REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Stouffville United Church
Today’s worship liturgy, written for Black History Month by Alydia Smith, helps us to become familiar with the stories and accomplishments of Black people in Canada. But Black History Month also asks of me to become more intentional about my discernment and response to racism in the world I live in, and also to identify the ways in which my white privilege shapes how and who I see, and decisions I make about who I will be in relationship with, as the letter from James emphasizes.
In1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote her definitive paper about her ‘racial awakening’ to the unearned advantages of white identity. Known as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she provided a 50-point list of the “daily effects of white privilege.” Here are some examples: No. 5: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” No. 15: “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.” No. 20: “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” No. 41: “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”
Rev. Paul Walfall is the United Church ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in the Northern Spirit Regional Council. In an article on the United Church of Canada website, he shares one particular encounter with racism within our church. He writes, “In July 2017 I received the then latest issue of The Journal of the Historical Society of the Alberta and Northwest Conference of The United Church of Canada. In that issue I was particularly interested in the article “The KKK and the Church,” written by Rev. Lloyd Lovatt. It was interesting reading and yet it was also difficult at points to absorb. I read that the Ku Klux Klan came to Alberta in the 1920s through the work of a Methodist, and then United Church, minister.
Equally difficult was to read that clergymen of the United Church were Klansmen and to note that at the time the United Church had the unsavory reputation, according to the writer of the book “The Ku Klux Klan in Central Alberta,” of being a church that “refused to condemn the Klan’s activities.” The article also noted that in 1927 a resolution came to the Saskatchewan Conference “not to support the Ku Klux Klan in any way.” The Conference ultimately accepted the recommendation “that Conference refrain from making any deliverance on the question.” This was particularly difficult to hear, and I wondered what was happening to the church at that time. Indeed, the silence of the church then seemed to have been a betrayal of many things I hold most dear. Yet, I will not condemn the Conference or the church for its silence then, but I will wonder when there is silence by the church on the issues of racism in our contemporary society.”
Rev. Walfall continues, “The United Church of Canada has come a long way since the 1920s and 1930s … But let us not deceive ourselves into believing that racism is behind us. Racism still exists in our society and it also exists within the church. The continued presence of racism offers to us one of many reasons why the observance of Black History month is important. The celebration of the achievements of Black people during this month continues to challenge us to stand against racism, White privilege, and White supremacy wherever they are found.”
Adele Halliday, the narrator of our video today, recently visited Amber Valley, Alberta, to see the remnants of what was once a flourishing black community, home to hundreds of Black people in the 1900s. As she wrote in a blog post on the United Church’s website, this community had fled from the racist Jim Crow laws in the United States to this “promised land” north of Edmonton. Their migration was around 1909-1911, and they initially found more freedom in this new community. The community cleared the land, farmed, set up a school, a post office, a town hall, a church, created homesteads, and played baseball. Over time, they were disappointed by the anti-Black racism that they experienced in their new home; they thought they had escaped this when they left the United States. Also, the Canadian government at the time became alarmed at how many Black people had moved in, and feared a “Black take-over”, so took steps so that other all-Black communities like Amber Valley would not proliferate. Eventually, most people left Amber Valley and moved to larger cities in different parts of Canada. Remnants remain of the all-Black settlement: a museum and cultural centre, a cemetery, a few families, and the living memories of the community’s descendants.
In September, 2019, images surfaced on the internet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brown face and black face – photos taken decades earlier. In an interview with CTV News Anchor Lisa LaFlamme last Fall, Senator Murray Sinclair commented on the images. Senator Sinclair was the Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said, “One of the things we have to realize and get Canadians to realize is that most of our racism is unconscious. It’s because of the way we’ve been educated, the way we’ve been raised, the way that we have been entertained through the media, the messaging that has come to us from our leaders in the past — both political as well as social leaders. And as a result of that, the language that we use, the behaviour that we carry on is a reflection of what it is that we have been told and how it is we have been told to think. And I think that’s going to be the major hurdle for us in the future.”
As a white person, I know that my work is to dismantle the lens of white privilege within me, that has been educated and bred in my bones. A Sunday or two of Black History Month in February isn’t going to dislodge the racism that lives in me, generated by my own lived story. It is a calling really. To be vigilant, to question, to notice the ways in which the world tries to protect and safeguard a white-led, empowered world.
Case in point. In the November 14, 2018 Stouffville Tribune, there was a write-up of the incoming new principal of Stouffville District Secondary School. “Meet Rose Webster, recently acquired principal of Stouffville District Secondary School”, the column read. “Ms. Webster, a native of St. Vincent in the Caribbean and currently residing in Gormley, has a firm approach to priorities related to her position.”
My heart sank as I read this. Did the detail of being a ‘native of St. Vincent in the Caribbean’ really have any bearing on her ability to do her professional duties as high school principal? No. But the reporter included it as a signal to the community that this was a black person.
It’s these small indicators that keep
reminding me that racism is a systemic issue in our culture.