Moving toward Wholeness: Addressing Race among Friends

George Fox admonished Friends "to know one another in that which is eternal." In building our communities and in providing pastoral care to our members we reach toward that deep place that transcends differences including race, class, gender, or other external categories. Yet we enter our meetinghouses carrying our experience of the world around us, a world deeply influenced by these categories. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, and too often in ways that cause distress, we let assumptions based in our racial or ethnic backgrounds influence the way we relate to one another, to our world, and to God. How can we help our meetings grow toward our ideal as Friends?

As we consulted with Friends of varying backgrounds about this topic, the sense that emerged is that the first step is for us as a Religious Society to acknowledge that we are not the ideal that we long for. If we wish to grow toward that ideal we need to help each other open our eyes, hearts, and minds. We need to be prepared to question our assumptions. Friends of European ancestry may not recognize how many assumptions are based on whiteness. Friends of color may too readily assume that an issue that comes up is based in race. We need to be ready to be changed as we learn from one another. We need to be prepared for the likelihood that discussing race will elicit strong emotions including frustration, sadness, guilt, anger, defensiveness, confusion, longing, and hope.

We are a Multiracial Religious Society

An amazing amount of pain is caused by the simple failure to acknowledge that Quakerism—including North American, liberal, unprogrammed Quakerism—is multiracial and multicultural. Below are a few examples of times when Friends of color have felt invisible or unwelcome:

  • A board member at Pendle Hill was escorting a prospective lecturer around the campus. As they entered the main building a workshop participant approached them and said, "There’s no toilet paper in the ladies room." Since both were African American women, were they mistaken for housekeeping staff? That was how it felt.
  • A lifelong Asian American Friend says that she can be "going along just being me and then be brought up short" by comments such as, "You speak excellent English. Where are you from?" "New Jersey," she responds. "Where are your parents from?" "California."
  • A lecturer at a Quaker event spoke stirringly about white privilege. She began with, "I, like the Society of Friends, am white," and went on to discuss how white privilege benefits "us." Her audience, however, included African American, Asian American, Native American, and possibly other Friends who were not white. Similarly, an African American Friend wrote about "building healthy relationships between Quakers and people of color," seemingly overlooking Quakers of color.
  • A Latina Friend shared with us that her meeting was hosting a series of workshops on racism. As fliers were being passed out, she noticed there were no references to Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or any other ethnic groups but African American. "I really dislike feeling like the race police. I did point out that this is not just black and white—it is everyone."

Look around your meeting. You probably will observe that most members are white and middle class. But look closely for those who do not fit those categories. How do we harm them and the Religious Society of Friends when we refer to Friends as a white, middle-class group? To the extent that we allow that inadequate self-concept to persist, how does it limit us as a Religious Society?

Looking at One Another as We Really Are

As you look around your meeting or yearly meeting and see people who are different from you in race or class, what assumptions do you make about them? Do you assume they are similar to other people of that race whom you have known? What assumptions do you make about people of your own race? What assumptions do you make about yourself as a person with racial identity?

  • A European American writes, "Most of us who are white have never really thought about what it means for us to be white. We see people who are not white and want to reach out, but have no idea how because of the legacy that has kept us isolated and segregated. We are part of a white culture that does not talk about, or even notice, its own whiteness."
  • An African American woman writes, "Racism is part of my daily life. It affects me in everything I do. There are people of European descent everywhere I go. I am surrounded by images that are constantly reinforcing that our cultural standard is that of the middle-class European American, a standard that most meetings have adopted."

Does either of these describe your experience of the world? How would you describe the effects of your race on your worldview?

Assumptions about ourselves and others in our meetings affect the ways in which we interact. What assumptions do we make about why people have come to worship among Friends? Are we surprised to discover a Friend of color who is a second- or third-generation Friend? Do we assume that a new attender is a refugee from explicitly Christian religious expressions? Some convinced Friends of various backgrounds who are spiritually nourished within the Christian tradition are shocked and saddened when they encounter Friends who feel Christian language is out of place among us.

Many seekers come to Friends for the unprogrammed worship. Do we slip into the assumption that African American convinced Friends are more likely than others to miss the music of their previous religious tradition or that Asian American convinced Friends are more likely to like the silence? We might be surprised by what draws a specific person to our meetings. One person of color reported that she began to feel connected to her meeting not in meeting for worship or when reflecting on Quaker beliefs but in the down-to-earth connection when she was removing the stuffing from the turkey for the meeting’s Christmas celebration.

What assumptions do we make about people’s backgrounds and interests? Friends tend to relate to each other assuming that members and attenders will have a specific base of knowledge from obtaining a college degree; that we are financially secure enough to have expendable money; that we are interested in current events and listen to National Public Radio or read the New York Times. Look again at the members of your meeting. Would you be surprised to learn that a European American man well known among Friends does not have a college degree or that an African American woman is the fifth generation in her family to have one? Does race influence the assumptions you make about the financial resources of a Friend in your meeting?

Examining Our Corporate Assumptions

Race not only affects the way we relate as individuals, it affects our corporate life as Friends. Remembering Friends history of work for abolition and for civil rights or Friends work among relocated Japanese Americans during World War II, we may be lulled into thinking that Quakers are less racist than the general population. When Friends of color find that white Friends are not much different from the rest of the culture, it can lead to disappointment and anger. That anger can lead to defensiveness in white Friends.

A look at our history shows that Friends in the past as well as the present have been inconsistent in approaching matters of race. In contrast to the positive aspects of our history of work for racial equality, Friends participated in the slave trade, owned slaves, segregated meetinghouses, made it difficult for African Americans to become members, and financed schools for African Americans while keeping schools for Friends children segregated. In the 19th century, Friends worked for better treatment of Native Americans but debated whether they should be consulted about what help they desired. Some Friends of color have found that it seems easier for white Friends to build coalitions with people of color outside of Friends than to address issues of racism within the Friends community. Knowledge of our full history, good and bad, can help us in finding our way today.

Assumptions about race and class affect our meetings for worship and for business and every part of our community life. Two Friends of European descent were asked by their meeting’s Worship and Ministry Committee to meet with a new attender who frequently spoke in meeting, often in ways that showed a deep life in the Spirit but sometimes in ways that seemed inappropriate. As the conversation progressed, the new attender asked for a pause so that she could reflect on "the way you white people do things." The meeting members were startled. They thought they were talking about the way Quakers do things. How do we know what of our practice is based in discernment of the Spirit and what is based on cultural assumptions of the white middle class?

Our assumptions shape our messages in worship and the tone of worship itself. Our sedate meetings may be an expression of the discourse of the highly educated. Can we open ourselves to other ways the Spirit might break through among us? Might Friends of other cultural backgrounds help us see some of the ways our assumptions may block the movement of the Spirit in our meetings?

We have a custom in our meetings for business to ask for a time of reflection and re-centering when conflict or strong feelings emerge. When is this Spirit-based? When might it be an attempt to avoid facing up to something difficult? Might there be other Spirit-led ways of engaging one another around conflict?

How do the words we use reflect racial assumptions? Some African American Friends carry the memory of the term "overseer" as it was used in the days of slavery. Persons who are neither European American nor African American feel left out of discussions of race that focus on just those two groups.

How does the decor of our meetinghouses reflect race? Are there photographs, paintings, or quotations on the wall? If so, do they reflect the images and thoughts of people of color as well as of European Americans? Do the books and magazines in our libraries reflect positive images of people of color? Do they address issues of race and class? Do they speak to Friends of varying educational levels?

Reaching toward Wholeness

How can we create the Religious Society of Friends that we long for? As we identify, challenge, and rid ourselves of assumptions we will grow toward our ideal as Friends. Here are some suggestions for steps you can take in helping your meeting reach toward wholeness:

  1. Create a loving space within your meeting for Friends to have conversations that allow them to check out assumptions they are making about one another.
  2. In providing pastoral care to individuals in your meeting remember to ask, rather than assume, that race does or does not have a bearing on the care they need.
  3. Create formal and informal settings to engage in dialogues about race and its impact on our meetings.
  4. Establish a committee or small group in your meeting to examine issues of racism and how it affects the meeting and to make recommendations on how to respond to those issues.
  5. Make clearness and support committees available for Friends in your meeting who are working on the issues of racism.
  6. Build a relationship with a neighborhood congregation made up of people of color. Invite speakers from those congregations to tell you about issues important to members of their congregation. Work together on a project in the community.
  7. Review and update the photographs, paintings, and quotations on the meetinghouse walls as well as the books and magazines in the library so they address issues of race, class, and varied educational levels.
  8. Support people of color in your meeting by helping them identify and build relationships with other people of color in the Religious Society of Friends.
  9. Publicize events sponsored by or specifically for people of color.
  10. List your meeting in the church section of the local paper for people of color.

As you proceed, it is important to be patient with one another, and to listen to and follow the Spirit as it moves among us.
Contributors to this article include Jean Marie Barch, Monica Day, Nancy Diaz-Svalgard, Pamela Haines, Chester McCoy, Gale Rohde, Miyo Moriuchi, Trayce Peterson, Beckey Phipps, Carol Smith, Claudia Wair, and David Yamamoto. This article, along with the sidebars by Theo Mace and Gale Rohde, are edited versions of articles that appeared in the Pastoral Care Newsletter, January 2002, and are reprinted with permission.
©2003 Patricia McBee and Vanessa Julye

Patricia McBee and Vanessa Julye

Patricia McBee is editor of Pastoral Care Newsletter and works among Friends on discerning and responding to the leadings of the Spirit. Vanessa Julye is the former clerk of Fellowship of Friends of African Descent and a member of the Friends General Conference Committee for Ministry on Racism. She has a minute of travel in the ministry recognizing her concern for helping the Religious Society of Friends become a more inclusive community for people of color. Both are members of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting.