13 July 2020
Last year, I attended a workshop organised by people who are involved in dealing with complaints about advertising, especially in multicultural communities. We were presented with an example of an advertising statement on the window of a butcher shop, which read: ‘non-halal certified’. A complainant had felt that it was a racist statement, and the workshop presenter sought our views. Would we agree with the complainant?
I realised that there must be something wrong with the statement for it to be used as an example, but I was unable to put my finger on what the problem was. So, I decided to side with those who would approve the statement. To me, the purpose of the message was simply to alert customers not to purchase meat here if you had halal requirements. It was an open and honest warning that could avoid unnecessary embarrassment or even conflict. A storm in a teacup, I thought. “Get over it!”
The presenter then revealed her adjudi- cation on the complaint. The statement could not stand, because there is no such thing as ‘non-halal’ certification. There is only halal certification. The way the sign was worded could cause a sentiment of feeling unwelcome, and thus have a racist connotation for some people. The recommendation to the butcher shop was simple: just change the word ‘non’ to ‘not’. ‘Not halal certified’ then became a statement of fact.
As I reflected on the exercise, I wondered why I’d failed to see the point that the complainant had raised. I was also annoyed and alarmed at the over-confidence of my judgment on the issue. I realised that the reason was likely to have been simple – I am not a halal consumer. Because of this, and my lack of concern over whether or not meat is halal, I disregarded the feelings of the people who do. Simply put, I was not able to feel what they do.
The recent death of an unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, in the United States sparked worldwide protests. Some were peaceful but, sadly, many were violent. Four police officers have been charged in relation to the incident, one of them with second-degree murder and manslaughter.
People have vented their frustration and anger at such blatant racism. As Christians, we should be appalled by such abhorrent violence against any person, let alone with racist intent.
The Salvation Army denounces racism in all forms. We want to welcome and treat all people with respect and dignity. Sometimes racism or other prejudicial treatment is overt and intentional, but often it is not.
There is such a thing as racism unrecognised. Its subtlety is often hidden and undetected. Many would even deny its existence. It works stealthily. In the butcher shop example I mentioned earlier, the ‘racism’ was unrecognised by me. I was ignorant of the feelings of those who believed their dignity had been violated; I had dismissed their complaint as trivial.
Ironically, coming from a Chinese-Vietnamese background, I have had similar experiences living in a Western country. My culture, language, tradition and food were not readily received. I was ‘encouraged’ to assimilate; to ‘become one of us’, so to speak. Things have improved over the years, albeit very slowly. Exclusion is often practised.
The Salvation Army, in its decision-making processes, must capture and understand the feelings of those in our congregations and also those we minister to. Anything less and our multicultural ministry will be diminished, having only a supplementary status to our core mission. It is also necessary to admit the shortcomings of mission planning over the years, acknowledging that, at times, progress has been stymied because of the presence of unrecognised racism.
We can do better. God helping us, we will.