Book Review: Emma Dabiri’s “What White People Can Do Next ~ From Allyship to Coalition”

By Stephen D’Arcy

The recently published book, What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition (Penguin, 2021), is written by the Irish anti-capitalist and anti-racist, Emma Dabiri. Dabiri is previously the author of Twisted: The Tangled History of Black Hair Culture (UK edition’s title: Don’t Touch My Hair).

What White People Can Do Next delivers admirably on its promise to be a concise yet sophisticated introduction to contemporary anti-racism, including what is nowadays demonized by racists and the Far Right as “critical race theory” or “critical race studies.” Dabiri has a rare gift for combining a breezy, conversational, and accessible writing style that puts the reader at ease, with a deep and broad knowledge of anti-racist theory and the history of struggles over race as a form of domination, exploitation and extraction.

It is, certainly, an introduction. And yet, it is more than a broad, general overview. It includes a number of brief detours into points of detail and refuses to overlook subtleties and complications. There are so many fine discussions throughout: about racism’s intertwinement with capitalism and colonialism; about the similarities and differences between the organization of race in Ireland, the UK, and the USA (in all three of which countries she has resided and experienced racism firsthand), or indeed in Africa and elsewhere; about the limitations of online-centric approaches to (ostensibly) anti-racist ‘performance’; about the dangers of depicting opposition to racism by white people as a kind of charitable, supposedly noble act of self-sacrifice; and so, so much more.

Although it’s true that Dabiri seems to be either a marxist or (at minimum) a very marxism-influenced thinker, it would be wrong to think that in this book she simply reiterates longstanding marxist positions in an accessible way. Her book is much more rooted in and committed to engaging with a wide range of anti-racist scholarship and struggle histories, extending well beyond any narrow ideological limitations. And the book is extremely up to date: not only extensively discussing the 2020 BLM upsurge, and how it was or wasn’t processed online, but also discussing the demagogic campaigns against “critical race theory” in education, the COVID pandemic, and lot’s of other things that give the book a very contemporary feel. So, yes, it’s marxist or semi-marxist at least, but it’s not just reiterating points that are already familiar to marxist readers.

One of the most striking features of the book is its subtly subversive title: it sets the reader up to expect something that it resolutely refuses to deliver, namely, a liberal-individualist analysis of how white individuals can situate themselves comfortably on the “virtuous” side of the racism/antiracism divide. Intead, the book is from start to finish fixated on a very different set of questions: how can we win? How can race be eradicated? How can powerful, ambitious social movements be built through militant struggles and the learning processes they unleash? What is the difference between the kinds of antiracism that empower poor and other working-class Black people and the (supposedly class-neutral) kinds of antiracism that insulate systems of exploitation and extraction from critical challenges from below that pose existential threats to their continuation?

“What white people can do,” it turns out, is not mostly a matter of stepping up their tweet game, or undertaking an insular, self-obsessed or narcissistic process of self-examination, or even ‘holding businesses accountable’ for their products or ads. Instead, as the subtitle already hints, it’s mostly about linking struggles against racism with anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and environmental struggles, and rethinking the idea of liberation in ways that are sensitive to the relationship between racism and other systems of domination and exploitation and the struggles against these systems. Above all, it’s about putting the project of defeating racism at the centre of our thought, speech and action around ‘race,’ and so refusing to adapt to or reaffirm the permanence or incontestable centrality of race, especially the persistent centring of white people (notably in allyship discourse) that she continually critiques.

(If you read between the lines here that Dabiri’s book is implicitly mounting a challenge, not only to racial liberalism, but also to Afropessimism, you wouldn’t be wrong — although I don’t think she explicitly mentions or criticizes directly Afropessimism. The whole tone and framework, make the point hard to miss.)

Dabiri’s book is also relentlessly critical of, and unflinchingly honest about, the failings of the forms of anti-racism that have evolved in the dysfunctional ecosystems of social-media consumption.

Overall, the book is a great introduction to anti-racism in theory and practice: utterly non-academic in tone, yet thoroughly conversant with and precise about the insights (or failings) of the past 50 years of academic anti-racist theory. Challenging to all, in a multitude of different ways, it also somehow manages to be inviting to most readers, especially readers committed to fighting to win in anti-systemic social movements.