Race & Quakerism

Author(s): 
Department: 

The first time I was confronted with my identity as a “Brown Woman” was my first trip to North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM). I had never experienced such a direct external approach to my skin color before. My family celebrated my adoption day as a family holiday. We went back to India to see my heritage history, and I was raised with some Indian cultural education, but my racial background wasn’t ever the first characteristic that came to mind when examining my personal identity. The welcome I received because of my brown skin from the Quakers was both amazingly compassionate and entirely unsettling. At that time, I had only just begun to explore this part of my identity. As an extension of this experience, I began to pay more attention to race relations within the Quaker community, and the struggles of different races around the U.S.

There has always been conflict and friction between communities of color and the paler majority. Minority communities in the U.S. have long lived in fear of judgment, of violence, of oppression, and of cultural misunderstandings. This fear has escalated with President Trump’s election. But even before Trump, the disillusionment I heard surrounding Barak Obama’s presidency was often tied to his race, either consciously or unconsciously. For example, during Obama’s presidency, struggles between the black community and the police, which had been going on for decades, returned to the media’s forefront with the death of Eric Garner. The fear that this event inspired caused both outrage and terror. Communities of color had hoped that a president of color might have indicated a change towards better racial relations. Under the current President, who does nothing to halt acts of racial hatred, those who perpetrate such acts understand the President’s silence as encouragement.

The first community of dark-skinned people who welcomed me as a child and as young adult was the Native American community in Montana. Recently, one particular struggle of the Native Community has drawn the media’s eye and also the eyes of Quakers. This was the struggle at Standing Rock, where protests by Native American tribes against an oil pipeline drew national and international attention – both criticism and support. NPYM and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) sent delegations of Quakers to Standing Rock, and they also formed beautifully worded minutes in support of Native peoples’ stand there. Ironically, these minutes were formulated shortly after AFSC closed its Native program.

One large concern related to race and the Quaker process is the feeling that minutes seldom lead to the direct action that is needed. Although minutes that express a moral and value position do help lead to a more unified community, and although they are essential in formulating the long-term, broad-spanning changes that Quakers are excellent at creating, their disadvantage is that long-term solutions are often a hard sell to minorities, like Black and Muslim communities who are actively suffering right now.

A Friend expressed this well during meeting for worship recently, “Minorities do not need more platitudes with no action behind them.” Too often, privileged groups of people will express feelings of concern about an issue, then forget the people and cause shortly after the issue falls out of vogue. The argument can be made that Quaker communities are doing excellent work in many other countries. AFSC has offices in Somalia and Bangladesh, and NPYM routinely sends the youth program to Guatemala for educational purposes. I don’t discount the good leadings that these Quakers are following. However, our neighbors in our own towns are suffering as well.

Two questions that I hear over and over, from different Quaker meetings, are: “Why don’t we have more diversity in our numbers?” and “How can we be more welcoming?” After speaking with Friends of color from AFSC and pondering my own observations, I have come to a condensed set of answers to those queries.

First, Quaker meetings aren’t well advertised. Few people are aware that our meetings exist. This is an issue that encompasses the entirety of the Quaker world; it’s not just a problem in one state or another. I have surprised people on numerous occasions with the fact that Quakers do, in fact, still exist, and have not been relegated to the history books. In our rush to avoid being judgmental and to avoid pushing our beliefs upon others, we can appear reserved, cold, and unwelcoming. In many instances, we may not appear at all.

Another stumbling block that Quakers encounter is that people from diverse backgrounds are unsure how to accept the honest, earnest, and enthusiastic welcoming atmosphere that the Quaker community provides. This is because society has conditioned minorities to be wary of those who welcome each other too enthusiastically. The uncomfortable feeling of disingenuous tokenism in Quaker circles is a hard feeling to avoid, unless one is already familiar with how highly the Quaker community values honesty.

The most poignant stumbling block that keeps people of diverse racial backgrounds from attending Quaker meetings is Quakers’ relationship to Spirit, God, or Jesus. In many of Montana’s unprogrammed meetings, the subject of Christianity is quite taboo, unless someone is speaking about it in the negative. I have seldom heard any reference to the Bible or Christianity among Quakers, unless it is prefaced with an apology or some other verbal lessening of that person’s message, to make others feel more comfortable.

Many people in the Black community have a more direct relationship with God than most unprogrammed Quakers do. The director of Earlham College’s Gospel Revelations Choir explained this beautifully. “Jesus wasn’t up on a cross; he wasn’t in a fancy building. Jesus was right there with us, marching for freedom, in the fields, and on the sides of the roads.” This direct relationship with God isn’t something most Quakers will talk about willingly, for fear of being judged, unless the term “Inner Light” is used. Many Quakers seem to have turned to Quakerism specifically to get away from the dogma and rules of Christianity.quote] This situation often results in meetings where Quakers sit in silent meditation and contemplation, but where Spirit is removed from direct interaction with attenders and members the moment they leave the circle or meetinghouse.

There are many factors to consider when welcoming new people to Quaker events and gatherings. Many of our meetings have existed for decades, but we must remember that merely existing is not the same as being a welcoming presence. Social outreach, visitation, and making Quakerism accessible for Seekers from all backgrounds are all a highly important parts of building a healthy, compassionate community. ~~~

Kat Northup lives in Helena, Montana, where she is a member of the Montana Gathering of Friends (NPYM), and currently serves as Clerk of Helena Worship Group. She was adopted from India and raised in both Quaker and Methodist traditions. Kat graduated from Earlham College in Indiana in 2009 with a BA in Art.