Some years ago, I was standing in a queue to pay for some items in a shop and the man standing behind me started to chat in a friendly way, as sometimes people do. He looked a bit rough and ready, and I say that at the risk of sounding like a judgemental snob, but I chatted politely, as you do, to strangers in a shop queue. That is, until he started, explicitly, to spew out derogatory racial stereotypes about black people. I was shocked. I was so shocked that I froze like a rabbit in headlights, I am ashamed to say. I could not believe what I was hearing. I stood there with my mouth open and my chin on the floor, floundering like a fish, sweating and shifting uncomfortably until I was able to move away from him. And I was so angry with myself as I left the shop. I felt that I had really let down the friends that I had spent the previous evening with, who happened to be black. Big Boy Bloater and the Limits sum up what I wish I had said (except for the line about once thinking you were cool):
It probably sounds naive, I know, I am cringing even as I remember it. I was a university student in the nineteen eighties, when the anti-apartheid sanctions were imposed on South Africa, and there was the campaign to free Nelson Mandela. Racism was being seriously challenged as a social issue. It was just not the done thing to express racist sentiments, or to even think them. The awareness and angst among my friends was that pehaps we were inherantly racist and that was why we did not have any black friends, or even know anyone who was black.
I am fortunate that in my days as a PhD student, I went to a conference held by the Catholic Student Council, and there was a young black woman there I became quite friendly with over the course of the week – amazing singer, she was leading the singing in the daily liturgies. I remember a conversation with her about all of this angst I was feeling, that I might be a closest racist because I did not have any friends that were black. She smiled gently and reassured me that it was probably because I had not had much opportunity socialise with people who were black, and that my awareness and angst about the possibility that I would be, made me less likely to discriminate against someone because of their race. She did not placate me, or deny that it was possible. For me, that is important because when our thoughts and actions are moving us away from God, Ignatius says that the good spirit:
…making use of the light of reason, he will rouse the sting of conscience and fill them with remorse.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl
and when the direction of our lives is towards God, he says:
It is characteristic of the good spirit, however, to give courage and strength, consolations, tears, inspirations, and peace. This He does by making all easy, by removing all obstacles so that the soul goes forward in doing good.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans. Louis J. Puhl
And I notice that I drew strength and encouragement from the conversation with that inspirational young woman.
I remember witnessing a similar, and very powerful, conversation in school. I ran an extra curricular discussion group for high achieving students and I invited my friend, one of the the ones I had been out with the evening prior to the unfortunate incident with the man in the shop queue. He had been involved in organising the events for Black History Month, and had spoken at the launch event. He sat there with these young students, and talked about racism, the Brixton riots in the eighties, folk devils…all manner of things, and they asked questions. They expressed the same fears that I had done, years before them, and asked him why, if the “n” word was so vile as they had been taught, then why did black singers use it in their music? And my friend educated them, and as he did, I saw them relax, to be less stressed, and to be able to ask everything they felt would be offensive to ask in a different context. Through my connection with him, a couple of those students were able to attend the Nelson Mandela 90th birthday concert – and they had an assignment on leadership to do for it, and others, specifically black students, had the opportunity to spend some time with black professionals in leadership positions in the local community, to raise the aspirations of these talented students beyond what they might think was possible for them.
I , like others, had some concern about the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which are taking place in the time of the pandemic. Not because I disagree with the protests, I see the need for them. I once read a quote somewhere, but I am unable to find the exact quote, or who said it (not even on the internet!), which expressed the sentiment that protest was a valid means of expressing dissatisfaction when other means had been exhausted. Sikhism expresses something similar in terms of the sword, but it is not that I read.
My concern was that black and ethnic minority people are dis-proportionally affected by the coronavirus, whether those reasons are socioeconomic and/or genetic – I have not read of any clear evidence that it is only the former, the questions are being asked – and therefore, these mass protests were more risky than usual for the black and ethnic minorities taking part in them, and their families. I accept the point that that in itself, shows the strength of feeling, the importance of it, that it is a watershed moment. Then I read, and saw pictures, of the BLM protest in Eaton park in Norwich, where protesters went out in the rain, wearing face masks and bent the knee, maintaining the safe distance of the recommended two metres; similarly for the main protest at The Forum. I was, and I am still, deeply moved and I felt awe: yes, there it is, due respect for the disease that is killing people and care for our collective social responsibility to minimise that risk, together with the challenge to the structural, social and personal sin of racism. Taking the knee is a powerful statement.
I am also disgusted with, but not really surprised by, Dominic Raab’s unintelligent insensitivity this week when he said:
On this taking the knee thing, I don’t know, maybe it’s got a broader history, it seems to be taken from the Game of Thrones. It feels to me like a symbol of subjugation and subordination rather than one of liberation and emancipation, but I understand people feel differently about it so it’s a matter of personal choice.Dominic Raab, Talk Radio
Arrogant, proud, white privilege in action; denial and making light of the legitimate concerns of a large number of people, not just in the United Kingdom, but across the world. Catholic social teaching says on The Dignity of the Human Person:
12) The Catholic social vision has as its focal point the human person, the clearest reflection of God among us. Scripture tells us that every human being is made in the image of God. God became flesh when he entered the human race in the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Christ challenges us to see his presence in our neighbour, especially the neighbour who suffers or who lacks what is essential to human flourishing. In relieving our neighbour’s suffering and meeting our neighbour’s needs, we are also serving Christ. For the Christian, therefore, there can be no higher privilege and duty.
13) We believe each person possesses a basic dignity that comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment, not from race or gender, age or economic status. The test therefore of every institution or policy is whether it enhances or threatens human dignity and indeed human life itself.The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching
39) Catholic Social Teaching sees an intimate relationship between social and political liberation on the one hand, and on the other, the salvation to which the Church calls us in the name of Jesus Christ…
40)… requires the transformation of an unjust social order; and one of its primary tasks is to oppose and denounce such injustices.The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching
And this same document suggests that it is Not an optional teaching:
41) All Catholic citizens need an informed “social conscience” that will enable them to identify and resist structures of injustice in their own society.
The Common Good statement from the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales in 1996, urges us to challenge the structures of sin in our society. Racism exists: it exists in attitudes and structures. For white privilege to deny it is to display the planks of wood in our eyes. We are also guilty of the sins of our fathers if we refuse to acknowledge them, or if we minimise them with the “All lives matter” retort. Of course all lives matter, it is what has already been said. The reason it has to be stated explicitly that “Black Lives Matter” is because implicit racism in society implies that they do not, and it is disingenuous to nullify the emphasis with a trite response. The first step to healing is to listen, to acknowledge the truth in it, and to ask forgiveness and make amends. Dominic Raab may have thought that he was being witty and clever, but he displayed only arrogance and contempt.
William Wilberforce is a better role model. He listened and he learned; he showed constancy in challenging the slave act and tenacity, as he and his fellow campaigners sought to win hearts and minds in order that this evil could be abolished. So must we.
On taking the knee? Yes, I will take the knee to express my solidarity and my respect for the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign against racism. Is it an act of subjugation and subordination, as Raab says? Perhaps it is, but when that subjugation and subordination is to the One of whom St. Augustine says:
God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.St. Augustine
I do not have an issue with it being so. I will end with Amazing Grace once more, as my prayer. And I’m going to watch this inspiring film again tonight, while I do my ironing.