Racism in the Church?

swee ann koh“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

I have been watching the SBS shows broadcast as part of a themed week  on race and prejudice – FU2Racism: Face Up to Racism. I found myself reacting with different emotions – anger, sadness, disbelief, frustration and even tears.

I have learned much from the series. I applaud the SBS for leading us in the exploration and discussion of this difficult issue  as the introductory show asks: Is Australia Racist?

When a ‘dark-skinned’ six-year-old girl is asked to choose which doll (of three dolls representing Anglo, Asian and black) she preferred to be like, she repeatedly chose a blonde haired ‘white’ girl. I was broken hearted. How does a six-year-old get racialised so young?

SBS together with the Western Sydney University conducted the biggest ever survey on racism and prejudice in Australia. The survey found one in five Australians has experienced racism in the last 12 months.

Reading the statistics, I wonder if a similar survey taken within our Church membership would show similar results?

I am proud to belong to a church that champions justice, inclusiveness and declared itself “a multicultural church” in 1985. At the Justice and International Mission unit conference last year, the attendees nominated ‘combating racism’ (4th out of 10th) as an issue they want the JIM unit to focus on.

The Uniting Church is the only church I have known since arriving in Australia. My formation, my growth and development as a follower of Jesus is intimately connected with the Uniting Church in Australia.

English is not my first language (I speak Mandarin and three other Chinese dialects). I speak with an accent that some in the church find difficult at times. And, if truth be told, some congregations decided not to approach me as a prospective minister  because of my accent.

Several years ago I wrote an article entitled ‘It should be obvious but…’ Under the subheading ‘In a multi-cultural church we will have multi accents’ I wrote: “A multicultural church is also a multi accents church. When are congregations going to accept this reality? Maybe non-Anglo ministers should consider suing the church for discrimination and then the multi-cultural church might become more accepting”.

Believe it or not I was called into an office and chastised for making that suggestion! And not in a polite or conciliatory way such as: “Swee Ann I know there is racism within the church. Let’s work together to overcome it. Maybe suing the church is not the best way to deal with the problem

I was flabbergasted. I felt small. I felt muzzled. I felt that my voice was being gagged.

Is there racism in the church? I guess it depends who we ask.

I want to make a couple of things clear. The first is racism or racial prejudice can and does exist in all communities, not only from the dominant culture community. However, I have witnessed – and heard from members of the minority groups within the UCA – that they have experienced racism and racial prejudice in our church.

I have tried to engage different parts of the church on this issue but it appears it is too uncomfortable .

We know that racism is not just personal but systemic. The most common mistake people make when taking about racism or racial prejudice is to think of it as a problem of personal prejudices and individual acts of discrimination. I know many of my friends and colleagues in the church are not racist. However, until and unless we are prepared to acknowledge that racism, like sexism, is a systemic issue, a web of interlocking and reinforcing institutions that continue to privilege the dominant culture, we guarantee it will continue.

I am aware that talking about ‘privileges of the dominant group’ evokes pangs of discomfort. This can lead to avoidance in engaging the issue altogether, as well as the manifestation of defence mechanisms, including denial, projection, tokenism, intellectualisation and rationalisation.


One other thing, ‘recognition of your privilege’ does not translate to ‘bearing the blame’ or ‘I am guilty’. Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being part of the dominant group.

Benefits and privileges exist whether or not one’s earned them or consciously sought them. In fact, almost universally, privilege is something conferred without the recipient having any say in the matter. So when I raised the issue of the existence of privilege within the dominant culture within the church, it isn’t about shaming or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about justice.

I love this church and, as I have said, this is the only church I have known since I arrived in Australia. If I have been critical at times, it’s because I love this church and want it to be a truly just multicultural church and experience the rich blessings from its rich diversity.

Luke reminds us: “How can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.” (Luke6:42) We can’t truly deal with racism in the society if we show little willingness to deal with racism within the Church.

One last thing, we are going through a restructuring process in the Synod. The one and only question I have is – Will the new structure facilitate and empower the voice of the minorities to be heard? Or will it simply remain the vehicle for the voice of the dominant culture?

Swee Ann Koh                                                                                                                                                              
Director of Intercultural Unit

On this week’s Friday Forum: Have you experienced or observed any racism in the Uniting Church?

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2 Responses to “Racism in the Church?”

  1. Jason Freestone

    Luke 6:42 is the perfect verse to quote for the church because I often get the feeling reading and listening to UCA teachings is that problems are always from ‘others’. Those nasty so and so’s over there doing and saying this and that. But it is and should always be “how can I improve???” And let others just be who they need to be.

  2. Dev Anandarajan

    It is also time we paid attention to the word ‘inclusive’ we use in our Church life. What do we mean by it and what is our understanding of it? The inclusive I see mostly is in a physical sense. It is more outward. Mostly the Uniting Church is inclusive of those who ‘look’ different. But how far are we inclusive of the traditions, cultural expressions, understandings, piety, faith expressions and leadership styles different cultures bring into the life of the Church. Are they recognised, acknowledged, given a place in the life and worship of that faith community and nurtured?

    Many UC congregations are becoming increasingly Multi cultural. But how is this change reflected in the worship, leadership, ministry & mission of the Church? How has ministry practice become multi cultural? Is the leadership operating in the auto pilot mode which is the dominant culture mode or is it adapting to be more inclusive?

    There is enormous work that needs to be done. Hopefully the new structure will help in resourcing this need.