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Radical White People Class

Published: Sept. 18, 2020


I recently attended an AFSC Zoom webinar led by Lucy Duncan, Mila Hamilton, and Lisa Graustein, called “Radical Acting in Faith for White People.”

While I was taking the course, I could never remember its name, so I just kept calling it the Radical White People class. I was going over my notes, yellow highlighter in hand, hoping to get the most pertinent parts of the class identified so I could write this article. Almost everything is yellow now. It was a very dense class. When people would ask me about it, I’d say it seemed to be about getting in touch with our bodies and stopping to breathe every few minutes and that it seemed a little bit more “woo woo” than I thought it would, or should, be. At the very core, it really was about making that very scary trip from the head to the heart, and we were reminded frequently, “this is going to get messy.”

We were given some really wonderful tools to help us examine ourselves and were given many opportunities to see our supposedly Good White Quaker selves through the eyes of folks who did not necessarily agree with who we thought we were. And we were reminded to breathe. We were invited to role play various scenarios to see how we might act in a given situation, and then we listened to our classmates discuss our clumsiness. And we were reminded to breathe and identify our feelings. We watched videos of Black people telling us we better not be able to sleep at night and, if we could, we were no better than Dylann Roof. And we were asked where we were holding the shame in our bodies. We listened to a Black woman describe 400 years of a monopoly game in which you had no money but were forced to play anyway; and 50 years where you had a little money and as soon as you began to create a strong community it was burnt to the ground. And she asked, “Are you starting to get it?” 

I’m grateful that I took notes, because there really was a lot that was covered. So much so that I was left kind of stunned after each class and could only tell people it was about breathing and shame. Fortunately, every other week we met with a small group to digest and discuss what happened in the class. There were several hundred people enrolled, so there was no opportunity for any discussion in the class itself.

Our group was mostly folks from the Yuma Meeting and we really bonded. Or maybe just huddled together in fear. But I think we were able to quickly build enough trust to speak honestly with each other, and even gently confront each other, and that was invaluable.

The premise was basically this – as much as we would like to think otherwise, white supremacy is endemic in the U.S. and in each of us Good White Quaker people. And the only way we can tolerate conditions as they are for People of Color is to separate our minds from our bodies – to rationalize or ignore. I was reminded of the way trauma survivors learn to dissociate from their bodies. Perhaps true for witnesses of trauma as well.

If we are not willing to acknowledge and examine that truth, we are not going to be able to help anybody. And any help we attempt to provide is going to perpetuate our supremacy and cause even more damage. That struck me as a pretty radical notion at first. I was continually reminded of our Light Meditation practice – where we are encouraged to remove layer after layer to get to the truth. To ask, “why is this so?” and not just accept our initial intellectual analysis. And we are asked to look for where this truth is living in our bodies. I have a note from the first class, “The Light is not just warm and fuzzy. It also illuminates the knots that need to be untangled”.

We were reminded repeatedly that this is messy and uncomfortable work and that we are going to make mistakes. Class leader Lucy Duncan said she has been doing this work for fifteen years and she still makes lots of mistakes and feels likes she is just beginning. We were told that there will be many times when we don’t have the language to describe what we’re seeing and feeling but that we will know in our hearts when something is not right and we need to speak up anyway. We were encouraged to just stay curious and to speak with anyone we can trust, and we were reminded that our shame wants to keep us silent. We heard that this is about building authentic relationships; about accompanying rather than helping; following rather than leading.

 I heard that sometimes feeling a sense of urgency is a signal to slow down. I learned that language can be a racist tool, and that complimenting a person of color for being articulate is a racist comment. Not everybody speaks White and there is absolutely no reason they should have to. I need to look at whether I’m willing and able to listen to the language of someone else’s culture. Maybe more than anything else, it’s about learning to listen. Listening with curiosity and a beginner’s mind and then listening for the story and the judgements and the excuses I put on top of it. I do it, we all do it, so we can dodge the truth and remain comfortable. It’s about listening with an open heart. Listening with faith instead of fear. Listening with humility and a willingness to make mistakes and learn. As I heard a Friend share last week, “Anything worth doing is worth failing at.” She said it was her new daily mantra, and I hope to make it mine as well.

There was so much more. The last video we saw featured author Bettina Love who talked about the difference between being an ally and being a co-conspirator. She said if we really want to help, we must come to the table with more than just a statement that we read the latest book. We need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. She said our white privilege is like an ATM card, and we need to be willing to use it. She told a story about a Black woman who had climbed to the top of a 70-foot-tall steel flagpole to take down a confederate flag and the white man who accompanied her. The police were about to taser the pole to get her down and the white man, on the ground, wrapped his arms around the pole, knowing they would happily risk her falling but willing to gamble they would not risk injuring him. That, she said, is being a co-conspirator. That is tapping the ATM of white privilege.

I don’t know that I feel any braver than I did before the class. I certainly feel this was a step in the right direction. Our little study group, which I clung to like a life raft in a hurricane, has decided to continue meeting for a while, and I’m very grateful for that. And I’d be delighted if we might do the same in our own meeting. Flagstaff Friends is certainly a group I’m willing to get messy with.

If you’d like the learn more, go to AFSC.org and put “Radical Acting in Faith for White Peopl”e in the search engine and dig in. You might squirm a little, but I promise you won’t regret it.

from David Bonnell, Flagstaff Friends Meeting, (9/14/2020)