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Against Representation

I reviewed How To Lose Friends and Influence White People, a book being marketed as an antiracist manual, by Media Diversity Australia founder, Antoinette Lattouf. There is a concerning trend of so-called trade books referencing the brutal state murder of George Floyd as a vehicle for discussing issues of diversity and representation. This has been widely critiqued in interesting ways by many activists and scholars. In this essay for the Sydney Review of Books, I discuss what I feel is the counterinsurgent nature of such books, focusing on Lattouf’s intervention. I am particularly indebted to the work on Ambalavaner Sivananden, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Frantz Fanon and Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò who are all amply cited.

You can read the whole essay here, with a short extract below:

How to Lose Friends and Influence White People sits within the archipelago of antiracist manuals that have done a roaring trade, leading with Robin Di Angelo’s ubiquitous White Fragility. As Elizabeth A. Harris comments in the New York Times, the cashing-in on what has rapidly been dubbed the ‘Black Lives Matter moment’ that followed the state murder of George Floyd and the global uprisings that it spurred (which also open Lattouf’s book as has become de rigeur) is a both-sides affair. Racism, as the media scholar Gavan Titley has written, has been made ‘debatable’. And so, following the run-away success of Ibram X Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (two million copies sold), publishers are rushing to acquire any race-related book. ‘Right-wing media personality’ Candace Owen’s Blackout is running off the shelves. In fact, the counterrevolutionary attack on a folk devil being named ‘critical race theory’, fanning out from the US with its own cheerleaders in Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham here in Australia, is a response to the surge in antiracist mobilisation unleashed by Black death and, thus, is in some way a measure of antiracist success. However, as Brooklyn bookseller, Kalima DeSuze noted darkly in June 2020, ‘We’re thriving because of black bodies.’

It wasn’t long after that peak in June 2020 that US booksellers started to report that people who had rung in to order antiracist books were not coming to pick them up. More than doing something, many white people wanted to be seen to be doing something. Buying books, or at least intending to buy them, was one way. There is no reason why the Australian publishing industry would not want to join in.

Lattouf’s audience is nominally people like her: media professionals or other members of the corporate class. But it is unclear whether they are people of colour or not. They are certainly not working class. The book sets out to advise its readers on influencing white people, and so presumably it is not for white people. Much like the antiracist self-help books of 2020, How to Lose Friends gently pokes white feelings while purporting to speak truth to power.

Alana Lentin