A Short Review of Ben Lindsay’s We Need to Talk About Race

At the request of several British Christians, I reviewed Ben Lindsay’s We Need to Talk About Race, which is apparently very popular in the U.K. Like Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (which Lindsay cites repeatedly and positively), Lindsay’s book is an attempt to start a conversation about race and injustice in the U.K. However, unlike Eddo-Lodge, Lindsay wants this conversation to take place primarily within the Church and from a Christian perspective. It’s not clear that he’s entirely successful in his latter aim. The book reads as an attempt to synthesize biblical teaching with secular views of racism. Consequently, We Need to Talk About Race is a mixture of helpful insights and wrong assumptions.

Insights

One of the strongest elements of the book is when Lindsay simply conveys his own or other people’s experiences. Lindsay talks about being brutally assaulted at age 14 by white men shouting racial slurs just three months before another Black teenager was killed less than a mile away in another racist attack (p. 3). These experiences, understandably, cause him to feel anxiety and sadness when he hears of similar violence today. In the Interlude, he allows several women of color to share their stories of alienation, frustration, and discomfort within the church. All of these stories should evoke sympathy, particularly from those who haven’t had such experiences.

Elsewhere, Lindsay rightly warns that “color-blindness” is a mixed-bag, depending on how it’s conceptualized: “While some Christians will view a colour-blind approach as a positive thing –a demonstration of loving all regardless of race– there is also a danger that if white church members do not have a degree of colour consciousness, they will ignore the realities, concerns, joys and fears people of colour experience…Although as Christians our absolute identity is in Christ, we are to navigate ways of retaining the consciousness of people’s identifiers” (p. 22).

Similarly, when he addresses controversial topics like reparations, he acknowledges that the issue is complex: “the idea of reparations in the context of slavery is complicated by the fact that today neither the slave owners nor the slaves are still alive. This is further complicated by the biblical instruction not to visit the sins of the fathers on the children… For Christians, there is clearly a tension between the biblical concept of individual accountability and the Christian obligation to pursue justice. Since the effects of slavery are still felt today (to the benefit of the descendant of slave owners and to the detriment of the descendants of slaves)… we must, as Kwon says, seek to repair the damage” (p. 49).

From admonitions to white Christians not to touch Black women’s hair without permission (which, amazingly enough, is something that does actually happen) to lamentations over historical injustices, there is much readers can appreciate. However, there are also indications that Lindsay is being tugged in unbiblical directions.

Push and Pull

In his Introduction, Lindsay says: “This book is not meant to produce white guilt or a ‘them and us’ mentality. Instead, I want to start a conversation; to create opportunities for prayerful self-reflection, enquiry, understanding, and resolution” (p. xxviii). He seems to genuinely want racial unity and solidarity. However, he is constantly pulled back and forth between his Christian commitments and his assumptions about the nature of “racial justice.”

For example, he talks about how a “white church leader commented on [his] high top/Afro hairstyle asking, ‘Is that a basketball thing?'” Lindsay recognizes that there is ambiguity here: “Perhaps he was genuinely curious… Was I being oversensitive or was his comment racist?” But he also says: “the highlighting of my difference and the implied assumptions surrounding the questions – that all black men are into basketball… made me feel uncomfortable. This kind of encounter, known in psychology circles as a ‘racial micro aggression’, is a constant occurrence in the life of a black person” (p. xxv). But microaggressions are defined as “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” So there’s a tension between assuming they are everyday occurrences and also recognizing that oversensitivity might cause us to perceive microaggressions where none exist. Unfortunately, Lindsay appears to discount this latter possibility at the end of his book: “If you are black, let me say to you: you’re not imagining the issues, you have not got a chip on your shoulder, you have the right to call things out and, when you do, you’re not being aggressive” (p. 155). This unbalanced attitude will work against unity in the church, since all Christians need to recognize both that real offenses do exist and that we can perceive offenses where there are none.

Elsewhere, he reports a conversation with a black visitor at his church who tells him after the sermon “I was very nervous about walking into your church…There are too many white people here and I have a problem with white people. I have had bad experiences, specifically with white people in a church context… [But] I was blown away by your welcome and your sermon was on point. It actually made me realize that I have prejudices against white people. Will you help me?” (p. 31). However, Lindsay’s reaction is surprising. He writes: “I was undone. In one conversation I saw what our church could be and how far we were from achieving it… I knew the type of church God wanted us to become: a racially diverse church that is not afraid to discuss issues which have the potential to expose racial disharmony and concerns that may have become barriers for people of colour experiencing Jesus and flourishing in church life.”

This response is confusing. While the woman herself recognizes that she is prejudiced and that his church helped her recognize that fact, Lindsay doesn’t focus on her prejudice but on the need for his church to talk more about “barriers for people of color.” While there is certainly room to learn more about this woman’s past and to talk about such barriers, I can’t help thinking that Linday’s reaction denies the woman agency and responsibility and even the opportunity to hear the gospel preached. Regardless of her experiences, she has allowed them to make her prejudiced and she needs to repent and embrace the multi-racial community found in the body of Christ, something that she herself recognizes.

A Flawed Framework

Several passages point to Linday’s adoption of a flawed framework for understanding race which is presumably leading to these problems. One of the major themes of the book is how racism is not reducible to individual actions of racial animus but is instead subtlely embedded in systems and structures: “We can be fooled into thinking of racism as simply superficial and surface-level verbal abuse. The truth is, racism is structural and often unseen, its purpose to consolidate power for the majority culture while blocking ethnic minority cultures from flourishing” (p. 6).

Now, is it possible for racism to be embedded in systems? Certainly. Slavery and Jim Crow are obvious examples. But Lindsay goes much further. He continues:

Very few white people would say that they support white supremacy (the racist ideology based on the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and, therefore, should be dominant over other race). There is no doubt, however, that historically the concept of white supremacy has been woven into the fabric and structure of our society, which is to the detriment of back people and to the benefit of all white people…Figure 1… is my adaptation of what is sometimes called ‘Acts and omissions’ or the ‘white supremacy iceberg.’ The idea is that most white people are not actively racist… but, more often, it’s the second part of the diagram that many white people participate in or contribute to upholding… It’s this secondary, hidden layer that helps to maintain structural racism (p. 11).

This figure and Lindsay’s commentary are important. While he recognizes that most white people are not actively racist, he argues that many still participate in “covert racism.” What is this “covert racism”? According to the figure, covert racism includes includes “denial of white privilege,” “disproportionate unemployment rates,” and “Eurocentric curriculum.” Immediately, we should see a problem.

It is simply not the case that “racial slurs” and “violent racist attacks” should be viewed as the same qualitative phenomenon as “disproportionate unemployment rates.” A violent racist attack is a terrible sin. On the other hand, there can be many reasons for “disproportionate unemployment rates” that involve no moral breach due to, say, a lack of skills or education on the part of a particular immigrant group. Similarly, the idea that England, a country in Europe, should have a Eurocentric curriculum seems as unavoidable as China having a Sino-centric curriculum or Senegal having an Afro-centric curriculum. Certainly, every country should include lessons in world history which recognize that immigrants from various backgrounds are equal citizens whose contributions should be acknowledged. But redefining morally-charged words like “white supremacy” to refer to morally-neutral phenomena is not a way to encourage discussion.

Similarly, Linday’s assumptions affect how he understands the term “racial reconciliation/solidarity” He writes:

“[In Acts 6] The Hebrew Jews were the dominant, majority culture, but it was the minority culture that was given authority and responsibility to lead and act in this area of distributing food to the widows. Majority power and control were relinquished. Racial hierarchies were being demolished. This is one of the key solutions to dealing with racial conflict and demonstrating racial solidarity in churches: dismantle existing power structures that cause inequality and injustice” (p. 88-89)

“The shortage of empathy and lack of responsiveness from some white Christians is what maintains racial inequality in the UK Church. But… We also need to acknowledge that passivity from black people does nothing to dismantle systems of racial discrimination. We need those, and especially those with agency and inroads into white power structures, to take opportunities to challenge racism. White ignorance and black inaction are both forms of racist complicity” (p. 143-144)

Lindsay’s interpretation of Acts 6 is a good example of how his focus on “systems and structures” can be misleading. Although the apostles did appoint Hellenistic deacons to care for the Hellenistic widows who were being overlooked, this action was not about “power dynamics” or “racial hierarchies.” All of the apostles were Hebraic Jews and, even after this incident, they felt no need to “disrupt their cultural hegemony” and “center Hellenistic Christians” by appointing Hellenistic apostles.

This fact highlights the problem with Lindsay’s approach. Christians can indeed examine systems and structures and power dynamics to determine whether they are contributing to injustice. But we cannot assume that power dynamics are unjust or that disparities are caused by discrimination. By using “power dynamics” as the fundamental lens through which we view culture or the church or politics or racial reconciliation, we unavoidably demote the Bible in importance because the Bible does not view reality primarily through the lens of power dynamics.

Summary

While Christians should be open to thinking about systemic injustice, we should also be careful to define it. Secular frameworks, such as those based on the assumptions of critical race theory, will contradict the Bible in numerous ways. To the extent that Lindsay seeks to do the former, his book is helpful. When he is influenced by the latter, he runs into problems.


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