Racial Inequality: Painfully Present among Friends

We believe there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God. Friends pioneered in recognizing the gifts and rights of women. . . . Friends came more slowly to recognize the evil of slavery and of discrimination in general, and have often been guilty of sharing the prejudices of the broader society. In recent years, Friends have discovered and taken stands against other forms of discrimination and oppression to which they had earlier been insensitive. An element of that insensitivity for some has been a failure to recognize the privileged status many American Friends enjoy. As we continue to seek the Light, ingrained habits and attitudes are subject to searching reexamination." (Faith & Practice of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997)

Friends have struggled to live up to this Testimony of Equality, yet we still find, as John Woolman observed in 1757, that people of African descent are "treated . . . with inhumanity in many places."

My mother, Carolyn Jones, was born in a log cabin in a small town approximately six miles from Coatesville, Pa. My father, William Julye, was born in a little town in Alabama. Both of my parents grew up in environments where they quickly learned that they were seen as less than human because they were African American. They wanted to shield me from their experience of racism.

They did their best to raise me to be proud of my African American heritage and myself. It was a difficult job to accomplish in the United States. One of my earliest memories related to race involved my mother. Because she is very light skinned I thought she was European American. I remember looking at her and thinking, "I wish I was white like her." When I told her what I had been thinking, she was shocked and saddened. She explained to me that although she was light-skinned, she was African American. She and my father were working hard to help me be proud of being African American, but they had the forces of U.S. society working even harder against their teaching.

My parents sent me to private school to shield me from their experiences of racism in their childhood. I thank my parents for their love and desire to give me a better life. I know it was a difficult decision for them. I appreciate the education I received, but I did not experience the racial equality they sought for me.

Beginning in junior high I attended Quaker school. I felt isolated, less than human, inadequate, and angry. I was able to make friends with some of the students, but I constantly found myself asking, "If I were European American would I be treated this way?"

In my second year of junior high, kids in our class began to date. There were three African Americans in my class, one a young man. Everyone assumed that I would date him, but we were not interested in dating each other. So, I didn’t get to date. My options did not increase at the Friends boarding school where I attended high school. Although there was no written rule forbidding interracial dating, there was definitely a practice. During my six years at the school there was only one interracial couple, a European American boy and an African American girl. That relationship did not last long. They received a substantial amount of pressure from the community and their parents to end the relationship.

I remember in high school vowing that I would never isolate my children from their culture as I felt I had been.

When my son, Kai, was 18 months old, I enrolled him in a predominantly African American nursery school in our neighborhood. The owners, administrators, teachers, and 98 percent of the students were African American. I was going to provide an education that would give my child racial equality while not isolating him from his culture. I exposed him to people of African descent from all walks of life. As my parents had done with me, we read books, went to plays, sang songs, and looked at magazines, videos, and movies that featured African Americans. Kai received African American heritage items for Christmases and birthdays. I felt sure he was going to experience racial equality.

Then one day going home from nursery school Kai said, "I wish I was white." It took every ounce of strength I had not to show my devastation. Where had I gone wrong? I thought I was teaching Kai to be proud of being African American. After he was in bed that night I broke down and cried. I did not want my son to feel the shame of being African American that I had experienced as a child. After talking with family and friends, I came to realize that Kai, a smart child, was able to understand that if he were European American he would have access to certain opportunities that did not exist for people of color.

For third grade I enrolled Kai in a local Friends school where I thought he would receive the academic challenges that he needed. At that time we were making Quakerism our home. I joined Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, was working with a Friends organization located in Friends Center, and began participating in Friends General Conference’s Gatherings. Kai and I attended Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s first residential yearly meeting in 1995. Then in fourth grade, he was the only African American male of his age at the residential meeting.

On the last day of sessions the coordinator of the children’s program and her assistant approached me. They asked if we could go outside and talk for a few moments about Kai. As we sat in the shade of a big tree they shared with me a story that would force me to destroy my son’s innocence.

The father of a girl in the program had complained to the coordinator that my son was physically threatening their daughter. He was angry and afraid for his daughter’s life, and he wanted Kai removed from the program. Both the coordinator and the assistant talked to the teacher of the group and observed the class themselves. They did not see any behavior from Kai that was different from the other boys or out of the ordinary for children that age. It was clear that Kai and some of the other boys were attracted to this girl. They were all expressing their feelings in a ten-year-old manner: poking, pushing, teasing, etc. They spoke with the girl’s father, gave him their assessment, and let Kai remain in the program. The father did not agree with their decision and remained angry.

Kai and this girl were enrolled in the same summer camp for the remainder of the summer. The coordinator and the assistant wanted me to be aware of what was happening because the father had made it clear to them that he felt his daughter was in danger of her life, and he was not going to permit them to spend the summer together. During this conference they did not identify the girl or her parents. I absorbed this information, thanked them for informing me of what had happened, and began to feel fear for Kai.

It turned out that the girl’s mother and I both worked in Friends Center. She called me, identified herself as the girl’s mother, and asked if we could meet to talk about the situation. I agreed. I was relieved that she and her husband wanted to meet with me in person. We met at Friends Center, but without her husband; she said he was too angry to meet with me. During our meeting I saw that she was truly afraid for her daughter. I did not understand how they could honestly think that Kai would intentionally hurt their daughter. One thing that all of Kai’s teachers had always said about him was that he was a sweet kid with a kind heart. I listened in disbelief as the little girl’s mother cried and asked me to make other arrangements for Kai’s care over the summer. I was a single parent at the time and did not have any other resources available to me. I told her that I saw she was afraid for her daughter but explained that my son would never intentionally hurt her. I understood her desire for them not to be in the same summer programs together, but explained that I could not make any other arrangements. Our talk ended with neither of us being satisfied with the results; she was unhappy that I would not take Kai out of the camp, and I was frustrated that she wouldn’t hear that her daughter was not in danger.

A couple days later, I received a phone call from the director of Camp Dark Waters. It turned out that the girl’s father had called and insisted that Kai not be allowed to attend that summer. I was thankful that he was the same director of the camp as when I attended as a child. He also knew Kai, who had begun attending at the age of seven. I shared with him both my conversations at yearly meeting and then with the girl’s mother at Friends Center. He had spoken with the yearly meeting coordinator and agreed that this was a matter of two kids being attracted to each other and not knowing how to show that properly to one another. He said that he and the staff would keep an eye on them while they were at camp, but did not think anything would happen. I hung up the phone very distressed, angry, and filled with fear. I found myself asking, "Would this girl’s father have done this if Kai were of European descent?"

The next day, I had a conversation with Kai that hurt my soul. All of his life I had told Kai that he was equal to anyone and able to be whatever he wanted. Now I had to tell him that the reality in the adult world is that he is an African American male and because of that there are things he can not do or have. I told him that his life depended on his staying as far away as possible from this girl no matter how much he liked her. He could not speak to her or even look at her, and if she came near him he needed to get away from her. I also told him he could never be any place alone with her. I let him know that her parents thought that he was trying to kill her and had attempted to get him kicked out of his summer programs. I explained that as he continued to get older, people were going to react to him differently than they had as a child. They were going to be afraid of him because he was an African American male. People would react to him first as a threatening man of African descent before they had a chance to get to know him as an individual. I told him the history of African American males being lynched and imprisoned for even looking at European American females. Kai was surprised and scared. I answered his questions as best I could. After our conversation, I went to my room and cried.

I was not ready to tell my ten-year-old boy that he was an endangered species in this country, and even in his religious community.

Despite my best efforts, like my parents, I was not able to shelter my child from the reality of racism in our country. As Kai has gotten older, my fear for his life has increased. I worry constantly about him when we are not together. I have to remind him not to stand too close to people in lines, never to talk back to the police for any reason, and to be constantly aware of his surroundings. Kai is my child no matter how big he gets, but as he has grown from a child to a teenager into a man his mere presence is perceived as a threat to many people in the United States.

I believe the news media, films, and television shows still reinforce our fear of African American men despite efforts of the media to change this, and that men of African descent are disproportionately portrayed as criminals while very few European American men are shown in these roles. Each time this happens it further endangers my son, my husband, my nephew, and all African American men by reinforcing a perilous stereotype.

It is time for this legacy of inequality to end. I do not want my son and his children to have to teach their children about racism and how to survive it in this country.

This cycle of inequality must stop. As Friends, let us truly follow our religious Testimony of Equality and show this country how to honor all of God’s children. Let us address the issue of racism within and outside of the Religious Society of Friends on both a personal and institutional level.

Take a step towards establishing equality by reading and answering the following queries:

  • Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried, including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority?
  • What am I doing to help overcome the contemporary effects of past and present oppression?
  • Am I teaching my children, and do I show through my way of living, that love of God includes affirming the equality of people, treating others with dignity and respect, and seeking to recognize and address that of God within every person?

Let us work for a time when the question is asked, "Does racial inequality still exist?" and every member of the Religious Society of Friends can answer, "No, and our work leads the way to racial justice!"

Vanessa Julye

Vanessa Julye is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, which supports her traveling ministry (see http://www.quaker.org/vanessajulye). She is co-authoring a book, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, with Donna McDaniel.