I have always been slightly skeptical about Black History month, because I wonder whether taking one month per year to celebrate the achievements of people of colour obscures the fact that we don’t always recognise their accomplishments during the other 11 months of the year. I have also been cautious about asking Black people to share stories of prejudice in the month of February, as it may reinforce the practice of giving leadership and a voice to Black people solely in the area of ethnic diversity. I have therefore previously avoided adding my voice to the writings and speaking that primarily takes place in this month… Until I read an astounding news story, in January 2021, involving Rev. Dwight McKissic—the Black pastor who successfully pushed his denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, to issue resolutions criticizing the confederate flag and white supremacy. His valiant ministry, alongside other Black leaders, has been a tremendous influence on helping his denomination voice an anti-prejudice stance. However, the news story revealed his denomination’s denial of support for the “critical race theory” which, although a mixed bag of ethics, secularity and religion, seems to me to be very effective in acknowledging the reality of institutional racism. It prompted me to discover what “critical race theory” is, to understand why it should cause such alarm within the Church.
Before I proceed any further, I want to acknowledge that this article is in no way seeking to point an accusatory finger at my brothers and sisters in other denominations. Rather, I want to help us reflect on our own Canadian Church and what can we do in demonstrating that we are anti-racism. Let’s begin, then, by looking at where the theory originates and what it seeks to reveal.
Critical Race Theory began in the 1980s with the work of a community of scholars at places such as Harvard Law School, and in some ways has become more of a movement. People asked academic questions around the way in which law is studied and executed and the fact that law is created through a lens that favours one ethnic group over others. Academic professors began reading political science, history, anthropology, sociology and cultural studies through a new and different lens which they called “critical race theory.” This lens helps us see “race as central to the law and it dares to look beyond the popular belief that getting rid of racism means simply getting rid of ignorance or encouraging everyone to ‘get along’.”1 Critical race theory is the argument that racism is embedded within the way institutions operate and that they run on the basis that white people have unspoken privileges that other minority ethnic groups do not have. Therefore, it is only by also changing the systems that propagate racism that we eradicate it. This had profound impact upon some lawmakers and became the basis of discussion and direct action beyond the university campus.
About White Privilege
What do we mean by unspoken privileges? Peggy McIntosh, in her most revealing article entitled “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”2 describes white privilege as an invisible package of “unearned assets” which, as a white person, she can count on cashing in each day. She explains that many people are taught to see racism as individual acts of prejudice and not to see the invisible system that confers privileges on a group because of their skin colour, gender, class, geographical location and so on. For example, as a white person she can safely assume that when she goes shopping alone she will not be followed or harassed in any way. If she needed to move house, she could be sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area she can afford and in which she would like to live. She can remain oblivious to the language and customs of a person of colour (the world’s majority) without feeling any penalty in her culture for maintaining such oblivion. The 46 privileges McIntosh lists are often not available to people of colour. Their daily experiences are a constant reminder of this and create a sense of exclusion, rejection and oppression that is often not seen or understood by those who do not have the same experiences.
Consider what happened to Oprah Winfrey when she decided to browse a high-end fashion store in Zurich, Switzerland in 2013. She asked to be shown a handbag that was locked away in a case, as it had a $38,000 price tag. The shop assistant refused to show her, saying that the bag was “too expensive” for her. Despite asking several times, she was refused and advised to look at other, cheaper bags. Why did the assistant respond in this way? Is this a normal sales strategy? Just by looking at the person in front of them (whom they did not know or recognise) how were they able to discern whether or not the handbag was within their budget? Is this part of a sales person’s role, to determine whether or not a customer should be considering buying a particular item? Consider how it makes a person feel, to be refused in this way? It does not matter how famous you are, how talented you are or what your contribution to society has been, each day a person of colour will be reminded that they do not have privileges conferred on them by the system.
The critical race theory is all about redesigning systems, so that we acknowledge the imbalance caused by allocating privilege to one group in this way. Sadly, the structure of the systems themselves (the judicial system, education system, healthcare system and so on) currently rely on the “silences and denials” that keep the privilege in place, to protect the conferred advantage of privilege and making articles like the one I write here, taboo. However the reality is that institutional racism is alive and well in Canada. Data from the 2016 Canadian census shows the following, for example:
- In the economic system: Black Canadians make significantly less money than non-racialized Canadians regardless of how long their families have lived in Canada.3
- In the education system: Black youth are keen to gain a higher education, but have low expectations about that taking place. This is not reflected in other groups.4 Teachers believing in us, not stereotyping us, not over-disciplining us and not constructing possibilities for one group that they don’t construct for other groups is vital to all children’s self-belief when it comes to education, but all too often Black children are not affirmed in these ways.
- In the criminal justice system: Black people are more likely to be arrested, charged or have force used against them by Toronto police.5
McIntosh states: “Most talk by whites about equal opportunities seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.”
Sadly, the silence on these matters, as well as the voices of denial, can be all too loud—even in the church—where the inequality also plays out. In my experience over the years, Black pastors are not always treated in the same way as white pastors. This was exemplified, for me, a number of years ago when a Black pastor reported to me that, after interviewing for a regional oversight role, he had been told that he was not suitable as he was too “pastoral.” The same person was once told by a church that they were not going to call him as pastor because he was too “Jamaican.” It is vital that we do not maintain the silence on these matters, even though they are not easy to discuss and the process can be a painful one. We must be sensitive to the fact that conversations on this subject trigger pain and understandable frustration for people of colour. That it is not simply an information gathering exercise, in order to understand the situation (although it is that) but it touches on very real, raw emotions that come from centuries of oppression.
The Church’s Response
How can the Church respond? Although critical race theory is rooted in a secular study, the questions it raises call us to account for our own systems and attitudes in the Church. Can we hear the voices that challenge us to do better, regardless of whether those voices are from within the Church? For some in the Church, the secular origin is too great a mountain to climb. But do we have the courage to listen and learn before speaking and acting? This listening posture has always been critical for the Church’s mission, as Soong-Chan Rah states in the book The Next Evangelicalism6; “If you are a white Christian wanting to be a missionary in this day and age and you have never had a non-white mentor then you will not be a missionary. You will be a colonialist. Instead of taking the Gospel message into the world, you will take an Americanized version of the Gospel.” The consequences can be great when we fail to listen. This was demonstrated when a well-known Christian publisher and high-profile church leader produced a resource pack to teach children about the Bible which stereotyped Asian culture, as a prop for slapstick humour. It reinforced what the critical race theory reveals; that, through privilege, a system has taught that by deprecating a minority culture, we elevate the majority.7
I suggest that, rather than dismiss the critical race theory because of its origins, we should be asking what elements in this theory are already the prophetic message of the church. Then we can look at where, through our own lack of knowledge, we have unwittingly suppressed the contributions, culture, and voices of people of colour. In what ways have we shown unfair bias, prejudice or simply overlooked people because of the colour of their skin. The challenge for the Church is to no longer turn a blind eye, to no longer try and provide solutions before we even understand the question. The challenge is to begin to draw alongside people in meaningful ways until healing and salvation reach all people.8 As Soong-Chan Rah states, “We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”9 Recognizing the pain that other people bear is the Christian privilege that we bear.
Our ignorance is never acceptable if it leads to oppression. A remedy for ignorance is to look for what we hold in common across ethnicities so that we walk alongside those who need us the most.
What We Can Do Now
We must recognize that changing the systems will be no easy task, particularly in our churches, seminaries or Canadian Baptist Associations. We must first take a look at what learning we need to do, to better understand how these institutions may disadvantage minorities. What learning can we do in the area of cultural intelligence?
Then we can take a look at the make up of our leadership teams, faculty, boards or ministerials and ask: Do they have any ethnic diversity? If not, why not? What attitudes are behind our choices? What assumptions are we making about other people, of different ethnicities, that lead to their exclusion? Who is part of the decision-making processes? Who can we invite to share in the inner workings of what we do?
Other useful things to consider will be:
- How do we make connections with people across ethnicities?
- Whom can we connect with, from a different ethnicity, to be a mentor for us?
- Whom can we celebrate with in the local church, from a different ethnicity?
- If you live in an area with little ethnic diversity, are there people whom are not commonly known that you can connect with?
- What stories do we need to listen to that might connect us with the pain of others?10
When Paul says “all have fallen short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) this includes the Church. Yet, by the same grace that recovers this shortfall, the Church now becomes the agent of change as we partake in the reconciling work of God. When the blind asked Jesus to open their eyes and they became aware of what was once invisible to them, so we too must pray the same prayer “Lord, open my eyes” that we too might see and so respond with the same healing power of Jesus.
1 Critical Race Theory – An introduction, Delgado & Stefancic page xvi published by New York University
2 Excerpt from “White Privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in Women’s studies” 1988.
3 First-generation Black Canadians average income = $37,000, compared to an average $50,000 for new immigrants who are not members of a visible minority. Third-generation Black Canadians average income = $32,000, compared with $48,000 for Canadians who aren’t a visible minority.
4 94% Black youth want to complete a university degree but only 60% believed it was possible. This compares to 82% and 79% respectively in other groups. Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey (Canadians at work and home), 2016. Data for youth aged 15 to 25
5 For example, Black people make up 8.8 per cent of Toronto’s population, but represent almost 32 per cent of people charged, while white people and other racialized groups were underrepresented. (Ontario Human Rights Commission report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto police service.)
6 The Next Evangelicalism – Freeing the church from western cultural captivity, Soong-Chan Rah, IVP Books, 2009.
7 For this, Rick Warren has made a public apology and Lifeway Christian Resources has also withdrawn the offending material. Read it here.
8 Consider the stories in the book “Unsettling the word, biblical experiments in decolonization” Orbis 2018
9 Rah, Soong-Chan, Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, IVP Books, 2015.
10 Here is a good documentary to begin with.