Seek to Truly See

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I was in my last semester of grad school, sitting in a café, repressing a broken heart, and working on my thesis. After several hours of non-stop reading and writing, I started to feel a deep sense of despair. My head spun. My breath became heavier. I paused and took a step back from myself. Right then I did an online search for “Maintaining an everyday relationship with God.” Before I saw the results, something told me, “Look up.” Right out the window, I saw two young men in black pants and short-sleeved white shirts: Mormon missionaries. I rushed outside and said to them, “Hey there, I need to talk to you!”

My discussion with the missionaries kicked off many months of studying Mormonism, but those studies came to a halt when I read about the legacy of institutional racism in the Mormon Church. Up until the 1970s, Mormon dogma said that Blacks were not worthy of the priesthood and not welcomed into the highest levels of celestial existence. The church later began a long process of racial reconciliation, and Blacks were eventually admitted to the Mormon priesthood. These gestures toward integration, coupled with my observations of racism in seemingly progressive congregations, helped me to overcome the generalization of Mormons as essentially racist. Even so, I was no longer interested in adopting Mormonism, and returned to my spiritual community, the Religious Society of Friends.

The first Quaker meeting I attended was during my freshmen year of college. Throughout the hour-long meeting, I felt continuously calm and peaceful. It was six more years before I attended another Quaker meeting, but in those years, I studied Quakerism by reading Quaker journals and Pendle Hill pamphlets. The second time I attended Quaker meeting, I was in Zambia. It was hosted by a White English woman who had married a Black Zambian in the 1960s, something that had been particularly controversial in racially divided Africa. Her Quaker practice was deep and invaluable in maintaining the inner tranquility she needed to overcome post-colonial stigmatization.

After a few years of living abroad, I came back to America, eager to become a part of the Quaker community. I attended a Quaker meeting for worship. Sitting there among Friends, in silent worship and communally connected to the Light, I felt a deep sense of belonging. That feeling disintegrated during the social fellowship that followed. I stood there, on the sidelines, looking around the room, too shy to approach anyone, and desperately hoping someone would come up to me. No one did. They didn’t greet me, didn’t ask where I was from or what brought me there. Although I knew it probably wasn’t true, I suspected that they were not talking to me because I wasn’t White like them, because they thought we couldn’t possibly have anything in common. Despite this experience, I attended one more time. The same thing happened. So it was years before I went back to another Quaker meeting.

I recently shared this story in a Quaker discussion group. One Friend responded, “Well, there are plenty of White people who are ignored after worship.” With that brief comment, I felt like my lived experience of racism was dismissed as irrelevant, and the historic trauma of racism was shrugged off. While discussing the fact that we don’t have many people of color in the meeting, one person told me, lightheartedly and without malice, “Ruben, you’re our token person of color!” It stung. So that’s what I am? Not a person, not a seeker, not a Quaker? But a token person of color! Although it was said lightheartedly, I saw this as an example of one common way that racial division prevails in our society: through humor.

During a discussion about racism at a statewide gathering of Arizona Quakers, a White man said, “I’ve always taught my children that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. And I believe that. We don’t have to react the way that we do to discrimination; it really gets down to how we allow others to make us feel.” Oh, I was mad. Racism, sexism, homophobia – all dismissed entirely with that one comment. I told the group that I didn’t feel safe in that space, and I walked out. I spent the rest of the gathering pissed off. I kept remembering the first Quaker meeting I attended, when I felt ignored because I’m not White. Then it hit me. I’d been attending these statewide Quaker gatherings for eight years, and still, most people kept acting like we were meeting for the first time. Even after eight years, they didn’t know my name. Oh, it pissed me off. I told the group that I was pissed off about many things among us; not a victim, but no longer holding back my words. After that, I decided to skip out on the next few statewide gatherings.

White Quakers spend a good amount of time apologizing, reflecting on their privilege and their subtle forms of bias. Although I too have some privilege and some bias, it is not racial privilege or racial bias, and those are the themes of many Quaker groups. I feel excluded from those discussions and sit by patiently, waiting for them to pass. I sometimes feel like White Quakers will never truly understand. I’m not a model minority, but I’m also not a hardened criminal, and I’m certainly not a victim. This article is not about me adopting victimhood but is instead about letting Quakers into my heart, my emotional experience as a person of color. I realize I’m setting up a lose-lose situation for my White Quaker friends. I’m going to be annoyed with them for processing their bias and privilege during worship sharing. And I’m going to be annoyed by them if they don’t do that processing and instead remain clueless. I’m even going to be annoyed by them taking leading roles in the civil rights movement.

Well, maybe there is one thing all Quakers can do: They can see the people of color within their meetings, see people who are attending for the first time or those who have been there all along. Rather than focusing only on racism that exists within our broader society and the unconscious bias that they carry, White Quakers can recognize the bias that exists within their meetings, bias that leaves people of color – this person of color – feeling ignored, feeling pissed off at being seen as “token,” and feeling dismissed by having lived experiences shrugged off as irrelevant.

One thing that you, my dear Friends, can do to be more inclusive: Start by opening your eyes and seeing – truly seeing. And seek to understand.  ~~~

Ruben Soliz is a member of the Phoenix Friends Meeting (IMYM).