When I was in high school, some friends and I snuck into a neighborhood swimming pool that was closed after dark. We tried to keep quiet, but we were having too much fun, and a neighbor called the cops. An officer showed up and calmly asked us to please leave, which we did. Those friends and I are white. This summer, several young black girls were physically assaulted in McKinney, Texas, by police officers ordering them to leave a pool party in the middle of the day. To my knowledge, those girls were breaking no rules, yet their black skin condemned them to violent treatment by the police.
Of course, McKinney was hardly an isolated incident. We are living in a time when when young white males who commit deadly shootings receive nuanced reporting from the media, while innocent black males are routinely written off as thugs, gangsters, and terrorists. Nine people are dead this month in Charleston, South Carolina, at the hands of a white supremacist. Any claim that we live in a “post-racial society” is deluded.
Quakers are widely known for being early pioneers in the anti-slavery movement. Even so, white Quakers today generally do a bad job in treating Quakers of Color in ways that are in line with the moral importance we place on community, peace, and equality.
Quakers of Color have told me stories about other Quakers sticking uninvited fingers into their black hair. I have heard of prejudiced statements about Quakers of Color by other Quakers who remained unaware that those statements were hurtful. Many studies have shown that such microaggressions, when routine, cause extreme trauma in the targets of those behaviors. Just because Quakers helped to end slavery does not give us a free pass here.
I have heard much vocal ministry from white Quakers on how bad they feel about racism and white privilege. But no matter how noble such expressions of guilt might feel, they are actually just emotionally exhausting, and they block real work from taking place. I have also heard many white Quakers say they regret that the Religious Society of Friends in the U.S. is so white. But merely complaining is a dead end. If we actually want to become more diverse, we need to figure out how to recognize microaggressions and other patterns of exclusivity in our meetings, and we need to stop them.
In a community that values worshipful silence, it is all too easy to remain silent when contentious conversations begin. I have been guilty of this many times. Yet a powerful way that we can combat racism is to speak out and question our own cherished systems and traditions. We white folks must raise our voices to challenge damaging comments at family gatherings and in our meetinghouses. We must educate ourselves about oppression so that we aren’t always expecting People of Color to explain their sufferings to us. We must be willing to admit when we’re wrong. Finally, we must sit with ourselves and ask what we can do to make the spaces we inhabit more welcoming to People of Color. ~~~
Damon Motz-Storey was raised in Evergreen, Colorado, attending Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver (IMYM). He is studying mathematics, education, and music at Haverford College near Philadelphia, where he lives in a Quaker community house and participates in the campus’s queer activism. Two of his post-graduation goals are Quaker social justice work and teaching.