Posted by: Andrew | January 24, 2017

Racliaising Interfaith Encounters

Mixed Group

I ran an interfaith discussion recently that involved a group of about six of us of different faiths (the people in the picture with this post). When I described the group to people I got a really interesting response. If I said I met with six people for an interfaith discussion, and they were all White, everyone I’ve told has looked disappointed or disapproving. Clearly the implication is that the group wasn’t very mixed and was lacking real diversity. However, if I say that the discussion was between Jews, Christians and Buddhists and that we had Progressive and Orthodox Jews, Buddhists from two different schools of Buddhism and Christians from different denominations, the same people think the group sounds really interesting. There is no hint of disappointment.

On the other hand when I talk about running groups including Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims where everyone is Asian, no one ever seems disappointed or disapproving.

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So what’s going on?

Firstly there’s a very simple issue that, too often, we have stereotyped ideas of what an interfaith group meeting in the UK will look like. We assume that it will include White Christians and Asians of different faiths but, whilst this might often be the case, in an increasingly diverse city like Birmingham the reality is often different. Faith groups include people from a variety of ethnicities so any group can be mixed in a variety of ways.

However, there is something more troubling in people’s response to the groups I was in. Why is a group of White people seen as disappointing, when a group of Asians is seen as interesting (by the way I got this response from people of different ethnicities)? Is this some form of Orientalism whereby the Asians are viewed as ‘exotic’ and ‘interesting’ just by dint of their ethnicity regardless of what they have to contribute? Is this some form of discrimination where White people are seen as a homogeneous group with little internal diversity, or Asians are similarly pre-judged as being religiously interesting? In the same way as Black people have been caricatured as being athletic are Asian being caricatured as Religious?

I’m not really sure, yet, what was going on, but I do know that I’ve received the same sort of responses enough to be troubled by this and to think that this is an issue people in the interfaith world ought to be considering and tackling.

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