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The wounded psyche of white privilege

21 September 2018

The Church should not pander to the toxic rhetoric that helped to bring about Brexit, says Anthony Reddie


A pro-Brexit demonstrator outside Downing Street, this month

A pro-Brexit demonstrator outside Downing Street, this month

I HAVE always been somewhat ambivalent about the European Union. My desire to vote Remain was formed after taking stock of the various proponents on either side of the argument. For it seemed to me that the Leave side seemed overly populated with right-wing proponents with whom I had little, if nothing, in common, who represented the type of people with whom I would always profoundly disagree on a whole range of subjects.

I am a black liberation theologian and an anti-colonial educator, whose work over the past 20 years has been committed to challenging the twin behemoths of alleged white superiority and black marginalisation. Whatever the merits on either side of the referendum debate, I remain convinced that the underlying socio-cultural and religious thrust of the Leave campaign was the conflation of notions of white entitlement and, as a corollary, the demonisation of black and other visible minorities in the UK.


THE roots of Brexit lie in the growth of an English nationalism — which sees “us” as different from “them” — which really begins during the reign of Elizabeth I. The rise of English nationalism was based on notions of being different from, and better than, others. Underpinning it is a subterranean theology of election which identifies whiteness and Englishness as the defining symbol for the construct for righteousness, and as a signifier for religious acceptability. This theological underpinning of English nationalism feeds into the sense of privilege that has fashioned ideas of empire, the Church of England, and conservative politics.

Is it any wonder, then, that the trigger for the referendum vote emerged from the discontentment of English nationalism from within the Eurosceptical wing of the Conservative Party — and found subsequent support within the congregations of the Church of England?

The Brexit vote demonstrated the barely concealed exceptionalism and sense of entitlement of predominantly white English people. The clear xenophobia underpinning the Leave campaign reminded many of us that “true Britishness” equals whiteness, and that those who are deemed the “other” — be they “migrants” living in the UK or “foreigners” from Europe — are distinctly less deserving in the eyes of many white British people.

It can be argued that the romantic push for the nostalgia for the past (when Britain had the biggest empire the world has ever seen) is predicated on the intrinsic value of Britain’s being superior to others, often seen in terms of groups such as Britain First or groups on the political right who want to “Make Britain great again”.

To quote the black British social commentator Gary Younge: “Not everyone, or even most of the people, who voted leave, were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades, and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.”

The toxicity of the hostile climate on immigration was one that has helped to create a contemporary era in which white entitlement has reasserted itself, blaming migrants and minorities for the social ills that supposedly plague the nation.

It is my contention that the vote for Brexit was very much based on the presumption of white normality, and the belief that the needs of poor, disenfranchised white people would be better served if the numbers of poor minority-ethnic people and others from outside the UK were reduced. That so many poor white people believed such blandishments can be explained, in part, by my presumption that whiteness remains a site for privileged notions of belonging, and its concomitant identity is one embedded in paradigms buttressed by superiority and entitlement.

In the context of the referendum vote, I have noted the distinct diffidence with which the Church responded to the phenomenon of Brexit, whose success helped to fuel the state-sanctioned hubris of deporting members of the Empire Windrush generation (Comment, 13 April).

Brexit, while ostensibly about our relationship to the European Union, also reflected underlying views and perspectives on immigration and the part played by, and presence of, migrants living in Britain. Undoubtedly, Brexit was, in part, a judgement on and a negative reaction to immigration in Britain. In this regard, the vote for Brexit was a critique of the presence of the Windrush generation in Britain.

It came as no surprise, then, that after Brexit we have the blunt and brutal practice of deporting these black, visible migrants from Britain. But these black, Caribbean people who were deported were British citizens. They were victims of a toxic environment for which many white people voted. I have yet to find any church leader who has identified, unambiguously, with the cause of marginalised black and minority-ethnic people who have been highlighted as the expendable residue of the Brexit phenomenon.

I have personally sat in meetings and watched and listened to predominantly white leaders pander to the toxic rhetoric that targeted black people and minority ethnic-migrants in order to placate the wounded psyche of white privilege and entitlement. Ironically, their diffidence showed more care for dissatisfied and disillusioned poorer white people, who largely do not attend their churches, as opposed to black migrants who do, in disproportionately large numbers — often maintaining inner cities after they had been vacated by “white flight” in the 1980s and early ’90s.


CHRISTIANITY in all its aspects has been the greatest beneficiary of immigration in Britain, particularly through the legacy of the Windrush generation. Whether in terms of revitalising predominantly inner-city churches in Britain within white-majority “historic” churches, such as the Church of England and many of her ecumenical partner Churches, such as Roman Catholic, Methodist, URC, and Baptist; or with the rise of African and Caribbean Pentecostal Churches, British Christianity would be in a parlous state without black migrants.

The Brexit vote was a nationalistic, white-centred event that cynically used migrants as the scapegoat for the problems of the nation. The undercurrent of Brexit was a rejection of multiculturalism and the legacy of Windrush that has brought the infusion of new Christian faith communities and radical collective living born of Caribbean values and our African heritage into this nation.

I continue to believe that the narrative of the first Pentecost has much to teach us, as we struggle with the continued challenge of embracing and affirming difference in our post-Brexit life in 21st-century Britain. For a black liberation theologian, much of whose work has been critiquing and challenging white norms and assumptions of superiority, I love the way in which Pentecost demolishes any notion of cultural superiority, or government-inspired attacks on multiculturalism in favour of the mantra of sameness and integration.

Pentecost has a special resonance for our increasingly plural and complex nation, because any careful reading of this text affirms notions of cultural difference. If physical and linguistic differences are themselves part of the problem for many people who voted for Brexit, then what are we to make of a text in which these differences are visibly celebrated? Part of the legacy of Windrush is the very form of physical and linguistic differences that one sees in the Pentecost event — which is the distinct contradiction of Brexit.

Whatever the merits of leaving the European Union, it is my prayer that this nation will finally come to terms with the fact that ethnic and cultural difference has been great boost to Christianity in Britain. The Church would be all the poorer without us.


Professor Anthony G. Reddie works for the Methodist Church as a Learning and Development Officer. He is also an Extraordinary Professor with the University of South Africa. This article is written in a personal capacity.

His forthcoming book Theologizing Brexit: A liberationist and postcolonial critique (Routledge) will address this issue in greater detail.

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