So, who is a Racist? # 18 18/03/2021

Out of Many, One People

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So, who is a Racist?

The hot question of the moment is ‘Is the Royal Family racist?’ For the reasons below, it is not a good or sensible question.

We need to understand racism.

In a previous blog I have made a distinction between the clothes we wear and the aroma we carry. Clothes make a ‘fashion statement’ – we choose them with some level of awareness of how we want to, or maybe forced, to present ourselves. Our smell comes partly from how we are made, and from the environments we pass through (even if perfumes and after-shave do make deliberate modifications). So ‘racism’ is largely not a question of people, royalty included, consciously choosing to think, speak and act in certain ways, but rather of living out certain assumptions or values that we may well have never consciously chosen but which has formed around us. We are fully aware of what we are wearing, we may well be quite oblivious to how we smell. But other people recognise it. Those from minorities have needed to develop acute nostrils to pick up racist aromas.

So to say ‘I am not a racist’ (or that the ‘Royal Family is not racist’) is witlessly simple and innocent. The idea that some people are, and therefore by implication some people are not racist is a crude over-simplification that can not come close to describing the billions of inter-racial encounters that happen daily.

 The proper question is ‘how much and in what ways might I be racist?’. But unhelpfully, the issue of racism has been upgraded to such a level of malignancy that it is now social, and possibly legal, suicide to admit to it. Thus, when the then Chelsea footballer John Terry in the heat of a game swore a racial epithet about an opponent, Anton Ferdinand, Terry protested ‘I am not a racist’. No doubt he had good relationships with black Chelsea colleagues, but his insult of choice indicated racist attitudes. (See Ferdinand’s excellent BBC tv documentary 20/11/2020 ‘Football, Racism and Me’ illustrating the distress that the incident caused Ferdinand).

Anyone with experience of real people living in actual multi-ethnic situations knows that the Yes/No model of racism simply doesn’t reflect how people really are: the elderly Irish lady who is warm, supportive and generous to the Indian children who live in her block of flats, and yet who makes hair-raisingly racist generalisations; the official who disregards black colleagues, yet whose African next-door-neighbour speaks about with heart-felt warmth.

If over-simplification of racism fuels an unproductive attitude of denial amongst white people, it can also inculcate obsessiveness amongst ‘progressives’. A New York Times journalist is dismissed because some of his colleagues are so appalled that he used the ‘n-word’ in reporting what someone else had said that they felt they could no longer work with him. Similar upheavals may well explode in Britain. Is it really worth straining out such gnats when we still swallow massive camels of injustice in our world (see Matthew 23:24). The civil war in South Sudan has now killed well over 400,000 Africans.

The ‘Yes, you are’, ‘No, I’m not’ sense of what racism is destroys honesty, self-awareness and relaxed cross-racial relationships. Certainly there are gross forms of racism that require rebuke and possibly legal action, but there are many other interactions that are ambiguous and open to diverse interpretation; situations where we can never be sure of an ‘authorised version’.

We need to understand sin.

‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me’ lamented David -adulterer and accessory to murder – in Psalm 51:5.‘I, however, am made of flesh, sold as a slave under sin’s authority’ was Paul’s lament (Romans 7:14, N T Wright, trans.).

Recognising ourselves as heirs to ‘original sin’, of it being marbled into our very being, has largely disappeared from our culture. One consequence is a facile understanding of evil – as bad choices that we have the power to eradicate. We lose our capacity for complexity. So some behaviour really isn’t sin at all and we should stop making a fuss, whilst other behaviour erupts into such an enormity that the whole world must come together to stomp on it. Men mistreated women before Harvey Weinstein, and whites abused black people before the killing of George Floyd, yet these incidents take on iconic form and expand to become epitomes of absolute evil which require total extirpation. 

Once more we set up a simplifying binary: between the exclusive camps of sinned against and sinners. Racial sinners must be identified and banished from our company. The stimulus for this blog came from an email from the headmaster of my old school, which had discovered that our founding benefactor of 1689, Robert Aske, had made money from the slave-trading Royal Africa Company. How should the school deal with such shame? Beyond that, how do we cope with the reality that slavery has run through Britain’s history, society, economy and one-time primacy just like ‘Blackpool’ runs through a stick of rock? If you eat the rock, you have devoured Blackpool too.

We need to publicly repent of our racist past, and to work hard to removing it from our future; but that is hindered rather than helped by attempts to banish any memories or memorials of that past. Scapegoating named individuals both unfairly spotlights their guilt and keeps hidden the varying degrees of guilt carried by people across the whole of our history. Nor is there any compensatory recognition of the good that people did. It is futile to obsessively try to scratch the red of ‘Blackpool’ out of every piece of otherwise pure white rock. 

Only by recognising the innate sinfulness we all share (of which racisms and sexual violence are two of innumerable manifestations) can we begin to cope with human evil. And that pessimism is better elicited when there is confidence that behind all life there is a good God who through Jesus’ death on the cross has made possible both our redemption from sin and the trust that suffering can work out for our good.

In ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are setting up a Generation for Failure’ Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify the consequences of what they call three ‘Great Untruths’, of which the third is Us versus Them – ‘Life is a battle between good people and evil people’. Both ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ demarcate the front lines with unreal clarity. Sadly, Azariah France-Williams widely acclaimed ‘The Ghost Ship’ fits this pattern, so that the book is full of good black people and bad white people – except for the exemplary ‘good white’, with the impeccable virtues of the heroine of a nineteenth century evangelical tract.

The loss of belief in universal, original sin is the backdrop to the rise of simplified, un-nuanced conflicts. It means there is an enemy to be vanquished with whom we refuse any commonality. So, the conflicts become bitter, unforgiving and escalating. The royal family must be skewered; the protesters at Clapham Common must physically resist the police. The evil powers must be unmasked. In particular ‘their’ racism must be exposed; ‘our’ innocence vindicated.

Instead, the very ubiquity of racism of different strengths and in varied manifestations should deliver us from too dramatically identifying particular targets. It would be an exceptionally unusual royal family in which there was no racism. Racially mixed families (and perhaps even homogenous ones) do discuss the likely shade of their offspring. It requires interpretation to make that ominous.

Paul writes: ‘We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin.’ Rather than seeing that as cause for pessimism, it gives to all people a reassuring sense of solidarity.

Avoiding the Harm caused by the Us/Them divide.

Beware Cancellations without end.

I think of the remorse of Pastor Martin Niemoller - to the effect that ‘I did not speak when the Nazis came for the Jews and the Marxists, when they came for me there was no one left to speak’. So now we have cancelled Colston, Aske, Hume, Gladstone etc etc; so when will John Root be cancelled? Just as none of us can stand before the judgement of God, so none of us can stand before the judgement of others. As France learned after 1789, Revolutions destroy their founders. Ultimately, if not for racism, then surely for other behavioural crimes we can all be guillotined.

* Don’t expect too much from legislation.

It is right to respond to public harassment of women by better street-lighting (and, by the way, a more visible police presence). It is right to implement laws against racial discrimination or abuse. But they can only have limited impact. Both ‘Me Too’ and BLM are protesting against real injustices, yet the substance of their proposals is thin by comparison to the reality of their grievances. Because ultimately they are behaviouralgrievances that are beyond legislation about the ways that men or white people act. Such appeals to conscience are timely and important, but they will only shift the dials over a much longer period than most protest movements last for. We all need to be working for a more empathetic, respectful, courteous, humane society, but it is a slow process, and laws and regulations make only subsidiary contributions.

* We need to practice forgiveness.

In ‘The Madness of Crowds’ Douglas Murray has a chapter ‘On Forgiveness’, referring particularly to stories where people’s on-line comments of the past have been trawled up to trash their present reputations and careers. He observes that (after referencing Nietzsche on the death of God) “Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption” (p 182). We need to discover both the unbounded mercy and forgiveness of God, and for ourselves to extend those qualities to each other across the barriers of conflict.

* We need humility and tolerance.

We learn humility the hard way when we see the disastrous consequences of our actions; we can also learn it the easier way by observing the disasters caused by people who share our beliefs, gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic. Cromwell’s plea to the Church of Scotland: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’ is a plea appropriate to our times. It should always be held in the back of our minds. It also helpfully refocusses our understanding of tolerance, which is rooted not in the complacent intention that ‘I will be broad-minded’ but in the chastened awareness that ‘I can be wrong’.

* We need to live with hope.

We never overcome. That is the reality of all human struggles. We live with sinful imperfection. Arrogance and discrimination will arise between different peoples. The strong will terribly abuse their power. The victoriously liberated can become worse oppressors than these who preceded them. Yet that does not call us to apathy, but constant vigilance towards our world, and towards ourselves. It is in that awareness of our mutual vulnerability that we find a unity that transcends divisions and nourishes hope; where we delight to experience a foretaste of John’s vision of ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb’ (Revelation 7:9) 

Add Ons

Re-imagining Race is an online event on Thursday 25th March at 7pm, led by Chine McDonald (her book is coming out in May). Through an interactive fusion of the arts, liturgy, a prophetic address, dialogue, and personal challenge, this night is an exploration of ‘Reimagining Race?’ along biblical lines. Details and Booking on LICC web-site.