Question Time, perception formed by experience and implications for the church

On Thurday night’s Question Time programme, things kicked off a bit. Here is the pertinent section of the programme:

Lots of people had their say on it. I want to make a few observations and then look at some implications.

First, it bears saying that the Muslim lady who insisted the white bloke speaking first said, ‘there is no racism in Britain’ is patently not what the man said. He specifically said, ‘the UK is one of the least racist societies actually across Europe.’ Now, we will get to that in a minute. But, at this point, let us note that he did not say, ‘there is no racism in Britain.’ That was a made up comment that didn’t serve anybody well.

Second, the Muslim lady began her comments by saying ‘it’s funny that you’re a white man saying that!’ Only one of two things will have prompted that comment. It is possible she is of the view that white people do not have the right to a voice on the question of race relations – itself a racist position that bears all the hallmarks of the worst elements of identity politics. Alternatively – and I sense from her comments this was the reason she said it – the white man speaking is much less likely to have ever experienced any racism so, she avers, how unsurprising that he doesn’t think Britain is a racist country. The first of those potential reasons for opening her remarks the way she did has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with victim mentality. The second of those reasons is entirely legitimate and, indeed, does have much to say about how we perceive truth. Thankfully, based on the rest of her comment, I think she was making the latter point.

Third, the white man who made the original point seemed to miss it entirely. The panellist known as George the Poet made a point about xenophobia driving the discussion on immigration. He then went on to suggest that he had experienced xenophobia his entire life and this is something many British people harbour. This is the context into which the white gentleman in the clip made his comment. So the Muslim lady who claimed he had said ‘there is no racism in Britain’ was, in fact, drawing her conclusion from the context of his comment. The man was certainly arguing Britain is less racist than other European nations whilst the panelist and the Muslim lady who took him to task were suggesting such was true based on their experiences.

Interestingly, George the Poet was making the point that the xenophobia is a driver in the conversation around immigration. This was the argument being rebuffed by Isabelle Oakshotte and, later, the white audience member in the clip. But I struggle to see how that point is credibly deniable. The fact is that xenophobia is a driver in the conversation around immigration. It is not – and nor was George the Poet saying – that it is the only driver in that conversation. Nor was he suggesting (so far as I could tell) everybody who is concerned about immigration is being driven by latent, or overt, xenophobia. His point was a simple one – xenophobia accounts for some of the concern surrounding immigration and is a driver in the conversation. It is for that very reason some of the policies enacted in this area do appeal to baser instincts.

Interestingly, what seemed to be driving the discussion on Question Time was experience. Because the guy making the initial comment hadn’t experienced racism, and according to some quantitative measure he considered us very open, he perceived racism and xenophobia were (relatively) minor issues in the UK. The Muslim lady and black panelist had a very different experience – having faced first-hand the sharp end of racist thinking – so they perceived racism and xenophobia to be a big issue. I have generally found that perceptions of this issue are driven most by personal experience. Few people in the villages of South Oxfordshire perceive a big problem with racism and xenophobia because there are vanishingly few BME people to exhibit any racist tendencies toward. In Oldham, with our history of race riots and ongoing ingrained segregation, many perceive these things are much more prevalent.

Here is where the church needs to exercise great caution. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether we think Britain is characterised by racism and xenophobia or not. What does matter is how the people coming into our churches perceive things. If their perception of Britain is that the country is xenophobic and racist, and potentially our churches by extension, then we need to take that seriously. Simply rebuffing their perception, or offering figures to suggest they have it wrong, is perhaps not going to incline them to the gospel. If they are faced by majority white, middle class churches with exclusively white middle class leadership teams, we are inevitably going to be starting from behind on this issue irrespective of how woke and right on we are trying to be. It doesn’t matter whether our church is racist and xenophobic (I trust it isn’t), we have to be prepared for the fact that we might be perceived that way based on our culture, style of music, leadership teams and any number of other measures.

Just imagine how you would feel walking into an entirely black or Asian church, with no other white faces around. As you speak to people, though you ostensibly speak the same language it becomes clear they use words and phrases in different ways to you. Nobody in the room is wearing the same sort of clothes as you. The topics of conversation are well outside of your usual experience and you struggle to engage. Nobody who stands up to speak or do anything in the service looks or sounds anything like you. How would you feel? Couple to that a history of discrimination of one form or another, and personal experiences of such happening to you by people outside of the church, it’s not that hard to see how this might be a very uncomfortable experience and might reinforce certain assumptions you hold (whether true in reality or not).

These are the kind of issues that many black, Asian and white working class people have to navigate everytime they step into our essentially white, middle class Evangelical churches. As I have said before, there is a limit to what we can do about what we actually are. We can’t stop being white and middle class if that’s what we are and we can’t tell our congregations to stop being so white either. But what we can do is be sensitive about how those coming into our churches from other backgrounds might feel and make every effort to mitigate those things as best we are able. Maybe then, some of them will stick around and rather than talking about how we get them to stay, we might be able to talk about how we get them into leadership.