Sunday, October 16, 2005


A number of commentators and webloggers have reacted with understandable distress to the news about the racist abuse which greeted the appointment of Britain’s first black archbishop, Dr John Sentamu (left). As Maggi Dawn said: "not unprecedented, but still disgraceful." The UK may be a broad society, but it is also stalked by what social psychologists call heterophobia – fear of 'otherness'. That, at root, is what racism, in both its personal and institutional guises, is about.

So how can it be challenged? Back in 1997 I was co-organising an ecumenical conference in Scotland, for which the main speaker was the extraordinary Vincent Donovan, the pioneering Catholic priest and author of Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai. At that time Donovan, getting on in life and physically very vulnerable, was still working part-time as a chaplain to university students in North Carolina. As he commented, many of the whites there had imbibed the entrenched racial attitudes of the Deep South rather thoroughly.

Donovan went on to tell the story of how he passed a group of white, male youngsters cursing and bad-mouthing black people. He stopped and asked them why. “Because they're all filthy, stinkin’ thieves”, they replied. Donovan asked: “Who told you to think like that?” They looked offended. “No-one. That’s what we know for ourselves”. Evidently oblivious to his own safety (in a way that becomes quite believable if you meet him in the flesh) Donovan declared: “Nonsense! You're basically decent kids, and you're coming out with this garbage. I don’t think you came to the conclusion that 'black people are bad' all by yourselves, with no encouragement. I bet that's exactly how your families and friends think, too. What you’re doing is just following their lead and fitting in with those you hang out with. So why don’t you become real men by starting to think for yourselves? Look, there’s a group of black people… let’s go find out what they’re really like and what they think of you.” They white youngsters were, by all accounts, a bit astonished to be challenged in this way, and a robust but friendly dialogue ensued.

It’s a wonderful example of what you might call holy foolishness, and a reminder not just about the significance of having the courage of our convictions, but also about the crucial fact that racism and xenophobia, in common with all alienations, is a matter both of cultural production and of inter-personal formation. Like me you may doubt whether you have bravery to face it out in the same way as Vincent. I recall reasoning at the time (in a self-serving and not entirely rational way) that a quirky, feisty old geezer would surely be much less vulnerable to assault than those of us who might make better sport. Maybe, maybe not. But what we (I) can’t avoid is the reality that cultures of exclusion and hate (including the church's fashionable homophobia) are fed by collusion and can only be changed by hopeful realism, both personal and political.

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