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An intrinsic part of the whole: On undoing racism among Friends

By: Clark Reddy
Published: April 29, 2014

Quaker sign by Esther Simpson

Photo: Esther Simpson

Note: Below are two comments made by Clark Reddy, a white ally, on a long string of comments focused on FGC’s New Meetings Project website in the context of a Facebook group about Revitalization of the Friends Message. Greg Williams, a black Quaker in New England, commented that he was surprised and disheartened that the new website of the New Meetings project didn’t include more images or content that would draw in Friends of Color or speak more explicitly to the need to create meetings that were built on the foundation of anti-racism and committed to creating truly multi-racial communities. He said, “I believe there are system failures within Quaker institutions, yearly and monthly meetings relating to racism.  It is not just about the New Meetings Project." Brent Bill, the coordinator of the New Meetings Project, listened very openly and engaged in the very energetic conversation that ensued, in which Friends explored the issue of structural racism among Friends and how it can be addressed. He has signed off on publishing this post.

Quaker sign by jojo77

I post these two comments, excerpts from the conversation, as they raise some of the deep issues of racism within the Religious Society of Friends that we are urgently asked to address. I post it here not to call anyone out, but to raise up how deep structural racism goes and how it will take all of us, as a community, to address. Though some of our organizations and institutions (including FGC) are establishing efforts to undo racism, to create a new way of being, none of our institutions or organizations has achieved the blessed community or has fully realized the depth of work needed. All of our institutions and congregations are being called by Friends of color and allies to do the hard, deep, spiritual work of naming, seeing, and understanding the racism that exists all around us and in us. This is a profoundly spiritual endeavor, one that is essential in order to create a truly vital and whole, and might I add relevant, Society of Friends. - Lucy

I want to say thank you to Greg for taking the risk to write this letter, so full of Truth. We need these challenges to our structures, and to our culture, and I want to note that it shouldn't be only (or primarily) on Friends of Color to bring these issues up, over and over again. (I am aware of some white Friends who are also doing this work, which is a good start.)
 

Quaker sign by suntomWhen I look around at the Friends in my immediate communities and see almost exclusively white faces, this is unequivocal evidence of deeply rooted racism. It is not any individual's fault---it is not even about fault. It is all of our responsibility, together as a community. We state that we welcome diversity, and we periodically minute our feelings about racism, but when I look around the room, it's still mostly white. This means we must press on.

 

To truly be welcoming of all people, not just white people, we must be engaging seriously and continuously in anti-oppression work. Why are our communities mostly white? What steps are we failing to take? To be truly anti-oppression and inclusive, we must transform our culture. This is uncomfortable and scary for most. For white Friends, coming to see our internalized racism is hard, alarming, and deeply uncomfortable work, but it is essential. It is also deeply rewarding, as we open ourselves to a more whole sense of Truth, beyond our own understanding.

In my experience as a queer and trans person, I have had the opportunity to examine my own experience of being Other. I have found that others' internalized and unexamined homophobia and transphobia comes out not as much in what they do and say, but in what they do not do, and do not say. The most well-meaning, supportive-of-social-justice-y, liberal people can be so blind! When hetero-cis-normativity is the default, in order to be inclusive of anyone outside of straight and/or cisgender definitions, you must actively include. You must ask questions, self-educate, and advocate. I do not feel included unless I am not the only one bringing up the needs of my (LGBTQ) community. I do not feel completely safe unless those around me are actively working to address their own internalized privilege without my prompting.

This requires a transformation of the default culture into something new - a new culture in which I am not an Other to be welcomed in and assimilated, but in which I am already and unquestionably an intrinsic part of the Whole.

Quaker sign by Tim GreenI describe my experience in this way not to say that my experience as a queer/trans person is at all equivalent to or more important than the experiences of Friends of Color, but to highlight the importance of being actively inclusive, and the necessity of transformation. Just as I am aware of my own exclusion as a queer/trans person, it is all the more important that I work to be aware of how I am unknowingly excluding others, and to wake up to the exclusion all around me. We so often focus on bringing people of color into our current cultural community of mostly white Friends - we expect them to assimilate to what is comfortable to white Friends. This is what is happening when our communities continue to be mostly white, good intentions aside.

We must seek transformation. The deeply rooted, structural racism in our Quaker communities is blocking out the Light! We have limited our access to Truth, and our ability to speak it! How do we make this transformation? How are we reaching not just outwardly, but inwardly? What would a truly inclusive culture look like? How do we recognize that much of what makes most of us comfortable is not only stifling spiritual growth, but harming others? How can we bring this conversation here back to our local communities?

I admit that I have not been very focused on the New Meetings Project, but this transformation can begin at any (and every) leading edge of change.

The conversation continued. Some were defending the project and others were critiquing. Clark posed this response.

In light of the tension I see here--on the one hand, Friends who have worked very hard to establish the New Meetings Project, who put forth a great deal of love into this work, and on the other hand, the calling out of this work as not addressing the needs of Friends of Color and the presence of structural racism among Friends, I feel called to share the following.

Friends Meeting House by blip7I want to lift up the hard work that has been put into this project. I see the joy that comes from this work, and I want to name the value of it. We do need to revitalize Friends. We do need to be open to welcoming new members and seekers, and in order to do so, we do need these kinds of structures in place to support growth. I am deeply appreciative of the attention and energy put into this work. Thank you, Brent, and others who are working on this, for your continued faithfulness.

I also want to continue to lift up structural racism. We white people are taught to turn a blind eye to racism, and to not even realize that we are doing this. We are taught to see an all- or mostly-white community as default and normal—it is easy to not even notice! We are taught that racism is one issue among many, and we must prioritize our energy, as if racism can somehow be separated from everything else. We are infected with this blindness by the culture we are surrounded by, all day, every day, and the symptoms present themselves everywhere, every day, but they are so normalized, we do not see them.

Feeling shame for our blindness is natural. Feeling defensive about it is natural. If your eyes have not been opened, it is unsurprising. Indeed, the pain of opening them is great.

Quaker meeting room by Eugene KimAcknowledging structural racism does not erase your hard work on this project. It does not negate every effort, every good intention. Acknowledging structural racism does not mean white people are condemned failures. The pain of acknowledging our implicit and inescapable role in racism feels immense, and it is easy to feel that this pain is greater than the pain suffered by those who are oppressed by it—in fact, we are taught that our feelings are more important. We are taught this so deeply, that we do not even realize that we are prioritizing our feelings over others'. The truth is that our pain of being unwilling participants is not greater than the pain of those who are oppressed. It is not about who hurts more. We are all burned by the fires of racism, every day, even more than we can imagine. It infects every single thing we do.

It may feel like the New Meetings Project is somehow unfairly being singled out. What I see is a step forward. I see folks pressing hard to show us all the Truth of what is happening in every program, in every institution, in every meeting.
 

What better avenue is there to raise awareness than in a project whose goal is to revitalize the Friends message? We cannot authentically revitalize our message and continue to de-prioritize the voices of Friends of color. Racism makes us uncomfortable, and it is easy to decide that it isn't relevant. But it is always relevant.

Tokyo Friends Meeting by Bob FreundWhat I see on this forum is not condemnation. What I see is a message that has been repeated over and over by Friends of Color, and that takes courage to repeat every single time. I see Friends of Color who are exhausted from continuing to bring up their pain and exclusion in the face of being de-prioritized, and shut down in one way or another, almost every time. 'Not this time,' we tell them. Or, 'This is not relevant here'. Or, 'Stop attacking me, it's not my fault'. It is easy to take this message personally, but it is actually directed at all of us together, and at the structure we exist in.

 

It is not about “us vs. them.” It is about the healing we all need to do together. As white people, it is easy to feel attacked or accused when our internalized racism is pointed out. I have felt this myself. But it is essential to continue to listen, because we are blind, and sometimes, others can see more than we can, even if it hurts. It is essential to continue to truly listen, to let go of the idea that we can always clearly see what is happening.

I see here a call not to tear down the work that you have already put forth with this project, but to build upon it, to continue to change it as you gain new information. I see a call to seek out the voices and needs of Friends of Color with more energy, with a higher priority, *in addition* to the work already being faithfully done.

I appreciate the efforts to listen here on this forum. I can sense the deep struggle, and the confusion. Confronting structural racism and our own internalized racism is confusing—it is hard to realize that we do not see the world or ourselves as clearly was we thought we could. This work is so important. Thank you to everyone here for sticking with it. I am holding all of us in the Light.

About the Author

Clark Reddy

Clark Reddy is a life-long Friend who calls New England home. He considers Beacon Hill Friends Meeting (NEYM) to be his home community, though he is currently living and working toward a PhD in Connecticut. He frequently travels to Boston to attend BHFM and connect with Friends there. He is passionate about social justice issues, and feels that he cannot authentically work toward justice for himself if he is not also working toward justice for all oppressed people, and vice versa.