Monday, 9 January 2012

Diane Abbott’s tweet, an opportunity missed.

In one of my former parishes there was a very energetic ecumenical group which prided itself on the variety of spiritual experiences it could provide for its membership in any given year. When I was approached for the use of the parish church for the annual visit of a linked West African congregation from Birmingham, I asked what the link was about. The reply was that the group liked to watch Africans worship, they are much better at it than we are.

I spent a couple of years in the eighties studying Black theology in an American seminary. During that time I had had to come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about my own race, particularly around the subject of slavery. As I didn’t feel comfortable with hosting African worship as a spectator sport I phoned a friend in Birmingham who is a Black theologian, who introduced me to a further uncomfortable truth. He said that slavery was not the only aspect of our past that I had to take into account when I was thinking about the relationship between our races; there was also colonialism. As an example he cited the way in which members of a colonised people would vie for invitations to social events at the local colonial residence, taking their status by being A-listers at a white event over solidarity with their fellow dominated blacks. He said that he would be thinking in these terms about a professional African congregation which was prepared to make the two-hour journey to a white church in the stockbroker belt, but have next-to-nothing to do with the Jamaican church in their own neighbourhood.

This episode from my past came to mind when we heard on the news this week that a careless Tweet, from Member of Parliament Diane Abbott, to a colleague about how whites tended to divide black people. When the news of this Tweet broke, she was immediately disciplined, and her party machinery moved at lightning speed to mend the damage from the outrage. If Diane Abbott was in error it was in the means by which she expressed the view. The truth that whites have divided blacks is incontestable, and I have no reason to doubt that it remains a present reality. I believe the Labour Party leadership missed an opportunity here, which Ms Abbott unwittingly provided, and it has to do with our national identity, which is inseparable from our national narrative. Who we think we are depends on who we think we have been. Politicians have understandably been cautious about articulating a narrative which has been about the decline of our status as a nation for most of the last century.

On the other hand, much has been made of our status as a multi-cultural nation. When the chef Jamie Oliver can tour the nation, and then produce a best-selling cookbook, full of recipes which we have inherited from the communities which have moved to these islands, then we know that multi-cultural Britain is an idea that his generation is ready to appropriate.

But there’s a catch. Almost thirty years ago I was told by my Afro-American Black Theology professor that it was not possible for a black person and a white person to have any kind of genuine relationship without agreeing a common version of history. In other words, unless the white person could appropriate the uncomfortable facts from our history about our nation’s role in slavery and colonial subjugation, then we would be blind to the key historical events which have shaped people of the African diaspora, and even why they come to call these islands home.

To begin to work on such a narrative is a big ask for politicians. It means becoming a target for tabloid ire, and having to face the anger of members of the public who cling to our colonial past and the notion of our identity being centred on imperial power. A party in the early period of Opposition has much less to lose that the Government, and this may be a way to serve the nation in a way that would bring healing and wholeness. There is a spiritual task here, about seeking the truth, even painful truth, about ourselves in order then to be able to seek harmony with our neighbours, and I include neighbours of all former-colonial races. In the absence of a story on which we can all agree, the vacuum will continue to be filled by the versions of who-we-are peddled by extreme right-wing groups, and we will still see racial violence on our streets. A shared story of how we came to be would be a substantial beginning to how we account for who we are, and what is keeping us from where we need to be as a nation.

Andrew Spurr
Vicar of Evesham

Posted by Andrew Spurr on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 6:38am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

Yes. Ad the absence of this story makes it impossible for us to deal with the homophobia of some parts of the African churches. While we cannot face up to our colonial past, they, understandable, feel driven to fight for intellectual freedom from the west. This does not, of course, excuse the cruelty of the positions they find themselves adopting.

When one does wrong, one usually finds oneself in a horrible mess. As you so rightly say, escape lies in the time-honoured path of seeking a new mind, a new heart.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 9:46am GMT

Having lived my earlier years in Coventry, I have some understanding of the difficulties encountered in a mixed-races community. However, having lived since my thirties in pre-and post Colonial Fiji, Darwin, and now - for the last 33 years - in post-Colonial New Zealand, I have come to understand something of the plight of indigenous people in 3 different former colonial countries.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand and specifically in the local Anglican Church of ACANZP, we have had to come to terms with different ethnic strands of peoples; firstly - those who were colonised by us British - Aotearoa/Maori; Pacific Islanders; and the later arrivals from Europe.

In order to celebrate our cultural differences, we now have 3 Archbishops, 3 Standing Committees, and 3 ethnic Church structures, but with a General Synod covering all 3 Churches. That this is still in the process of becoming a Provincial Church - with all that means in the way of negotiation and difficulties in converging sensitivities - cannot be denied. However, in the process, we are becoming more aware of one another's background and history in ways that are consonant with the hopes and fears of each of our constituent parts.

Reconciliation must begin with justice, something we still struggle with as both Church and Nation.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 10:26am GMT

Hmm, I'm not sure that white middle-class guilt is the best way to respond to Diane Abbott's tweet.

The point is that contemporary British society is not one in which people are in any sense oppressed on the basis of their race: indeed, the UK arguably treats its ethnic minorities better than any other European society (except perhaps Belgium and the Netherlands) does. Ms Abbott's comment was justly condemned by her own party - particularly by members of other ethnic minorities within it - as being itself divisive and unfair.

Posted by: Fr Mark on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 12:33pm GMT

Mark... hm... in the week of the conviction of 2 of the Stephen Laurence murderers and another high profile race motivated murder the swift chorus of "nothing to see here, move along" strikes me more as a calculated political response rather than a description of the actual situation in many places in Britain.

In the wake of the Stephen Laurence trial there were many black people writing in the various newspapers, all acknowledging that the situation has got a lot better in the last 18 years but still stressing that much remains to be done, that black people are still being treated differently and that, at the very least, there is still a huge potential of misunderstanding between the races.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 1:29pm GMT

Erika: individual criminal actions by particular people, even if racially aggravated, many years ago, are not a good basis for statements such as that white people always seek to divide and rule (in the present tense) are they? Nor are they the way to bring about a healthy society in the future for anyone involved in it. It was a fatuous comment.

I may well be the only non-croyant TA commenter when it comes to the Guardianista social metanarrative, but there we are...

Posted by: Fr Mark on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 2:53pm GMT

Thoughtful essay, Fr. Spurr. My first experience in reading a church service in East Africa had me stumbling in a language that I did not know. Afterwards the congregation consoled me by saying that they themselves had little knowledge of Swahili either... It has stayed with me that we of post-colonial generations have at least this in common: no matter who our fathers were, we suffer from the same rather silly colonial constructs. An appreciation for the absurd helps...

Posted by: Denis Clarke on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 7:13pm GMT

The Stephen Laurence trial was a major occasion for all the media to review the current situation of race relations in Britain. It also co-incided with another high profile racially motivated murder.

But maybe I misunderstood the tweet?
I had thought it was about white people (inadvertedly) dividing blacks, i.e. more about a response of black people to a perceived situation in Britain, than white people "seeking to" divide and rule.

If it was about whites actively seeking division, then of course you're right.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 7:27pm GMT

In this particular part of this side of the pond, various organizations like to have a First Nations elder come and open their event with a blessing.

Sometimes it makes perfect sense. I co-chaired a public relations conference where an elder offered a blessing prior to a plenary session on communicating with First Nations and Métis audiences. On another occasion, an elder's blessing was included in a program that highlighted the multicultural reality of our comunity.

But at times I get very uncomfortable with it. I've seen elder blessings at the beginning of events that have no First Nations or Métis connection. It usually seems that people are approaching someone else's spirituality as something for their own entertainment.

Posted by: Malcolm French+ on Monday, 9 January 2012 at 11:30pm GMT

Fr Mark: 'contemporary British society is not one in which people are in any sense oppressed on the basis of their race: indeed, the UK arguably treats its ethnic minorities better than any other European society'

You vaunt contemporary UK society by comparing us with the higher levels of discrimination elsewhere in Europe. How does a comparison support the claim that, * any sense* does UK society perpetrate racial oppression? At the very least, we know it occurred. So where's the evidence that racial oppression has disappeared in every sense? Or are we just talking about legal prohibitions against overt forms of discrimination.

It's as irresponsible to issue the blanket denial 'British society is any sense...' as it is to assert without exception that 'white people always...' The truth lies somewhere in between the those two extremes and is often more true of people in general, rather than a particular race, or nation.

Posted by: David Shepherd on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 12:46am GMT

This is what I posted on face book.""Diane Abbott MP is getting the heat for saying that white people play the game of divide and rule, I would have agreed with her if she has said some white people instead of generalising it to all white people. I must confess that in the last 7 years of my life, white people have shown me more kindness than black people of my race. My English family is fantastic and has always stood with me many times when my African family has abandoned me. As an African living in the UK, I have seen it all and learning everyday and yes some white people are control freaks who play the game of divide and rule. Hugs and love to my western friends and family, I say you are the best and I will never exchange you for a diamond.

Posted by: Davis Mac-Iyalla on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 8:32am GMT

We live in a profoundly racist society in Britain and Northern Ireland. Useless to deny it and pretend otherwise.

The white middle classes and the Establishment need to listen to the voices of those we oppress and patronise so myopically.

Posted by: Laurence Roberts on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 12:23pm GMT

Living in the provinces, I have heard enough to be certain that racism is alive and well in the UK - also alive and well is the desire among others to enjoy the very real wealth of a multi-cultural country. I think David is right - individuals vary greatly in their attitudes to these matters.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 1:52pm GMT

Thankyou, Davis, for your measured comment here - on the fact that there is injustice on both sides of the cultural spectrum - especially on matters of the exclusion of the LGBT community. With the retirement of the Archbishop of Uganda, may the Anglican Church in that country be encouraged to dialogue, rather then discriminate. As for Nigeria, who knows when that Church will be open to the reality of sexual difference?

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Tuesday, 10 January 2012 at 11:03pm GMT

The fact is, humans invariably find some reason to treat others badly - race, sex, sexual orientation, religion - and some way to make sure that it's legal. Legal is the human substitute for ethical, or moral, or right. It assuages guilt, and is bought with money.

Until humans stop mistreating humans, the idea of talking about one group or another and their treatment is as useful as putting makeup on smallpox.

Posted by: MarkBrunson on Thursday, 12 January 2012 at 4:49am GMT

As parish priest of a majority West African congregation in South London, I'd add two comments: Nigerians will point out that the British bought the slaves but it was other Nigerians who sold them to the colonists; the UK is more deeply riven by class than race, and the two are frequently confused.

Posted by: Nicholas Elder on Friday, 13 January 2012 at 8:44am GMT
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