Labelling Race

race labels.jpg

Chalice lighting

We gather together now
People who share much and are yet very different
Here, we strive to overcome the barriers between us
Here, we labour to remove the obstacles to understanding
Here, we commit ourselves to the work of creating community
And overcoming the challenges to building a web of love
By this light, may we see one another deeply and truly
And know the light that shines bright in every heart

The British (serves 60 million), by Benjamin Zephaniah

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.
Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.
Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.
Leave the ingredients to simmer.
As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.
Allow time to be cool.
Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Equality, by Maya Angelou

Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
Hear the tempo so compelling,
hear the blood throb in my veins.
Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
and the rhythms never change.
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.

Message by Rev Andy Pakula

We have been focusing on the theme of ‘labels’ since the beginning of January. We’ve talked about many of the different ways we categorise others and ourselves. We’ve talked about the ways in which these human labels can tend to change and shape reality: they bring us together under the banner of a label while they also confine us to the narrow territory defined by that label. They simplify the world for us and they oversimplify. Differences are never as clear-cut as labels suggest. I have heard some of you talking about labels in both serious ways. That’s perfect. It means that we are becoming more consciously aware of the power that labelling has in our lives.

Today we’re going to talk about a set of labels we haven’t covered yet in any depth. These labels refer to the concept of race - a set of labels that have little basis in biology and yet have had an enormous social impact. That impact has almost entirely negative for anyone whose race was not considered to be white. The history of race is immensely complex. The story has strands in science and pseudoscience. It has been deeply tied in with oppression as colonial powers sought justifications for their abuse and exploitation of people who from different places - people who looked and behaved differently from them.

The first thing to say as we dig into this topic of race is that race is not real. Yes, my skin is lighter than yours may be. And someone else may have darker skin still. We may have different kinds of hair, different facial features, and other physical differences and these are real and visible differences. I’m not trying to tell you that you’ve been hallucinating and that we really actually all look the same. But, biologically, race doesn’t hold up. For any species of animal - humans included - races or subspecies can arise when populations are separated so there is no interbreeding between them. Eventually, natural selection and just the random accumulation of mutations makes those populations drift further and further apart. Given enough time, they might even become separate species entirely.

If our species - Homo Sapiens - were to be separated into different non-interacting populations for long enough - many millions of years, we might see the development of separate species. But, despite visible human differences that correlate with different parts of the earth and different cultures, there has always been enough mixing that humans remained one species without subspecies.

Genetic analysis can show how different and how similar we really are. When that kind of work has been done, it has been shown that there is actually more difference within a population than there is between populations. In other words, a light-skinned person and a dark-skinned person may be more similar genetically than either is to someone that shares their same skin colour. So, the expression that something is ‘what it says on the tin’ doesn’t fit what we think of as racial characteristics. Our labels are not that closely tied to who we are biologically.

This is a huge and important finding. As we know, throughout the history of human interaction - especially during European colonisation - people have behaved as though the opposite was true. They judged and made conclusions about groups of different looking people as though these differences actually said something about the character of the people. Of course, culture is real and different groups develop different cultures, but their physical characteristics need not have any real relationship to who they are.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if knowing that race is not real - knowing that someone’s appearance does not provide a meaningful classification of their intelligence, their personality, their morality or their tastes - made a difference in the world? Wouldn’t it be great if that piece of information would make the KKK make their robes and hoods back into bed sheets? Wouldn’t it be great if it the members of the BNP and Britain First would learn this fact and say - oh - and ‘so sorry - my mistake’ and invite their black and Asian neighbours to tea?

Well, that hasn’t happened yet and we’ve known for a very long time that race is not a biological reality but a social construct. The very persistence of race thinking despite this knowledge says something important both about human beings are wired to work and about the institutions and cultures and economic systems that have depend on the assumption that race is real.

I want to try to avoid focusing on the United States here, a place with a very different history than Britain because of its massive institution of slavery until the Civil War and then pervasive systemic racism after that war. I will also mostly not talk about Asian immigrants where racism and Islamophobia have been so closely combined. Instead, I want to focus primarily on people with African ancestry - a group with a very long history here.

In the US, I was accustomed to people talking about racism against African Americans. The US has a horrible history of slavery and other institutionalised oppression that continues to this day. So, when I came here and no one seemed to talk about racism, I thought - wow! What an enlightened place! Remembering the terrible statistics about unemployment, incarceration, educational disadvantage, and poverty among African Americans, I contented myself to believe that these challenges did not exist here.

That belief and that contentment lasted only a short time.  These statistics are from just a few years ago. They are British statistics, not American:

  • Black people are almost three times as likely to be unemployed (15.5%) as whites.

  • 38% of young black men currently unemployed, compared to 17.8% of young white men.

  • The average white household has assets of nearly three times that for black Caribbean households is £76,000. It is worse still for black Africans with just £15,000.

  • 60% of black and Asian households have no savings at all.

  • Ethnic minority groups are 60% more likely to suffer from depression.

  • Black people are four times more likely than white people to be subject to police stop and search.

  • Black people are up to 6.6 times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act.

  • The DNA of three-quarters of young black men between the ages of 18 and 35 may be on the police database and black people are more disproportionately represented in UK prisons than in the US.

These facts are due to racism and to the impact of racism on black people and black communities. Some would like to blame the victims, but - knowing that race has no biological basis - we know this to be nonsense. There is a terrible oppression amongst us and it’s one we are loathe to talk about or confront directly.

When we talk about racism, we can think two different but related sorts. There is personal racism: the kind where a person of one so-called race automatically thinks less of or fears a person from a different grouping.

Systemic racism is the institutional disadvantaging of the members of a so-called race. One very simplified example: if you attend a poor quality school, you can’t get into Oxbridge. If you don’t attend Oxbridge, you don’t have the connections and the pedigree you need to be very successful economically. If you’re not economically successful, your children end up going to a poor school. And on and on it goes. Discrimination doesn’t need to be deliberate or conscious to completely destroy lives and opportunities. Once built into the system, this kind of racism almost takes on a life of its own. It is self-sustaining and only enormous and persistent efforts have the potential to undo it. And you can be sure that such work will encounter great resistance. When we hear white people saying that they are oppressed in the UK or the US and that they are the real victims of racism, you are hearing the reaction to even very modest efforts to create a fair system.

Systemic racism is an enormous topic. It is something we need to fight at every turn and work to disassemble. It is far more than we can begin to discuss today except to say that it real, it is pervasive, it is insidious, and it creates and maintains inequality. In one way or another - in conferring and denying privilege - it affects all of our lives. Systemic racism is also intertwined with personal racism. How hard will we work to dismantle systemic and institutional racism if we suspect at some level that some people are just too lazy or too dumb to make it.

Countering personal racism is hard. There are many approaches and many of them might actually make things worse. I have been in workshops where I have been told that I am a racist - not because of anything I said or did but because I am white. That does not feel good and I don’t think it helped in any way. When you are accused of something you know to be wrong and shameful and maybe even evil, it doesn’t make you suddenly change. In fact, it probably just makes you hide your feelings more - and when you do that - when you can’t be honest with yourself - you can’t change. I’ve shared before, but these words from Carl Rogers are so important and so true - ‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’

If you feel some level of suspicion or discomfort about people who are different from you, then you are a human being. This is one of the unfortunate ways we are wired - one of the ways that evolution as tribal animals shaped us. It is then reinforced by racism in our cultures. We automatically mistrust, suspect, and maybe even think less of those who look or act different from us. We need to be able to accept this about ourselves before we can really change it.

The first step is to watch your own feelings and thoughts as they arise - to be mindful about yourself. When you encounter someone who looks or acts different, be honest with yourself about the emotions and judgements that arise. It is not helpful to condemn yourself for these reactions which are both natural tendencies and an effect of our society’s systemic racism. And then, move toward the discomfort. Test to see if your reactions are telling you something real or not. This - like many of the ways we grow throughout our lives - is a continual and lifetime process.  

This is among the important pieces of work we must each do to become the people we want to be - people who can contribute meaningfully to creating the world we want for ourselves and for the generations who come after us.

Closing Words

The world we want to live in
And bequeath to the future
Is one where all people have the opportunity to thrive.
Where all can become the people they long to be.
Where all can coexist in harmony.
It is a world of people who trust one another and see the good in one another.
It is a world where systems have been made fair to people of all kinds.
This world is one that we must make - are making -
Through our passion and our commitment.
And getting there also calls on us each
To do the individual and communal work we need to do.
The work of overcoming our innate predisposition to mistrust difference.
Let us embark on that journey together.
The journey toward greater humanity for ourselves.
And greater possibility for all.