look the same to identify common interests and perhaps unexpected affinities, to cultivate kinships that cut across divisions intended to weaken us in order to better exploit us. (p. 146)

Emma Dabiri is not keen on the concept of allyship. I think she feels it demeans both the ally, who could be seen as performing empty gestures and being patronising at worst, and the person having allyship imposed upon them, being pitied and still thought of as somehow beneath the ally. She wants to dismantle the concept of race, only invented in the 1600s when it became useful to divide and conquer poor black and white folk, and, while she accepts that some forms of what gets called allyship, such as personally calling out racism when we witness or or in corporate life, lobbying against black income disparity, can be useful, and she also exhorts us to read novels by global majority people to understand rounded experiences that are different from our own, not just race-centred “‘anti racist books”, she is all about dismantling capitalism, too.

This book (or essay as it’s called on the back cover – it’s 150 pages) is densely argued and almost dizzying. She says near the end that she wants to have made the reader think, and she certainly does. Like other books that take a more homogeneous view of what ‘white’ people should be doing, she tackles terms – but through the lens of looking at how by making us fight over terms (although she does state she doesn’t like capitalising ‘black’ and ‘white’ and would rather put them in inverted commas to point out their invented nature; I am using the terms as she does here, out of respect and to offer an alternative) we are made to take our eye off the ball and prevented from joining together in real coalition.

She does the history thing, but in the context again of showing how ‘race’ is a created thing, used to divide people and subjugate those the ruling classes chose to subjugate. Then we’re into Marxism, anti-capitalism and a hefty dose of environmentalism. She’s scathing about social media and people acting performatively, but she acknowledges that there are people who have been defined as ‘white’ who do want to make change; she’s also against ‘white’ people being shamed into doing ‘nice’ things out of duty. She is strong on how white privilege means different things to different people, and that instead of concentrating on this we should be building coalition between disparate groups, like people did in the Black Panther etc. movement in the US, and fighting for equality which lifts everyone, having the most powerful effect on those who are kept furthest down, usually Global Majority People and people of the Global South, but improving conditions for everyone as it goes.

Comparing capitalist society to a slave ship, where the European slavers were on the top deck and the enslaved Africans crammed in below in terrible conditions, she asks if this is where we truly want to be, and if our only aim is to pull ourselves or others up into the air:

It is not enough to make exploitative systems more ‘inclusive’. Do we want to get on the top deck or do we want to destroy the goddam ship? (p. 73)

So as well as anti-capitalism in general, Dabiri encourages the reader to look into the Black Radical Tradition and knowledge and principles of historical African and Indigenous in general communities and civilisations, which might hold more of a key than European Enlightenment thought. Yes, I would have liked a reading list to handily pop up here.

Dabiri’s stated aim is to make us think, and she does that alright. But she does leave us hanging a bit, too. Near the end of the book, having decried the divisiveness of modern identity politics, she claims:

It is here that we are stuck. Frankly, there’s a huge gap in terms of what comes next. While we need to identify what to do, it’s important not to fixate on an endpoint or a final destination; such thinking is part of the problem. Rather we should try to understand our lives as a dynamic flowing of positions. (p. 141)

There is some mention of joining groups that are not identity politics based, like Extinction Rebellion, and she’s strong on how the concept of race has been continued to be used to keep people working against each other rather than for each other, but you’re left at the end, unless I really didn’t understand this book (which is entirely possible: she has an approachable and often very informal style but there’s a lot to chew over in this work), without really knowing what steps to take to do all this dismantling of capitalism and saving the world from our environmental damage. So perhaps it asks more questions than it answers, and I need to look for the answers elsewhere.

This is Book 12 in my 20 Books of Summer project.