The Long-Term Project of Anti-Racism

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This is a time when many Quaker meetings have approved statements denouncing racist violence and pledging their efforts to uproot and dismantle systemic racism. Many individual Friends are engaged in anti-racist work in their communities and are educating themselves about the history and impacts of racism in our country, the better to discern how they might act to promote racial equity and justice.

Quakers are justly proud of our historic role in efforts to end the slave trade and abolish slavery in the United States, as well as rightly proud of Quakers’ engagement with struggles for civil rights and social justice. However, Friends are increasingly aware that it was fairly common for Quakers in colonial America to be enslavers. As Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye note in Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship (2009), in late-seventeenth-century and early-eighteenth-century America, “Quakers of European descent in every yearly meeting benefitted economically from some, if not all, aspects of the enslavement of Africans – transporting, buying, selling, and holding in perpetual servitude.” McDaniel and Julye go on to give exhaustive evidence that even today, White supremacy – conscious or not – is alive in Quaker communities. 

It is tempting, as we consider how to practice anti-racism, merely to consider this question narrowly. Many Friends want to believe that if only more Black and brown people would walk in the door, our warm welcome would convince them to stay. But just bringing diversity in the door fails to require us to come to grips with the ways that our Quaker meetings remain fundamentally White. Instead, the goal of radical inclusivity requires us to pursue honest, open-hearted examinations of our habitual practices and policies, with a view towards recognizing and wrestling with the ways that White supremacy is enacted in our Quaker communities. 

Graciela Martinez told a story that challenged me to think about how, if we are to be genuinely inclusive, Friends will need to evolve. Graciela was a “weighty Friend” in Visalia Friends Meeting, a community organizer, and a lifelong activist. When we were serving together on our yearly meeting’s Peace and Social Order Committee, Graciela told us that she had wanted to erect an alter outside the Visalia Friends meetinghouse on the occasion of Día de los Muertos. She explained that this would have expressed her cultural roots, her reverence for her ancestors; and the totality of who she was – a Latina Quaker. However, she felt that the meeting had discouraged her from pursuing that vision.

Graciela’s story raises the kind of questions that meetings need to wrestle with if they wish to embrace “radical inclusivity.” What must Black, brown, and Indigenous people give up to “belong” in a Friends meeting? Are there habits of thought and behavior that hold us back from valuing the experiences and practices of people from many backgrounds? What is fundamental and essential to our Quaker identity, and where can we expand to embrace a larger community?

Immersed as we are in our specific culture, with its particular practices and norms, we do not see the effects of our “normal” on others. To be radically inclusive, then, we need to constantly wonder what it is that we are not seeing. To remain alert to our blind spots requires both humility and generosity – the humility to understand that even with the best of intentions, we are capable of doing harm, and the generosity to be gentle with ourselves and with others.

One step towards discovering our blind spots and discerning a way forward is self-education. Many meetings have organized curricula and reading groups to study the histories and struggles of Black and brown peoples. Understanding the history of a people and knowing the obstacles they face can give us a fresh perspective, greater empathy, and some guidance toward constructive change. 

It is equally important that we come to grips with our own Quaker history. The Friends Peace Team project “Toward Right Relationship with Native Peoples” offers an example of education and reflection on Quaker history that is leading to meaningful action and healing. Paula Palmer of Boulder Friends Meeting felt led to educate herself on the history of genocide and colonization of Indigenous peoples in North America, including the role of Quakers in that history. Along with others who were similarly led, Palmer created a powerful experiential workshop, which has helped many people recognize the immense harm done to Native Peoples by European colonizers, including Friends.

Another approach to discovering our blind spots is suggested by the concept of “White supremacy culture,” which is broader than the concept of “White superiority.” As anti-racist author and activist Tema Okun explains, “The characteristics [of White supremacy culture] are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people.” (2001)

Okun names a dozen specific characteristics of White supremacy culture and a particular antidote for each of them (see: https://westernfriend.org/media/characteristics-white-supremacy-culture). These characteristics include “sense of urgency,” “power hoarding,” and “fear of open conflict.” Ideally, some of our Quaker practices guide us away from White supremacy culture. For example, Quaker processes of discernment allow time for seasoning and “laying over” of difficult questions, as opposed to the “sense of urgency” that presses for quick action. Our testimony of equality points us away from “power hoarding.” 

However, almost all of us have been brought up in White supremacy culture from infancy. We have been educated in institutions governed by White supremacy culture, and many of us have worked in environments where it is the norm. Because of this acculturation, we will inevitably enact White supremacy culture, consciously or not. How many of our meetings are bedeviled by “fear of open conflict,” for example? The framework of White supremacy culture offers one way to examine our practices and perhaps find opportunities for growth.

We become and remain Quakers because we value Quaker traditions and practices. As much as we may wish for inclusivity, most of us will find it challenging to grow beyond our comfort zones. But for more than three hundred years, Quakers have evolved – often in radical ways. Friends commonly remark that if George Fox were to enter a Friends meeting today, both he and we would be appalled – he by our lax observance of early Friends’ practices, and we by his contempt for propriety and his lengthy sermons! Even in the mid-twentieth century, many Friends could hardly imagine Quaker meetings that included non-Christians, atheists, and LGBTQ Friends.

Our current period in history has challenged many Americans to recognize, perhaps for the first time, our national history of violence and oppression towards Black, brown, and Indigenous peoples, as well as the violence we do to this earth. It has also challenged many to join in struggles for equality and justice for the first time. Likewise, we as Friends can seize this opportunity to reckon with our own history of discrimination and engage in a collective examination of the patterns and practices that maintain White supremacy culture among us. This is a long-term project. But by opening our eyes and our hearts, both to the challenge and the possibility of radical inclusivity, we can nurture environments that offer genuine acceptance, respect, and inclusion to all.  ~~~

Betty Guthrie is a member of PacYM’s Peace and Social Order committee. Since retirement, she volunteers as an immigration advocate.  She is a member of Orange County Friends Meeting (PacYM).

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