Wednesday, February 23, 2011

White Christians, Racism and Quakers

by Diane Reynolds
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,Worship at ESR 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, claimedWorship at ESR 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 otherSharing Faith, Sharing Art 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 ofDialogue 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?

Diane Reynolds is a student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.


  1. In all the postings about diversity, white privilege and racism, I think we miss something exceedingly important when we don't have a healthy discussion about economic disparities and economic justice. It is so often the unspoken but real force at play that has deep connections to skin color, but in modern times we look at the color issues and not the economics. Eugene Robinson wrote about this in his book "Disintegration" last year - questioning which community we are talking about when we say the 'black community'. I've seen the same play out in AIDS work; there are whole institutions based on color and race, but poverty is the #1 predictor of AIDS in the US.

    A second point, I would challenge Friends on: it's not how can we be more welcoming, but do we venture out to congregate with others?

  2. Your post is timely. Last year, My partner and I as well as eight other Friends went to the White Privilege Conference and were so transformed that we are collaborating with Friends General Conference to get 60 Friends, from all branches if possible, to the White Privilege Conference this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We've negotiated a significant discount and are looking into ways to provide financial aid to those who need it. You can find more information about that here. In order to qualify for the discount, you must pre-register here.

    As of today, 35 Friends have pre-registered!

    And I would second Brad's comment about venturing out into the community. We cannot expect people to come to us--the history of oppression in our country is too deep to cross to us for many people of color. Milwaukee Friends found that out pretty quickly when they held potlucks for people in their community, and started right away to become a supportive presence at things like the local Juneteenth Celebration and advocating for a bookstore owned by a woman of color to the local public radio station. In these connections they are building trust, and with that trust comes opportunities to invite people to meetings.

  3. Brad,

    I agree, and Dean Johnson, if I heard him correctly, would agree that racial issues and economic issues are linked and that whites avoid the economic by focusing on the racial alone.

    Jeanne and Brad,

    I agree that Quakers need to go into the community--but do we also have something distinctive to offer the community and if so, how can we make it welcoming?

  4. I have been doing some work (both within myself and here at WmPenn House) on that last question, and I do think Friends do have something distinctive to offer that flows through us and our Meetings, but it is not about the physical structure of the Meetinghouse. I think it's what we bring out to the world. I'm still in a learning phase of how to articulate and express this (obviously). I think this posting most speaks to the current state:

  5. Just as a quick aside: I don't think it's just the "whites" that avoid the economics. I've seen it in AIDS work, often by blacks as well. I think its a classic collusion across the spectra. For some reason, we can see the economic injustice in third-world places, but not under our noses.

  6. As an African-American, I would say on the subject of economics, it is important not to put all people in one basket. In my experience, people tend to lump others into one category. Thus if I'm black, I must be poor and not very well educated. As a result, I think this has contributed to some of the dissonance that people experience when they're around me because I don't meet their stereotype. So while poverty is a real issue in the black community, it is important to treat blacks and all others as individuals. Being treated like the unique individual that God created is much more liberating than being treated like a stereotype.

  7. Well said, Pat. I totally agree. I bring this up because, as I mentioned, there is the perception of AIDS being a gay man/black community disease, but when you look at things economically, that's where you see a clearer picture. I've also had similar sentiments when I hear a "special welcome for gays" that I am more welcome for my gay-ness than my human-ness.

  8. For what it's worth, this I think is a part of the narrative:

  9. Hmm, lots to chew on here, Diane.

    For one thing, and you touched on it, it is not enough for White American Quakers to start seeing people of color as individuals. We must also be willing to stop lifting up (White) individualism as a way to retain our personal preferences [read: entitlements].

    Also, I find I am having a visceral reaction to this piece:

    "...Quakers need to go into the community--but do we also have something distinctive to offer the community and if so, how can we make it welcoming?

    I would caution us in looking at our motivation to "go into the community." Do we set ourselves up as The Great White Hope, going to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and peace vigils? Or do we go into the community to learn how we might be keeping our brothers and sisters of color separated from ourselves, unintentionally?

    We Quakers are often very quick to offer ourselves as resources, to offer help, to extend a hand, to lead the way. But what I've been learning in the last 18 months or so is that we, as a gathered people of European descent, need to take a great deal of time to humble ourselves, to acknowledge that we have established a faith tradition in an inherently racist and classist society, therefore making ourselves vulnerable to an invisible internalized superiority...

    I can say from my experience and from the experience of other White Quakers who have begun engaging in anti-racism work from the lens of White privilege that grappling with such uncomfortable topics points to a reality that is worth learning about.

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

    P.S. From Philadelphia Quaker Arlene Kelley, quoted in the October 2010 Friends Journal: “We are not a homogenous group seeking to become more diverse; we are an incomplete organization seeking to become more whole.”

  10. As a Muslim from Morocco, I am sensing that the majority of you are addressing the issue of racism by trying to reach out to the poor blacks' communities, hereof ignoring the rich ones. The issue of racism,in my humble opinion, should not be tied to income levels, for wealth can commend respect however it cannot cause a racist person to revert. Only good faith and clear conscious can liberate the mind from this spiritually inhibiting disease.