July 14, 2018

Open letter to white Friends: Good intentions fail our Friends of color


I began writing this open letter to white Friends in the first part of 2018. I began sharing the letter publicly in early Seventh Month (July) 2018. I have a care-and-accountability committee at the meeting that holds my membership; that committee received and reviewed several versions of the letter. I also presented it to my meeting's Ministry and Counsel Committee, to other anti-racist Friends, to a few Friends of color initially, and so on.

The open letter is my best attempt at articulating what has been laid on my heart. It isn't perfect nor complete. While certain events prompted me to begin writing, the letter initially is directed to all of our unprogrammed Quaker worship communities in the U.S. and primarily at the systems within each: the people in decision-making positions; the processes we use; and the practices we adhere to, formally and informally.

Each Friend, each meeting, each yearly meeting will have its own labor to take up as you/they/it considers the open letter.

Below is the text of the open letter. A number of Friends have asked for permission to share it; the answer is Yes.

More important to me than receiving and sharing the open letter, though, is knowing that it has opened something new in you or for your worship community. Maybe you (they) have taken up new antiracism work or had a discussion that shed new Light on the problematic systems in your meeting or something else entirely. I hope so.


P.S. Because of the nature of blogging, I am taking extra time to include links to related material in this post that are not present in the original letter. I realize that over time, a number of links won't be valid.


Open letter to my fellow white Friends:
Our good intentions fail our Friends of color.

    Mind the light, that all may be refreshed one in another, and all in one.  – George Fox
    Firstly it is a timely reminder of the Advice to ‘listen for the spirit, even if it is expressed in ways unfamiliar to you’. Secondly it is a reiteration of the insight that every person ‘has a measure of the light’ with a recognition that then as now, our interpretation of the spirit can be distorted by privilege and hierarchy…  — Tim Gee, Peckham Meeting (UK), on the minute from North London Area Meeting, acclaiming that abolitionist Benjamin Lay was now in good standing.  November 2017 (as posted at Abington Meeting's website)

With a heavy heart, I begin this letter to white Quakers (aka Friends of European descent) after having been in conversation with two African American Friends during much of 2017. One had been read out of her meeting due to a racialized conflict; the other had traveled on different occasions to support the first. Both followed the Truth of their experience rather than conform to the unspoken expectation of yielding to the dominant white-influenced way of what constitutes Quaker conduct.

Woven throughout the half-dozen accounts that I heard over the year—most from white Friends—the thick presence of unexamined whiteness seems to have impeded or overridden the inbreaking of Spirit. I grieve for the missed opportunities to hear and believe the Truth as expressed by Friends of color. I grieve for the spiritual separations and for the emotional rifts that arise when Friends in the relevant quarter and in the yearly meeting, pressed by myself and others to intervene, ultimately resigned themselves to profess merely “The authority rests with the monthly meetings.”

This erroneous profession from where our corporate spiritual authority comes breaks my heart. Is there nothing more we can reach for than the written word? What does that say about our spiritual discipline if Friends “come not to the Spirit” that gave forth our books of Faith and Practice?  What we speak, is it inwardly from God?

What follows below is the Light I have been given during the first half of 2018. I pray that my grief and my compassionate challenge come through my own written words. I grieve because too often I learn how our good intentions fail our Friends of color.  I challenge because others before me have challenged me and have accompanied me through the difficulty and I am better for it.

My intention has been to await formal approval from certain small bodies of Friends, as is our custom, before sending this out more widely. Then after several weeks of waiting, one morning I felt myself released from the waiting, perhaps because the season of yearly meeting approaches. Then Way opened and this letter goes out initially to the Friends with whom I worship and to the meeting that holds my membership. Too numerous are the false reasons for waiting much further.

Socialized whiteness among us tells me to keep waiting. In matters of addressing racism and quelling white supremacy, however, I am learning to recognize this voice as more often that of the Adversary and not of the Shepherd.


We are cautioned in the letter from the elders of Balby that “these things [which we have shared with you] we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided … and fulfilled in the Spirit, —not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (Emphasis added)

Our current books of discipline, our yearly meetings’ books of faith and practice were conceived of and written largely by white Friends with limited or no direct experience, or analysis, of the cumulative harms of racism, white supremacy, and implicit bias. Year after year, generation after generation, although our good intentions as white Friends have carried our predominantly white worship communities through racial tensions, we have failed our Friends of color, whether they worship with us on First Days or not. We must begin to consider the possibility that our Faith and Practice may be flawed or that we have begun to rely too much on guidance from the printed word, rather than on the Spirit that brought them forth. The words and advices contained therein may reinforce patterns, behaviors, and worldviews grounded in unexamined whiteness, unknowingly cultivating attitudes that favor compliance or conformity to worldly norms rather than encouraging unity with the Living Spirit.

The result may be and has been that we dismiss or downgrade the concerns of Friends of color, and we insensitively or unknowingly default to the unexamined whiteness of our Quaker norms and practices. Testing the sense of the meeting is one such example: by default, the sense of the meeting emerges from our predominantly white membership… and all of our multigenerational collective implicit bias. Therefore, if we do not thoroughly examine and transform implicit bias, and if we do not directly address interpersonal, systemic, and structural racism, we as white Friends are likely to perpetuate and re-create it.

Some Friends may ask, “But if we aren’t to turn to and adhere to the guidance in our Faith and Practice, what are we to do?” In addition to seeking Light and guidance from the words of the scriptures, Friends also raised questions of one another, including “Christ and the apostles saith this but what canst thou say?” and “How does the Truth prosper with thee?”

We can acknowledge that our books of Faith and Practice represent a faithfulness that our yearly meetings once affirmed. It was the measure of Light Friends had at the time. But we mustn’t stop there.  God’s Truth and continuing revelation requires us to keep Listening, to mind the Light, to return to a unity in the Spirit and not a simple conformity to how we have “always” done things. Openings don’t stop once our books of Faith and Practice and our minutes on racism are published.

We have mistakenly professed that individual equality--that there is that of God in each of us--somehow equates to systemic fairness.

In fact, our policies, socialized norms, and decision-making practices among Friends all tilt toward an unexamined white, professional, urban, middle-class bias:
  • We often avoid loud or persistent conflict, or otherwise deny or escape from it.
  • We tamp down effusive expression of emotion, be it anger or joy.
  • We erase or ignore or pass over the wider context of historical trauma, including our own religious society’s active involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
  • We address a direct, concrete question in an indirect, abstract way.
  • We insist that our “good intentions” override the resulting pain experienced by our Friends of color and indigenous Friends, including hurt from microaggressions.
  • We abide by the prevailing Quaker practice to allow monthly meetings the final say in a situation that looks like it was either explicitly racially motivated, or was the result of racial bias, examined or unexamined.
As white Friends, ours is the responsibility to parse out the practices and norms into which we have been socialized without our consent--and shed those that regularly or systematically create barriers and inequities, especially those that Friends of color, indigenous Friends, and non-Friends from those communities critique. When possible, ours is the responsibility to work with and listen for the guidance of indigenous Friends and Friends of color in these matters—being mindful of the additional emotional and spiritual labor involved for those who have experienced racism.

We may unknowingly or unintentionally be tempted to give privileged authority and power to individual white Friends who insist that even including the words “racism” or “white supremacy” in our written record are inappropriate. And if we white Friends are tempted to say “Our meeting isn’t racist,” might we reflect on why communities of color and actively anti-racist groups frequently lift up their experiences among us, but our minutes, records, books of Faith and Practice, and other documents seemingly have little or no direct reference to them? What do these omissions tell us of our legacy and responsibility of being Publishers of the Truth?

We toss aside and pretend not to see or name in particular the 400-year historical context of erasing or zeroing out the lived experiences of Native Americans and African Americans—more recently, Asian Americans.  Like many of our white peers outside of our Quaker walls, we say that this country’s history of stolen land, stolen labor, and stolen lives isn’t our fault or isn’t relevant to the current (in)action that points to and exacerbates a stolen or distorted spirituality.

This erasure must end.

We must no longer turn from the Loving Presence that emerges from the hearts of our friends and spiritual family of color. Their Light is a measure of God’s Light, is it not? Their Light answers to our own Inward Teacher and searches us, compels us to bear witness to how our current practice of relying on waiting, as well as the over-reliance on the white-tainted authority of the monthly meeting, have strayed too far from the Shepherd that guides our feet and that helps us keep to the path not only of faithful living, but also of moving into a just form of deep communal living.

We must believe what our sisters and brothers of color and of indigenous heritage are telling us.  We must look for the patterns of injustice in our practices and meeting’s policies and remove them.  We must learn to recognize and uproot the seeds of implicit bias that undermine our ability to be faithful not to the words in our books of Faith and Practice, but to the Spirit that transcends those words and that illuminates the Light we live by.

Descended from distant European ancestors, too many of us as white Friends have assimilated into American whiteness without critical examination or analysis. Denouncing racism and declaring ourselves “not racist” isn’t enough. As white Friends, we must become anti-racist. We must look at our Quakerism with an explicit racial justice lens. We must be active in countering our implicit bias; in learning about socialization into whiteness; and in undoing systems, practices, and policies that replicate or perpetuate unintended racism. Our good intentions must align with even better anti-racist practices, ones that are are tested beyond our white membership.

When we white Friends believe the shared concerns of indigenous Friends and Friends of color; when we discover the unjust or inequitable practices and policies carried out by our meetings; when we do these things, we may become low and humble in our service, in our renewed dedication to restore broken trust and to make amends for our wrongdoings. By and by, we may also know experientially a living wholeness of Divine Family, a circle unbroken, a renewal of right and just relationship with all of God’s children.

Elizabeth (Liz) Oppenheimer
Sixth Month 2018