A World Council of Churches (WCC) webinar offered candid words about both the definition of “whiteness” and the institutions that purvey it. Speakers embraced the opportunity to find a way forward during an era of rising racism and extremism.
The online gathering on 22 October, entitled “Legacy of Slavery, Colonialism, and Structural Racism,” was fourth in a series of five webinars in five days convened by the WCC to offer theological reflections on “Hate Speech and Whiteness.”
Rev. Prof. Tinyiko Maluleke, from the University of Pretoria, shared reflections based on his recently published study, “Whiteness and Hate Speech in Africa.”
Colonialism and slavery are clearly the institutional foundations of whiteness on the African continent, Maluleke said, a legacy that permeates the fabric of culture today.
“As I speak to you today, over this weekend, South Africa was under threat of breaking into some kind of civil war when a small town at the center of the country was torn apart, after a young white farmer was murdered brutally,” said Maluleke. As court proceedings began, he described, “black and white crowds were gathering to oppose one other, and there was a great fear that this might break into violence.”
And—most important for the ecumenical family to realize—churches are part of that lingering fabric, he added. “If slavery and colonialism are purveyors of whiteness, so are church and mission.”
Rev. Dr Susan Durber, moderator of the WCC Faith and Order Commission and a member of the United Reformed Church in the UK, presented a summary of her paper entitled “Original Sin: the legacy of slavery in my white British life.”
Durber said she once regarded slavery as something that happened a long time ago, in distant places and to people she had never met. “I thought of slave owners and traders as exceptionally and remarkably evil people, like no-one I am ever likely to know and disconnected from the realities of my life.” she said. “However, even very little research into the place where I live, the work I do and what I often catch myself thinking, has convinced me that the legacy of slavery permeates my life far more than I had thought, that its story comes close to ordinary people like me and that it is not something that is far away.”
Running from 19-23 October, the webinars were organized under the aegis of the WCC’s Theological Study Group of the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. The dialogue will become fruits for discussion for future meetings of the group, which continues to explore how racism manifests itself in different contexts, and how groups such as indigenous peoples, blacks, and other ethnic minorities are targeted and their situations exacerbated by the COVID-19 and structural racism.