Revd Hasna Khatun: Decolonising EducationFebruary 22, 2023
Inderjit Bhogal: Sanctuary, Justice and Refugees, and the Small BoatsMarch 8, 2023
I was born in 1975. I was around forty years old when I realised I was White.¹ I am, for all my academic credentials, an embarrassingly slow learner.
I grew up in areas where White people were in the overwhelming majority. I had friends and school-mates of African and Asian heritage, but it was, of course, ‘they’ who were ‘different’. From 1998 to 2001 I trained for Anglican ordained ministry at The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham: a more obviously multi-ethnic community in a gloriously multi-ethnic city. I discovered Black Theology, which opened me up to hearing Black voices speaking with pain, and pride, and power. I undertook ‘anti-racism’ workshops, which shone a spotlight on structural racism and mirrored to me my inner White racist. I entered ordained ministry angry with the institutional Church and determined to do better.
But it took me another fifteen years to be brought to the shocking realisation of my ongoing obliviousness², part of what Peggy McIntosh called the ‘invisible knapsack’ of White privilege.³ The revelation happened over dinner with two of my African-Caribbean congregation members, as part of a congregation-wide listening exercise. I had not realised, several years into my time as Vicar of Hodge Hill, that ‘Faith’ and her Black siblings in our church community had endured decades of feeling unheard, unvalued, invisible.⁴ I had not realised the power of our histories (individual and corporate) to profoundly shape our present realities. I had not realised the experiences, stories and emotions, networks of relationships and interactions among our Black members, that bubbled away ‘under the (White) radar’ of my day-to-day ministry and the church’s formal structures and gatherings – something of what Black theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harney name ‘the undercommons’⁵.
At the time of this kitchen-table revelation, I was also in the midst of researching and writing my PhD which, if you’d asked me, I would have said was developing a theology of ‘community-building as mission’ on an outer urban estate (with an attention to the way class difference deforms those relationships). The thesis that emerged, however, argued that the ‘post-imperial melancholia’ (Paul Gilroy’s term) that afflicted Brexit Britain (which actually means White England) is also profoundly embedded in the ecclesiology and missiology of the Church of England. This ‘penny-drop’ moment happened while reading critical White theologian Jennifer Harvey’s article on ‘what would Jesus do?’:
“It just so happens that identifying with or as the central agent in the narratives we embody is one of the broken ways of being toward which white people are prone. It just so happens that being inclined to do “for” in postures that are paternalistic is another damaged side-effect of white radicalisation. And it just so happens that these tendencies are valorised in the social justice Jesus who is the central power-agent in his saga. Social justice Jesus is like a superhero standing up to evil forces around him and attempting to inveigh on behalf of suffering others. And, thus, while it is laudable that he stands with or works on behalf of the marginalised, it, therefore, just so happens that the broken ways of being toward which white people are already inclined are likely to be triggered, maybe even amplified, by identifying with such a figure. … Simply put, identifying with the divine is about the last thing that a white person whose life is embedded in white-supremacist structures should be doing.”⁶
Harvey’s analysis, combined with Robin DiAngelo’s account of the tendencies of ‘white fragility’ to defend itself against interruption and challenge, confronted me with the whiteness of one-way models of mission (whether they emphasise ‘evangelism’, ‘service’ or even ‘justice-seeking’), alongside their middle-class (paternalistic) and masculine (‘penetrative’) characteristics.
A lot has happened since then: in the world, in our local church community, and in my own thinking and practice. The election of a nakedly White supremacist President in the USA (2017), the murder of George Floyd (2020) and the global emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement brought the substantial tip of the iceberg of White racism into the unavoidable, public sight of even the most denial-prone of White people. The toppling of the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston brought to visibility the historic entanglement of slavery with the English establishment, including the Church of England (such that the question of financial reparations is now explicitly on the CofE’s agenda).
Locally, before the COVID pandemic we had started a small reading group of White and Black congregation members, looking together at books by Robin DiAngelo, Ben Lindsay and Reni Eddo-Lodge, and beginning to find ways of speaking and listening together, with Black members sharing their experiences of racism, and White people beginning to own and reflect on our whiteness. We’d also begun to mark Black History Month liturgically, as a point in the year not just for celebrating Black history, but also for taking stock of where we were at as a church. Interestingly, it was our physical separation from each other in lockdown that created the context for one of our most significant steps forward together here. October 2020 gave us the opportunity to commit five weeks (within a wider, year-long programme of home-made, co-created resources for deepening our discipleship together) to paying attention to slavery, race and racism, sharing (in both written and audio-recorded form) testimonies from our Black congregation members, self-critical reflections from White members, and contributions from Black theologians and church leaders beyond Hodge Hill. More recently, we’ve been able to weave these various threads together into a much wider, regular conversation (after church on a Sunday), reading and responding to the challenges in Azariah France-Williams’ brilliant book Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England. Themes that we’ve begun to work on include: normalising Black leadership in worship (both ‘home-grown’ and external); developing processes for reporting concerns of racism (as an extension of existing Safeguarding practice); exploring some kind of ongoing financial reparation (rather than ‘charitable giving’); commissioning a new set of Stations of the Cross conscious of racial (in)justice; and shifting the culture of our worship to explicitly make more space for emotions to be expressed, from anger to joy⁷.
And personally? Much of my own learning and development has been in the intersection of my work within my local church community (as a ‘co-leader’ who has sought to be as open as possible to learn from those I minister with), and my academic work, which seems to be taking me both deeper (in critical examinations of my own entanglements with whiteness⁸) and wider (in trying to contribute towards building some momentum for a movement of ‘critical white theology’). The international online conference on ‘Dismantling Whiteness’ that I co-organised (with Jill Marsh and Anthony Reddie) in 2021 highlighted that there’s some real enthusiasm for doing this work, that that enthusiasm is as much (if not more) among practitioners as it is among academics, and that no one seems to have the capacity (ideally, institutionally-paid time) to invest the necessary energy and attention to build the networks and convene the gatherings that we need. That’s frustrating, for me as a White person wanting to ‘do the work’ with others – knowing that I need such communities, to be able to ‘do the work’⁹. It’s frustrating because this fledgling sub-discipline of theology has so much work to do, and yet is mostly stuck in the stuttering, ‘finding our voice’ stage of early childhood development. For my Black or Global Majority Heritage siblings, tired of waiting for White people to change, frustration is surely too weak a word: I’m hardly surprised if these paltry efforts look like ‘too little, too late’. The structures of whiteness – politically, academically, ecclesially – remain largely intact, and far too often deadly.
And yet. Despair and resignation are not options. In recent work, both personal and academic, I have been unlearning the myth that limitedness is an enemy to be overcome – another of the lies that whiteness tells itself. I have been discovering that ‘dead ends’ and experiences of ‘impasse’ can, in fact, be profoundly generative, can enable previous rigidities to be broken down, and new possibilities – including new empathies and solidarities – to begin to emerge.¹⁰ I have been learning, with fellow-stutterers, that ‘dismantling’ the ‘master’s house’ of whiteness may be an unhelpful image: because what do we do with the pieces of the building, when there’s no ‘away’ to discard them to? I am discovering the pregnant possibilities in the metaphor of composting: where in a complex ‘thrown-togetherness’ we are engaged in processes of mutual decomposition, where nothing is wasted, but everything is changed.
Hodge Hill, February 2023
Revd Al Barrett is Rector of Hodge Hill Church, a CofE-URC Local Ecumenical Partnership in Birmingham, UK
- I capitalise the terms ‘White’ and ‘Black’ to indicate ‘racialised as white / black’ within the dominant racializing discourse in my context in the UK, and to at least hint at the problems with that discourse.
- I prefer this term to the ableist language of ‘blindspots’.
- Peggy McIntosh, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ (1990), www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf
- I tell this story more fully in Al Barrett & Ruth Harley Being Interrupted: Reimagining the Church’s Mission from the Outside, In (London: SCM Press, 2020), pp.167-8.
- Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe: Minor Compositions, 2013).
- Jennifer Harvey, ‘What Would Zacchaeus Do? The Case for Disidentifying with Jesus’, in George Yancy (ed.), Christology and Whiteness: What Would Jesus Do? (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp.94-5 (my emphasis).
- Michael Jagessar has recently written: ‘The work of decolonizing worship involves learning to “dance” in the face of bearers and gatekeepers of tradition(s) who are themselves unable to join in because of their own liturgical anxiety.’ Michael N. Jagessar, ‘balm yard musings – decolonizing worship’, in Ashley Cocksworth, Rachel Starr & Stephen Burns (eds.), From the Shores of Silence: Conversations in Feminist Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2023), p.169. ‘Faith’ and other Black siblings in my church community have been teaching me to dance – literally and metaphorically.
- See e.g. my chapter, ‘Praying Like a White, Straight Man: Reading Nicola Slee “Between the Lines”’, in Cocksworth, Starr & Burns (eds.), From the Shores of Silence, pp.173-192.
- Of various definitions of whiteness currently swirling around, I am particularly drawn to that offered recently by Nigerian thinker Bayo Akomolafe: ‘Whiteness is, speculatively, the genocide of relations… it is the placement of bodies in strict, rigid, unforgiving, immobile, sterile, identitarian boxes, as a place-making, world-building project.’ (‘A new theory of the self with Bayo Akomolafe & Indy Johar’, 19/1/23, YouTube, quote at 19:38)
- See e.g. ‘Praying like a white, straight man’, pp.178ff.; Bayo Akomolafe, These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2017), pp.102-3; Alex Mikulich, Unlearning White Supremacy: A Spirituality for Racial Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2022), pp.81ff.