Feb13SunReflecting on "The Skin We're In" February 13, 2022 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
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- Pr. Sebastian
“Blessed are you who are poor,
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you,”
Blessed are you who are marginalized by race, ethnicity and culture,
blessed are you who experience racism?
Why should we have a Black History Month Sunday,
and how should we go about doing it?
Two very good questions I struggled with the past few weeks.
I’ve never observed the day as a preacher,
and it probably was never celebrated here at St. Matthews.
St. Matthews, like most Lutheran Churches is majority white,
with just a few People of Colour.
In our most recent photo directory there is not a single Black person.
Black History Month Sunday would look very different in Carey’s old parish with its sizeable minority of members from Guyana,
and Deacon Scott’s old church which has a contingent with a Black Caribbean background.
In those churches, you could engage in dialogue with Black members and the Sunday would be largely led and planned by Black people, and rightly so.
Those services would have an authenticity and a relevancy that are lacking in any attempt here at St. Matthews.
But does that mean we do nothing here, and not acknowledge the topic of Black History Month?
It would be far easier to do nothing, and there are so many pitfalls and thorny issues that could be encountered.
I’m afraid of saying something wrong,
and maybe that applies to many well-meaning white folks who aren’t overtly racist.
When you don’t have representation from a group,
it’s very difficult to plan a service “on their behalf”.
But I think we gotta start somewhere, and a 1st step is better than nothing.
Some might say we’re not doing enough,
but for these COVID-times,
at least we try with 1 Sunday, 1 Sermon, some African-American spirituals and build from there.
Can a white male like myself preach on Black History Month Sunday, and what does he preach about?
Can I preach about anti-black racism?
One place I feel comfortable starting from is to share what I learned from a black author, and this is often recommended,
for white folks to amplify voices of marginalized communities.
I do this with humility acknowledging that I still have much to learn.
I start with sharing a bit of my experiences of Blackness in my life.
I grew up in a family that placed value on respect and appreciation for different races, cultures and ethnicities.
Growing up in a suburb of Montreal that had a large Haitian and Jamaican community, I was first consciously exposed to a Black person: my first teacher, in preschool.
In Elementary school I had a few Black classmates,
but no Black friends, and all through High School, CEGEP and University I really wasn’t around any Black people at all.
I do recall a handful of Black Caribbean members at the Anglican cathedral where I sang, but none at my home Lutheran parish.
I grew up watching the Cosby Show often,
and started taking an interest in Hip-Hop, something I enjoy to this day.
I’ve watched and enjoyed a smattering of so-called Black movies over the years, from the 1967 “Look who’s coming to Dinner” with recently deceased Sidney Poitier to the 2018 Black KK Klansman by Spike Lee and the 2019 Marvel Black Panther movie.
But if I look across my Facebook Friend list,
I have less than 1% who are Black.
Perhaps my most important, and only time I regularly was interacting with Black people was my time as resident at the Waterloo Lutheran Student House, where I had 3 roommates who were new Canadians, previously refugees from Somalia and Rwanda.
I live in Westvale, which is predominantly white with some Asian minority, and I have encountered perhaps 2 Black families in my neighbourhood.
So I have been largely insulated from Blackness, and while I have appreciated black musicians and comedians,
it’s never been very personal to me.
More recently, in the last few years, I’ve done some reading on anti-racism and white privilege, and those have been challenging but interesting learnings,
And contain things I try to integrate into my life.
I wonder whether your personal experience is similar to mine,
or perhaps you’ve even had less interactions with Black people,
culture and history than me?
How does that affect how we deal with issues of race and racism?
How does our distance or lack of personal relationships with Black people limit our engagement in topics raised in the news or during Black History Month?
In 2020 I had problems putting up a “Black Lives Matter” on our church’s outdoor LED sign…I thought it was too political,
so we put up a “Standing in solidarity with marginalized commuities” instead.
Our LED sign speaks for the whole community of St. Matthews,
and I didn’t want to presume that my voice speaks for all…esp. on this contentious slogan.
What is a statement, that if we had a congregational vote,
would get majority approval?
Could we put a “Black Lives Matter” slide on our LED sign today?
Perhaps it might be a little easier to get consensus for that in 2022 than in May 2020.
But I definitely see that here at St. Matthews we need further education, learning, and discussion as a group.
I would now like to share some learnings from a powerful book I read last year, called “The Skin We’re in” by activist and journalist Desmond Cole.
I highly recommend it, and if you don’t have time to read it,
there is a 45 minute CBC Video documentary as well,
that gets at some of the most important points.
The book lays bare that anti-Black racism is very real in Canada,
and criticizes the smug assumption that this racism is not as bad as the US,
or that we live in a post-racial nation where racism simply does not and cannot exist.
Those with first-hand experience, that is,
many if not most of the Black community:
say that Canada has a racism problem,
and this is apparent even in the most multicultural and diverse city
in the world, namely Toronto.
Cole writes: “This idea that Canada’s racial injustices are not as bad as they could be— this notion of slavery lite, of racism lite, of what my friend calls the “toy version of racism”- is a very Canadian way of saying “remember what we could do to you if we wanted to.”
Passive-aggressive racism is central to Canada’s national mythology and identity.”
At the heart of anti-black racism in Canada lies systemic white supremacy.
Cole writes: “The Canadian government and its institutions are the products of a white supremacist ideology that claims this land as the property of a white European colonial government. …[To maintain its stolen land, the government is engaged in an ongoing, centuries-long genocide of Indigenous peoples. Our government is designed to assimilate or eradicate Indigenous peoples, and unfortunately it works exactly as it was designed to.]
White supremacy is a hierarchy, with whiteness at the top. Indigenous people of the Americas, whose lands have been colonized by white settlers, occupy a low place on this hierarchy—white supremacy is trying to replace them. But Black people, whom British and French colonists brought to this land in chains centuries ago, are at the bottom of the ladder. We are the scapegoats. Whiteness is constantly defined and reproduced through anti-blackness. In particular, white supremacy designates Black people as less than full human beings, as disposable labour, as chattel placed on earth for the benefit of white people. This is just as true for today's incarcerated Black people, whose criminalized existence feeds the state’s courts, jails and prisons, as it was for Black people forced to labour in fields centuries ago. White supremacy is a global phenomenon, and has been used to justify European imperialists conquest and exploitation in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania.”
As we unpack the concepts of white supremacy and racism,
it’s important to note that racism is not just about racial slurs and Confederacy flags. It’s often a lot more subtle.
(P37) Author Ta-Ne-hisi Coates has said “racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy towards some and broader skepticism towards others”.
We often ascribe the best possible motives to White people,
and are most skeptical about the abilities and values of Black people.
Subtle racism is evident for example in the labour market,
where a recent Canadian study showed that (P162) “on average, for every dollar a white man earned, a black man earned 69 cents and a Black woman earned 56 cents.”
The central portion of the book, and Desmond Cole’s claim to fame,
is his analysis of police attitudes and practices towards the Black community, esp. in Toronto.
Origins of police forces in the US were the militias raised to capture runaway slaves, and Cole traces that role to today.
(P4) “The police are just doing their job; a central responsibility of policing has always been to discipline Black people on behalf of the ruling class.”
One is much more likely to be shot and killed by police in Toronto if one is Black, and there is far more brutal police actions and disproportionate use of force against Blacks than any other races.
Cole focusses especially on the controversial practice of carding:
which is the stopping for ID by police of Black people, and men in particular, for the purpose of establishing a monitoring file system on these individuals.
“Between 2008-12 police filled out 1.8 million contact cards,
involving more than a million individuals, and
(P66) “In every single police district in Toronto, police disproportionately stopped and documented Black people and other racialized groups without making arrests or laying criminal charges.”
This was exposed as largely racist profiling,
and although promised by John Tory to be eradicated, quietly continued.
Another key criticism Cole raises is the
P57 “police’s failure to de-escalate situations involving Black people whom the community knows to be living with mental health issues.“
This ties into the de-fund the police movement,
and the recent announcement of
[Toronto’s first-ever mental health crisis response teams —
without police — which will launch in March where
The teams will dispatch nurses and mental health support workers instead of officers to respond to 911 calls about people in crisis.
I think sending mental health professionals to situations involving people in mental health crisis is better than sending police in with guns drawn.Cole in many instances is quite provocative.
(P141) for the majority of white Canadians, racist police violence is the cost of being “free”. Violence is regrettable and no one wants it, but not all violence is equally threatening, and many prefer police violence to the chaos they fear might follow from being too soft on Black people.”
Besides concentrating on systemic racism in police forces, Cole also draws attention to discipline and policing in schools,
mentioning how Black students get suspended many times more often than white students.
[P25: “In 2006-7, the Toronto District School Board, the largest school board in the country, suspended Black Students from junior kindergarten to grade 6 over three times more often than white students in the same grades”]
Cole also describes how immigration laws were and are most strict
when it comes to Black refugees and immigrants.
What is my reflection this week on this book?
One simple observation:
With respect to the blockades and occupations in Ottawa and the border crossings:
I think the reaction by police would have been very different if the protestors were Black. And this points to broader systemic anti-Black racism, of which I myself am also complicit.
So, what’s my invitation to you for the week ahead?
I challenge you:
This month: watch a film made by a Black director
or with a predominantly black cast,
Read a book by a Black author
Read about one aspect of Black culture or history.
Join me in donating to a local Black community organization, such as the Canadian Caribbean Association of Waterloo Region,
The African Community Wellness Initiative
or the Black Youth Helpline.
If you need suggestions, let myself or Pastor Carey know,
or take a look at this Sunday’s Facebook post with its links.
[Or if you want to go further, consider becoming an ally.
The Eastern Synod Racial Justice Committee defines this as doing the following:
(ES RJAC How to be an Ally)
Educate ourselves and others on the realities and histories of marginalized people;
Speak up even when it is scary.
The restoration of human dignity, respect and equal access to resources is intrinsic to the acknowledgement of our common humanity;
Being an ally is a way of being and doing.
This means self-reflection as a way of life.
It is not the work of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour to eradicate racism because the oppressed cannot free themselves;
instead, those with privilege must take on the responsibility of dismantling racism and racist systems.]
May the wheels of justice turn to reduce anti-Black racism in our families, societies and countries.
May we all do our part, however small to contribute to this.
As we sing Mary’s Song
The Canticle of the Turning.