Thursday, March 24, 2011

Gentle Racism

I want to have a bit of an explore of the subject of racism again and may, because that's the only way to do it, risk getting it a bit wrong in order to see if I am right. I'll explain.

Last night George Kovoor, Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, spoke at the Nailsea Churches Together Lent Course. There is a recording of what he said available at the Methodist Church if this post prompts anyone to want to listen.

George is Indian. Proudly Indian. He reminded us of the multi-cultural melting pot that is India and the mixture of people of major faiths in his country. Even the minor faiths have millions of adherents.

He told a couple of gentle, fun-poking jokes about Indians. He said that it was OK for him to tell them but if we told them it would be racist. One was so old that I think I told it in the school yard before I knew what racism was. He gave testimony of the appallingly ignorant way he was treated by a Church Warden in a Midlands Church. No way to treat a Chaplain to the Queen. Mind you he describes himself as The Chaplain to the Queen which suggests he is the only one. There are many.

He told us India was mentioned in the Bible, although anyone looking in the Book of Ruth, as he suggested, will be disappointed. It's in Esther.

Now in this context he said one or two things, in a jokey way, about English culture. Why don't we smile more? Why do we boil potatoes and serve them without spices? Is the former a useful corrective or a failure to understand a culture? Is the latter a massive generalisation in a country that is learning to cook better?

Now one thing about being a mature ethnic grouping is the ability not to care terribly much if someone takes the piss out of us. We recognise stereotypes when we hear them knocked and laugh too, because we know we're not all like that but we can be or have been.

Here's the punchy bit. We have stopped telling jokes like that ourselves because we know that other, less mature ethnic groupings take offence as part of the state of coming to maturity. Is that a fair thing to say?

His subject 'A God for All Faiths?' was not treated the way we expected but was treated fascinatingly and grippingly. He is one of those speakers who leaves you hanging on his every word because you are convinced he is about to say something outrageous. That he never quite does is a matter of brilliant technique to keep an audience listening long. I have no problem with 75 minute talks if they are like that. I have some problems with dull 10 minute talks.

It was a great, thought-provoking talk on many levels and revisited quite a few texts which white, Anglo-Saxon Caucasians may have misappropriated.

Now, I wonder whether being a church with a reputation for a bit of gentle craziness will be an antidote for the 'boring' tag with which the church in this country has been labelled. Time to write that Press Release.

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