Residents living in the north western state of Punjab, India, recently reported that they can see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years. Can you imagine living next door to the tallest mountain range in the world, so huge and imposing, for 30 years and not being able to see it because of pollution? The lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has launched the lifting of this gross pollution. Now they can see the whole truth: the unadulterated beauty and splendour of the Himalayas.
The lockdown has also uncovered what some regard as an even worse (if not the worst) pollution-pandemic of the past 500 years. Yet, most people living in Britain (not to mention the so-called West) have not even seen it despite its proximity. I’m talking about the Himalayas of racism.
Many people – black, brown and white – especially young people, have taken to the streets across the world since the fatal day of George Floyd’s murder on 25 May at the ‘knee’ of the police. Yet this largely peaceful, but dynamic uprising, which has pulled the plaster off the deep, throbbing wound of racism, has caused immense division in our country, our church and our homes. For the first time in my lifetime – and I’m no longer young – I’ve been bombarded by questions and conversations about race: what it means and how we’re meant to erase its demonic parent, racism.
Yes, before the concept of ‘the races’ was the creation of racism. The hierarchy within the human race, with the white ‘race’ at the top and black ‘race’ at the bottom and all others in between, was invented by church and state in order to justify racism. This racism was meted out through the enslavement of African people and later the colonisation (rape and pillage) of their (and other dark peoples’) land. And this Himalayas of a global scandal has loomed unnoticed, if ignored, even in the 21st century. It has been hidden by thick pollution. Until now!
I refer to this pandemic-pollution as the politics of ignorance. By ignorance I’m not referring to stupidity or idiocy, although these are never far. I’m referring to organised, wilful and structural ignorance that is state sponsored and manufactured as ‘knowledge’. Let me give you an example. We have a white friend who got really upset about the recent toppling of some of the statues of slave traders. He felt that his time in the armed forces for queen and country – meaning our pristine history – was rendered null and void by a mass of ungrateful, brittle and unpatriotic young people. He couldn’t see the fuss! When I told him that I saw where he was coming from because I used to feel the same – at least up until my early teens – he was shocked; especially at what I told him next. I shared what I discovered back then: that what we were taught in school was one big lie! The stories of Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, David Livingstone and Francis Drake (to name a few) as heroic explorers – and this is still taught in schools by the way (I should know since I had the horror of seeing this in my child’s homework) – are a massive cover-up of Empire and genocidal exploitation of dark peoples. This erasure continues to be manufactured as our island’s history, as ‘knowledge’. Now, no matter how many halos these pedestalled ‘saints’ have accrued, our Christian values must venerate them for what they are: a piercing gong and a clanging cymbal – hollow holiness because of their ‘bloody’ past.
Now, I’m not mounting an argument for the toppling of statues. That’s for another article. My point is, national ignorance has masterfully shaped our nation’s education and commodified it as ‘knowledge’. Such wrongful but intentional ignorance feeds racism and is happily but uncritically coopted by many. And this complicity, unwitting or not, is an abomination! Why can’t we teach the whole truth? It’s the truth, in Jesus’s words, that will set us free.
Recently, Dr John Baildam, principal of Newbold College of Higher Education, issued a written and digitally broadcast apology for the sins of racism perpetuated at Newbold. In a subsequent staff meeting via Zoom, he read out some of the most brutally honest testimonies of racism by students past and present. I didn’t anticipate my response. I found myself welling-up that I had to turn off my cam. I wept uncontrollably for some 15 minutes. In those heart-breaking moments, I saw myself, my children and my students, and I couldn’t keep down the realisation that despite these Himalayas stories looming large Newbold couldn’t see them because of the pollution of inherited ignorance that they and the wider nation had bought into. Now that the pollution is being lifted, Newbold is taking bold steps to redeem its situation. This involves being on the right side of history in telling the whole truth of our history, owning it and generating transformational change. Decolonising the educational system is the key to this change. Likewise, our church in Britain, yea the world, won’t change until our education of the bible and Christianity with respect to race and ethnicity (not to mention gender and patriarchy) changes. The truth must set us free!