Interview: True colour
Chine McDonald talks to Stephen Tomkins about race and faith
Moving from Nigeria to the UK at the age of four, Chine McDonald grew up in both a society and a faith that seemed to presume everyone was white, including God. Even a glittering school career and a place at Cambridge did not seem to be enough to stop her being seen as ‘the other’.
In her highly acclaimed new book, God Is Not a White Man: And other revelations, she explores what it does to a person to live in such an environment, and how both Church and society in the west can change to embrace true equality.
Chine McDonald is Christian Aid’s Head of Community Fundraising and Public Engagement. God Is Not a White Man is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
You talk in the book about being made to feel different as a black girl growing up in the UK. Could you tell us about some of the experiences that had that effect on you?
I went to school in predominantly white areas and so most of my friends were white, both at school and at church. When I was five years old, in reception class, our teacher asked us to draw a self-portrait. I drew myself as blonde, with light blue eyes and pink rosy cheeks. I’m not sure why. I think that’s what I thought I looked like, because that’s what all of my friends looked like. One of my friends looked at the portrait and said: ‘That’s not you!’ That was my first moment of realisation about being different to what I perceived as beautiful or pure or good. I felt really disappointed.
I was living in Eltham in south-east London and was nine years old when Stephen Lawrence was killed there. As a Nigerian immigrant family – we’d only moved to the UK in 1988, when I was four – we felt conspicuous and scared about standing out in a predominantly white environment.
What about in church?
As a black family of five, living in various leafy suburbs, I remember arriving at a church in Hertfordshire on a Sunday morning with my family and being greeted at the door by a woman who said: ‘Welcome. What made you choose this church, rather than the black church down the road?’ So, in both school and in church, at times, I’ve been made to feel like I’m other.
Identity and belonging are complicated. So there is a part of me that throughout my childhood wanted to be as like everyone else as I could be, in terms of the food I ate or the clothes I wore. But arriving at Cambridge University in 2002, there were 10 black students out of 3,000. In my year, there were more students with the surname White than there were black students. I thought I had assimiliated well, but in my first evening at university we had this grand matriculation dinner with the Master and lots of other fellows, and this old white fellow said to me: ‘I bet you’re not used to eating this kind of food at home.’ I looked down and it was chicken and roast potatoes, which I had every Sunday. There were moments when people would do a double take or ask for my ID when I went into university grounds.
All these examples seem to be people who were not consciously malicious towards you, but revealed thoughtless preconceptions.
Yeah. They were definitely not trying to be racist, but this pervasive sense of white superiority doesn’t necessarily just come in the form of the Ku Klux Klan or racist violence or deliberate segregation or discrimination. Sometimes it displays itself in the subtleties that come out in conversations around the dinner table or at the church door, which demonstrate that there is something in the psyche of the nation that suggests that white is right and better…
This is an extract from an article published in the June 2021 edition of Reform