By Br. Reginald Martin Crenshaw, OHC
Black Anglicans of Canada deplores the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
For me, as an African American, the brutal murder of George Floyd is the last straw. People of African descent, for our entire 400-year history in America, have been put in the position of constantly having to defend our humanity, forced into a subculture of “over-achievement” so that we can be acknowledged as human beings and entitled to be equal citizens in our own country that we have helped build, died for and continue to defend. We are tired. We are angry. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
What is clear, especially during this current coronavirus pandemic, is that our society’s institutions have failed us—especially in the areas of health care, education, government services—and we are generally ignored by mainline churches. We continue to be treated as discarded people, and we have finally said, “Enough!” Many of us, up to this point, have found ways to be not angry at our condition and place in society. Many of us “successful-good” Blacks, the ones who succeeded despite structural handicaps and blocks, have had our white neighbours, work associates and friends constantly turn to us to moan and express guilt about the wrongs committed to Black folks. But rarely in these laments is there any asking of “What can we as white people do to change this reality?”, or, “How do we together, as white people and people of colour, change structures and policies that re-enforce oppression?” No, we only hear more laments and induced guilt, both of which emotionally drain and exhaust their Black friends.
As an African American living and ministering in Canada, I notice that the reality here is at a slightly lower temperature than the experience that I’ve described above. But what I’ve observed is that Canadians need to get past the illusion that racism is only an American problem that has no real parallel in the Canadian context. Canada is almost seen as the “Switzerland” of the Americas, but she too had the “dirty hands” of slavery, with over 4,000 slaves throughout Canada’s history. I have observed and have been fascinated by the fact that when Canadians acknowledge racism at all, it is only to acknowledge the history of the dehumanization and destruction of Indigenous people. All other racialized groups are excluded from the narrative of racism in Canada. This narrative allows Canadians to ignore and dismiss the intricate web of racism that has systemically and institutionally shaped the development of the Canadian version of multiculturalism.
This dismissal, in turn, results in the marginalization and dismissal of people of colour in Canadian society. The depth of Canadian cultural racism that results from this narrow and inadequate narrative is yet to be examined by the larger society. What is clear is that Canadians in general have little, if any, understanding of the evolution of racism in general or of its life-form in Canada in particular. Hence, we encounter the Canadian blindness to racism and its systemic ability to mutate, evolve and re-create new manifestations of itself which sustain the status quo; this results in all of us unconsciously complicit in the continuance of our present social order. This must be corrected. Watching the video of George Floyd’s final moments was heart- and soul-wrenching and shattered any illusion of substantive racial progress, along with the liberal discourse that accompanies it. The realization hit again that we were still seen and treated, at least by law enforcement, as chattel, unworthy, nothing. In other words, we were still just “nig…”.
But the continuing protests and conversations being held worldwide over the murder of George Floyd—and its implications for all of us, at the hands of one of society’s institutional representatives (that is, law enforcement)—have opened the eyes of many in Canada and throughout the world to a renewed sense that unjust structures of racism exist in many parts of the world and must be dismantled through well thought-out analysis and concrete action. Dialogue must contain more than sentimental conversation and guilt-laden laments, but must be a deep look at the dynamics that suck us all into this oppressive mess with both people of colour and white people living into their assigned roles by society: roles that create white privilege and power on one side, and roles that create and sustain internalized racial oppression on the other. There will be no real progress until we begin to tackle these role expectations, forced on us by systemic and institutional racism. These role definitions and expectations are that which suck us all into a sick collaboration with each other to maintain the status quo.
The prime minister’s recent address to the nation in the wake of worldwide demonstrations and his acknowledgement that racism exists in Canada—along with his support of the United Nations declaration of the years 2015-2024 to be an “International Decade for People of African Descent”—are all important. He commits the Canadian government, beginning at the federal level, to naming the reality of race as the starting point for understanding our social dislocation, starting with the naming and addressing in particular of anti-Black racism. This means, hopefully, the developing of concrete policy and structural measures to address large-scale inequities in Canadian society. This is encouraging. But all of us, government and citizens alike, must take responsibility and work together in order to become “free at last.”
We as Anglican Christians have much work to do. Our church, at our General Synod in 2007, affirmed through The Charter for Racial Justice our role and responsibility as Anglican Christians in this struggle for justice. The charter documents and outlines the problem upfront by declaring that racism is a sin and offers both a systemic analysis and, more importantly for people of faith, a theological and practical place to begin this work of redemption and reconciliation. It identifies clearly and precisely what we believe as Christians and, based on that understanding, what we commit ourselves to. It is a commitment “to eliminate racism and all forms of discrimination by identifying and removing barriers based on race, and transforming the structures of power and privilege.” It is a powerful declaration and should be/is the starting point for Christian peoples in the country to begin and remain with this work until it is done. We must dismantle our systems of cultural and institutional racism, especially those that function in our liturgy, our theology, and our theological preparations of clergy and lay leadership. We must also redefine our understanding of mission as church if we are to be faithful to the mission of Christ in the world. Our mission must be an active engagement with eliminating this basic sin against humanity.
A final point: Our commitment is to dismantle all vestiges of racism and other inequities in our church and the larger society. However, to do that we must be specific in our naming what we want to dismantle, which is a new way of saying what we envision as our preferred future for our life as a society. We must recognize the importance of naming and confronting anti-Black racism in the process. Why? Because unless we name the specificity of the racism, that is, anti-Black racism, we remain unclear about goals and objectives. Racism in the diaspora begins with the experience of slavery. Apartheid and the colonial forms of oppression have their root in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its forced removal of Black men and women from their homes and cultures into the culture of slavery, Jim Crow, racial segregation and oppression—all of which recalibrated the definition of who is human and who is not human. This redefining experience is rooted in that specificity, that people—that is, Black people. It is the DNA experience of the cultures of North America, South America and the Caribbean. The moment and mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide is the summary statement of this experience and motivator for the liberation struggle.
We as Black Anglicans of Canada are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and understand that the gospel of love is meant for everyone. We are in dialogue at the national level with our primate and in the Toronto diocese with our bishop. This is a movement forward, and we are encouraged. We are encouraged by their commitment that “No one can be told to stay away. No one can be told that they are not welcomed. All are welcomed and belong and are to be represented as full members of the Community of Faith.”
That is the mandate of the gospel. We are called as Black Anglicans to participate in this process of radical engagement with injustice in all forms by creating opportunities and space for courage building, healing, fellowship and empowerment. This calling is a reminder and challenge to ourselves and to the whole church. We are no longer destined to just obey, suffer and witness—but to disrupt, heal and lead.
Br. Reginald Martin Crenshaw, OHC
for the leadership and membership of
the Black Anglicans of Canada
Anglican Journal, June 18, 2020