I feel the lyrics to ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ by Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu aptly encapsulate Eddo-Lodge’s philosophy. “Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.”
â€¨A talented journalist and social justice campaigner, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written about intersectional oppression since the age of 19. In 2013, she was listed in The Telegraph’s ‘Women to follow on Twitter’, and in 2014 as the Guardian’s ‘30 most interesting people under 30 in digital media’.
Listening to her talk about her vision of liberation rather than equality is truly refreshing. She has a unique ability to cut through the reification and rhetoric of the word ‘equality’ and expose it for what it often becomes, a doff of the hat to oppressive structures.
Eddo-Lodge explains how equality was the offspring of liberalism. She explores how largely white, straight cis-male political theorists sought to tackle inequality by raising the status of the underprivileged so as to achieve ‘equality’ with the privileged. In other words, liberalism’s response to difference between men and women, black and white, gay and straight is to “account for that difference” rather than “recognise that there’s nothing inherently wrong with difference”.
In light of this, it seems equality merely panders to the binaries set up by capitalism. “The idea of equality as climbing a ladder really troubles me, because it doesn’t help at all. If you embody difference in any way, whether through being black, a woman, or a LBGTQIA person, you may be offered the prospect of assimilation but you’ll never be able to shake off discrimination by accumulating wealth or capital.”
She recalls how her mum used tell her to “go and get a job and then you won’t have to worry about racism anymore”. But, she laughs, “Here I am, and racism is still bothering me.” As a little girl, she remembers watching the television, turning to her mum and saying, “When am I going to turn white?” This question was rooted in the media’s portrayal of black people as ‘baddies’ and white people as ‘goodies’.
“A system that was not built in your favour – neoliberalism or late-capitalism – will never work in your favour.
“When you look at discrimination and oppression through the lens of structural inequality, you can really begin to see how disparities are filtered through the system and it can’t survive without these disparities.” In short, equality demands assimilation within certain power structures, while liberation demands freedom from those oppressive power structures altogether.
Equality is an appealing idea, and it is “a very easy message to get out of the media”. But Eddo-Lodge views this as, at best, a misguided transitional stage, and at worst, a reinforcement of existing power structures. “I do advocate assimilation to some extent, like I advocate people who are a little more radicallyminded getting in those spaces and fucking things up and holding people accountable.”
Does “fucking things up” include rioting? After the riots of 2011 and Ferguson, I wonder whether she sees them â€¨as political acts towards liberation, and even an anarchic form of political participation, as suggested by the film Riots Reframed. She sympathises with this view. “It’s that inequality again… The rapper Okala says it really perfectly when he talks about ‘the environments that breed crime’ – who’s maintaining those environments?”
I ask her about â€¨how she thinks we can actively promote liberaâ€¨tion as part of our daily lives. How can we achieve â€¨a balance between expression and self-preservation? Eddo-Lodge says she has come to realise that you needâ€¨ to pick your battles,â€¨and surround â€¨yourself with those who understand and support you. “I think there are ways of getting the message out there without actively pursuing a conversation with somebody.” In a sense, she says, you can “reach people without trying to reach people, without emotionally draining yourself – you don’t have to do that”.
Eddo-Lodge no longer describes herself as an activist, but a writer. She cites “very basic practical reasons” for this transition. In the midst of the recession, “I couldn’t afford to throw myself into activism as a graduate, I needed to find something to feed me. I don’t feel qualified to call myself an activist – I’m not out there putting my body on the front line, and I hugely admire people who do. But I think we all have our different paths towards progress, and I don’t think that’s mine.”
Given her obvious distrust of capitalist attitudes, I ask her what hope there is for creative work which is often invisible to the market gaze. She tells me how the Internet has revolutionised possibilities for creative work. “The Internet was a huge tool for me. I’m not privately educated, I’m not Oxbridge, I’m from Tottenham. Without the Internet, I would not be able to have the career I have now.” One of the most important things she advocates is joining a union. “Creatives often work in an independent, self-employed way, and that often opens you to exploitation, and that’s why it’s important, if you’re going to pursue your passion in an independent fashion, that you join a union and know your rights.”
Eddo-Lodge speaks in a highly sensitive, patterned, and truly intersectional way. To challenge inequality, we must tear down the structures that construct difference as a negative thing. This must originate in a power analysis whose result is action. “Their power needs to be redistributed; it is not a case of us having a slice of theirs, but them giving theirs up.”