Welcome. This a more personal blog than most. I would be interested to hear how it illuminates other peoples’ experiences whatever their ethnicity.
As ever comments, criticisms, commendations, rebukes and even confessions are very much appreciated.
Confessions of a White Man.
Self-assessments are tricky. This is my attempt to assess myself as a white man who has lived very largely in multi-ethnic contexts. It is intended neither as an apologia or a mea culpa – simply an attempt to step back and reflect, to evaluate and to see what resonates with other people.
1. White Power.
I cringe when I think of a clergy conference on multi-ethnic ministry that I was involved in planning twenty years ago. It ended up that all three section leaders were white. It wasn’t until more discerning people protested that I realised how silently and thoughtlessly we excluded the voice of black people.
It was a square and centre illustration of Willie James Jennings characterisation of ‘whiteness’, in last week’s superbly thoughtful and stimulating Theos Lecture, as the self-sufficient expression of possession, control and mastery. Conversely it undermined what Jennings saw to be the purpose of education: to recover the idea of belonging. This was not a deliberate exclusion, but it was white people unconsciously assuming that they had the right to call the shots. It lacked awareness of deliberate inclusion, namely that in this case there were other voices that had the right to be heard, and which participants needed to attend to.
Power and its exercise are clearly at the heart of racial injustices. Historically racist attitudes have been augmented to justify white imperial power. Power in the Church of England will be very largely exercised by white people, partly because of history, partly because of numbers, but also because – as in the incident above – we give insufficient thought to sharing power. This can be time consuming. In his Grove booklet on institutional racism in the church, ‘Better Mus’ Come’, Maurice Hobbes points out how the pressure to get things done can cause church leaders to take the easy way and devolve responsibility to those who share their cultural background and assumptions.
The pejorative phrase ‘White Saviour’ has come into focus recently. It was rather clunkily pasted in to the Emma Thompson film ‘Late Night’ (2019). But in reality it is an attractive role. Most of us actually like to do good things, and scripture enjoins us to – three times in the Letter to Titus alone (2:14, 3:8, 3:14). Many white people have been given both the inner resources and the educational competencies to carry them out. So just do it. Except that, as in the example above, we can be unaware of the specificity and limitations of our experience, the need to attend to other, often unsettling perspectives, and to suppress rather than expand the opportunities of others, especially from less attended to backgrounds. I have known some white people ‘retired hurt’ from inter-racial situations. Better to accept that we get things wrong, and try to keep the level of damage below the good.
2. Excluding the Hinterland.
In December 2019 television cameras at a Chelsea game caught supporters racially abusing the black footballer Raheem Sterling. In the coverage that followed Gary Neville, probably football’s shrewdest pundit, recounted how when he was assistant manager of the England team Sterling had come to talk to him about his distress at the racial abuse he was receiving from crowds. Neville reflected that he had kept the discussion to a professional level – how it affected Sterling’s game, without engaging with the personal issue of how Sterling himself felt. “I walked by on the other side” was Neville’s rueful self-judgement.
It is a persistent temptation for white people to de-contextualise our relationships with minority ethnic people; to foreground the one-to-one relationship and fade out the hinterland of pain, of humiliation, of racism.
I have always ministered in churches with substantial numbers of people from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. I have always had warm, positive, friendly relationships. I have sought as best I could to make them racism-free zones. As a curate I worked with a lot of black young people – as it were, the first post-Windrush generation. I taught them the scriptures, ran games evenings, took them on outings, organised a football team. They liked it; their parents appreciated their children being comfortable in an ‘English’ setting. But I gave far too little thought or serious attention to discussing with them and preparing them to face the discrimination, the hostility, the racism they would experience in their wider and future worlds. I was being a ‘good white man’; but not good enough.
Bruce Springsteen has described warmly his long personal friendship and musical collaboration with his backing band’s black saxophonist, the late Clarence Clemons. But he speaks of how he recognised that he could never fully enter into Clemons’s experience – the experience of being racially abused and harassed.
For any white person in a cross-ethnic relationship learning how to rightly balance focus on the ‘immediate’ and on the ‘hinterland’, and when and how to move between the two, is central. Being overly conscious of the hinterland of racial injustice and hurt risks ossifying the relationship into a performance of good race relations. But occluding that hinterland, especially at the beginning of a relationship, can lead to a friendliness which is no more than superficial as it leaves too much unsaid. For white people to recognise that gulf of experience, especially in close relationships, is uncomfortable, it means taking on board a pain that life is easier without. It requires constant awareness of the wrong attitudes and arrogance in our society that involves the exercise of emotional energy in recognising and contesting that when we would rather leave it dormant. Or, at least, that’s how it runs with me.
Too quick an entry into the pain that racism has caused people can be a prurient intrusion that risks turning people into objects. But excluding it from the back of our minds, or never, ever bringing it to the surface is a failure to offer support and strength,
3. Countering Racism.
Racism, it is increasingly recognised, is a complex and many headed hydra. Correspondingly it requires different forms of response. Looking back I am not too conscience stricken about my responses to overt racism. At times I have criticised church members for holding overtly racist opinions, though such things tended to occur several decades back. Most people now know when not to say the wrong thing. Censoriousness can simply lead to people suppressing their opinions and often I have thought it more appropriate to let people have their say. This is partly because in reality to be human is to be inconsistent. I know of people who made explicit racist remarks about particular ethnic groups while relating to them with genuine unsophisticated warmth and care (as conversely people can be immaculately correct in the views they express whilst aloof and superior in their relationships). I recognise too that for people who have been used to living in cohesive and culturally uniform communities, to have that experience broken by finding that their neighbourhood has become culturally fractured and less fulfilling is a genuine loss. Further, a loss caused by ethnic churn that now also sometimes damages minority ethnic communities sense of local belonging together as well as it does to white people. In the parish where I was a vicar there was a sense of loss for black Caribbean people as Indians increasingly came to dominate the community. To use again the Somewhere/Anywhere schema (see my Blog 14, 04/02/2021), those of us who have grown up to be relatively rootless Anywhere people ought to be wary of moralising insensitivity towards people whose valued sense of Somewhere-ness is being slowly eroded.
More serious, I think, is the failure noted in section 2 above to take seriously the hinterland of racial prejudice and abuse that ethnic minorities experience; that is by holding onto the white fantasy that we meet upon an a-historical level playing field. I feel self-accused in not helping people face up to that reality, especially if they had public roles such as teachers, and accordingly re-calibrate to a more humble self-understanding of being English, and how they relate to people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The work of un-picking distorted white perceptions of both history and present reality is more complex and more important than directly confronting racism. In Blog 49 (19/10/2021) I discussed Robin D’Angelo’s controversial book ‘White Fragility’ which despite its shortcomings attempts the serious but tricky job of unsettling the sediment of wilful white naivety about the impact of racism upon minorities. D’Angelo’s rather abstract and non-relational approach may be questionable, but I think pastors have a responsibility to work at the issue. That requires both making spaces for the voice and experiences of minority ethnic members to be listened to and to enable white members to receive such experiences and build them into their inherent understanding.
I don’t think I ever addressed that task with sufficient thoughtfulness or energy.
4. Speaking Honestly.
In some senses this is the reverse of the point above, but needs greater care and delicacy – namely expressing uncomfortable truths to minority ethnic people. To even raise the thought can be regarded as improper. What right does a white person, in a context where racial injustices have occurred in multiple ways, to say anything that is critical or negative? Yet ultimately silence can be a lack of love if one is convinced that unpopular views need expressing.
A major issue here is absentee fathering. This is certainly not limited to the African Caribbean community and is widespread amongst poor white people as well, though it shows up less amongst bulked up population groups since the poor are a smaller proportion of white people than is the case with the African Caribbean community. The upshot is a distinct black ethnic group marked by a high proportion of absentee fathering, and a sub-culture where this is readily accepted as a norm. There are a growing number of black voices highlighting this as a source of negative disparities in the community – it was raised in Britain by the Sewell Report, or more forcefully in the USA by, for example, Glenn Loury in the video lecture I discussed in Blog 50 (26/10/2021).
It is a difficult issue to raise. When a 20 year old black woman comes for the baptism of her second child by a different man, how do I tell her both that her child will be permanently disadvantaged through the absence of an immediate caring father, and that consequently at a population level she is contributing to the low outcomes of the African Caribbean cohort? On the one hand you want to begin the conversation with the mother in a positive and friendly, not rebuking, way; on the other hand if the issue is never raised for fear of alienating (as sadly is usually the case) then there is ultimately a pastoral failure of care for the family and the wider African Caribbean community.
Throughout my ministry I have seen it as an extremely negative pattern that seriously undermines the performance levels of African Caribbean people in this country. Going back to the ‘Windrush’ cohort that I mentioned in section 2, it has been depressing to see the children and then grandchildren of stable two-parent migrant families increasingly suffering marriage breakdown or single parenthood. Certainly the pressures of racism and the need for both parents to work long hours on low pay to achieve housing security had a corroding effect on family cohesion, but nonetheless the deteriorating negative outcomes were clear.
Whilst there is rightful caution against outsiders commenting on the issue, ultimately silence is betrayal. When a few years ago the journalist Rod Liddle made the point he was immediately roundly condemned by white liberal voices lacking any close awareness of the situation (by Gary Lineker!?).
I dislike confrontation, which is a central issue in both sections 3 and 4 above. Rightly or wrongly it is in that respect that my conscience is most troubled.
Does this sound familiar: “I was never made to feel different in my normal world – everyone was just different, the culture was rich [and] being different wasn’t weird. As soon as I walked into the (…) world, though, it was quite an anomaly for many. I don’t think many had seen a black person or maybe hadn’t engaged a huge amount. I don’t think as a kid I would have said it was racism. Then as you get older, you start to process and understand and then sometimes it becomes insulting. You start to realise that there’s something not quite right here, and you start to feel uncomfortable and very awkward”.
This is Ebony Rainford-Brent speaking, and the world she ‘walked into’ was cricket. The similarity to Rev Anthea Carmichael’s experience in walking into ordination training (recently a video of the week) is both chilling and illuminating.