Friends, Race, and Systemic Change

In preparation for being a part of your discussion on the important work against racism, I have read the material you have sent me about Friends and race: about Quakers and the abolition movement, Quakers and the Underground Railroad, Quakers and the Civil Rights movement, summaries of Friends’ current discussions on racism, as well as queries, minutes, workshop highlights, newsletter articles, etc. Having digested all this material, let me share some reflections on what I believe Friends are doing that is strong and in the right direction regarding racism, and then some thoughts on areas where I have concerns, and where I believe some challenges lie ahead.

First, here are some areas in which I think Friends are doing well—things that I believe are strong:

A firm commitment to work on issues of racism and prejudice within New England Yearly Meeting. The commitment seems to be widely held and enduring. You are clear that your work is rooted in your past but looks to the future. I believe that your commitment to confront and dismantle racism gives you a strong foundation upon which to proceed when resistance develops, as it has, and to sustain your vision when the inevitable ebb and flow of attention and energy occur. Your work over the last several decades has proceeded in varying degrees of intensity at different times, but your commitment to dismantling racism is strong, has endured, and appears to be clear and vibrant today.

A desire to tell and to hear the story of Friends and slavery, racism, and prejudice throughout history. There seems to be a real commitment to telling and hearing the whole story. There are so many proud stories that countless Friends and non-Friends know about the prophetic words and daring acts of William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, Lydia Marie Child, Rebecca Buffum Spring, Lucretia and James Mott, John Woolman, and many others. The stories about what these Friends did and said are deeply inspiring and have moved others to join in the struggle, to be brave and to discern a way forward through prejudice and pain.

What is also important and impressive is your willingness to tell less inspiring stories—when Friends failed to take action or acted poorly with regard to African Americans or other people of color. I found among the materials you sent to me honest accounts of the ways that Quakers failed to do the right thing and an openness to discuss this, to learn from these difficult and painful stories, to embrace the complete history of the intersection of Quakers and race.

Although I was a member of the Religious Society of Friends for a dozen years, in reading your material I learned for the first time about Quakers’ hesitation and lack of action when African Americans requested membership. I found honest accounts of how black people who attended meeting for worship sat on a bench set apart from others or were tucked away under the stairs; I found the truthful retelling of stories of Friends working against slavery and hiding escaped slaves but shunning African Americans socially and not allowing black children to attend Friends schools. In their article, "Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship," Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye quote Samuel Ringgold Ward, a noted African American abolitionist who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad: "They will give us good advice. They will aid in giving us a partial education—but never in a Quaker school, beside their own children. Whatever they do for us savors of pity, and is done at arm’s length."

Friends are well known for their good deeds and brave acts with regard to the abolition movement, the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights movement, and so on. Consequently, I was surprised to find the more painful side of Quaker history also being told, and I believe this is a good thing. I commend you for your good, hard look at your past.

Strong leadership on the issue of racism present and emerging among Friends. The leadership that has developed to confront issues of racism within the Religious Society of Friends is impressive and important—Friends General Conference’s Committee for Ministry on Racism, New England Yearly Meeting Ministry and Counsel’s working group on racism, and research and writing by Friends (Margaret Hope Bacon, Vanessa Julye, Donna McDaniel, and others). The very impressive list of resources that you have amassed is excellent. Among these is FGC’s "Resources for Working Against Racism." You are dedicated and thorough, and the resources you have made available will continue to serve you well.

A clear awareness that listening deeply to Friends of color is important—that listening nondefensively, and believing Friends of color, is important. It sounds embarrassingly simple, but I think one of the most radical things I learned early on as a white ally is to listen deeply to people of color and to believe them. I see in the materials sent that Friends of color are being asked to speak their truth, to write about their feelings, and to tell their stories. It is clear that an opening has occurred and at least some Friends of color are feeling safe enough to speak out even when the truth hurts. The Friends of color among you are brave.

Here is what I am concerned about, and what I see as the challenges that lie ahead:

Great emphasis on diversity, which I believe is misplaced. The emphasis should be on antiracism. I do not think integrating Quaker meetings should be your focus. Quaker meetings throughout New England could remain exactly as they are today, predominantly white, not increase their diversity at all, and still be antiracist. A New Englander recently asked: "How does this relate to my meeting, which is small and all white, in a small town that is all white?" I don’t actually think a lack of diversity is your problem; I think a fundamental shift in your self-identity is needed. Antiracist churches and meetings are possible even in northern, rural Vermont, the whitest state in the Union.

Think about the curriculum in First-day school, meetinghouse decorations, printed materials, and the meetinghouse library—you’ll need not just books about Quakers and famous people of color, but books about whites fighting racism, anti-racism initiatives in schools and churches, racial identity development for white people and people of color; Cambridge Friends School has many examples.

Great emphasis on cleansing Friends of prejudice, which I believe is misguided. Focus on racism—systematic oppression—not personal prejudice. Here is an example of what concerns me: From "Queries concerning Racism and Social Justice," 1972, Race Relations: "Do you endeavor to cleanse yourself of every vestige of racial prejudice. . . ?" I think it is an unrealistic goal because prejudice is a constant reality and should be recognized and challenged in an ongoing way. It cannot be eradicated once and for all.

An emphasis on personal prejudice overshadows the more important work on the nature of systematic oppressions: institutional racism and white people’s greater access to social, political, and economic power. I define racism as a system of advantage based on race (for whites), or a system of disadvantage based on race (for people of color). The concept of prejudice is too individual here, reducing racism to individual acts of meanness. Look broader in your work to the systems that unconsciously, relentlessly, and automatically give unearned advantage to whites.

Great emphasis on reaching out to people of color, being welcoming, being sensitive. All good, but focus is again misplaced. I believe you should start by focusing on the meaning of whiteness, the feel and benefits of white privilege, the experience of growing up white in America, or growing up in white America. Learn about what it means to be white. Focus on that.

Repeated use of the following words in the literature that was sent to me: unity, harmony, love, silence, tolerance, healing. For example: in FGConnections, the bedrock guidelines for work on racism: "our work will be healing"; The Plainfield Minute in FGConnections: "We will move with the Spirit to seek justice, healing and reconciliation"; the oft-quoted words of William Penn, "Let us then try what love will do."

All these are laudable and make Friends the strong, consistent, loving, and unity-seeking people they are. My worry is that the Quaker culture that totally embraces love, harmony, and unity also seems to be allergic to conflict and anger. I read this sentence in The New England Friend in a report called "Quakers and Racial Justice Conference": "We challenged ourselves to separate those parts of ‘Quaker culture’ that are truly a part of our Quaker practice and those parts of our culture that are not necessary to Quakerism per se. For example our horror at and lack of acceptance of expressions of passion, often interpreted as anger outside meeting for worship as well as within"; "our unwillingness to hear or express anger."

The phrase "our horror at expressions of passion" reminded me of the time when I was eldered for closing the meeting and making announcements in a too-spirited fashion. I am not a person of color, but I am Armenian, and closing meeting in a spirited fashion is just the way I am. But I was also a loyal Quaker and an active member of my meeting. I was crushed, and I never, in the decade that followed, agreed to close meeting for worship again. I fear the Quakers’ horror at expressions of passion, abhorrence of anger, desire for unity, and emphasis on love will not serve you well in discussions about racism. Do not hear me incorrectly: this is not a plea for unlovingness! It is a worry that being focused on love and unity may prevent the hard and messy work that has to be done.

In my experience as an antiracism educator, discussions about racism can get heated, difficult, and frustrating. People get angry and hurt. I worry that you will shy away from the natural course that these conversations sometimes take because of a need to remain very Quakerly. Western politeness is no friend to anti-racism. I hope you can wed "Let us try what love can do" with "Let us try what struggle can do."

Temptation to let acts of charity, good will, and acts of mercy substitute for change. Systematic change comes from brave acts that question systems that routinely give advantage to one group over another. And systems need to be challenged. Acts of charity often let the dominant group off the hook. We must serve guests in soup kitchens and work to eradicate the ongoing causes of poverty. We must give money to the United Negro College Fund and work to dismantle the system of tracking in most U.S. schools. It should not be change vs. charity, but acts of charity along with the continuing struggle for social change.

Alison Oldham, quoted in Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire, writes:

All of us are enmeshed in that net of racism, whether we choose to be or not. But there is hope. Let me share an analogy with you. . . . Racism is very much like alcoholism. The alcoholic doesn’t choose or intend to be an alcoholic; neither you nor I choose or intend to be racists, or to benefit from a racist society. Both are things that happen to us, through no choice of our own, without our intent. The alcoholic is not a wicked, evil person; neither are you and I. . . . The illness of racism, like alcoholism, is not my fault; but it is my responsibility. I didn’t cause it, but I must and can control it.

In both cases—racism and alcoholism—the first step on the road to health is to acknowledge the reality, to stop making excuses, to stop denying it. We need to face the facts before we can cope with them. In both cases you’re never fully cured; the alcoholic is always an alcoholic. And I really doubt, sadly, that those of us who grew up in a racist society can ever totally shed our unconscious racist attitudes. But we can take responsibility for our actions from now on. We can choose to work to end racism, and learn skills to do that.

The wonderful path for white people in the struggle against racism is to claim a proud identity as a white ally. The wonderful path for people of color in the struggle against racism is to strive to be fully empowered. Guilt, shame, fear, trying to be perfect, thinking you are to blame, and using language like oppressed and oppressor—those are all in the past when we step into the roles I believe we are called to assume: white allies and empowered people of color.

Andrea Ayvazian

Andrea Ayvazian is dean of religious life and Protestant chaplain at Mount Holyoke College. Previously a member of the Religious Society of Friends for many years, she is now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. A longtime activist for peace and social justice, she has been leading workshops on dismantling racism since 1986. This version of her comments, which were not recorded, is based upon one that was edited from her notes by Patricia Watson, editor of Peacework and a member of the Prejudice and Poverty Committee of New England Yearly Meeting. It appeared in The Freedom and Justice Crier, Issue #10, Spring 2003.