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Our good intentions fail our Friends of color

Everything

Our good intentions fail our Friends of color

Liz Oppenheimer

by Liz Oppenheimer

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.