This conference convened in the shadows of the slave castles to examine church responses to contemporary threats to black social, physical, and religious well-being, including political oppression or coercion; group conflict; co-optation of religious life; captivities of persons (e.g., modern slavery, human trafficking, mass incarceration); and economic distortions and dependencies.
Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race
“Black Churches and 21st Century Captivities”
July 29-31, 2013
January 25, 2013
By R. Drew Smith
There are various renditions of an adage that goes something like this: “When the West sneezes, Africa catches a cold.” This alludes to the fact that global system crises of any sort have an especially deleterious effect upon more precariously positioned members. Globally expanding terrorism and the war on terror have overtaken many parts of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, fomenting or exacerbating breakdowns in democratic forms of community building and conflict resolution.
By R. Drew Smith
In a richly insightful reflection on the public contributions and prospects of black religion scholarship, Gayraud Wilmore’s 1999 essay on “Black Theology at the Turn of the Century” (published in Dwight Hopkins’ Black Faith and Public Talk) outlines several “unmet needs” pertaining to “the future of African American religious thought and praxis.” One of the unmet needs identified by Wilmore is “a renewed contact and bonding with African, Caribbean, and black Latin American churches, mosques, intellectuals and religious leaders” and with the “religiously oriented African Diaspora” in England, the European continent, and elsewhere. “The time is ripe for our church people and theologians to forge new, mutually beneficial relationships with brothers and sisters abroad,” writes Wilmore thirty years after “Black Theology” began coursing its way through black religious thought and practice, and five years after the 1994 democratic transition in South Africa signaled the end of white minority rule on the African continent.
By Randal Jelks, PhD
The conference was a critical inquiry into race viewed through the lens of religion. Can we understand “race” through the religious claims of universality among women and men. Could communities that gather through faith provide what one of our keynotes speakers called “critical multiculturalism?” Specifically, could “Black Churches” in North America, Europe, and Africa conceptualize anew on worldwide inequalities fed by race?
The conferees also inquired into the fiction of “race.” Though “race” is fictional, it is and has been a powerful weapon of external and internal oppression. Living by a “raced” narrative, one that easily explains the everyday and the ordinary is a deception, a very powerful deception that unify regions and states.
The article started appearing on my timeline last night sometime. I use facebook’s subscription options generously, which helps me to see that which I actually want to see. This allow me to bypass most of the blatant racist rhetoric on news24 comment sections.
It’s an article which I usually would have skipped, were it not for the friends who shared it. I know these people. They are not the right-wing type. Many of them aren’t even the “good-ol’ middle-of-the-road, let’s love our neighbours and not get involved in all this political mumbo-jumbo Christian”-type. Many of them are active voices for the acceptance of Belhar. They are people for whom church unity is non-negotiable. They are the people whom I want to spend the future of this church with. So when they share an article titles “I am a racist”, particularly if 3, 4 or more of them start sharing the same article, I follow the link.
My father had a fascination with etymology. He has one of those “Etymological dictionaries” next to his computer, and like to check random words in it. My Greek lecturer told us etymology cannot really provide you with the meaning of words (if I remember that class correctly), since meaning is constructed by how words are used in the present, not by finding some pristine untainted past meaning. Nonetheless, sometimes etymology is interesting. And when someone claim that, mostly due to the actions of the ANC, “the word racist has lost it’s original meaning and now only get’s used to describe a white person doing something a black person doesn’t like”, one have to wonder about etymology and the meaning of words.
What exactly is this “original meaning”. Truth be told, few people walk around with etymological dictionaries wondering about the “original meaning”. And I doubt that the author is actually concerned about the fact that the word ‘recently’ started moving away from its Nazi roots, insisting that ‘racism’ should remain used only as it was originally intended: as a system of scientific thought which had the intent to proof that those of European descent were superior due to biologically reasons.
Truth is that, although this kind of scientific racism was active in South Africa, that was never the most dominant approach and sometimes actively rejected (read Samual Dubow’s brilliant analysis on this topic). Apartheid and Nazism might show certain similarities, but they were not the same.
But I don’t think that the “original meaning” the author refers to is apartheid either. Making racism and apartheid synonymous (something which is not uncommon in South Africa), imply that racism is a legalized system of classification and exclusionary laws privileging those who are categorized as “white”. Is that the problem, that we dare use “racism” in any way apart from such a definition?
Many who are comfortable with the author’s thoughts, will shout out against DJ’s and FHM models who dare call someone a “kaffir”. Although derogatory names is obviously not the same as a legalized system like apartheid, we easily recognize their use as “racism”.
Here is our problem, I think: Beverley Tatum tell the story of the response of a white teacher when she was asked how it would feel if someone called her a racist: “She said it would feel as though she had been punched in the stomach or called a “low-life scum.”” We have found a general consensus that racism is wrong. In particularly more liberal circles (and I think also most Church circles regardless of theological position), we have found a general consensus that racism is not only wrong, but that it is like calling someone a “low-life scum”. For those white people who actively oppose Nazism and apartheid, who like Obama and Mandela, who might even have had a black person sleep in their guest bedroom (or even been in the Black Sash and written the first article on the death of Steve Biko) to be called a racist is like being punched in the stomach. But we don’t know what the word mean.
The author doesn’t really define racism. Or does she? It seems like the author concern racism to be any kind of action which someone doesn’t like in which the one doing it clearly stated that aspects of these categories which we call race influence this action. So if a company states that they will hire a black person rather than a white person, because they want to get their BEE scorecard right (not a very good reason in my mind, I would prefer if people do stuff for ethical rather than legal reasons, but let’s leave that for today), then it is “racism”. When UCT set different standards for entry into courses depending on race, then that is racism (honestly, the comparison between the white student who had 8 distinctions and was refused and the black student who barely passed is getting a bit old, the UCT example is somewhat more realistic). I do believe the author would agree that if someone actively states that they refuse to hire black people that would also be racism.
But if me and my black boss, who frequently travel together, and have both read one or two books on racism in the past, point out patterns in how security personnel at airports treat us differently, can we call it racism? The personnel are mainly black, and most probably not aware that their is a pattern where he has to show proof of identification more often than I have to.
And if I continue to have a sense of fear when I get the impression that I’m trailed by a black person in Sunnyside, but I don’t even recognize when I’m trailed by a white person in Hatfield, is that racism?
And if I have different emotions when looking at photos of white squatters than I would have when looking at black squatters, is that racism?
And if I find myself listening more intently to the white speaker than the black speaker, somewhere deep inside myself assuming that the white person know what she/he is speaking about, assuming that they did their research with the required precision etc, is that racism?
And if police (also black policemen) just have a tendency to assume that black people was responsible for a crime, and therefore end up finding more of the black criminals because that is where they look, is that racism?
And when a global economic system and educational system is structured so that is “just happens” that white people tend to have more capital, more businesses, more degrees, is that racism?
One response in a context such as this is to refuse any talk about racism. To insist that any reference to race is not allowed. The article took a different route. Irritated with the difficulty of discussion this topic, the difficulty that we don’t understand what is meant by the term, and the perception that it has become a “political card”, or a vague reference used when no other critique can be brought into an argument, the author attempt to make it absurd by presenting certain situations which would then be “racist” under this absurd understanding. Perhaps its just another attempt at saying: “let’s stop all this talk about racism, it’s absurd” (although their is a message in the article that the biggest problem or racism today is reversed racism against white people, not an uncommon thread in white rhetoric).
Given the fact that their is no real biological grounds for grouping people into the races we do, and even less grounds for pointing out qualities which is inherently connected to these biological markers, some prefer to say that we should rather just stop any reference to race. It doesn’t help us to speak about race at all (says these voices that heard some vague Marxist critique on the topic somewhere).
I believe two things should guide us:
First, what we have as “races” today is something that was constructed historically over the long period of time. Its development is complex, and is intertwined with class, gender, culture, language and many other aspects. I am stuck with constantly being given an interpretation of what it would imply to be “white”. I find myself in a community which consist primarily of those who reinforce this same racialized ideas. To break with it is not impossible, but will take generations of hard work on various levels: on our minds, on our societal structures, on the language we use, on the images found in the media, on the habits deeply ingrained on an unconscious level.
Second, we will have to learn to use the word “racism” responsibly, and to define what we mean when we use it. I think it is am important word. It is a word which remind us of a history to which we never want to go back to. But it is a dangerous word. It is a word that can be misunderstood. And it is a word which the popular use of has lead to various reductions, various attempts at scapegoating while portraying others as innocent.
What is racism? Racism is that which cause me to see that which I identify as “white” as more important, more correct, more trustworthy or more moral, than that which I identify as “black”. Racism is that which cause those who are identified as “black” to suffer more through the structuring of society than those who are identified as “white”.
Am I a racist?
The image which help some of us, is to say that I am a racist like a recovering addict.
I am a recovering racist. I struggle with the ideas I have internalized. I struggle with turning a blind towards, justifying, or even supporting policies and systems which end up harming black people more than white people. I struggle with assuming that a white life is worth more than a black life. I struggle with sometimes revolting when I see black and white people in romantic relationships. And my struggle at times become most visible when I want to convince myself and the world that “I am not a racist”. I don’t have a problem.
So I am a racist. A recovering racist. It’s a painful process. And sometimes I need a support group where I can share my struggles, because without this, I find myself either denying that I’m struggling with this, or making jokes or absurd statements about this.
Many Americans are invested in the idea of a “post-racial” moment — a moment marked by our purported movement beyond a historical chapter colored by race-based discrimination, intolerance, inequity, and violence. Such a turn signals America’s fascination with the notion of a transracial future and a utopian vision of an America, where bodies will be free from racialization. But, we must ask: whose bodies and lives will this grand social vision benefit especially when considering the counter-investment in notions of “blackness” that post-racial propagandists seem to maintain?
It is argued that multiple gains have been made in the area of racial relations since the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us witnessed the appointment of our country’s 65th and 66th Secretaries of State, General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, the former was the first African-American and the latter was the first African-American female, both were Republican. An African-American man and woman, Bob Johnson and Oprah Winfrey, both notable African-American entrepreneurs, have appeared on the Forbes Billionaire List. To the astonishment of the international community, America was brave enough to elect a bi-racial or Black (or, non-White) man, Barack Hussein Obama, as the 44th President of these United States. And, now our nation’s capital is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and will soon be the home of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open officially in 2015. For some, these few moments evidence racial progress, particularly those of African Americans in the twentieth century.
To be sure, Daniel Schorr, NPR Senior News Analyst, noted in 2008 that America was moving into a “post-racial era” that was defined and “embodied” by Barack Obama. He went on to argue that we are in an “era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them.” Schorr connects post-racialism to the ascendancy of Obama, a multi-ethnic brown African-descended man, and not, say, his then opponent, John McCain. The fact that Obama is cast as the catalyst of this post-racial era illuminates what post-racialists understand as that which is in need of e(race)sure, namely, blackness. It is unsurprising, then, why post-racialism is a concept that has been taken up to talk about one’s transcendence from blackness into a state of being where his/her blackness is “blurred” or ceases to be altogether.
But imagine, if you will, a societal advancement of the notion of “post-white.” If you tried, to no avail, to imagine — like I did — an America that sought to intentionally and aggressively move beyond whiteness, don’t be alarmed because it is a feat that is nearly impossible.
“Whiteness” is an enduring social force that produces a racialized system of access/excess. Those with access have phenotype, structure advantages, and racial legacies to thank. But it is also, as Judy Helfand suggests, that which “is shaped and maintained by the full array of social institutions — legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural.” In other words, whiteness is methodically sustained through ideology and praxis. It is not easy to disappear and, I am pretty certain, that there are many White post-racialists who would rather not live in a post-white moment because the legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural benefits assigned to their whiteness would be no more.
The notion of post-whiteness, or the leaving behind of whiteness as we’ve come to know it, might very well provoke fear and anxiety among some. For example, the Eagle Forum, which is an interest group started by the conservative anti-feminist Phyllis Shafley, released a legislative alert in response to the New York Times story, “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.” The “alert” cautioned, “NY Times liberals seek to destroy the American family of the 1950s, as symbolized by Ozzie and Harriet. The TV characters were happy, self-sufficient, autonomous, law-abiding, honorable, patriotic, hard-working, and otherwise embodied qualities that made America great.” The only descriptor that remains loudly unpronounced on the Eagle Forum’s list of positive characteristics is the racial identity of both Ozzie and Harriet.
Despite the racial anxieties of our present moment, it is time for Americans to investigate what it might mean for us to consider post-whiteness as an idea and material possibility during this so-called post-racial era. I would sign on as a proponent. We could even ask Tim Wise to lead the way as we begin interrogating the ideas (and advantages) of whiteness as they manifest in these United States and around the world. I long for the day when the Mitt Romneys of the world will argue for a move in the direction of a post-racial, or, rather, a post-white moment: a moment when White racism is really called out and destabilized; a moment when the vestiges of skin privilege are diminished; when real-time material conditions like wealth accumulation, criminalization, and poverty aren’t disproportionately shaded by race. Oh, what a day that would be.
Colorblindness, as Schorr intimated, is not the issue. Indeed, the only “color” that seems to move undiscerningly among post-racialists is whiteness. And it’s not White people alone who have made such a turn, see, for example Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? or Ytasha L. Womack’s Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity. In most cases, blackness is the “color” that we are beckoned to transcend in this post-racial era which is why it is a fallacy to name it such. We are more embedded in the socially constructed categories of race than ever before. Don’t believe me? Ask the Tea Party or check the US Census Bureau’s statistics on the median incomes of whites in comparison to black and brown folk in our country. Take a look at the number of non-whites who make up our prison and death row populations. Ask the livid “Hunger Game” fans who vented on Twitter because the film’s director cast a young African-American actress, Amandla Sternberg, rather than a White actress to play the role of Rue. Or consider the psychic traces of race/racism, the ways in which racism shaped our settler-colonial state and its laws, and the ways we embody and live out race-thought every day.
The point is: America’s troubled past and complicated present is wedded to the social reality of race. American history serves as a reminder of our country’s troubled race relations and even the moments when difference was celebrated. Americans also know, all too well, that whiteness functions as a non-race that does not require bodily and cognitive transcendence. Similarly, White racism and White privilege show up as non-issues that are eagerly critiqued, yet, rarely undone. Therein lies the problem.
Whiteness travels in stealth; it is supplemented by what anti-racist feminist Peggy McIntosh, writing on White privilege, unforgettably names the “invisible knapsack.” The fact is: that “knapsack” has been quite visible in the lives of native and non-white Americans. It has only been invisible to those who carry the weightless knapsack on their backs. Indeed, the burden of the sack is felt by everyone but the bearer. It seems, then, that there is a need for new interrogations of our present racial moment. This may very well be the perfect moment for us to enter, as opposed to transcend, America’s racial imagination.
How’s that for a postulation?
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