ANTI-BLACK RACISM and AFROPHOBIA in the Canadian Context

This morning, I enjoyed a webinar, coordinated through the World Council of Churches, with moderator Adele Halliday from the UCC, and speakers Néstor Medina at Emmanuel College, Carol Duncan at Wilfred Laurier University, Peter Notenboom at the Canadian Council of Churches, and Kofi Hope, recently of the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals in Toronto.

You could – and should – chase this better at the WCC YouTube channel, or links at the national UCC or CCC sites. Until you do, I am posting a few notes in response, as usual as a parochial voice, neither academic nor bureaucratic. I’m on the privileged side of most relevant demographic distinctions in discourse about these topics, and for decades, unable to claim ally-ship or advocacy.

The UN and the WCC are promoting a focus this decade on people of African descent. Kofi acknowledged that the Canadian population is only 2.5% black, or 4% in Toronto, and 70% of those are in Toronto or Montreal. Toronto is 9% black, a minority over-represented in disadvantaged groups and in visible urban policing, providing a ‘one-story’ narrative for most of the rest of us.

Our congregation suffers a tragic deficiency in melanin, as I cracked wise yesterday on ‘Orange Shirt Day’: pale people look like death in orange. “Race” in Kitchener more often informs and expresses a community whose second biggest language group is Mandarin, no longer German, and in our church, weekly reflection on our acknowledgment of land claims, since the TRC.

Our metropolitan centre, however, is Toronto, our economic region is the ‘Rust Belt’ including the northeastern USA, and we do live in the global village represented through the WCC. I spent some time this morning to listen to voices elaborating on the (for us) provocative title of “Anti-Black Racism and Afrophobia”. I need to participate in a wider, current discourse – so do you!

There’s an old preaching quip: “when I left home, I couldn’t believe how ignorant my parochial home community could be – when I returned, I was surprised at how much they had learned!” It’s an olive branch from an angry young man who left suburban southwestern Ontario for urban Toronto, western and northern Canada, and a wider world. We’ve all learned – but can’t stop.

Too often, I challenge Trinity that ‘if we had hung out a sign, we could hardly have ended up this old and white’. We don’t permit direct bigotry in polite company like church – but ‘indirect and adverse effect’ human rights discrimination is alive and well. Our institutions do our sinning for us, from the distribution of Canadian consulates for visas, to our local neighbourhoods.

Nestor Medina traced racism in the Americas to the Doctrine of Discovery and early Spanish and Portuguese colonization. I’ve mentioned Charles Mann’s popularized accounts of the ‘Columbian Exchange’ in 1493 and 1491 – and Felipé Fernandez-Arnesto’s 1492, or Hernando de Soto’s ‘Mystery of Capital’. Medina’s perspective as a Latino theologian balanced our focus on USA slaves.

Carol Duncan from WLU was inspiring and clear about race as not biology, but social relations of power, established and destroyed categories, socialization, meaning making. She argued a bit of material determinism, that modern economy needed cheap un-free labour, whether Irish or black – and race ideas were after-the-fact justifications of the chattel slavery of Africans.

Duncan corrected some of our smug narrative of the Underground Railway. As I’ve pointed out too often this year, my ancestor Bill Bruce homesteaded on the Conestoga near here in the first wave of Crown grants – displacing some of the 2000 black settlers who were denied grants despite their existing ‘squatters rights’. We even had separate Methodist churches – de facto segregation, as she calls it.

I have heard Peter Noteboom from the CCC before, and appreciate him as a model of being a privileged ally on this panel – watch and learn from the way he tells his own story and offers his contribution on behalf of those he represents. He even had the wisdom in question time to defer to other panelists!

Finally, Kofi Hope spoke from a closer identification with the ‘single story’ we keep getting about younger black Torontonians. He was, as usual, credible and articulate based on lived experience and relationships – including in the UCC. He did affirm churches’ modest provision of space, and community ministries.

Those 750 words won’t likely get your engagement. In fact, the wide promotion of this webinar drew fewer than 50 online participants. Hopefully, like these blogs, the online posting allows for ‘asynchronous’ visits, ‘Nicodemus at night’ surreptitious inquiry by my audience, who have never said ‘Afrophobia’ aloud. Perhaps I should trust Gamaliel’s strategy: if it is of God, you can’t stop a cause!

The last time I preached, on September 16, I said (among other things):

…I’ll credit Ivan Illich’s ‘Shadow Work’ for first teaching me the story that 1492 was not all about Columbus getting sponsorship. It was not only defined by the ‘Expulsion’ of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Currently, the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, justifying the European colonial exploitation of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia, is promoted as key to the age.

In 1492, Elio Antonio de Nebrija presented the Spanish Queen Isabella with his Gramatica Castellana. Combine empire with language, ‘armas y letras’, giving instrumental power to ‘letrados’ who know and teach the one official language Spanish, while dismissing all other tongues as ‘vernacular’ or ‘dialect’. Ask a Basque separatist today if they were colonized by the Gramatica! In a previous age, Latin had enjoyed a similar status in a prior age – but here was a new marriage of empire and language – soon to be followed by ‘vernacular’ bibles associated with Lutheran, Calvinist, and English and Scottish reformers.

Words do not simply have free-standing meaning – there is a semantic field for the speaker, a semantic field for the hearer. Who rules, or is ‘correct’? All the times you have used a word, or heard or read it in use, shapes and changes its semantic field. How the words have been used, to help or to hurt, shape your response to them. An institutional power asserts such power – we concede it.

The context of the speaker and hearer do matter – our ‘life-worlds’. That’s my version of Jürgen Habermas’ understanding of discourse, and how language works. Charles Taylor’s ‘social imaginary’, or Hans Küng’s development of Thomas Kuhn’s idea into ‘religious paradigm’, offer support for people trying to subvert modernity, blind and deaf to its’ own parochialism….

I am grateful to the WCC and this morning’s panel for speaking much more clearly about all this – though I may not be ready to say ‘Afrophobia’ aloud!

Anybody still reading, beyond 1,000 words, knows my eagerness to reclaim our sources, and our current daily online scripture study “Glib Liberals Reading Leviticus in Tory Times”. Today we heard and reflected on the practice we blithely dismiss as ‘scape-goat’ – and it will be a couple of weeks before we face slavery in context of sabbatical and Jubilee. Join the conversation!