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justice scales

And Who is My Neighbour?

person Kezia Owusu-Yianoma
4 min

About a year ago now I remember logging on for another morning meeting to check-in with my team before another day working from home. On this morning in particular I wanted to be vulnerable. The truth was I was struggling with anxiety and hadn’t been able to sleep very well after hearing about the tragic killing of another African American. Not too long before this killing it was Breonna Taylor’s name that was constantly swirling through my mind and my Instagram feed but this morning it was Ahmaud Arbery.

When asked how we were all doing I told the team that I was struggling to feel safe. As a Black-British woman I was miles away from the US, but the grief and anxiety that I felt made me feel inches away from everything that was going on. Little did I know that the events to come in the following weeks were going to pull so much of our world together to unite around the cause of racial justice.

George Floyd’s murder rocked me to my core. I was speechless. Not because this kind of killing was new. Not because this kind of killing was filmed, but because I could see the faces of myself, my mum, my brother and my dad in the faces of the people that were being killed.

I’ll fast forward through the process of reconciling that the colour of my skin was apparently a better judge of my worth than the content of my character. I won’t walk you through the uncomfortable conversations I had to have around why standing up for justice on behalf of the oppressed was a non-negotiable for any Christian. Instead, I’ll share some of my learnings from the last year:

1. Race is not in our biology

Race is a symbolic category[1]. Racial categories encapsulate the customs, culture, characteristics and behaviours of people groups. Ethnicity, culture and heritage play a part in how race is constructed but race is also influenced by class, socioeconomic status and other variables. When we assess people only through what race they are we remove so much of the nuance that makes them who they are. But not seeing race at all means ignoring the culture and context that people have formed their identities within. The diversity between cultures in our world is representative of God’s creativity and so we must learn to value our differences.

2. Your neighbour is your neighbour.

Jesus had a particular way of flipping concepts on their head and confounding the religious rules that the elite were living by. It’s interesting that the religious leaders are the ones who conspired to crucify Christ whilst those who were not seen as holy found safety, respect and companionship with him. When asked “who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied telling the story we’ve come to know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here Jesus illustrates that compassion and kindness are not limited to our own tribe but are an overflow of generosity in our hearts for all. It goes without saying that no matter their race, your neighbour is your neighbour and we are called to love and protect each other accordingly.

3. Social Media Activism should only ever be an overflow of the way we live our real lives.

At first, I found it really hard to engage with the social media conversation surrounding George Floyd’s murder. Logging on and reliving the anxiety, trauma and outrage each day multiplied by the rising death toll as a result of Covid-19 triggered my own anxiety to a point of inactivity. Covid restrictions meant that physically showing support for the people in our lives was hard. Many people took to social media to show their solidarity and support for black people across the world. Black squares were posted and information on racial injustice was circulated like I’ve never seen before. Whilst this demonstration was encouraging, it wasn’t the kind of justice many of us were hoping for.

I’m grateful to have been surrounded by people who showed their support to me in real life. Friends and colleagues who listened to me vent my anxieties and frustrations. Friends and colleagues who reassured me that I was loved, safe and valued either directly though the things they said to me or indirectly in the way they defended my pain to others. I even received a self-care package from a friend which at the very least helped me to manage the immediate anxiety battle I was facing.

When it comes to matters of social and racial justice there is often a long road to walk. The road is lined with learning and unlearning, patience and listening. Passion for social justice is more than anything a 24-hour story or 280-character tweet can capture. It comes from a deep desire to see people as Jesus did and to live that out in our daily lives.

Who is your neighbour and how will you commit to walking in step with them towards a kinder, more compassionate future?
 

Read this blog to find out about some charities working in racial justice.

 

  1. [1] Desmond, M., & Emirbayer, M. (2009). What is racial domination? Du Bois Review, 6(2), 335.

 

Comments

Thank you and well done Kezia for writing such a wonderful piece on social and racial justice. I enjoyed reading.

It is important that (as with other issues) the sources of racist concepts are identified and acknowledged, or, put another way, where does racism come from?

One of the main origins of racist concepts is Victorian Darwinism which carried over into the 20th century because it was (and is) taught without question and schools and higher education. For example, here is a quotation from Charles Darwin's book "The Descent of Man":

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian [i.e. Aboriginal] and the gorilla”
[Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, p. 156, 1887.]

We have all seen those diagrams in text books illustrating the "accent" of man from ape-like animals through figures that look like aborigines and black people to the end "product" which is an upright walking Caucasian figure. These diagrams convey the implication that "white" people are more evolved than "non-white" people and their use in educational settings has ensured the message has seeped into the culture, conditioning impressionable minds.

The Darwinian concept of human evolution provided an easy framework in which to fit a rank of races. The latter was admittedly a pre-Darwinian concept, probably mostly a by-product of the Atlantic slave trade. Darwin et al gave the concept a "scientific" basis and, as we are often told, "We must follow the Science". Back in Darwin's day the cultural supremacy of ‘white’ peoples was taken as a given. The rise of European colonialism undergirded this. It practically demonstrated the cultural dominance of the European ‘white’ race. Darwinian evolutionary ideas provided a biological explanation for the "observed data". Because, according to Darwin's ideas, some populations evolve faster than others they therefore out-compete other populations. If this same idea is applied to human races then "white people" evolved faster than "non-white people". Thus the cultural, etc. supremacy of "white" people was taken as a scientific "fact". Evolutionary scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries looked for the specific traits that marked out the "white" race as superior. They didn’t actually find any.

While I don't necessarily agree with the concept of "cancel culture" it is overdue for Darwin's (maybe unintended) role in the underpinning of racism to be recognised for what it is and be thoroughly exposed.

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