Book Review: God Is Not A White Man

By Mercedes McGuire 10 Nov 2021

Racism is an asbestos in our spiritual and moral imagination that- while not always clearly detected – is toxic to our practices of church and society. The dying words of George Floyd have become an iconic euphemism for the history of trauma, segregation and unjust discrimination that continues to be quietly uttered in our churches, ‘I can’t breathe’. The filaments of discrimination hidden within the walls and corridors of church and society do not become inactive beneath layers of plaster or paint; rather they must be exposed and set against the truth that humanity in its diversity is made in God’s image as good, and in Christ, made one.

‘God is not a White Man' by Chine McDonald is a visceral walk in the author’s shoes and an account that goes much beyond herself. With the skill of a journalist and the insight of a theologian, Chine uses her own experience as a Black[1] woman born in Nigeria and raised in the UK to uncover the social, historical and political roots of white supremacy and its consequent impacts not only on Black women and the Black community but on the body of Christ as a whole. She is concerned with the impact of Jesus being imaged through the lens of whiteness in a way that obscures the particularities of His humanity and radically distorts our relationship to Him and one another. Chine describes the ongoing and often painful revelation that the image of God magnified in most Christian spaces is monochromatic; a deified white male that leaves many unable to reconcile themselves as bearing the image of God and thus left feeling misplaced in churches that dutifully uphold this image. She describes the dual reality of feeling conspicuous and out of place in a world made for whiteness while also feeling deeply invisible, unseen and overlooked.

Chine argues that ‘the world and its history have been constructed in a way that centres on the white European experience[2]’ and ultimately erases a holistic account of Black lives, leaving Black history ‘hidden in plain sight’. The stories of Black lives that do shape our social imagination are often those that centre on ‘subservience, passivity, anguish, brutality and pain’ and told in relation to white  history. ‘The Black experience and the stories of Black excellence, Chine argues, ‘appear not even as the occasional footnote in the grand narrative of our common humanity.[3]

Just as a language begins to make sense when you study its grammatical structure, this tragic legacy of racism – more specifically, white supremacy and Black  inferiority - is more helpfully understood when we examine some of the thinking that has shaped our societies. For example, Hegel’s theories of civilisation and his account of Africa states that, ‘there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this [African] type of character’, with his views being reinforced by, ‘the copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries’[4]. He was not alone. Immanuel Kant, a prominent Enlightenment philosopher, described Africans and Native Americans as being lower in their mental capacities than other races. In contrast to this is Anton Wilhelm Amo, who engaged rigorously with Rene Descartes’ thinking and provided a holistic alternative to the false separation of mind, soul and body. He studied logic, astronomy, theology, metaphysics and physiology in the 1720s as the first person born in Africa to study at a European university. African participation in scholarship was, in and of itself, an Enlightenment experiment.

It is stories like Anton’s – hidden within the pages of history -- that counter the insidious narratives of white superiority and Black inferiority that remain etched on social imagination and woven into the structures of our world. Sadly, these narratives not only haunt intellectual corridors but remain lived out in the experiences of many Black women, men and children today. Documented biases against Black children that lead to their academic abilities being underestimated and overlooked from leadership opportunities as well as the elevation of whiteness in academia, the church and political leadership are two examples of how this continues to work out. It is also manifested in the silence of the white majority about instances of injustice and violence towards Black communities, in inequalities in accessing healthcare – for example, statistically, Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white woman, [5] – and in educational curricula that centre on ‘white, Western thought, thinkers and cultures’ [6], These are reinforced by the commemoration of historical figures whose public views reinforced Black inferiority, such as Cecil Rhodes[7] and Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher[8], being enshrined in statues and stained glass windows in Oxford and Cambridge colleges, although the latter has recently been removed.

These things barely scratch the surface and while it is tragic and wrong for this to exist in public spaces, it is even more deeply consequential in the Church. When our image of God and our faith is entwined with white supremacy, we become an anaemic church, incapable of truly being one. Furthermore, when the Church participates in systemic un-freedom – actively or passively -- we cannot be a witness to the liberating God of the oppressed who Himself chose to take on human form – with brown eastern Mediterranean skin. ‘The call to dethrone white supremacy and patriarchy within the Church is not an issue of political correctness nor is it merely an appeal to ‘wokeness’. It is a gospel issue. It is for Christ’s sake that we should remove the barriers that keep people from seeing God for who God really is[9].’

Chine does not quell our inevitable discomfort that arises when we read her words; rather, she diagnoses the sickness and its consequences while leading the reader into a vision of redemption that is so urgently needed. Responding begins with recognition and responsibility, lament and self-examination. We must both uncover and publicise the hidden stories of Black lives as well as recognise and dismantle the toxic narratives and structures that perpetuate racism.

 

For another blog on this topic, click here.

 


[1]‘Chine McDonald, God is Not a White Man, 2021, P. XV1. A note on the capitalisation of Black: I have chosen to capitalise the word Black throughout this book when referring to those of African or Caribbean descent, but not to capitalise white. This is a conscious effort to – as the New York Times style guide described its decision to capitalise the word Negro in 1930 – ‘act in recognition of racial respect for those who have been generations in the “lower case”’

[2] ibid p. 160

[3] Ibid p. 160

[4] Hegel, G. W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of History, 1884. Translated by J. Sibree. London: George Bell and Sons.

[5] Ibid, p. 126

[6] Ibid. p. 155

[7] Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) played a significant role as a British politician in the colonisation of Southern Africa and upheld views of white superiority.

[8] Fisher was the founding Chair of Cambridge University’s eugenics society and publicly argued that scientific knowledge proved that white people were superior intellectually and emotionally.

[9] Ibid, p. 101

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