June 20, 2011

Racism, Quaker theology, and my own liberation

Over the years, as Friends General Conference has established programs to eradicate racism among the Religious Society of Friends, I have heard the statement, "Racism hurts everyone."

I've been confused by that, since I myself am not a person of color and I didn't see how I was being hurt.

For the past two years, I've attended the annual national White Privilege Conference and that statement--Racism hurts everyone--has worked on me. But it wasn't until the intersection of two things coming together that my heart and spirit opened to that Truth.

First, a local Quaker friend of European descent pointed me to a quote by White Philadelphia Friend Arlene Kelly:

We are not a homogenous group seeking to become more diverse; we are an incomplete organization seeking to become more whole. --Friends Journal, October 2010
The second thing was that I began reflecting on Quakerism's doctrine of the Inner Light. In particular I was thinking of the concept that the more we listen together, and the more we hear from different individuals gathered in worship as to their own discernment and understanding of God's guidance, the closer we get to understanding the full Truth that God wishes for us to know.

When I disallow myself the opportunity to listen to, worship with, and befriend people who are different from me--people of color, immigrants or "new Americans," people who are poor or working class--when I disallow those connections, I am automatically cutting myself off from the Love and Truth that my brothers and sisters in the Spirit have for me and for my White middle-class, US-born peers.

The whole of the Truth cannot be understood without the Whole of people.

If I am regularly worshiping with and seeking Truth primarily with only some of God's children, then I am likely not able to know the Truth that others who are different from me hold, because I won't have access to understanding their experience of the world, of the Light.

In that case, the Truth itself is less than whole, particularly as Quakers of European descent strive to undo racism, understand the complexity of White privilege, and work for justice in the world.

As that awareness began to sink into my heart, I felt a lot of energy and space open up within me. It was as if all those spoken and unspoken cautions about watching out for "this group" or for "that group" just floated away.

While I was "being socialized without my consent"* and without my knowledge, to keep "those people" at arm's length and in a box labeled "CAUTION: Others," I didn't know that I myself was being boxed in, with messages of what I was supposed to think, what I was supposed to say, and how I was supposed to be.

When I came into the Truth that all of us are needed in order to know the Whole of God, I indeed felt freed. And I have never looked back.


*I have looked for a source for the concept of "being socialized without our consent," which I first heard at the White Privilege Conference in 2011 (WPC12) but haven't been able to find who to attribute it to.


Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks, Liz. This rings true to my own experience and my sense of why diversity matters. Some people talk about becoming more diverse as if it is somehow doing a favor to the "others" to let them in, while in my experience, opening to diversity and/or cross cultural dialog is more about wholeness and mutual enrichment.

Unknown said...

Blessings Liz, most appreciated reading your thoughts. I am grateful for the dialogue and heart exchanges across the spectrum to a "wholeness in Goddess" Brightest of Blessings!

Alyss said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I took a class in my teacher training program this spring focusing on critical race theory and racism in education and the concepts I read about and worked with there continue to work on me. Your post continues that work, thank you :)

Anonymous said...


You always have lovely things to write and I agree that Friends should do everything possible to make a welcoming space for all to be seen and heard.

I do wonder though, whether or not there is an inherent racism in the idea that in order to include others and worship with others, they must become "one of us"? Is it not possible to listen to them and worship with them if they wish to belong to their own traditions as well?

Many of these well intentioned attempts to assuage "white guilt" by being inclusive end up being perceived by those on the receiving end of being just one more attempt to steal their parishoners or to rob their group of their unique heritage...just more attempts to assimilate them into the monoculture. Does being equal mean we must be the same, with all of us equally losing our distinctiveness?

Is it not possible to make social and working links with ethnic or black churches that are neighbours....with synagogues, temples and mosques? Shouldn't the starting place be meeting with and listening to people on their own terms?


Liz Opp said...

Eileen -

Glad to know that others have had similar experiences, even if we would describe them differently. Thanks for commenting.


Glad to see you here as well as on Facebook. I too feel as though the connection that began a year or two ago continues to be knit and woven across the miles and the months.

Alyss -

Thanks for writing... I have no idea where you are located, in the States or the U.K. or ...? In case you are in the U.S., I want to make sure you know about the White Privilege Conference, since there are MANY educators there.

My own journey about moving from "talking the talk" to "walking the walk" practically begins with the WPC. I feel like I'm simply taking what I learn there, relating it to my own life, and then passing it forward.

Karen -

I appreciate your questions here, and I had to re-read my post before responding.

Nowhere do I say that People of Color, or people "who aren't like me" have to come to Quakerism: I could certainly step more into the lives and communities of my sisters and brothers instead!

I can see how what I've written might be taken to mean, "We need to bring more of them to us," but that wasn't my intention, so I thank you for giving me a chance to clarify that.

Part of how my life is changed is that when I have a chance to listen to someone with a different background from my own, I engage with them differently from how I used to. I don't do it perfectly, but it's the only way I can learn to change my own [socialized] behaviors and assumptions.

As to your question, "Does being equal mean we must be the same, with all of us equally losing our distinctiveness?" I give that a firm and clear NO.

To become whole, we must practice authenticity--being as deeply true to our unique identity as a beloved child of God. We must also practice encouraging others to be authentic, even if we don't care for what might be shared.

And we can't be authentic if we are striving to be identical for the sake of equality. Ick.

So I am very much on board with you, that those of us with certain types of privilege must give up some of the comfort that comes with that in order to step outside our comfort zone, take down the sides of the box we've placed ourselves in, and cross the proverbial street in order to meet our brothers and sisters in Spirit.

Lastly, as to White guilt: I gave a short workshop at the sessions of my yearly meeting recently on moving through White guilt (or heterosexual guilt or middle-class guilt, etc). It boiled down to these three points:

1. Get present. Stay grounded, remind yourself that you're part of a system that has trained you to feel and think and behave certain ways, including feeling guilty.

2. Get connected. Reach out to others for support, for encouragement, for confessions of something you did that played into oppressing someone else. Staying connected runs counter to the divisive message of lifting up the individual above all else.

3. Get going. Feel the guilt and show up anyway. Start over. Find another event to go to that might be less risky or more supportive. Ask others to go with you. But whatever you do, just start doing something.


Pat Pope said...

Karen, you make an excellent point. As an African-American who just left a Quaker meeting, I can tell you that one of the things that makes me cringe is the desire to make people "like us" whether that's ethnic minorities, poor people, addicted people, etc. I desire to be part of a church where I can be accepted for myself without having to feel like I've got to fit someone's mold before I'm accepted.

And Liz, you're right about racism hurting everyone because through racism or exclusivism, we isolate ourselves from people who can actually enrich our world. Too often though, we're willing to believe the worst about a group and thus feel the solution is to cut ourselves off from "those people".

GLEG said...

Dear Liz,

Thanks for your post. I agree foundationally with it, and have come to understand that the teaching that white people are often taught as children - that they are 'better than' is white child abuse, resulting in all kinds of disconnection, from people, from the earth, from oneself and one's humanity. Living within oppressive systems ends up being degrading for all, keeping us from our birthright, to connect and love. That's not to take away from the profound hurt of being a target of that oppression, as very evidently expressed by the health disparities in this country, which arise from repeated micro-aggressions and srtuctural inequality, but the bubble white people, and white Quakers, often live in is destructive not only to other people's souls, but to our own.

Love, Lucy

GLEG said...

And,I was pretending to be Graham, as he was logged in to Google, this is written by me, Lucy Duncan, though.

With Love...

Liz Opp said...

Pat -

...."the desire to make people 'like us,'" rather than affirm and encourage one another's authenticity. We have a long way to go, don't we?

I'm sorry that your journey among Friends has been so painful.

GLeG -

Hi, Lucy! Thanks for speaking more fully to the spiritual and relational disconnection that White children and adults are so often covertly taught.

The day after this year's White Privilege Conference, when I was in worship, I was moved to provide the message that one of the most radical of acts we can do today is to join with someone, in sorrow or in celebration, in worship or in play, because it goes directly against the societal message that we are individuals who must watch out for our own best interests.

All we need to do to see such "socialization to disconnect" is to listen to the rhetoric around anti-immigration policy, anti-equality for marriage, anti-access for people of color into higher institutions of learning, and more.

Now that I understand that element of structural oppression, I can point to it much more frequently and help my fellow travelers see it too.


Pat Pope said...

Thanks, Liz.

Patti said...

Yes,listen to others perspectives, but check all things by the Spirit. There is that possible result of being sucked into deception by being "open." Yes, definately love all people and accept who God made them to be, but the truth of Jesus Christ being the Son of God, and the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that He is the only way to God is irrefutable. We carry that light inside of us, and we are to share this irrefutable truth with the world.

Aaron said...

Keep an eye out, Pat. Quaker hypocrisy tends to sneak up on you, the first few times.