Reflections on race and white supremacy in an Irish context
(From the July - September 2018 issue of VOX)
Gerard Chimbganda is a Zimbabwean Irishman who leads Praise Tabernacle Church, a multicultural church in Dublin’s North East Inner City. Richard Carson is the CEO of ACET Ireland who has researched, supported and partnered with a range of migrant-led and white-led faith communities in Ireland. After reading two new books exploring issues of racism and white supremacy - I’m Still Here: black dignity in a world of whiteness by Austin Channing Brown and Wide Awake: an honest look at what it means to be white by Daniel Hill - these leaders discussed their reactions and the relevance of these issue for today’s Ireland. Here Gerard and Richard share their discussion for the benefit of VOX readers. Tell us your thoughts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RICHARD: Austin Channing Brown’s book is a memoir, a reflection on her experience of race. It opens with the story of when she realised, at the age of seven, why her name was Austin (not a name generally associated with a black woman in America). Her parents had called her Austin because they wanted her name to sound like a white man so it would be easier for her to get a job. She brings us on a journey of what it means to love blackness and, as a Christian, what it meant to love blackness in the American church. She challenges the reader to think about how whiteness is at work in the world and introduces us to concepts like white fragility, “nice white people”, and the role of anger and hope.
GERARD: Daniel Hill’s book also starts off with a story. He is a pastor who wanted to create a multi-cultural, multi-racial church. Observing an Indian-American wedding at which he was officiating he says to the groom, “I’m so proud that you’ve got a culture. I wish I had one.” The groom replies, “Daniel, you may be white but don’t let that lull you into thinking that you have no culture. White culture is very real. In fact, when white culture comes into contact with other cultures, it almost always wins. So it would be a good idea for you to learn about your culture.”
That confuses the author and gets him to reflect about so called “whiteness” and “white supremacy”. He walks through real issues, a process of awakening white people and enabling them deal with racism, so that true diversity can take place. He looks at cultural identity, encounter, denial, disorientation, shame and self-righteousness. It is a real introspective allowing you to go deep into yourself, laying bare the truth and, with the love of Christ, being awakened to reality.
RICHARD: These are not books to help your community or congregation become more diverse or about how different races can be nicer to each other. They go much deeper. Daniel Hill talks about his goal to dismantle white supremacy rather than just seeking diversity. I found a real challenge in reading Austin Channing Brown’s book. In one chapter, I was dismissive of the story she tells of a white person and thought, “I would not be like that.” In the next chapter, I discovered that I’m the “nice white person.” Then in the next chapter, she took apart the very way that I thought things should be done and brought it to a deeper level. It challenges white people’s understandings and assumptions of race.
GERARD: Daniel Hill says you have to go deeper. The feedback cannot come from whiteness. It can only come from really engaging with others. The real enemy is when people of colour believe the lie [of white supremacy]. You then have an inferiority complex that can be a barrier for people to be one in Christ. We need to dismantle the lie and allow God to move.
RICHARD: Both authors encourage white people to place themselves under the leadership of people of colour. Austin talks about letting people of colour set the agenda for conversations and issues that need to be addressed. There is a call to turn things upside down. That is a challenge for churches in Ireland. So often the framework for diversity is white.
GERARD: Diversity must not be white-controlled, otherwise it becomes purely a PR exercise for white people to say, “We’ve done this for black people.” Inclusion means you are breaking the barriers; allowing people of colour to contribute and to rise. There has to be real reconciliation. Austin Channing Brown points out how easy it is for white people to become offended. Daniel Hill’s book is key in helping people to see clearly. It is about a deep transformation of how we think, how we relate and how we talk.
RICHARD: These are American books and as I read, I was thinking about what it means for Ireland. Here, we tend to use the term “mixed marriage” to describe Catholic Protestant division. We consider these things through the lens of our sectarian past and present. But another important factor is economics. Daniel Hill explained how the “economic machine” of slavery was linked to the development of whiteness. I really wished he had developed that theme into the 20th and 21st centuries to make us think about our economic systems. There is a real danger that our urgency to get race right paints over the fundamental cracks in wealth inequities at the heart of our society.
We are in a unique position in Ireland that we were both complicit in colonisation through the British Empire and we are also the only western European country that was a colony. We have a lot of work to do as a country to think through those things. Here in North East inner city Dublin, a community that has experienced profound neglect, resilience, hope, brokenness and abuse over centuries, concepts like white privilege mean something completely different. We have to be careful that as we talk about race, it goes alongside deep discussions about class, wealth, economic systems and sectarianism.
GERARD: People love the status quo as long as it is benefitting them. When you consider that the north side [of Dublin] is seen as not as privileged as the south side, and then throw different people from everywhere into the mix, integration becomes a hard challenge. For the people coming in, you are all white (privileged or not). As a church, there is a need to understand the key themes emerging from these books and respond by humbling ourselves.
RICHARD: Both books finish on what initially seems a negative note. Daniel talks about “hopeful lament” as the appropriate posture rather than saying “What do we need to do?” (a white response). Austin talks, with disappointment, about how the great grandchildren of slaves are still being beaten and killed in America and expresses the need to embrace the death of hope. From that place, they finish on a positive note that these concepts find a home in the resurrection. There is a powerful letting go and letting God be God. In the midst of injustice and pain, our hope is found in Christ.
GERARD: One of the key points from a church perspective, is allowing the new communities to become teachers while knowing that we are all submitted to the love of Christ. We are united under God. We become more and more like Him by breaking more barriers. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples...” Loving one another as He has loved us!
RICHARD: A quote from Austin Channing Brown’s book really spoke to me about the need for white people to submit to the leadership, authority and the theology that has been developed by people of colour, “Without people of colour in key positions influencing topics of conversation, content, direction and vision, whatever diversity is included is still essentially white. It just adds people of colour like sprinkles on top. The cake is still vanilla.”
GERARD: Daniel Hill emphasises a similar point but looks at the bigger picture, “If Christ is only “in you” then how big is Christ? Not very big! You can tuck Him away when you don’t need Him. But when you and other human beings are “in Christ” as well as all of creation, then how big is Christ! If our view of Christianity is limited to Christ being “in me” or “in us,” we will never have the theological resources to join Him in works of reconciliation and justice. But if our view is expanded to see faith as fundamentally about being “in Christ” our framework changes.” I love that because it becomes the bigger picture of the kingdom. It is more about what He wants rather than about what I want.
RICHARD: To address race well, we have to challenge some of our theological frameworks, like reducing conversion to the idea that we “invite Jesus into our heart.” Rather it is a conversion of ourselves “to Christ” who is in the margins of society and is calling us, as we are reconciled to God, to be reconciled to one another.
GERARD: The apostle Paul says, “It is no longer I that lives but Christ living in me.” In other words, He becomes the “all” in me. I am changing and patterning my life to Him.