Colour blindness confronted
Changing the way we see things is a starting point to changing the way we act.
Does truth have to be centralised and constructed in White, patriarchal and andocentric terms? Or can we aspire to be more inclusive and different?
With these questions Anthony Reddie, one of the United Kingdom’s best known Black theologians, concluded his first presentation on “The Myths of Whiteness” at the United Theological College auditorium on March 26.
Dr Reddie was invited to explore “Whiteness” and its impact on theology, seen as an obvious concern to a multicultural church.
The day-long seminar, including papers, responses, creative play and group sharing, brought together the academic, practical and spiritual implications of living in a world where racism is still experienced.
The program created spaces for new ideas to emerge, preconceptions to be challenged and blind spots to be confronted.
Dr Reddie, a research fellow at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and a consultant in Black Theological Studies for the Methodist Church in Great Britain, has a participative approach that seeks to use models of experiential learning, such as games, role-play and drama, as an interactive means to develop knowledge of Black theology in adult learners.
He leads racism awareness courses for White theological students (though he says “race” is an invention or fiction of the era of modernism; a set of unproven frameworks for indicating the notion of fixed categories of biological and hierarchical differences between groups of people).
His emphasis has been on enabling students to process their feelings so they can begin to “climb inside” experiences of racial injustice. He wants students to see how and in what ways they can personally operate to challenge the corruption and sinful actions of so-called “good Christians”.
He believes that Christian ministry and worship remain the central contexts in which ordinary Christians and ministers can seek to use the insights of Black theology in order to become signs of hope and models of change for the liberation of all people who are marginalised and oppressed.
The kind of solidarity he has in mind for White people working for racial justice alongside Black compatriots is one that begins from an acknowledgement of the unearned privileges that Whiteness confers.
“Acknowledging one’s Whiteness is crucial in the struggle for racial justice for it is in this acknowledgement that one is able to both critique oneself, recognising one’s strengths and weaknesses, and so open oneself to a more genuine engagement with the ‘other’.”
Racial justice training days help White participants to reflect critically and theologically on the way in which being White affects their worldview and their engagement with others.
Dr Reddie began the seminar at the Centre for Ministry by addressing “the unnamed power of Whiteness”.
He described how White theologians, writing from a particular culture, were presumed to have a universal application.
He said generic universalism — how White authors write and speak in an alleged universal language and whose work then has universal applicability — sought to mask the presumption that “authors” or “thinkers” are actually White. It supported privilege, superiority and sometimes triumphant supremacy.
Whiteness itself was not the problem, he said, but the way it was interpreted as normative or superior was.
He asked was Jane Austen a better writer than Chinua Achebe? Karl Barth better than James Cone?
It is one thing to know about racism, it is another to do something about it
Why did the whiteness of the former grant them universality but the darkness of the latter make them only important niche figures?
“Whiteness has a power of symbolism,” he said. “It has the power of invisibility.”
He said, “The power of being White is simply the privilege of not having to think about it or to seek to rehabilitate it from centuries of deleterious and pejorative stereotyping.”
Dr Reddie said challenges to the centralist positionality of Whiteness in literary studies included the process of de-centring: changing the point of focus for the articulation of experience and the production of knowledge.
“In this new epistemological enterprise, the initial point of departure is no longer the centre but a subversive and systematic shift to the margins.”
He said the theology of homogeneity ran deep within Christianity. St Paul addressed how to deal with growing universality by ignoring embodied cultural difference.
But that introduced the problematic of sameness and a colour-blind theology, he said before asking, “How do you account for the existential expression of Black people?”
He asked, “When we are making any theological statement, what are the grounds on which we assume the normativity of our discourse? In what ways is our talk of God shaped by the human encounter with context and difference? Knowledge does not just fall out of the sky in a pure, objective and disembodied form.”
Black theology, he said, had enabled Black people in Britain and in other contexts to name the “Whiteness” of Mission Christianity. He said Aboriginal Christians also would be aware of the way non-White people are “othered”, even in the midst of the so-called promised notions of equality in Christ.
How could it be possible, he asked, to be trained in ministry in Australia and not study in depth Aboriginal spirituality? How could you do a degree in theology and not study one text by a Black person?
In the April 2010 edition of Teaching Theology & Religion, Dr Reddie described Black theology as the enterprise of reinterpreting the meaning of God as revealed in Jesus Christ in light of the very real experiences — largely of struggle oppression and sheer hardship — of Black people.
One of the central tasks of his own practical theology is to consider the relationship between how the Church and individual Christians have considered the meaning of faith in light of what individuals and the Church actually do in their daily lived attempts to give expression to what they believe.
In Discourse, Spring 2009, he wrote, “If you’re actually working from the point of view of a theology of liberation, you’d say that all humanity is created in God’s image, irrespective of the frameworks that imperial Christianity has given us which make qualitative differences between some people being of God and some people being not of God at all.
“So, therefore, when one talks about liberation, it’s about liberation of all people, and so all people should be free. It means that we have to condemn and challenge and critique those scriptures that seek to speak against that sense of agency that individual people or groups of people should have.”
During responses to the morning session, Graeme Mundine, Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, described how he had once longed for something that spoke to him, that he could not find in an all-White community or church.
There was something missing. The God they talked about was not the God he experienced in that community.
After listening to Dr Reddie, he said he felt “now is the time to step over the line and start challenging the normative way of doing things.”
With reference to Australia’s colonial history and his own family’s experience, he said, “It’s not normal to preach a gospel of loving one another and then turn around and slaughter people.”
Who really was the savage in all this? he asked.
Ji Zhang, a research associate of the Uniting Church Theological College in Melbourne, spoke about epistemology — asking how we know what we know is actually true.
Starting from our own experience, he said, we are able to see the structural theme.
Local becomes opposed to the assumed experience of universalism. One is supposed to be limited; the other transcendent. One is opinion; the other “truth”.
“Is this structure actually true?” he asked. “We need to start with what we know. From your own experience you begin to see what you know.”
To live on the margins becomes existentially more meaningful, he said, and recognising the place of difference in the church was reconciliation.
In the afternoon Dr Reddie spoke about Whiteness and being human, explaining a theological anthropology with a more practical emphasis.
Of interest to the Rev. Sef Carroll, a sessional lecturer at UTC and one of the seminar organisers, were a conversation on blood and what Dr Reddie said about people’s complicity in the cycle of racism.
Dr Jione Havea, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies, said one of the highlights for him was seeing minority and minoritised people opening up, with courage and confidence, to speak for themselves and to question the (visible and hidden) norms.
“Of course, as expected, there were dismissal and resistance from the dominant side. But I am glad that the conversation is happening.”
He said the test would be whether participants interrogated their ways of thinking, and their norms, and adapted in healthy and just ways.
“We often speak of the proverbial elephant in the room. We need to name the elephants in our thoughts, attitudes and actions, individually and together with our companions.”
One participant commented that “it is one thing to know about racism, it is another to do something about it. I know about racism; now I know I have a responsibility to do something about it.”
Papers and reflections from the seminar will be collected for publication.
Stephen Webb is a White, able-bodied, male.
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