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….

Women and Islam – A Different Take

In recent years a lots of ink has been spent debating the relationship between Islam and British identity. Much of it has implicitly reflected the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis popularised by Samuel Huntingdon in his 1996 – ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ are somehow incompatible. Stop for just a few moments and we realise how flawed such a perspective is. And yet it has gained political and cultural traction in the UK. Here is another, different take from two different videos –  ‘Make me a Muslim’ charts working class British women and the Lauren Booth video tells of the conversion of an affluent professional woman, the sister in law of Tony Blair. Have a watch and see what you think. Don’t see either as the last word but use it to develop a broader and more nuanced view of one of the key issues of our age…

Muslim Britain

Identity Up For Grabs

Abstract City

Is identity something that is fixed and given or fluid and created? Do we receive an identity or do we forge it for ourselves?

Over the last 20-30 years what the urban theorist Manuel Castells calls ‘primary identities’ – gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality – have become the foundation for the development of new models of grass-roots politics. Such patterns of political activism have become especially important in urban communities, on occasions supplanting formal models of doing politics. They are also of real importance for anyone who is interested in understanding the relationship between identity, spirituality, religion and activism. In an increasingly fluid and superdiverse city can ‘identity’ provide an inclusive basis for dialogue or networked activism and community development?

Culture on the Edge is an online resource that offers fascinating and challenging reflections on identity and its formation – It’s well worth having a look.

Religious Identity and Superdiversity

It’s become a new buzz word thanks largely to the work of the social anthropologist Steve Vertovec – ‘superdiversity’…..but what does it reveal that we don’t know already? And what might the idea of complex, interwoven identities that flow and change have to say to the way we think about city life, about identity and about faith in the ‘liquid’ city?

Within the life of the 21st century city even our diversity has become diverse. There are for example more than 300 languages spoke in London schools and almost 200 self-defined religous identities. We live perhaps in a both-and society rather than an either-or world reminiscent perhaps of what Homi Bhabha calls a ‘third space’ – the place where who we are is not fixed or fenced off but in continuous process of becoming in relationship with others. And yet we also live in societies that are more starkly divided along ethnic and religious lines than ever before. A resurgent ‘orientalism’ has accompanied what Samuel Huntingdon called the ‘clash of civilisations’ in the mid 1990s, the ‘othering’ of the so called ‘war on terror’, the rise of far right street movement like the English Defence League in the UK and rising levels of Islamophobia….What role might religous faith have to play as we wrestle with diversity, the fear of difference and struggle to forge a liberative cultural politics of difference?

Does faith entrench fixed and forever identities – build up a kind of religious bonding social capital – OK for those on the ‘inside’ but excluding those whom we perceive to be ‘different’ or ‘other’? Alternatively might it be the case that outward facing and dynamic faith based identities can build links, a kind of religious bridging social capital? What’s life like in your city? Is superdiversity just another bit of grandiose academic jargon or does it grasp a new level of diversity within our diversity and invite us to think afresh about the cities we call home?

The debate featured above focuses on ‘Religious Identity in a Superdiverse Society’ and is part of the ‘Religion and Society’ programme in the UK….along with the video there are transcripts that invite further questions….See what you think…