IT IS more than 20 years since Sir William Macpherson introduced the phrase “institutionally racist” into our public vocabulary. This was in his report into the police response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and it was the Metropolitan Police who were so described.
The phrase was echoed by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the General Synod to describe the Church of England. His passionate speech received huge applause as the Synod voted unanimously to “urgently stamp out racism” and to increase the number of clergy from ethnic minorities.
There can be no disagreement here, and yet I wish we could be less squeamish about what we really mean when we speak of “race”. Biology knows of only one race, and that is the human race. There is no such thing as a white race or a black race. It is true that there are genetic variants between human groups, and DNA testing can provide interesting information about our personal ancestry, but race itself is a myth — an attractive myth to some, perhaps especially to those militant groups who like to claim that the white race is in danger of annihilation.
I would prefer us to talk more frankly about prejudice: about skin colour and accent, class, culture, and nationality. These are the realities that we need to think about if we are to become aware of our own prejudices. “Racism” magnifies prejudice, giving it a twist that can be used by the “racist”, besides firing up the self-righteous labelling of “-isms” which has become so much part of our public discourse.
The Archbishop’s speech was a response to a true story from the Vicar of St Peter’s, Walworth, in south-east London. He spoke of Doreen Brown, newly arrived from Barbados, who was barred from attending his church by the then vicar on the sole grounds of the colour of her skin.
It is unthinkable today, but those were the days when boarding houses could put a sign in the window saying “No dogs, no Irish, no coloureds”, and when a BBC reporter could describe the newcomers from the Caribbean as smelling peculiar. This is terrible, but it is not so unusual. Giles Coren, after a recent visit to the Far East, came to the conclusion that Westerners smelt bad to the locals and were judged as inferior.
There is nothing ontologically given about race. People who regard themselves as unambiguously white will soon be a minority in the United States. The same will happen here. Race has never been real. I recently discovered that my freckles and once-reddish hair came from Viking ancestors. What it means to be British and English and Church of England will increasingly be carried by people whose ancestors came from Asia and Africa. So what?
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.