But what can I do? A beginner’s tool kit 1: knowing

[I’ve been wanting to write this all week, but our marking deadline was today…]

Plenty of White British folk like me have this week been asking—but what can I do? It was a question I first asked myself seriously after watching the events in Charlestown, VA, in 2017. This post is a beginner’s tool kit, written by a beginner of almost three years’ experience, for beginners with even less, in the hope that it helps someone. This post is about knowing—knowing how to begin to understand white supremacy. I plan to add a couple more on ‘doing’ and ‘giving’ soon.

This is specifically for people in the UK churches, and began from wanting to take seriously several conversations with Black British church leaders who expressed some concern/dissatisfaction with/over an assumption that the narrative of Black life in the UK could be simply assimilated to the US narrative. I was looking for a theorised account of oppression similar to the ones I knew about gender and sexuality, but wanted to honour the concerns of my Black British sisters and brothers, and so find an indigenous British version. I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert, but this is what I have found to be most helpful in the past three years of looking:

1. Know about
The first task is to understand the reality: the history, cultural realities, and the facts of racial oppression, in UK culture and in the UK church:
1.1 History:
David Olusoga, Black and British: A forgotten history (2016) is the best place I have found to start; it was based on a TV series, which I haven’t seen, but which I assume is equally excellent.
I don’t know a good book covering all the history of Black Christianity in the UK, but Israel Olufinjana’s various studies of reverse mission offer interesting and varied snapshots.

1.2 Cultural Studies:
Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2018) is the single best text I know here. this is just a must-read; in brief and simple chapters, she explains whiteness, and how it affects so much else.
Looking backwards in history, the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is seminal here. Almost anything by Stuart Hall is worth reading, but if you only pick one text, Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The cultural politics of race and nation (1987) is the one to go for.
Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy collaborated on a photo-journalistic essay, Black Britain: A Photographic History (2011), which is powerful and profound.
1.3 Church life:
Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk About Race: Understanding the Black experience in white majority churches (2019) is a brilliant and accessible introduction
1.4 Theology:
I suggest you start with Anthony Reddie—he’s written loads, and there aren’t any bad ways in that I’ve discovered, but perhaps Faith, Stories, and the Experience of Black Elders (2001) is the place to start, maybe followed up by the collection he edited with Jagessar in 2007, Black Theology in Britain: A reader. These aren’t better than the rest, but they are broader, and so invite you into an overview which his many other writings fill out the details of.
Robert Beckford is probably the next step–half a generation back in time. God of the Rahtid: Redeeming Rage (2001) is probably the way in.

2. Know:
If the texts above are about informing the intellect, what follows is about addressing the heart. Art is key. Art speaks personal truth in personal ways. I list here material that I have found helpful in offering some sort of a window into what it actually feels like to be Black and British. (If a Black British person invites you to hear their story, that is a precious gift, and should be honoured as such, and will be better than most of this; but you cannot demand of your Black friends and colleagues that they open their hearts and wounds to you, and so art is important.)
2.1 Poetry:
We are living in a golden age of British poetry, and immigrant and cross-cultural poets are probably leading the way. For those of us in Scotland, our national Makar, Jackie Kay, is the key voice, reflecting on experiences of immigration and adoption; Vahni Capildeo explores the identity of the immigrant profoundly and beautifully; Imtiaz Dharker brings the perspective of a subcontinental and Scottish heritage–one of her book blurbs describes her upbringing as ‘Muslim Calvinist’; Derek Walcott is of course one of the great Anglophone writers of the C20th, and his exploration of Caribbean life under the shadow of the memory of the British empire is a window into a broad and profound human reality. There are many others, but these are the writers I know best.
2.2 Music:
For me, South London rap/grime is leading the way here—maybe because it is referencing and reflecting streets I used to live on. Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayers tells the truth in aggressive but Christian terms—‘before there were prayers there were gang signs’; Dave’s Psychodrama is vulnerable and honest and perceptive: ‘Black has got a sour fuckin’ flavour—here’s a taste of it—but Black is all I know, there ain’t a thing that I would change in it.’ Guvna B’s Hands are Made for Working is more self-consciously Christian than Stormzy (’Too Grime-y for the church; too churchy for the Grime scene’), but doing similar work, made more powerful by the context of reflecting on the death of his father.

3. Know yourself:
Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: How to recognise your privilege, combat racism, and change the world (2020) is a workbook, and is probably more important than anything else on this list—although you might need to have done some of the other work to be ready to engage with it. It does what it says on the tin: offers an induction into the reality of white supremacy for white people through four weeks of worked exercises. It is not a comfortable read, but it is a necessary one.

As I say, I am a beginner in all this; I am sure there are things I have missed, and that there are mis-steps in the above.

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