Healing the Shadow of Racism

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I’ve been thinking about shadows a lot lately. In nature, a shadow is cast when an object comes in front of the source of light. Children like to notice and play with their shadows and make shadow puppets on the wall. In psychology, a shadow is a part of ourselves that we repress, either because we don’t like it or because we are ashamed of it. Oftentimes though what we deny in ourselves is what bugs us most about someone else. A part of maturing is coming to terms with those parts of ourselves that we don’t like. In spiritual terms, I would describe that as allowing the Light of God to shine into the dark corners of ourselves to bring healing.

Groups have shadows, too. The same process of allowing Light to shine on our group shadow is needed to bring healing. That is what I think is happening with the conflict in the United States now and why I am hopeful rather than depressed about the future. Healing can’t come without recognizing and acknowledging the shadow.

A large part of the American shadow is racism. For way too many years, White people have denied it was there. As with us as individuals, it has been much easier to see that shadow in others than in ourselves. Think of how upset many Americans were over apartheid in South Africa. But many of the same people who were upset about that would deny that America has a problem with race.


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I was raised to believe that everyone is equal, that we are all children of God and worthy of love and respect. As an adult, I still believe those things. However, I am often upset by hearing the little voices in my head say racist things when I’m out and about in the world. How often do I hold my purse tighter when I’m walking on a busy street and I see a Black man coming in my direction? Why am I more curious about a Black person driving down our street than I am a White person? There are no Black people that live on our street, and I know most of the vehicles of other residents, but why does my mind react differently when I see a Black person on our street?

My brother-in-law is Black, and for the nearly 40 years that he’s been a member of the family, I thought I was doing the right thing by not giving much thought to his race. I just love him because he’s a great guy. Lately, I’ve begun to realize that that is problematic, too, because not acknowledging his race is denying an important part of who he is and his life experience. I know that he’s been the victim of suspicion because of his race. I know he’s been questioned about being involved in nearby incidents because he is Black and happened to be  in the area when authorities showed up.

On the other hand, I never stop to think when I enter a store what response I’m going to get from the people who work there. I don’t worry about being followed in the store to make sure I don’t shoplift; I don’t worry about someone calling security merely because I showed up. While I am anxious if I get stopped by the police, I’m not worried that I might die during the experience. I’m not much of a sports fan, but I have been greatly moved by recent articles in the Indianapolis Star about the Colts players who are well-known and respected when they are in uniform but who are subject to the same racist attitudes as other Black people when they are out in public without their Colts identity. Whether or not I want to admit it, I am privileged because of my White skin.


A large part of the American shadow is racism. For way too many years, White people have denied it was there. As with us as individuals, it has been much easier to see that shadow in others than in ourselves.


So I said I was hopeful; what do I mean by that? Where we are in history feels like a window of opportunity to me. It feels like, finally, the unnecessary death of a Black person is going to force us to embrace our collective shadow and allow the Light of God to bring healing to our country. It won’t happen without a lot of work, but we as a country seem to be more open to that healing now than at most any other time in our history.

Parker Palmer, a well-known Quaker writer, writes in On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old

[T]he framers of the Constitution . . . gave us the first system of government I know of that regards conflict not as the enemy of a good social order but as the engine of a better social order—if we hold our conflicts creatively. 

In a Facebook post on June 10, he shares this quote and continues:

I feel HOPE rising among us right now—not in spite of the civil unrest, but BECAUSE of the civil unrest, which can serve as that “engine of a better social order.” Huge crowds that reflect the creative potentials of this country’s diversity have gathered in the streets to demand that we finally live up to the truths we claim to hold, 244 years after we made the claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” . . .

I feel hopeful that we can choose that “different” path because so many of us are now holding the tension of American’s broken promises in a potentially creative way. There’s a rightful anger and truthful despair in the massive protests. But if you watched George Floyd’s funeral service, you know that there’s a mighty river of hope as well.


I feel hopeful that we can choose that “different” path because so many of us are now holding the tension of American’s broken promises in a potentially creative way. There’s a rightful anger and truthful despair in the massive protests.


So what can Quakers do, particularly White Quakers? We are individuals, comprising a small group. How can we help our country—and the world, too, as the protests have spread around the globe—to heal the shadow of racism and be a part of that “mighty river of hope” that Parker Palmer spoke about?

One important thing we can all do is to pray in whatever form that takes for us. While sometimes praying doesn’t seem like enough, what better way to heal our dark places than by allowing God’s Light to shine into them?

Another thing is to educate ourselves. Recently, I read a book called Bias: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt, which explains how we all are biased and how we got that way. Currently, I’m reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, which explains that our goal is to become antiracist, not “not racist” or colorblind. There are many more excellent books on the subject of racism, including Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

We can also participate in groups that are actively working toward healing the racial divide. First Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, Ind., has started a group consisting of representatives of all the peace churches in the area—Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers—to work on this issue. Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation is working on voter registration. Again, there are many excellent organizations we can join to be a part of healing our country. There are probably as many ways to participate in the mighty river of hope as there are Quakers; these are just a few.


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As you have your daily meditation, ask yourselves these questions: What are the shadows you see in yourself? What are the places in yourself that need healing? What shadows do you see in the world? What are you concerned about? What are you hopeful about?

To close, I’d like to share a meditation about hope by Victoria Safford, a minister at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Minnesota, from her essay “The Small Work in the Great Work”:

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through.); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

Lynn Peery Mills

Lynn Peery Mills is a member of West Newton Meeting in Indianapolis, Ind. She is a graduate of the Earlham School of Religion, a retired librarian, a wife, stepmother, and grandmother. Contact her at [email protected].

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