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Social distancing is a race issue

15 May 2020

It is a permanent reality for people of colour, argues K. Augustine Tanner-Ihm


A shop worker in London last month, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Please keep 2m apart”

A shop worker in London last month, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Please keep 2m apart”

SOCIAL or physical distancing has affected billions of people around the world during the past weeks. The Government has told us to stay at least two metres away from each other, “to stop the spread” of the coronavirus.

While walking down the street now, you might see someone look you in the eye, half decide in their mind which way to go, and then avoid you. While this might be motivated by a noble desire not to pass on the virus, when it happens enough times you may begin to think that you have some form of leprosy.

This can be painful. It makes you feel less human. It can make you feel “othered”. But it is only for a time like this, which will surely pass. There will come a time when your neighbour breezes past you, or embraces you with a smile or hug; life will be back to normal. For many people, however, being distanced by others has been their lifelong normal.


SHORTLY before the lockdown, in February, Ahmaud Arbery, a 26-year-old African- American, was gunned down while jogging in Georgia, by two Caucasian Americans. Mr Arbery was doing what many of us are doing during this lockdown: jogging. Unfortunately, he never came back. Events such as these create a sense of fear which penetrates through black and brown people, not just in the United States, but in the UK, Ireland, and beyond.

Privilege, race, and Christian theology are what theologians such as my mentor, Anthony G. Reddie, and others, such as Michael Jagessar, Joe Aldred, Muki Barton, and Robert Beckford, have been exploring for more than 20 years. And now, white Christians get to partake in just a little of the everyday life experiences that these theologians have drawn attention to.

Often, people of colour have been socialised to think that they are less than their white counterparts, or they buy in to the racial stereotypes that continue to destroy communities. They think, “If you come close to me, you, too, will experience a deadly disease — or is it just ignorance? Should I be in this neighbourhood? Is that person staring at me?”

They experience an old lady clutching her handbag a little tighter; a couple leaving their car and hurrying to lock it; or a group of people staring as they enter a shop. This is the reality for many people of colour living in a white-majority culture. Muslim women who wear the niqab have also, for a long time, experienced social distancing. There has been an interesting discussion in the Muslim community about whether the lockdown will reduce such hostility.

The physical distancing measures that we all are experiencing will soon stop for some, but the distancing will not stop for millions of black and brown people around the globe. Neither will the unwarranted attention of police officers. Many white people have, perhaps for the first time during the lockdown, experienced police officers’ asking them to move on as they sit in parks. For people of colour, this has been a routine experience for years.

Analysis published by The Guardian in January suggested that last year there was a 19-per cent rise in the stopping and searching of black people in London by the Metropolitan Police, even though most stops found no evidence of wrongdoing. If the unjustified use of stop-and-search continues, it will cause the rest of society to distance themselves from people of colour, as they wrongly assume that such people are doing wrong.

We all have implicit biases: they are a part of our sociological foundation which, in theology, we would call sin. Sin can be overcome by the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. This transforming presence is not merely about a miraculous experience: it is a radical self-education, being led by the Spirit, and ultimately going against the natural inclination that you have been taught.


THIS is not about making a more diverse Church, or attacking white Christianity, but helping Christian people to become better disciples of Christ. St Augustine of Hippo, from North Africa, offered a warning against being drawn blindly into the habits of this world: “For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desire that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them.” Christian disciples are made as they follow Jesus, moving from segregation to solidarity.

White people should draw on their temporary experience of physical distancing, so that they become more inclusive disciples who seek the Kingdom of God rather than be those who walk past the man on the road to Jericho.

Loving your neighbour means listening to, and weeping with, those who are experiencing suffering. It means not staying silent at injustice, but seeking actively to break down unjust structures. As St Óscar Romero said: “A Church that does not feel as her own anguish the distress and the suffering of the people cannot be the authentic Church of the redemption.”

K. Augustine Tanner-Ihm is an MA student in theology and a final-year ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He is a finalist in the 2020 Theology Slam competition.


Read our news story: Bishops call for inquiry into BAME Covid-19 death rate

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