Edit: 26 Feb 2015
This is a post that I have substantially added to since I first wrote it a few days ago, and I suspect that it is going to keep growing as I keep remembering further points that have previously occurred to me about this topic. So you have been warned!
This is a subject that I think about a lot! Over the course of the week, there was the incident in Paris with the Chelsea football fans proclaiming their racism and pushing a Black man off the metro as he attempted to board it. This is a good opportunity to talk about some of these issues. I am not sure that this is the right platform to use, but it is certainly more appropriate than my other blog!
Why I have been reluctant to write this post:
As I say, I think about this issue a lot! This post to some extent reflects many years of thinking. However I have been reluctant to write the post for a number of reasons:
1. It is an extremely sensitive issue. From my interaction with many people, the idea of being accused of racist behaviour seems to be one of the worst things they can imagine. And yet that never seems to stop them from demonstrating the behaviour I describe below. Perhaps this is why they are so scared of the accusation: because it is true, and the fear is actually fear of the shame that they would feel on being found out.
This issue is one-sided in that I am a Black woman, an ethnic minority in the country in which I live, talking about the behaviour of the ethnic majority. So it is almost necessarily one-sided, in that in these circumstances of course the minority will be the one who has been “wronged” talking about the unfair actions of the majority. However, it is doubly one-sided as racist thinking or behaviour is simply not one of my own failings. This is why I find it so hard to empathise with this behaviour, as to me it is utterly irrational. This has made me reluctant to write about the issue as for so long I have known that on writing about the subject all my scorn and disdain would pour out. However, by the grace of God, and thanks to someone else’s gracious prayers, God has been bringing me to a place where I feel I can relate to people kindly, despite this and other negative behaviours that they might demonstrate towards me. To be honest, this mostly involves knowing how I can largely avoid making myself vulnerable to them in the first place.
It would be utterly irresponsible of me to write this post without acknowledging that much of the negative behaviour I experienced in predominantly White churches was also directed towards me in predominantly Black churches. The difference though is that in White churches this behaviour was often because of racism as described below, but in Black churches it was because of other reasons, such as sexism. A further difference is that often in Black churches this behaviour was directed at me because of who I demonstrated myself to be. So at least they would start off giving you the benefit of the doubt. However, in White churches often this behaviour was automatically levelled against me “purely” because of my ethnicity. It was like they just could not help themselves; this is what existed in their hearts about Black people, and this is what they assailed me with, regardless of who I actually was and am. However, I am once again learning about how I could pray about these situations, and my interactions with people, hopefully resulting in positive and loving interactions even with people such as these.
Why I have finally decided to write this post:
I was reflecting on my behaviour towards many people, in that I just cut off their friendship without giving any explanation. I’ve always assumed that they must have known what they did to justify my actions. However, it occurred to me that some people sincerely might not know, or might never have thought about these issues in these ways. Even if they did know, it is a basic concept in dealing with people that you spell out for them what they have done before taking appropriate and justified action. So here I am spelling out for people what they have done and why I have found their behaviour unacceptable.
I also have to make it so clear that many many times I have experienced excellent, non-racist behaviour from White people generally, and even from White Christians, if that is not too far-fetched to believe! I’m being a bit sarcastic because surely it should primarily be from “Bible-believing Christians” that you should be able to expect excellent behaviour. In terms of behaviour, what ultimately seems to conclude the matter is this: how close people are to God, the honesty they cultivate in their hearts before God, whether or not they tell themselves the truth, how determined they are to pursue truly excellent behaviour, not merely what other people around them seem to deem acceptable. Something else that also occurs to me is this: if people demonstrate racist behaviour, then they might think that that is normal, that they can’t help it, and they might think that “not being racist” is an example of unbelievable, unrealistic behaviour, reserved only for tremendous spiritual powerhouses. Whereas I think that “being racist” is abnormal, deficient behaviour, which is why I can’t help thinking that anyone who does demonstrate racist human behaviour is incredibly strange, and deficient, actually crazy, if I’m to be perfectly honest, which is why I just can’t stop going on about it. I guess this might be why they expect me to be grateful that they are “not racist” (by their own narrow definition) even though they are (by any application of common sense) whereas I behave as if their truly not being racist is something that I should be able to take for granted.
The Chelsea football fans racist singing:
Watching the footage of the football fans in Paris was astonishing. The question is: how did they expect to get away with it?! But then, the issue is that they clearly did not imagine that they were being filmed. If there had been no video evidence, then even if someone had submitted a complaint, it would have been a matter of “your word against mine”, everyone would have submitted their proofs of upstanding behaviour, and they would probably have managed to get away with it.
In the event of course, there was indeed video evidence. Just today, I came across an article about the person who I believe was the clear ringleader of the chanting, from what I was able to make out in the video: it seems like his was the hand that pushed the man off the train. I had been wondering just what would be revealed about him: I had assumed that he was a member of some extreme far right political party. I was so surprised to discover that apparently he is involved with international human rights work, and has worked with disadvantaged communities in Africa and India. The article about him is available here.
About the football fans: On one hand I think that the singing and pushing was an example of a group of people getting caught up in the heat of the moment, going along with something stupid that perhaps they would never have done if by themselves, or in any other scenario; I’m sure that as individuals these people would have been extremely courteous to that Black man or to any other person. While I still believe that their actions need to be punished, I would personally not want anyone to have to have their entire lives destroyed for the sake of a few moments’ stupidity. On the other hand, I am sure that this kind of thing happens all the time. These people who were involved in singing this time may well have done the same thing countless times previously, likely growing in audacity with each incident; the only difference this time might be that they got caught. This is why I might make the argument that perhaps there does need to be a big punishment meted out; for the sake of anyone else who might be tempted to engage in casual incidents like this one. So in this particular situation, I can see the argument from two sides. Might there be any other perspective that would need to be considered?
What I would really like to focus on today is the fact that apparently normal, decent people can be capable of demonstrating racist behaviour. (I will define what I mean by “racist behaviour” later.) This is the same with everything though, that time after time, “bad” things are done by people who are otherwise law-abiding and considerate. The media always seems to like to present a dichotomy: “good” upstanding, law-abiding citizens versus “evil” people who are utterly depraved and beyond redemption. Speaking specifically of racism, as a Black person on one hand I have experienced many exciting things from many different kinds of people. On the other hand, I have had to examine my own heart about the issue of racism, coming up with this conclusion: naturally speaking racism is not a part of me, it is not inherent within my culture at all, at least not as far as I am aware, or my own experience has been. What we would struggle with as Nigerians is tribalism, which is racism directed at specific tribes within your own country. Even there though because of the intermix of different tribes within the Nigerian Christian community, that has also been all but absent from my upbringing although apparently it is very very strong within Nigeria itself, even within Church circles.
Regarding racism my own negative behaviour has been to draw angry generalisations about other ethnicities based on racist behaviour I have experienced from them. Because of that, I would then “write off” whole groups of people – like whole churches. So that is the main thing I am working on within myself regarding racism. And yet here is the big point that I want to make about racism: In my experience whenever (White) people are talking about racism, as in the case of this “Ringleader”, they will talk about whether someone is “a racist” – or not. I think that this is naive, perhaps wilfully naive, to think that it is necessarily a binary thing, that someone might either be “a racist” or not. Rather I believe that like sexism, racism is more an issue of a spectrum: you would not say that someone is “a sexist”, because you appreciate that someone might be capable of making sexist remarks who in most other situations might be utterly gracious and accepting of the other gender. So then, this is an issue: someone might not be an out and out bigot, racially speaking, they might be more than capable of demonstrating kindness and acceptance towards people of different ethnicities in different situations. However, even then they might still have attitudes in their heart which mean that without justification they look differently on people of different ethnicities and they treat them differently.
I know that other ethnicities are also capable of racism, of course, besides White Western European people. However, I’m thinking that these other ethnicities would also have experienced racism themselves, at least within the UK. If someone has experienced racism then I’m sure that they will readily understand what I mean by a spectrum of racism, versus the binary “yes or no” model.
What I mean by racism versus what other people mean by “racism”
So this then is what other (White) people appear to mean when they say that someone is “a racist”. They appear to mean that someone is an out and out bigot who would deny that certain other ethnicities even have a right to exist. For people who subscribe to this definition of racist, as long as someone does not deny another ethnicity their right to exist, then they are “not racist”.
For me, in own personal experience, I have come across many people, for instance in White churches, who have definitely not demonstrated out and out racial bigotry towards me. So because of that, they think that they are not racist. However, even thought these people have often demonstrated grace and kindness towards me, I have still discerned ways in which they treat me differently, and negatively, because of my ethnicity. If you treat someone negatively or differently because of their ethnicity, then guess what, that is racism, even if you are also capable of demonstrating grace and kindness towards that person. This is the way that that Ringleader could be considered racist, even despite all his humanitarian work in Africa and Asia. If he is being prosecuted, then the question should not be about whether he is “a racist”; that is, what his deep down feelings are towards Black people, on a long term basis, but rather whether he did or did not racially assault that man on that occasion. And he clearly did. (If you are being accused of murder the question is not whether or not you smile at babies or whether you have ever been kind to strangers in your life. The question is whether you pulled the trigger on the day, and if there is clear irrefutable video evidence that you did then that and that alone answers the question of whether or not you committed the crime.)
A quick analogy: There is no way that the National Health Service in the UK could be called an out and out racially bigoted institution. There are countless Black or other Ethnic minority staff working there, so many nurses and doctors, a Black healthcare professional or administrator could make a very good living from the NHS. Additionally, I as a Black person have received stellar medical care from the NHS whenever I have needed it. It is a brilliant idea and definitely a national treasure that everyone in the UK should be proud of. And yet, despite all these positive factors I would still consider the NHS a racist organisation for this reason: despite the huge and overwhelming numbers of Black and other ethnic minorities in the lower paid ranks, everyone in the upper ranks of administration seems to be White. This was certainly true a few years ago, things may have changed since then, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. If the NHS was not racist, then there would be a more or less proportionate number of ethnic minorities in the upper ranks, especially as Black and Ethnic Minority people seem to be disproportionately over-represented in the healthcare professions. There appears to be a very real “glass ceiling” at work in the NHS preventing Black or ethnic minority candidates from progressing to achieve their true potential. By the flawed binary thinking regarding racism, many people would deny that the NHS is racist because of all the positive things that Black people can experience within it. It is certainly good that there is so much positivity to be found there. However, to the extent that there is a very obvious glass ceiling, it is still not good enough.
Now, let’s think how this particular analogy might be applied to White churches.
And yet this is only one of many expressions of racism I have experienced or witnessed in White churches. And just as it is not at all subtle in the NHS, it is quite breathtakingly obvious in the churches too. To be honest, in terms of racism, the NHS is overwhelmingly better than most White churches I have been part of. After all, at least there are Black doctors and consultants in the NHS, right?
Racism Versus Sexism
I think that sexism is useful as an analogy for racism. You hear people saying “but I have lots of Black friends!” This is as ridiculous a statement as a man saying that he can’t be sexist because “he has lots of female friends”, or is indeed married. (Additionally, some people have tried to use me as a token Black friend, keeping me for instance on their friend list on Facebook not because they actually want to interact with me, or because they like and regard me, but rather because they want to use me within the pool of Black people that they keep to prove that they “have lots of Black friends”. What is worse about this “lots of Black friends” thing is this: sometimes people try to use the fact that they have lots of Black friends to indicate that the problem must be with me. We have lots of Black friends Tosin, and we get on perfectly well with them! There must be something wrong with you, that means that we struggle to get on well with you! Yes, it is probably because I am the first Black person you have met who sufficiently challenges your automatic presumptions of superiority…) I think the sexism analogy is useful in another way, to perhaps indicate that the issue is not that people fail to acknowledge women, or Black people altogether, but rather that they can only acknowledge them in certain positions, or places. Just as with the NHS – we are happy to have women or Black people here, around us, or in our lives but only in certain limited or powerless positions.
As unattractive as it might seem to be labelled “ignorant”, it seems to me that many people in these chuches try to hide behind the excuse of ignorance :”We did not know!…We did not notice!” Please. As well as being racist you are also such liars. Not only are you racist but you are very deliberately, wilfully and systematically racist. Many of these people work outside in jobs where the equality mantra is peddled endlessly. And yet despite the fact that these people ingest this day in day out at work, where it is in their faces constantly, and despite the fact that they pretend to subscribe to the equality mentality while at work, they magically fail to recreate that kind of “equality” environment within their churches, even though the church is the one place where spiritually empowered racial fairness and justice should reign. After so many years of interacting with White churches, do you imagine that I cannot deduce that you have informal meetings and unwritten, perhaps even unspoken rules about how you are going to keep Black and Ethnic Minority people down, or held back, where a big part of the strategy is by pretending to be nice? This is why I think that there is nothing of God in you. If you really believed in God, then you would know that He
would will definitely punish you for your cynical lies.
I just cannot pretend to be impressed with you spiritually speaking. I cannot even pretend to think of you as real Christians. I know that it is so so dangerous to sit around defining who might be a “real” Christian versus who might not be a real Christian, but even the Bible recognises the concept of false believers.
And yet all of this is still only a single example of racist behaviour. There have been so many others. For instance, racially-flavoured insinuations. Both intellectually and spiritually patronising behaviour, even after I have demonstrated my standing in both these regards. Outright lies and gossip. Speaking negativity into my life because they feel threatened by the excellence that my life demonstrates. Refusing to acknowledge my immense commitment to God, to God’s work or to their churches. Being so quick to draw negative conclusions about my life, on the basis of absolutely no evidence, at all, whatsoever; yet being so slow to rescind these negative conclusions or make positive assertions about me in the face of overwhelming evidence about who I actually am. Some particularly bad people even went as far as to punish me for refusing to agree that they are inherently superior to me because of their ethnicity. And these are all “Christians”.
This has been my big issue with many White people I have met in predominantly White churches. They have often demonstrated grace and kindness towards me in certain ways. And yet, while they are definitely not out and out racist bigots, still they have often treated me in ways listed above which demonstrate that racist attitudes are to a significant extent still very alive in their hearts. This is why I have often been completely unimpressed with predominantly White churches. As Christians, I believe that we should be striving towards “absolute zero” in terms of racism and sexism; to not allow any of these thoughts to live in our hearts, or to influence our actions towards other people. This is not an elaborate luxury, but rather basic Christian character – hello?! If this seems impossible, then this is the very reason why we have got an almighty God, who can do the impossible. This is the kind of “impossible” character change that He specialises in. To be honest, often my interactions with people demonstrate that they are not striving at all, beyond that facade of “niceness”, in the same way they fail to strive after other aspects of Christlike character. This is also why I am so happy to conclude that so many people are devoid of the Spirit of God. If you had the Spirit of God, then He would be telling you all this, not me. Furthermore, He might also advise you that to your immense amazement, despite the dark colour of my skin, I am also a full, valid and intelligent human being, whom He can use to the fullest extent (un)imaginable, as His Word also says. However, considering the number of things that I have not known, or seen, that other people have had to pray for me, then perhaps I am being a little unfair in this, as I definitely think myself to have the Spirit of God. In this though, I’m just trying to be nice. The truth is that I am completely unimpressed. Come on people. Get working on this. Deal with it. Change it. Then we can all forget about it.
Links: Here a couple of links to relevant articles – not related to the faith of Christ. I know that there will be many articles on the linked blog which I cannot agree with, but I found these particular articles very good at expressing some of the issues which I have experienced.
An intersectional Feminist: My goodness, this article speaks so much sense to me. As well as being consistently racist, worse yet, many of these people I’ve spoken about in this post insinuated that as a Black, African woman, I must be oppressed by my own culture; and they acted like their own sexist racism represented some kind of powerful emancipation for me.
I’m not your token: I cannot personally identify with everything that the author of this article has experienced, but all the same she speaks very eloquently on the subject of racism. Her definition of bigotry seems to be broader than mine, to include all that I have here called (mere) racism. It’s funny how she is in another country entirely and yet she has perceived many of the exact same things that I have perceived…
Final conclusion: Theological clash
I have already written a conclusion to this post. However it seems to me that ultimately this is not an issue of “Black and White” or racism. Rather, regarding the predominantly White churches, this is an issue of theologically approaches. I am about to make a few very sweeping generalisations. Precisely because of this issue, and a few others, I have long had the opinion that in many charismatic White British churches, there is an overemphasis on grace. By this, I simply mean this thinking: “God loves us so much, there is nothing that we could do to lose His love. So we can do whatever we want! ” And so they go ahead to act just anyhow they like. Or, more fairly they fail to strive very hard for Christlike behaviour, because “God loves me anyway”. This is like the passage where the Apostle Paul poses and answers the rhetorical question: “Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid“, except that these people do not appear to have seen or appreciated the “God forbid!” part. Some people even act as if my pursuit of Christlike character derives from failure to understand that God loves me. “Don’t you know that God loves you Tosin?! Rest in His love!” For non-Charismatic, more mainstream churches, their failure to embrace Christlike character seems to result from an underemphasis on God’s actual word, the Bible, and an overemphasis on human theology that is all intellectualism and no holiness, no true intimacy with God, no deep meditation on God’s Word. Ironically, these are the very people who are most likely to shout “Sola Scriptura” meaning “Scripture Only” – when they are most likely to have a “faith” that is built almost entirely on the extra-Biblical teachings of human theologians.
For Black churches, speaking specifically of Nigerian Pentecostal churches, I have noticed and expressed many times that what largely seems to reign within these churches is once again not God’s true word, but rather the Prosperity Gospel; once again people fail to strive after Christlike character because they are too busy striving for money and wealth as authorised and seemingly even ordered by their General Overseers.
I think that what all this shows is that as human beings it is so easy for us to walk away from the true, clear teachings of the Bible. Sometimes even when we are busy shouting about the primacy of the Bible, that is when we are furthest away from it. Which is all of course a lesson to me “Let he who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (Bible verses, references etc to follow.)