Casual racism; why we must all make a stand – Matt Woodcock

THE other night my friend was hitting a few balls at our local golf club. As he took a swing on a deserted hole which backs onto a main road, he was racially abused.

Reverend Matt Woodcock says it is time to take a stand against casual racism.

Two teenagers – aged about 14 or 15 – were cycling past. One of them slowed down and loudly shouted at him: ‘P***’. They found it hilarious, apparently, as they quickly cycled away.

My friend – who isn’t actually of Asian origin but has a dark skin tone – was a bit taken aback but not particularly upset or offended.

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He relayed the incident to me via text later that night almost absent-mindedly – shrugging it off as a story to tell rather than something to act on. It simply didn’t occur to him.

York minster - but what more can be done about casual racism?

With his permission, the next day I reported the incident to the golf club and encouraged him to tell the police.

I know there’s almost no chance of the culprit being reprimanded, but officially logging what happened was important.

In a predominantly white city like York where I live, so-called ‘casual racism’ – a name call here, a joke there – can too often go unreported or not flagged as an issue.

Yet doing so can help to change the culture in a small 
but meaningful way. I learned this from my one of my good friends, Arun Arora. A fellow priest, he’s long been a racial justice campaigner and is now co-chair of the Church of England’s ‘Anti-Racism Taskforce’.

The group recently demanded not just words but action from the church hierarchy after years of ‘institutional racism’.

They’ve put forward 47 recommendations to change things for good – including all shortlists for senior Church of England posts to include at least one ethnic minority candidate.

Arun – an Asian Brummie – has always taught me that to not stand up to racism is in some way to be complicit in it. Our silence or inaction allows it to keep growing like a cancer.

I used to work with Arun for the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu – Britain’s first black archbishop. It was an enlightening time for me personally and spiritually.

As I’ve often found in my Christian journey, God gives me plenty of chances to not just talk a good faith – but to live it out.

My opportunity to stand against racism soon came. 
A few months before starting my vicar training, I played 
for my local Saturday football team.

In the changing rooms beforehand – never the holiest of environments – one of my teammates regaled us with tales of a recent nightclub altercation with a doorman .

Hearing racist words spoken so casually and indifferently was a shock. I immediately recalled Arun’s words of challenge.

This felt like a big moment to make a stand. Instead – shamefully – I walked wordlessly out and hid in the toilet. I sat there feeling wretched and gutless.

I knew that staying quiet condemned me as much as the lad who’d used the racial slur. How could I look Arun in the eye on Monday morning? I prayed in that moment for greater courage. For an opportunity to atone for my silence.

I made a deal with God that if I heard the lad say it again I’d speak out. Admittedly, I lingered in the toilet long enough for his story to have moved on.

Yet, as I walked back into the changing room, my teammate was still waxing lyrical. And then I heard him say the same ‘n’ word again.

This time I acted. I stood up and told him in front of everyone how offended I was by this word and that if he said it again I’d leave the team.

He mumbled an apology and there was a long, awkward silence. A few of the lads quietly came up to me later on to thank me for saying something. I wasn’t pleased with myself, though.

So often in life we don’t get a second chance to make amends.

But the experience did teach me a valuable lesson. It’s not enough to be angry or offended by racism. We must all do something about it – even when it’s awkward, costly or intimidating.

I’ve recently been struck by the Premier League’s ‘No Room For Racism’ campaign. Its slogan calls on fans to ‘Challenge it, report it, change it’.

Whether in a changing room, on a golf course, outside a nightclub or inside a church – and whether it’s explicit or ‘casual’ – surely this is a vital way to help cut out the cancer of racism for good?