Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Big White Lie

“But it’s all over! Let’s just get on with life and leave all that nasty racism behind” 

I am sure many may respond in that way after having read my first post on how it came to be that people were labelled white and black.

But it isn’t all over.  

Some things are, thankfully, over.

Slavery has been condemned as an evil; Colonialism is finished and countries have their independence; Scientific Racism has been renounced; Apartheid has ended and South African has a new constitution.

Somethings are not over.

Racism remains to oppress people of colour. However, I have found the term “racism” to be too broad and such a despised term that most white people can’t help but dismiss their personal involvement with it. I have found it helpful to create more nuance by using the following terms: 1. Raw Racism, 2. Discrete Racism, and 3. Tolerating  the Big White Lie. Let’s explore these a bit more. Only then can start thinking about how we respond – and this I will cover in a separate post.

Raw Racism

This is easy to spot. It includes physically attacking someone, hateful speech and name calling because of skin colour discrimination. It includes openly declaring one’s establishment for “whites only”. Most people will oppose this form of racism, except maybe the extreme right wing groups.

Discrete Racism

This is the basic discrimination against someone based on their having black or brown skin. Most of the time it is carried out in subtle and sophisticated ways as opposed to the crass aggression of the raw racism. Sadly this still happens here in South Africa in 2017. Here are some examples shared with me by friends living in Southern Suburb, Cape Town.

  • shop security racially profiling suspects, and only following around people of colour.
  • restaurants telling black patrons that they are full when they aren’t.
  • landlords telling potential black renters the property is unavailable when it isn’t.
  • tolerance of racist jokes.
  • racial profiling in neighbourhood watch groups, only being suspicious of black or Coloured men and using code terms like  “bravo male” or “charlie male” to mask racial profiling.
  • black adult still being called boy or girl e.g. “garden boy”.

Thankfully, these types of behaviour are, more and more, being "called out" in real life and social media and are broadly condemned when they occur.

Agreeing with The Big White Lie

Let’s start by looking at what is The Big White Lie. Remember that the terms “white” and “black” were not designed to be objective descriptions of skin colour difference, rather they were a statement of who is better and who is less. This thinking was underpinned by the belief that  “white is better and black is less”.  This lie has two parts to it: first, that white or Western ways are better, and secondly that white skin or Western ways are the norm or the standard.

It is only recently that I came to see the many ways I had been believing this lie. I had not been aware of it, as it felt so normal to me having grown up in South Africa. I propose that only a few white people in South African have escaped believing the Big White Lie on some level, and most are unaware that its even there. This is because the invisible barriers setup by this lie do not impact the lives of those with peachy skin. But, talk to a friend of colour and you will find out how real it is. Further, the Big White Lie has, over centuries, seeped into the fabric of the very institutions and organisations within our society.

Here are some examples, from the seeming innocuous to the life-threatening:

  • Plasters match only peachy skin colour.
  • You really have to search hard to find a doll with caramel or chocolate colour skin tone.
  • It’s calling peach-coloured crayons “skin colour” as if brown and black are not skin colour.
  • Most books, comics and super-heroes have peachy skin.
  • It’s the pleasant surprise you get when you receive excellent service from a black person, as if black brilliance is an exception.
  • It’s the presumed competence that most white people enjoy, where-as people of colour have to work twice as hard to prove that they are competent.
  • Its why most “good schools” have a majority white staff, and parents feel a bit concerned that standards might drop if there are too many black teachers.
  • It’s the fact that most white people haven’t learnt an African language, but many white people mock the accent of grammatical errors of a black person speaking English as a third language. More than that, it’s judging a person’s intelligence by the command of their English.
  • It’s when white people choose to call a black person by a nickname because they can’t pronounce their birth name.
  • It’s schools having hair policies that rule against the natural form of black girls hair.
  • It’s the unquestioned honouring of the European knowledge base, whilst being suspicious of African perspectives and knowledge.
  • It’s tolerating black people's suffering. For example, it is not being angry at the fact that black people are using buckets as toilets but the City of Cape Town is not making this a priority issue. It is being unmoved by the fact that many people of colour are living under threat, in what can only be described as war-zones, yet the police per capita is much higher in leafy suburbs than in the areas where crime is really happening.
  • If a black person does something wrong it is more likely that it is attributed to her race, and if a white person errs it is attributed to her individual actions.
  • If a white person has much success or authority it is seen as hard work and skill, but a black person’s position is attributed to affirmative action. 

These are just some examples, but once you start becoming aware of The Big White Lie you can’t help but notice the many ways our society is arranged around this falsehood.   

The Big White Lie in the church

Given my faith and involvement in the Christian Church I have been looking to see how the “white is best and black is less” lie might play itself out in church spaces, in particular in churches in the previously defined white suburbs. Here are some examples:

  • Mainly white leadership: There is this unconscious, subtle and yet powerful belief that white people are more competent leaders and better teachers. We struggle to trust that a person of colour can do the job as well or that he or she will be able to respond well to the needs of a mainly white congregation.
  • Images in videos and other teaching aides that depict Jesus, God, and the other characters found, in the bible as white.
  • English or Afrikaans are the dominant languages in the service and African languages are ignored, or sung in a “token” song so that we feel we are being a little diverse. 
  • The majority of the worship songs are from Europe, North America and Australia and do not reflect the diverse musical richness of this nation and continent.
  • Mainly European and American theologians, authors and teachers are quoted in sermons, whilst we remain suspicious or ignore African thinkers and theologians
  • Most of the books in the church library have been European and American writers, whilst ignoring African voices.
  • The church mainly partners with networks made up of mostly, white suburb churches; and if we are engaging with a black church it is often done in a “charity” or “paternalistic way, not as equal partners. 

Jesus and The Big White Lie

My Christian faith provides a lens to help me engage with the Big White Lie. In her book Lisa Sharon Harper expands on Matthew 22 in a way that opened my eyes to the value of every human being, which directly opposes the belief that “white is better and black is less”.

I love the metaphor that Jesus used in Matthew 22 when he asked about whose image was on the coins. This was when the Pharisees were trying to trick him about taxes. The coins bore the image of Caesar to show the rule and reign of Caesar. Jesus said the Pharisees should give to Caesar what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to Him. And what does belong to God? Those that bear God’s image. Jesus wasn’t interested in coins, Jesus came for each person, because each person bears the image of God.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1: 27

What a powerful declaration that each human being has worth, because each human being bears God’s image.

When we consciously or unconsciously agree with the lie that “white is best and black is less” we are not just diminishing that person, but we are diminishing the image of God in that person. The image of God is diminished here on earth as systems of racism diminish people based on skin colour.

Just read that last paragraph again!

My next pieces will be me making sense of how I respond to the white identity that has been thrust on me and how I can challenge The Big White Lie in my own thinking and in society. 

For more on how Jesus came to restore racial breakdown read Lisa Sharon Harpers book, especially chapter 9 “Shalom and Race”.  
Harper, Lisa Sharon. 2016. Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right. Waterbrook, New York.

For more on The Big White Lie and how it plays out in society, read these:

White Privilege in South Africa - The invisible backpack https://whiteworksa.wordpress.com/invisiblebackpack/

Six things that white people have that black people don’t http://mg.co.za/article/2015-02-23-six-things-white-people-have-that-black-people-dont/

Racism and Corporate Evil - A White Guy’s Perspective http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/racism-and-corporate-evil

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