“God sometimes takes us into troubled waters not to drown us, but to cleanse us.”
- LeCrae, Hip Hop Artist
When Quakers are called by Spirit to address racism both in our day-to-day lives and within our Meetings, the waters will be troubled. Addressing racism as a community is difficult and chaotic work for both Friends of Color and white Friends. Whether the troubled waters churn during the discernment of taking on the work or after the commitment to become an anti-racist faith community is made, there are predictable responses and behaviors that occur.
Expect strong responses, in meeting and online
Don’t be surprised if there is shame and bullying of one another (though it's important to interupt these behaviors, and encourage everyone to use "I statements" when sharing their thoughts and feelings). Don’t be surprised that Friends step away from Meeting, both Friends of Color and white Friends. Don’t be surprised that Friends' understanding of Quaker testimonies are individual and conflicting. Don’t be surprised when discernment seeps into social media (a place better built for education, not for the process of decision-making). Don’t be surprised that in times of struggle it is suprisingly easy to spread rumors (“this Friend told me…”). Don’t be surprised when leaders are attacked. Don’t be surprised when white fragility stops progress. None of these are fatal, and we owe it to our loved ones who are hurt most by racism to work through them.
Anti-racism conversations will expose important topics our Meeting may have avoided
It may be helpful to view these conversations through the lenses of trust and conflict. Here are some questions to ask for each:
Trust: Do we trust each other to do our own work, especially when your work looks different from mine? Can you trust when I challenge a statement that I am not calling you a racist? Can we commit to an open conversation where we both listen to and hear one another’s experiences, knowing that we may not agree? Can we trust a third way might emerge if we turn to Spirit? Can we trust moving through the chaos will contribute to the work at hand?
Conflict: Can we find ways to engage in conflict without demeaning each other? Can we agree that to change we must become comfortable with conflict? Can we do this work without blame? Can we listen to anger without becoming defensive? Can we stay at the table when things get emotional? Can we trust white Friends who have had difficult histories regarding race and racism to do their personal work wherever it takes them, even if that is outside of the Quaker Meeting?
Always be ready to listen and hear
White Friends, this part in particular is for us. As white Friends, can listen to and hear the experience of Friends of Color without defensiveness? Can we understand what we think of as normal life experience is not necessarily the normal experience of Friends of Color? Can we listen to the experiences of our Friends of Color with acceptance, rather than skeptism or disbelief? Can we receive the telling of that experience as a sacred gift?
White people live with a kind of cognitive dissonance of being lied to about racism in this country. Our fragility makes us ambivalent about practicing anti-racism. It is easier to profess “I am not a racist” then to integrate anti-racist action into our everyday life. If you are white there is work to do, whether you are just beginning to notice racism is not just an issue affecting People of Color or if you have been aware and working on race and racism much of your life. It takes humility to do this work. Once a white person recognizes how we have been deluded by the myths of equality and justice in our culture, we know our very soul is at stake if we don’t do the work.
At the same time, Friends of Color have their own paths to follow, their own work to do. Malcolm X said: “America’s greatest crime against the Black man was not slavery or lynching but that he was taught to wear a mask of self-hate and self-doubt.” People of Color are not divorced from the damaging influences of white supremacy culture, within and outside the Religious Society of Friends. Healing from internalized oppression, understanding intersectionality, and surviving institutional inequality happens when people with shared experiences listen to and hear each other. In our sacred faith community, when Friends of Color ask for a place of their own to worshop and have fellowship (virtually or in-person), all Friends must respect and protect that space.
Reflect on: What is Spirit asking of us?
Be aware of our language. Use the first person (I and we) rather than you and them. Allow space for each Friend to do their own necessary work. Provide multiple ways for Friends to engage with the work. This might be a monthly discussion group, a Meeting wide retreat, a book club, accountability buddies, writing letters, Showing Up for Racial justice (SURJ) or joining Black Lives Matter activities. Pastoral Care might offer individual conversations with Friends who are struggling or help form care committees. Bottom line, be appreciative of Friends who are courageously engaging with the work of becoming an anti-racist faith community no matter where they begin.
Remember the words of Isaac Penington
“...praying one for another and holding one another up with a tender hand.”
Transformation is not an orderly, neat thing; God will begin working with each person where they are. And our "learning edges" are wildly divergent. So, something that's new and tender for one person will blunder into something uncomfortably obvious to another. The only constant will be that the challenges we present to each other will threaten identities (professional, personal, and relational) that most white people have built over lifetimes following what we now recognize as mistaken assumptions. But who are we if they're not true? The tenderness and patience to accompany each other in frightening inner work has to be balanced with the urgency of the need to end newly glimpsed injustice.
A recent message given in Meeting speaks to understanding racism as a chronic disease. A Friend spoke of her teen age boy with asthma. He is an athlete who runs cross country. It is his passion. To do this, he must use the medical tools at hand. He must always carry an inhaler to use before and after a run.
Like this beloved child of the Meeting, we must find our inhalers, the tools available to us to become anti-racist. It takes inner strength of courage, trust and love to build muscles to paddle hard through troubled waters to find justice in our Meetings. This work, done with integrity, will deepen the Spiritual life of individual Friends and of our beloved community.
Carolyn Lejuste is a member of Red Cedar Friends Meeting in Lansing, MI. She served on FGC's Institutional Assessment on Systemic Racism Task Force from 2016 to 2018 and served on the Institutional Assessment Implementation Committee from 2019 to 2020.
David Etheridge is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington in Washington, D.C. He serves on the Friends General Conference Institutional Assessment Implementation Committee.