AFTER a year that has brought the publication of several works examining the current state of race relations in Britain, Chine McDonald’s God is Not a White Man (Features, 21 May) offers a compelling personal perspective. Its provocative title challenges its readers to examine whiteness by exploring the Black experience (deliberately capitalised for reasons that the author explains) in a society in which privilege is based on skin colour.
With an honest vulnerability, McDonald offers her own story of ethnic and racial identity as a backdrop to a commentary on the omnipresence of “whiteness” as the normative value by which everything is measured. Numerous examples are given of historical oppression and acts of subjugation which continue to shape current racial realities. As a former journalist, McDonald skilfully weaves together personal narrative with historical fact and social and cultural commentary to illustrate how whiteness has been idolised to the extent that, while continuing to subjugate Black people, it becomes invisible to those whom it benefits.
The book examines diverse topics such as the artistic representations of God and Jesus Christ as white males, the rhetoric of difference in extreme right-wing political and religious discourse, and the ways in which Black lives and bodies have been defined and devalued. It does not stop there, however. In considering the portrayal of Africa and Africans in the media, the tensions inherent in international development aid, and the history of racial segregation in America and enslavement, McDonald lays bare the white hegemony that marginalises and denigrates — and, ultimately, excludes.
Little-known facts are highlighted, such as the Abariots in 1929, when thousands of Nigerian Igbo women protested against removal by British colonialists of their historical tradition of governing their own communities. The peaceful uprising resulted in the killing of 50 women at the time. Other stories, such as that of Saartjie Baartmann, the “Hottentot Venus” put on public display in the 18th century, are reported alongside contemporary examples. Combining the skills of a consummate storyteller with investigative journalism, the book covers a breathtaking array of themes from patriarchy and the cultural depiction of the Black body to the religious symbolism of the Lemonade “visual album” by Beyoncé.
Chine McDonald, who tells her story
What is offered is a comprehensive and yet intensely personal examination of white superiority in all its permutations. The author does not pretend to offer easy answers. She suggests, instead, that acknowledgement of the ubiquity of white supremacy is required if the action is to be taken that will lead to change. Though sobering at times, the book is full of hope that the Church, among other institutions, will eschew the idolatry of whiteness, which ultimately denies the image of God found in everyone.
This is an insightful account of what it means for Black people to navigate the perverse expectations of a society whose racialisation continues to affect human relationships. Simultaneously challenging and encouraging, Chine McDonald tells it as it is. Be prepared for a thought-provoking, honest, and occasionally uncomfortable read about black bodies navigating white spaces and mediating social expectations to conform.
As with similar books in this genre, readers will be left reflecting on whiteness and their own part in resisting or colluding with racial injustice — and, more importantly, on what it means to strive for racial reconciliation.
Canon Sharon Prentis is Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority-Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Birmingham.
God is Not a White Man: And other revelations
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
Listen to an interview with Chine McDonald on a recent episode of the Church Times Podcast