Inderjit Bhogal: Sanctuary, Justice and Refugees, and the Small BoatsMarch 8, 2023
Beth Keith: Is Liberal Theology Dead?April 27, 2023
On 25th May 2020, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer who knelt on his neck for over 9 minutes, while he shouted “I can’t breathe” in his final moments of life. His death was the catalyst for Black Lives Matter protests, and a resurgence of interest in racial justice from white-majority groups and spaces around the world. At that time the UK was in lockdown, and I was living in theological college accommodation. From my study bedroom I wrote blog posts and college assignments focused on the Black Lives Matter protests, from the perspective of the UK white-majority church. However, I hesitated on whether this perspective was a subjective or objective one – was I part of the white majority of the Church of England, or was I on the outside, looking in? When I referred to ‘white people’ within the church, did I mean ‘them’ or ‘us’?
Later that year I studied Black Theology more formally, exploring the work of theologians from the US, the UK and the Caribbean (among other contexts). I enjoyed engaging intellectually with their work, but struggled more with the small group tasks in which we had to speak from our own perspectives. In one sense I did feel ‘other’ to the theological discourse, and so identified with what a number of Asian students have reported. However, I think I experienced a deeper sense of fracturing of my identity over the course of that module. In one sense I identified as white, and so was able to locate myself clearly within the discourse – it felt really important to be able to locate my own racial identity as privileged in comparison with black people. However, my identity as a whole did not clearly or conclusively point in this direction. So, if I decided to portray myself as ‘white’ in the context of the module, I was able to enter the discourse, at the expense of down-playing a part of who I was. It felt like the theological world we were engaging with did not leave space for uncertainty and confusion around racial identity – knowing whether you were white, black (or neither) seemed like an essential prerequisite. A sense of frustration and fragmentation built over the weeks.
A few months later, I attended an online conference called ‘Dismantling Whiteness’. There was a seminar called ‘Complexifying Whiteness’ and at one of the talks, mixed-race identity was mentioned as one way in which whiteness is complexified. This was the first time I had seen mixed-race identity referred to in a talk about issues of race. As I explored this idea, I wondered whether my dual ethnic heritage could be seen as a complexification of an identity as white, or of an identity as Asian. The very notion of mixed-race being a complexification of white identity felt counter-intuitive, perhaps because as a mixed-race person I have been referred to more than once as Black (in a political sense). Did I have some kind of ‘minority’ white identity? Was that an oxymoron?
These reflections from my time at theological college highlight a fundamental uncertainty around my racial identity, which affected my engagement with theologies and discourses around race during this period of my formation for ordained ministry. As someone with a white British father and a Sri Lankan Tamil mother, I had always thought of myself as ‘mixed’. I grew up in Tooting, South London, in a multicultural and ethnically diverse environment in which being mixed-race was not unusual. Perhaps for this reason, I had not considered my mixed identity in relation to broader social and theological issues until I arrived at college.
In Church of England reports on issues of race including Lament to Action (2021), urgent and comprehensive actions are recommended to tackle “institutional racism” experienced by “United Kingdom Minority Ethnic / Global Majority Heritage (UKME/GMH) people”. While this report does give some justification for using this term, it does not consider whether this term describes everyone who experiences racism, or indeed everyone with a non-white identity. Perhaps inevitably, the grouping ‘UKME/GMH’ does not have clear boundaries – and so my own relationship to this category remains unclear.
In my view, racial category descriptions such as ‘Black’, ‘Asian’, ‘white’ and others remain helpful as concepts which describe the reality of institutional racism within the Church of England. Although this reality has been acknowledged by many high-profile figures in the church including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the devastating impact of this racism has also been contested both by those in the church and in the wider UK political environment. There is still very much a need for contextual Black and other global majority world theologies which describe this racial oppression as chains of structural sin which must be broken by God the liberator.
However, alongside this social and theological backdrop sit emerging perspectives on racial identity from mixed-race people which challenge the existence of racial categories and which emphasize fragmentation, fluidity and multiple belonging. Multiracial theologians such as Brian Bantum are imagining new theologies of hybridity. In his work Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity, Bantum imagines baptism, or entry into the church, as becoming part of Christ’s “mulattic personhood”, creating a new identity which fragments previous identities. This theological perspective moves beyond anti-racism to consider the death of race itself. For Bantum, in Christ “God’s body has brought death to race”, and our task as Christian disciples is to “embody life” in this post-racial reality.
These two approaches to racial identity are both important for the racial discourse of the Church of England. They should not be forced into one dominant interpretation of reality, but rather should be allowed to sit in tension with one another. In my view, this approach is already happening in the lives of mixed-race people, who navigate a world defined by conventional racial categories while recognizing their own hybridity and its implications.
The Chicana poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldua describes this in her poem about mestiza identity, To Live in the Borderlands:
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
Mixed-race people sit at the crossroads, in the in-between spaces, of the fixed categories of racial modernity. These spaces are often hidden in the racial discourse of church and society. However, the presence of mixed-race people within society is becoming more and more visible – the political scientist Eric Kaufmann has projected that 30% of the UK population will identify as mixed-race by the end of the 21st century. In his book Biracial Britain, the mixed-race sociologist Remi Adekoya predicts that as this trend of increasing visibility continues, mixed-race people will become more confident to celebrate their fluid and multi-layered identities. Meanwhile in the church, I believe that the work of mixed-race theologians has a unique contribution to make as we seek, while committed to concrete anti-racism work, to imagine a church and a world sin fronteras.
Angela is a first-year curate at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. She trained for ordination at The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and previously worked as a junior doctor. She is one of the co-chairs of UKME Ordinands and Curates, and is particularly interested in the experiences and theological perspectives of mixed-race people within the Church of England.