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Reform Magazine | April 27, 2017

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Skin Conditioned

Skin Conditioned

It’s the colour of privilege and power, so what makes white the hardest colour for white people to see? Michael Jagessar and John Campbell call for a guerrilla war of the mind against imperial theology

For hundreds of years, one of the key organising principles within the British Empire was the idea of whiteness. Your social status, your life prospects and possibilities, even your way of understanding reality were all shaped and controlled by this crucial factor: Were you classified as “white”? But now it’s different, right?

When the two of us were born, the British Empire still existed across the Caribbean, Africa and east Asia. Full-blown race-based apartheid in South Africa and “Jim Crow” segregation in the southern US looked fixed, settled and permanent. Now, in 2014, things look quite different. Racism is still a reality, but no one would claim to be racist. Most of us are with Martin Luther King Jr and would want to see people judged by “the content of their character not the colour of their skin”. Yet, for both of us, “whiteness” is still a major problem that disrupts and distorts the life of our world and of the UK, even the life of our Church. As a contribution to Black History Month, we’d like to explain how and why we think so.

We could offer you statistics about differential access to housing, education and employment; we could share some of the endless stream of real stories about persisting police propensities to stop and search young men who look “black”; we could pick over aspects of the rise of UKIP and the immigration debate; we could analyse the black presence in our churches. The evidence is there that we still have a long way to go to get over this “whiteness” thing. Instead, let us tell you our own stories and how we’ve each come to view “whiteness” and the way it seems to work.

 

Michael’s story:
I grew up in Guyana, which had a colonial legacy and was multi-everything (ethnic, cultural, religious). The “Great Houses” of both the local sugar plantation and the Churches, occupied by white outsiders, loomed large in my life. Everything associated with whiteness hung over our lives. We internalised it through education and religion; it became our mark for progress and growing out of inferior status. We all looked up to and aspired to the values of the white “other” in our midst. Quite early, I wrestled with the fact that my grandfather and father were better engineers than the British-appointed ones living in their gated and set-apart community.

Identity became a serious matter in the 60s as we moved towards independence and I got my first taste of the politics of race and ethnicity. Then I became aware of the deep antagonism and hatred between Indians and Africans. Years later, it took time and lots of hermeneutical reflexivity to grasp the disabling dynamics of power and privilege depending on which political party (largely of one ethnic group) was in power. Part of my awareness of identity (Indian-Guyanese) involved the tough call of looking into the eyes of my African-Guyanese neighbour and not denying the reflection. I learnt that power and privilege tend not to give an account of its own basis of operation. Power and privilege may be related but they are not the same thing. I learnt that power is often held collectively in systems and structures while privileges are afforded to all who are part of the power structure. Individual privilege is always the result of group power.

This awareness remained with me when I became a minister of the United Reformed Church, a tutor at Queens Foundation (Birmingham), a moderator of the URC General Assembly, and the secretary for racial justice and intercultural ministry. So, when I had my photograph defaced at Queens, when I have had to regularly prove my right to teach a classroom full of white ministerial students even before I can begin delving into the content, when I have to engage the indifference of minister colleagues and lay leaders to the multicultural agenda and BME representation in our Church, and when, as a moderator of the General Assembly, I had to largely fit into a white-male-extroverted-heterosexual-ablebodied-normative-framework, I knew that the most urgent theological task before us is being open and honest about “whiteness” and privilege if we are to grow into that beloved community we all dream of.

 

John’s story:
I grew up in Scotland in the 50s and 60s. I don’t think we talked about whiteness; we just did it. It was normal, right and decent. After university I accepted a two-year post as a biology lecturer in a new university in Nigeria. Suddenly, I was looking at the world in a different way, from a different place and realising that much of what I had accepted as true, was actually a very particular British and “white” interpretation of the way things are. I loved Nigeria and what it did to me. Since my return to the UK I have largely lived as a minister in the inner cities of London, Birmingham and Manchester; always alongside British black people who daily had to negotiate far more obstacles blocking their roads to personal development than those that blocked my path.

I experienced, but did not really analyse, how “being white” worked. I recall a white member of a multiracial congregation assuring me: “In this church we don’t see colour,” then, minutes later, asking if the wedding I was due to conduct that Saturday was “a coloured wedding.” I recently discovered a book by Ruth Frankenberg which helped; she suggested that there are three basic views about race which still operate within “white” communities:

• The historic imperial view that humankind is made up of biologically distinct races, with a recognisable “white” race that is superior to all the others and fitted to rule, with other races fitted to various levels of servitude.

• The new equality view that under the skin we are all the same and so “colour” is not an issue. This is the most commonly expressed view amongst white people today, but it blithely ignores the persisting power imbalances between black and white in our society.

• The responsive view that tries to listen to non-white critiques of the way the world works, acknowledging the persisting effects of race history, seeking ways to be actively anti-racist and joining in tackling current injustices.

Ruth tells how she interviewed a number of white women in the US and pieced together a fascinating account of how “whiteness” actually operates. She found that women who professed to hold “new equality” or “responsive” views of race easily and unthinkingly slipped back into “historic imperial” assumptions when they considered particular issues – “How would I feel about my child dating a black person?” being one of the questions that most frequently exposed how this older, discredited way of thinking was still alive and kicking inside the heads of women who thought they were more modern, more understanding. Ruth puts together a picture of “whiteness” as a swirling unstable mix of ideas, assembled and reassembled in each local setting, interwoven with other ideas like class and gender, but always seeking to be an unspoken natural “norm”, a “truth” that is never closely examined nor questioned. Intriguingly, a lot of Ruth’s interviewees were not entirely at peace with their “whiteness”. They saw “culture” as something vibrant and attractive that other, non-white, groups had; being white was just normal, normative, and rather boring.

This helped explain what was going on in my own head and in those strange conversations where white folk talk about race without talking about it. It shows how, though slavery was formally abolished in the British colonies nearly 180 years ago, the after effects of race-based slavery and race-based empire are still causing huge injustice in our world, and that that is partly (largely?) because there’s a swirling half-buried set of ideas and assumptions which are still messing up my head and the heads of millions of other people who have been nurtured into the idea that they are “white”. I’m part of the problem. You, if you’ve been brought up “white”, probably are too.


So, from very different starting points, through very different stories, we – Michael and John – have both come to accept that faithfulness to Jesus means we have to expose and challenge the whole shoddy idea of whiteness and its pernicious persisting effects in any way we can.

History suggests that humans often view difference as an aberration. In categorising the perceived “otherness” of black people as an aberration, the white community found a starting point for the dehumanisation of black people and for the affirmation of a spurious white superiority and privilege. Christian theology has too often been complicit in this game of white superiority and black inferiority. Much of that theology is still there, largely unquestioned, leaking through the “deposits of faith”. The dynamics of “whiteness” and its endless reorganisation to maintain privilege and power needs exposing.

Yet, whiteness has never been anything but a brilliant piece of shape-shifting social engineering. All through the 19th and 20th Centuries, maintaining white superiority required endless vigilance and the recycling of ideas that whiteness is inherent, that it had always existed as a biological difference, that it is an obvious and cohesive social grouping. Nowadays, when the overt arguments for white supremacy have disappeared from the public arena, an ongoing guerrilla warfare of the mind is still a vital necessity, if we are to be true to the cause of Christ. All Christians are called to the work of resistance against the now implicit and largely unspoken assumptions of whiteness that so many of us have inherited from earlier generations. The whole dubious construct of “whiteness” must be debunked; its increasingly subtle attempts to hang on to disproportionate economic and social benefits for white “in groups” must be openly challenged.

Indeed, the most important challenge before us as a multicultural Church is not what prejudice, discrimination and racism still do to BME people, but what they do to sustain white privilege. What stand are you willing to risk against complicity in the continuing organisation of illicit benefit of power and privilege at the expense of marginalised groups? Deconstructing whiteness is a theological and liturgical task before us if we are to be that beloved community we all dream of. This is more than individual self-improvement – it is about gifting each other with a theology of responsibility and wholeness towards transformation in our life together. The world is waiting to believe us.

Michael Jagessar is United Reformed Church  secretary for racial justice and intercultural ministry. John Campbell is the minister of High Cross URC in London and coordinator of the Urban URC Network

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This is an article was published in the October 2014 edition of Reform.

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