MLK, Bleaching and the Occupation of Being

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Bleach Warning webThis reflection is written by the Revd Dr Peter Cruchley. The Revd Dr Cruchley currently serves as the Mission Secretary for Mission Development at the Council for World Mission.

‘People are even bleaching babies!’ This was one of the most startling comments in CWM’s recent Hearing on the Legacies of Slavery in Jamaica.  Several History and Politics students from the University of the West Indies came to share their perspectives on the ways the history of slavery still shapes life, systems and relationships today. The dehumanising of blackness as godless and brutish by Missionary and colonial rhetoric, the enslavement and impoverishment of black people, have left a legacy of internalised racism, a complexity of self-hatred. These young people talked about their own attempts to lighten their skin colour so they could be fair, and therefore beautiful and attractive. This is traumatic enough for adolescence, when self-image is skewed in almost any teenager of any ethnicity: but to then decide to bleach your baby. This was a collective ‘falling off chair’ moment for the gathered CWM group, especially for the older Caribbean participants who thought they had put a stop to this in their generation.  How can this still be a burden being carried by black youth and children?

Post-colonial scholars have pointed out that White European Colonisation from the Crusades on entailed an occupation of Land and an occupation of Being.  The de-colonising era, of which MLK was a part, enabled some casting out of the Colonisers, except we returned in new forms, largely Trans-National Corporations and Government sponsored development projects.  The occupation of being also remains pressing even in the ‘post-Colonial’ era.  The overt structures of 60s White Supremacism, like Segregation, European Colonialism and Apartheid, may have been dismantled.  However, they have been built into institutions, policies and power interests through which black bodies, identities, peoples and communities continue to bear the weight of economic, political, social, military inequality and injustice.  They are also creeping back in new forms all around the Globe. For instance, the US the politics behind Trump are blatantly white supremacist. The iconography and rhetoric about Brexit harks back to pre-immigration Britain, war time Britain, when we ‘stood alone’ (with our Empire).  The Far-Right return to Germany in the AfD party as the third largest political party. Modi’s India is unashamedly and violently ‘caste-ist’.  

Casting out this colonising and occupying of Being requires an act of defiance and imagination, for black and white people. A dream, maybe?  MLK shaped my adolescence and faith formation very deeply and who can’t but fail to see the on-going relevance of the dream, the pride, the love and resistance of the Civil Rights movement.  Fifty years on sees a generation who are more cynical because they have been let down, not by people like MLK, but the people who said they had changed because of him, but kept their power, prejudice and politics in place.  

The issue all those years back and all these years on is not with blackness, but with whiteness.  Who has a dream for that? Who can outdream Coco Cola, Merril Lynch, Trump, Bo-Jo, or parents about to apply skin bleacher to their baby?  Who will intercede, cast out and transform the ‘sweltering’ Sodom and Gomorrah that is White power, prejudice, norm and supremacy as it manifests itself in ever more violent or polite forms in politics, economics, society, or religion?  

That Memphis balcony is awaiting your kind!

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