At Thursday’s weekly Peace Forum, held at ESR, Bethany Seminary alumnus Dean J. Johnson discussed religious narratives among white Christians that uphold white power and privilege. Johnson, now an assistant professor of religious studies at Defiance College in Ohio, interviewed 20 Christians across 12 faith traditions in Fort Wayne, Ind., to discover how being white impacted their theology.
Johnson found that most whites unwittingly aid oppression by misunderstanding how privilege works, perceiving themselves foremost as individuals rather than as part of a powerful group. This perception leads to a cultural narrative of merit, in which many whites believe they have succeeded based solely on their own skills and efforts.
Other attitudes that uphold oppression include an unwillingness to accept racial equality when it comes with a loss of white privilege, and perceiving white cultural norms as “common sense,” thus denigrating the perceptions of other races. Many whites also maintain that our society is colorblind or post-racial while at the same time expressing an acute personal awareness of race. One woman, for example, claimed that she was racially colorblind but then opined that her daughter probably dated black men because she felt she was not pretty enough to attract white men.
White cultural narratives seep into the white Christian narrative. Some white churches communicate a narrative of just deserts, in which God rewards the deserving (ie, whites), a story reinforced in many churches by the absence of any conversation about the larger social issues that might impede minority achievement. Many whites emphasize accepting Christian salvation rather than living a Christ-like life: they assent to a Christian narrative or creed rather than changing how they live. Many then conflate good feelings towards other races with enlightened racial behavior: If my racial intentions are good, my behavior can do no harm. Churches, as well, reinforce white paternalism by expecting non-whites to assimilate to their cultural norms, often with little interest in learning about the patterns and behaviors of other groups.
Blacks, in contrast, are likely to see race or larger social forces as significant influences on their achievement and to be distrustful of white efforts to reach out to them as driven by white needs and agendas. Blacks tend to focus on the outcomes of white behavior - are whites acting in non-racist ways? - rather than on white “feelings” about other races that might be contradicted by actions.
As the 2008 book Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship shows, Quakers are not immune to the insidious racism that plagues other predominately white religious groups. For all our good work on abolition, we white Quakers, along with the rest of white society, have been slow to embrace blacks as equals. We wish to worship with blacks, but on our terms. We want to “help” blacks, but this desires often carries with it the assumption that “they” will assimilate to white cultural norms. We are often blind to our own racist assumptions, embracing the narrative that good intentions absolve of us of the ability to do harm.
Johnson offered a list of suggestions for white people and congregations wishing to revise their racial worldviews. For individuals, Johnson advises that whites become more conscious of their own privilege; learn the history of the US and Europe from the vantage point of the oppressed; refuse to let guilt lead to inaction; listen; raise concerns about oppression; and confront white cultural and religious narratives. Further, individuals can use religious language to express how racially sensitive narratives align with Christ-like beliefs.
For congregations, Johnson suggests the following five practices: becoming intentionally and radically inclusive by examining who is absent from the faith community and being willing to change to become more hospitable; developing real and lasting, rather than superficial, relationships with groups facing oppression; visiting other faith traditions to enhance understanding of their cultures; bringing in speakers from other traditions; and developing and posting statements of inclusion that reassure people outside the white community that they are welcome.
Now that some of the furor over Fit for Freedom has died down, to what extent do you find Quaker meetings and churches are examining their racial composition and practices? Given the largely white composition of most North American Quaker meetings and churches, how can we become more welcoming? Is it more important to maintain the Eurocentric roots of our tradition than to become inclusive? Or is our tradition an attachment that impedes our ability to be a light to the world? Do we display arrogance or are our traditional practices valuable enough for us to resist change?
Are there ways we can hold on to core practices and yet become genuinely open to people of other races and classes? I am trying to sidestep the issue of Christ as I recognize that not all North American Quakers are Christian, but to me the question comes down to this: Do our practices reflect a fundamental expression of Christianity or the values of Christ that we should not compromise? If so, what practices are important to maintain, and how do we do so while at the same time extending a Christ-like welcome to all people?