What Does It Mean To Be White?

Identity

Many [many] years ago I was a Religious Education teacher at a very large high school in the East End of London. In one particular lesson I was talking about identity with a group of 15 year olds. The class was roughly 1/3 Black, 1/3 Muslim and 1/3 White. I asked the Black pupils, ‘What does it mean for you to be Black and British in London?’ Loads of answers came pouring out. Same thing happened when I asked the second group oy pupils, ‘What does it mean for you to be Muslim and British in London?’ But when I asked the White pupils the same questions there was just a long awkward silence. Not because the White pupils were not sharp or smart but because they had never had to think about their Whiteness before…..To be White in the UK is still, many years later, the norm.

In the intervening years debates about identity, migration and multiculturalism have become more frequent, more intense and more shrill – often accompanied by a barely hidden racist sub-text. Whilst Blackness has been explored in perceptive depth within the ever growing canon of Black Theology [see Robert Beckford and Anthony Reddie for example in the UK], Whiteness has remained largely unexamined, even by progressive White political theologians.

I argued in my first book ‘Voices from the Borderland‘ that unless White women and men who are committed to inclusivity, liberation and multiculturalism engage with our shared [and complex] Whiteness in progressive ways the ground will be left wide open for far right and fascist groups like the British National Party, the English Defence League or Britain First. Debates about multiculturalism dominate the airwaves. British Prime Minister David Cameron insists that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ [implying this was the fault of the British-Muslim community] and before him Labour government Ministers like David Blunkett sought to reduce and pin down Britishness.

A plural vision of Britishness will always be beyond our reach unless progressive White people begin to ask, ‘What does it mean to be White in a diverse society?’ Rather than opting for an everywhere but nowhere cosmopolitanism or a crude ‘hybridity’ let’s reflect instead on a hermeneutics of liberative difference that critiques the oppressive aspects of all of our religious traditions and ethnic identities but celebrates the liberative potential that we all bear….

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