At gal-dem’s free V&A event in November 2016, there was a queue that curled around the block. Thousands of people came through, and we were told by door staff that it was the most black and brown faces they had ever seen at the museum. This August the second Afropunk London sold out. Similarly, at Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil’s free Black Girl Festival last weekend, there was a trail of beautiful black women waiting patiently on Old Street, keen to soak up the vibes. In London and beyond, young people of colour are desperate to attend accessible creative events that speak to them.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that Reni Eddo-Lodge, the author of bestseller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, was forced into apologising after the Tate Modern arguably mishandled her talk last Friday, November 3. The Tate had been advertising it as a free event with entry “on a first come first served basis”, and hugely underestimated how many people would turn out. Attendees say numbers sat at around 400 people, mostly people of colour. But the original venue they had set up for her, the tiny bookshop, only sat 100. Tate then moved the talk to a venue that accommodated 230 people instead.
In a statement released on Twitter and Instagram, Eddo-Lodge wrote: “I’m truly sorry to the hundreds of you who were turned away, and I can’t imagine the disappointment you must have felt. I also understand that the communication in the queue was sorely lacking… I knew this event would be oversubscribed and I tried to suggest moving it to a larger venue a day prior. I was told it had to be kept at low capacity to keep it free.”
The treatment Eddo-Lodge received by the Tate is emblematic of many of the issues outlined in her book. Namely, that structural racism is rife. As she told me during our last interview, for Dazed: “I think that’s it is quite easy for people to wriggle out of institutional racism because they’re like ‘well, it’s nothing to do with me’. But structures really are made out of people. We are all are participating in it. Its embedded in institutions and small organisations like our families and friendship groups that then reproduce racism on a massive scale.”
— Kasia Makowska (@kasia_itp) November 3, 2017
The Tate revealed their structural racism because members of their staff failed to recognise the gravitas of Eddo-Lodge’s work and ignored her valid concerns. According to attendees like hyperontwo, writing on Instagram, mismanagement persisted after the talk was moved from the bookshop to the larger venue. “People clambered over others to get out, crushing as they went through, it was dangerous… Incredibly unfair of the Tate to do that and a clear signal that their underestimation was down to them not believing enough in the power of black people supporting black work”. (The Tate conflicted this report, telling gal-dem that after the talk was moved “tickets were handed out and the shop was manned at the entrance”.)
We can’t say for certain that Tate wouldn’t have done the same to a white author, but what we do know is that singer Sam Smith held an intimate event at the Tate on the same evening, and no similar issues have been spoken about on social media or in reviews. The Tate clearly knows how to put on successful, small events (and I’ve attended a few myself), so the conclusion that they didn’t think that Eddo-Lodge’s work would pull in a big audience isn’t a reach. What’s ironic is that it’s been claimed that the Tate alone sold 1,500 copies of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race in just a few months – Eddo-Lodge has sold thousands of books worldwide and has already been long and shortlisted for a handful of literary prizes.
So @renireni and Sam Smith are both at Tate Modern tonight. The queue for Reni is about 8 times longer
— Jez Harvey (@jezharvey) November 3, 2017
As pointed out by photographer and director Neela Choudry-Reid, who wrote an excellent thread on the situation at Tate, it’s clear that white institutions are struggling to recognise the urgency behind people’s of colour’s need to consume art for us, by us. They’re tentatively giving us a seat at the table, but not realising how many chairs we might need. “The situation tonight at Tate with Reni couldn’t make it any clearer that art institutions are out of touch with a young, POC audience,” she wrote. “For any young POC person interested in the event, there was a clear expectation it was gonna be packed out.”
This poor guy had to break the news. pic.twitter.com/tuCmJhK8UM
— Neela (@foxyneela) November 3, 2017
Although Eddo-Lodge’s work would make a great present for any white person who fails to grasp the nuances of racism in the UK, it has been widely appreciated by people of colour because, as put by Paula Akpan writing for gal-dem, “Reni feels like one of us, a young person of colour fed-up with disingenuous conversations about the racist system we live in and its impact on their life and personhood”. I myself was interested in going to see Eddo-Lodge at Tate, but, as I’ve heard echoed on social media, didn’t even consider attending after I found out it was a free event as I knew that it would be oversubscribed.
The Tate is a historically white institution, founded on the back of slavery through Tate & Lyle’s sugar plantations (at least according to historian Andrea Stuart), and it’s only in recent years that it’s beginning to address its lack of diversity both in its staff and in the exhibitions it puts on. During Eddo-Lodge’s talk, it was apparently revealed that the excellent Soul of A Nation exhibition, which explored black art in the Civil Rights era, generated 60% more business than the Tate forecasted. It was the first major black exhibition I’ve witnessed in my lifetime and seemed to be a massive step in the right direction for the institution.
And that’s the thing. Social media, where so many minority movements have flourished over the past five years or so, is brilliant. But as Eddo-Lodge says herself, we can’t always do it alone. Sometimes we do need the resources and funds of institutions that haven’t always had our best interests at heart: “Anybody can go out there now and at least theoretically cultivate their own audience and their own interest,” Eddo-Lodge told me in the same Dazed interview. “Without the intervention of a gatekeeper, or without asking for permission of a gatekeeper. But while the internet’s great, and lead to my book deal, black writers still do need to be invested in.”
UPDATE Tate has posted an apology on their event page, reading: “We planned to host Reni Eddo-Lodge in the shop at Tate Modern as part of our regular series of bookshop events and signings on a first-come first-served free to attend basis. Many more people turned up than the 100 we could accommodate and, despite moving the event to a larger venue, we had to turn people away. We’re very sorry that people were disappointed; it’s a testament to Reni and her book that so many people wanted to hear her speak. Thank you to everyone attending for their patience and understanding. We have recorded the talk and will be putting it on our website shortly. We can only say that we got this wrong this time, both in terms of our underestimation of the demand and in our organisation of the event. We will learn from this and hope that we will get a chance to put that right in the future.”