Facing uncomfortable truths about race

by
18 August 2017

Far-right groups in the US have been rightly condemned. But racial equality in the C of E remains elusive, says Julian Francis

RACIAL justice has been an institu­tional goal for the Church of Eng­land since 1986, when the Com­mittee for Black Anglican Con­cerns was set up. The principal objective has been to achieve full partici­pation and representation of black, Asian, and minority ethnic An­­glicans at all levels in the church, especially in senior leadership.

This goal has, however, been re­­markably elusive. In a paper for the General Synod in July 2015, the National Adviser to the Committee for Minority Ethnic An­­glican Concerns’ (CMEAC’s), Dr Elizabeth Henry, wrote: “Despite the advances made, combined with almost 30 years of promoting the participation of ME Anglicans in the Church, stubborn underrepresentation per­sists in all areas.”

In my experience of working for racial justice in the Church as a white person, I have noticed that, at the same time as supporting struc­tures and mechanisms to promote change, the white majority has often remained strangely aloof from the struggle for equality that has been fronted and fought for ceaselessly by black and Asian Anglicans.

While many white people have given strong support to the cause of equality, as a constituency we have failed routinely to ask more search­ing questions about our own parti­cipation in the dynamics of inequal­ity. The discourse has most often been about black and Asian dis­advant­age, institutional racism and its impact on minority ethnic people, ways to tackle discrimina­tion and disadvantage, and routes to empowerment.

Seldom, however, has there been equal (or any) attention given to issues such as white advantage and white privilege, the white major­ity institution and how it operates, and white con­scious­ness and how it functions. It could be said that it has simply not occurred to those of us who are white to ask these questions.

On the other hand, it has been very convenient not to: conveni­ent because one of the chief outcomes has been to maintain our position of dominance and advantage. This has happened mostly through problematising black or non-white life in the C of E, and, at the same time, as­sum­ing tacitly that white people, institu­tions, and structures are just mani­festations of normality. It is as though the majority community has deemed the search for equality primarily a “black issue”, and the black constituency has been re­­quired, for the most part, to carry the burden of dismantling its own oppression alone.

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It has been a positive develop­ment that the initiative for greater black and Asian representation in senior leadership, “Turning up the Volume”, has been brought forward through the Archbishops’ Senior Appointments team in the past few years. The recent appointment of two national officers to work further on AME vocations is also very wel­come.

These initiatives, however, do not of themselves put pressure on the white majority institution to do its own work.

In connection with institutional self-critique, in her General Synod paper of 2015, Dr Henry wrote: “What is . . . required is a systemic commitment that involves all areas of Anglican organisational life — policies, procedures and culture, which addresses behaviours, atti­tudes and perceptions that perpetu­ate unconscious bias.” Unconscious bias training is now being rolled out among diocesan senior staff teams and elsewhere. Dr Henry also ob­­served that, “nevertheless, CMEAC cannot of itself make the necessary changes”.

 

THIS is a matter that requires the full and willing participation of the white majority. Such a contribution has the potential to advance the cause of equality significantly, es­­pecially in promoting one of the most intractable issues: institutional change. The C of E is a white-majority organisation, and, to a sig­nificant extent, it is the processes, initiatives, and norms of the white majority organisation that can either set the context for change or frustrate it.

How the white majority engages with working for change is, there­fore, critical to the potential for positive outcomes. White theology provides a very useful tool here. It is an established discipline in the United States, but has yet to become embedded in theological discourse in the UK.

It maintains that white people exist frequently in ignorance of the phenomenon of white advantage. Lack of interest, avoidance, forget­ful­ness, and investment in the status quo combine to keep us away from facing up to the connection between whiteness and privileges, priority, and advantages.

 

ONE of the challenges, therefore, of looking more closely at white orientation and perspectives is that it requires what is normally sup­pressed — the internal, unconscious agenda that supports white domin­ance — to be brought into the light.

The tendency, however, is usually to avoid it, because instinct tells us that this is likely to be uncomfort­able, and will require energy, effort, and the ability to absorb critique, and because doing so may mean that white privileges may be ex­­posed.

White theology would say that, besides forgetfulness and avoid­ance, there is the phenomenon of the “normalisation of whiteness”. This is a process by which the white ma­jority comes to view itself as the norm, even the universal global norm.

In this view, white life is the standard against which all else is measured and in relation to which all else is somehow con­sidered a deviation from the norm, and less adequate, less re­­fined, and less competent.

On the other hand, when being white is considered as one identity among many, it relocates white people in a healthy mutuality alongside others in the plural world of many colours and iden­tities.

Another feature of white life referred to frequently in white theo­logical discourse is the inclination to regard ourselves as superior. White Western European peoples have come to see themselves as the top of the evolutionary tree, as the most educated, cultivated, civilised people of the globe.

Consequently, a sense of superiority over black and other non-white peoples has grown. This showed itself in the history of black/white encounter in such things as the claim that black people were not fully human, that their physi­ognomy was inferior, and that they lacked the mental faculties of white people.

The legacy of this pernicious accumulation of lies has been for many white people to have acquired, mostly unconsciously, an “internal­ised superiority”, which can play out in very dam­aging ways in black/white relationships. To the extent that perceptions like these have taken root in us, they need to be acknowledged, understood, decon­structed, and marginalised.

The observations of white theology set out to provide a thoughtful assessment of what being white consists in, its historical background, its connection to black life, its features, presup­positions, and habits of mind. Owing to the troubled history to which whiteness connects us, its observations are often very challenging. They are also observations that many of us would want to contest.

As a discipline, however, it sets out to be liber­ative and transformational. At best, it is a lens through which we can come to see ourselves and know ourselves differently, and more honestly.

White theology sets out simply to serve as an investig­ative, explanat­ory tool for achieving greater insight into the dynamics of white/non-white relations. It has the potential to lead especially the white majority into a more knowing sense of our place as white people within the Church and within the drama of inter­cultural life. I would argue that it has within it the promise of the Spirit to lead us into more of the truth (John 16.13), a truth that can set us free (John 8.32).

 

AS MANY have observed, the Church has come a long way since the Windrush generation of Caribbean Anglicans came to Britain, when many received a cold welcome. The Church of England is now the spiritual home of very many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Anglicans. In recent years especially, the number of BAME church members in the C of E has increased steadily.

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With this expansion, we now have a greater number of Minority Ethnic clergy than ever be­­fore. Ethnic diversity has increased and brought with it a richness of humanity, insight, and theo­logy that has been a very great blessing.

Minority Ethnic Anglicans are foremost among the few groups in the C of E that are increasing numerically. I am confident that a more nuanced self-critique within the white ma­­jority institution, of the kind suggested by white theology, could help significantly in achieving the racial justice that still eludes us.

 

Canon Julian Francis is Vicar of St George’s, Edgbaston, and was the National Training Coordinator Facilitator for Minority Ethnic Anglicans from 2008 to 2011.

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