By Paul Harper
I am an immigrant in this country. I have only experienced racist abuse twice in 19 years here. However, when I walk down the street, it is not obvious that I am not “born and bred” here. My origin is only apparent when I open my mouth. But we Irish and now fairly popular in my adopted city, London. That is not the case for everyone.
I’ve never seen people of different skin colour, culture or race as inferior or to be avoided but I also didn’t have much exposure to those people in my early years and I certainly have had moments of, at best, insensitive, and at worst just crass behaviour. Race issues were something for victims of racism or politically correct people to worry about, not me.
I grew up in Ireland in the 80’s/90’s. We didn’t have immigration as no one migrates to a country with >20% unemployment. The town I lived outside had about 30,000 people and only one was black. Everyone knew his name because he was so obviously different.
In Ireland at that time minority groups were more identified around religion: Catholic or Protestant. Growing up as a Protestant in the Republic, part of about a 3% minority, I experienced some minor bullying as my school uniform identified me as different. Visiting Northern Ireland I experienced similar minor bullying as my accent identified me as “from the other side”.
In 95 I spent 3 months working in Tennessee, USA. This was the first time I’d seen overt racism firsthand. Black people were not welcome in many of the places we went and this almost cost a young Jamacian guy who lived with us his life.
Moving to London in ’97 certainly exposed me to people of many different cultures but also to many different cultural attitudes. There was the taxi driver who carried me from the airport when I first arrived, who told me that “Paki’s were dirty people who share the same bed between different people, one lot sleeping in it during the day, another at night” or a girlfriend of Jamaican extraction who informed me her father would not be concerned about her seeing a white guy, at least I wasn’t African. He would never tolerate that.
At the time the underlying racism of these comments amused me more than anything else. It wasn’t my issue. If other people chose to think and talk like that it’s their problem.
But then things happened to challenge my though processes…
These have caused me to realise that race issues ARE my issues, that I can’t turn a blind eye, and ultimately have forced me to become more vocal:
Firstly, the EU referendum in the UK. I voted to leave the EU (this is primarily because I do not believe in the ideology of a federal European state and the consequent erosions of national sovereignty that go with that). I did NOT vote for closing borders, deporting immigrants (that would be rather ironic as an Irishman married to a South African with 3 English born children) or isolationism. I did not expect either the racist vitriol that has been unleashed on immigrants since the referendum or the abuse, opprobrium and derision of those who voted to Leave by those who voted to Remain. Neither have been pretty and reveal deep divisions in our society.
Secondly, I read Deitrich Bonhoffer’s biography. He was a German pastor who was executed in 1945 for his part in plots to assassinate Hitler. He was so repulsed by the Nazi ideology that he believed his Christian duty was to actively work to overthrow it. Most challenging of all? He willingly gave his life to fight an injustice that was not against him. His challenge to all who are ‘privileged’ and ‘safe’ was:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak, Not to act is to act”.
Thirdly the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and everything associated with it. When a police officer, who’s job it is to protect you, shoots and kills you, questions have got to be asked about what’s going on in that society. What’s really struck me in the dialogue around these events is how people, often privileged and white, have tried to shut down these questions with statistics about how violent crime is disproportionately high in the black community. Apart from missing the point, what they’re actually saying is a) it’s your problem b) I’m not really that bothered because it doesn’t affect me and c) it’s probably your own fault anyway. When someone who hasn’t experienced poverty, lack of opportunity, hopelessness and disenfranchisement tells someone stuck in that environment to just sort their problems out it’s really problematic and certainly doesn’t improve the situation or reduce the feelings of exclusion.
Finally, recent conversations with friends who have experienced racist abuse have struck me. Having travelled, I understand what it feels like for your physical appearance to make you stand out from the crowd. However, as a large male, that doesn’t usually make me feel physically threatened. That’s not the case for many people.
As a Christian, the verses in Phil 2:4-7 have really arrested me for a while now.
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant“
I believe this means that for those who wish to follow Jesus, we must look after the interests of others before ourselves. I believe, as a man, it is my duty to look after the interests of women; as a white person, it is my duty to look after the interests of non-white people; as a person who has been blessed financially, to look after the welfare of those less fortunate. I believe, for those who would follow Christ, fighting for our own equality and rights is not where our efforts should be, but rather in serving others and enabling them to be the equals God created them to be.
As with Bonhoffer, our fight is against injustice not committed against us.
What can I do?
Can you and I do anything about it? Aren’t we just voices, lost in a morass of opinions and shouting? However the words of Bonhoeffer ring out: “not to speak is to speak”. Keeping quiet and doing nothing in this current climate of more overt xenophobia and racism is not an option.
Here’re some suggestions based on things I’ve tried to do differently:
- listen to people from different backgrounds and experiences. It will enhance your experience of life and also help you understand others. This blog explains it brilliantly. http://urbanconfessional.org/blog/howtodisagree
- read books that have very different social and political views to your own. Again it will broaden your horizons to ideas that you may be wrong about, or that there is no right answer to, just opinions shaped by experiences.
- think before you say, write or post something on social media. Ask yourself how might this be perceived by someone from a different background. Will my attitude and opinions make them feel welcome or unwelcome around me?
- comment positively on things that seek to build bridges between people. Speak up against things that try to increase division. The fall-out from the Brexit referendum has shown we have a deeply divided society. Unless we work actively to heal these divisions, our future doesn’t look great.
- reach out to people who are not the same as you. Enrich your life by including them in it. A homogenous life, surrounded by sameness is pointless in a great city like London. Experience and celebrate the diversity.
- find others who want to change attitudes around race. Dream together, inspire each other, encourage each other to do what’s in your hearts.
53 years ago Martin Luther King spoke of a dream of his children not being judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. There have been strides made in those 50 years and yet it is sobering to read his speech and realise that many of his dreams remain unfulfilled. It has passed to our generation to ensure those dreams don’t die and the cry to be “Free at last, free at last” remains strong.
About Paul, the author: I am a son of God, a husband to Robyn and a father to 3 children. Based in Kingston, UK, I work full time at KingsGate Church. To chat further with me about some of these ideas, please post your thoughts and comments below.
This blog is part of the “I made the change“series – over the month of August we’ll be sharing the stories of 4 people who’ve decided to make changes in their lives in response to various types of injustice.