Does the Church have a Problem with Institutional Racism?

by the Revd Peterson Feital, Founder of The Haven+ and Missioner to the Creative Industries for the Diocese of London (aka the ‘Showbiz Rev’)

Peterson Feital

I was thrilled when Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle. However, I was not prepared for the undercurrent of racism in British society that would soon become a tsunami, nor the torrent of racial abuse that Meghan was about to endure.

These tsunamis – created by the media – more often than not severely damage a person’s reputation and when it comes to race, Meghan is sadly an obvious target. Whats more, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Brexit does not help any immigrant to feel safe – even if you are a royal.  Indeed, many of us from different ethnic and religious backgrounds are now feeling a tangible and palpable fear.

Whilst this sense of not belonging in the UK is not new, especially for BAME individuals, it now seems that the issue of racism can no longer be avoided. However, what is terrifying is that the media is re-enforcing behaviour and language that is unfortunately prevalent in society at large. It is normalising racist bullying against individuals and communities throughout the UK and is affecting our view of “the other”.

Since the 1970’s, sociologists, media psychologists and other researchers have been looking at ways of measuring the impact of the media opinion on public attitudes, especially with regards to race.  One of the most influential research studies in this field was conducted by The European Research Centre on Migration, and is entitled “Ethnic Relations, ‘Racism and Cultural Diversity in the Mass Media”. The research investigated how narratives regarding race were presented, and then measured the rise in levels of racism instigated afterwards in the public and in large institutions. In Britain, it looked particularly at how institutions deal mostly negatively with race and fail in securing inclusion.

Last October Steven Spielberg released a documentary, “Why We Hate” in which he explores with scientists, sociologists and historians how the media creates destructive narratives that feed on people’s fear of ‘the other’, leading to devastating consequences. It raised for me the question: “who holds the media accountable?” and led me to conclude that institutional and public racism has not been challenged nearly enough.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the letter of solidarity that Meghan had from seventy-two female MP’s supporting her in her suing of British tabloids for their misleading news and colonial undertone. This support for her is reassuring for us, but most of us are just anonymous faces in the crowd and so more needs to be done – we need to start calling out on racism ourselves, in our own communities and workplaces.

The truth is that we foreigners are easily treated as a commodity.

It feels as though we are a visible ‘good thing’ when institutions choose to display our faces for the purpose of displaying ‘diversity’. But, this is the issue: “diversity” only means “one can have a seat at the table”, whereas “belonging,” means “one who has a voice that is listened to and respected”. Belonging means being allowed to be who we are individually and being respected with our differences.

I have come to realise that people think that diversity and inclusion are the same. I saw this drawing on social media, illustrating what diversity (here marked ‘integration’) and inclusion look like. I think, at best, most people believe that integration is the same as inclusion, which it clearly is not:

Inclusion picture

This narrative that “Britain will be overrun by migrants” who are “ready to steal jobs, drain the system, and stretch the waiting time for doctor’s appointments” needs to challenged. The truth looks very different. A simple search on the Global Citizen website gives some facts on immigration and migrants. We each have different stories, journey and scars. It isn’t true to say that every foreigner is draining UK’s resources.   It would seem that individuals, organisations and institutions need to learn how to listen without bias.

I for example, failed to listen to the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson–Wilkin, to whom I owe an apology. In 2016, Rose went on record in an interview for the BBC reporting institutional racism in the Church of England; I refuted that on twitter saying that I did not agree. I am ashamed of myself for doing this. I now realise I was in denial because I had never experienced racism until I moved to Britain. It took me time to realise that what I was experiencing was in fact institutional racism.

I did not want to believe that the country that gave William Wilberforce to the world, whose faith was the catalyst to set many slaves free, had forgotten his legacy.

So, what are the media and the Church institutions doing about such instances of racism? For the Church of England’s part, when I spoke to senior leaders and managers I was told to just “keep my head down”, and reminded that I did not want to get on the “wrong side of those who would ultimately write a report that would impact my future”.

I appreciate that to report racism when you are talking about it in the form of a one-to-one scenario with your boss is hard to quantify. But what is not right is that after disclosing this information through the appropriate channels, no one seemed to care. In common with other victims of abuse I was led to believe that it was my fault, and that it was a personality issue, which to this day I believe was unfair and biased. The structure and safeguarding for people like me need to change because by not having someone to report to and to dialogue with just caused me even more pain.

In a pastoral and theological sense, the Bible is very clear what the treatment of the “foreigner” is to be like. I could not put this in better words than the Associate Professor Jarvis J. Williams, who asserts in an article written for Christian Today entitled “Jesus, Deliver Us from this Racist Evil Age” that:

‘We believe in a Savior who redeems, a Spirit who reconciles, and a gospel that is the antithesis of white supremacy.”

The article articulates that in Christ, every human has value, everyone is called to belong, and racism must be fought against.

The power to fight racism lies in the Christian community being able to model and shape acceptance and inclusion. Christ’s example is clear; Jesus never placed institutions above people. He confronted and challenged religious structures that didn’t offer a place for people to belong, regardless of their race. Therefore, this must be our measurement.

We must be a Church that operates like a family who welcomes, blesses and supports its members; which does not accept racism; and who calls out those who perpetrate it, providing a safe place for all to belong.

Peterson Feital sqr

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1 Response to Does the Church have a Problem with Institutional Racism?

  1. Pingback: Wellbeing, Leadership and ‘The Other’ | ViaMedia.News

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