What made you want to write your pamphlet, “Living Our Testimony on Equality”?
I retired from paid work in 1999, and in the spring of 2000, I had a strong sense of leading that I was to work in the area of racial justice, but I didn’t know what that meant. I thought at first that I’d do some writing: I could write about prejudice, institutional racism, and cultural racism. But what I noticed was how uncomfortable white people were (sometimes, I was uncomfortable, too) when I told them about this project. When I would say that I was working in the area of racial justice, people would interrupt and say how much they hated prejudice and take over the conversation. The subtext was, “I’m not one of those prejudiced people.” They felt that they needed to prove it to me. They almost never asked, “What are you doing? What have you learned?”
In short, there was a lot of defensiveness, which I can relate to. At a certain point, I recognized that if I wrote something, the only people who would read it were people who were already committed antiracists; most people I would want to reach wouldn’t even pick it up.
Is this why you began the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Working Group on Racism?
I knew that information on discrimination experienced by people of color was available: statistical studies, fictional accounts, and journalistic reports; and yet, polls showed that many white people thought we were living in a “postracial age.” I thought that must mean that many whites found that information uncomfortable and neither sought it out nor took it in when they were confronted with it. So it occurred to me that I could lead workshops that would allow white people to examine how our consciousness developed, why we were so uncomfortable. The goal, of course, would be to become more comfortable so we could become effective allies to people of color. I started to lead workshops, and people came to them voluntarily, but often sort of unwillingly, too. One time, at a Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering, I started out by asking, “What brings you to this workshop?” Several people said they thought it was the right thing to do, but they really didn’t want to be there. They were putting into words the discomfort white people so often feel about race.
The Working Group on Racism in Baltimore Yearly Meeting now has a dedicated group of people who have been addressing race and racism for ten years. I think I see a shift in attitudes within the yearly meeting. But there are still many white Friends, all good people who care about justice, who think that talking about race is itself racist.
I still wanted to write, though, and it finally occurred to me that I could write about my own experience. There would be nothing for the reader to be defensive about because I would just be talking about myself. I could model not being defensive and just trying to learn. I could show that somebody who is committed to these issues can still be scared of the topic and sometimes say stupid things and be the cause of misunderstanding. It’s not about being perfect, but about doing the best you can. With these ideas in mind, I was finally ready to write about race. The Pendle Hill Pamphlet was the result.
What is one of the most important messages you wanted to send in your pamphlet?
Quakers don’t want to be racist. We believe strongly that we’re all equal, yet we live in an ocean of prejudice and we’re exposed to it in many ways. We live in the midst of systemic racism and we don’t generally notice it. But we can’t learn anything if we’re afraid to talk about this. Part of our task is to explore the environments that we have lived in our whole lives and notice what influences we have been subjected to. In the pamphlet, I strongly urge people to journal about the often conflicting messages they received about race as children, both what people said and how they reacted to people of color.
As a kid, you write that you picked up an unspoken message that “[your] people” were better. Can you explain how you received that message, even though your parents had invited a black student who’d been discriminated against into your home for lunch every day?
I think we all operate on different levels: one is that we want to think we’re really important, which is easier to do if you’re a European American. Whites are tempted to think we’re the real Americans. On the other hand, we genuinely want justice for all. I think the people in my family operated on both levels: wanting to be one of the important ones and also wanting justice.
You talk in your pamphlet about different kinds of racism: explicit and implicit. What is the difference? How might somebody be acting from implicit racism without knowing it?
Explicit means you say you hate “those people”; implicit means you say “I love everybody,” and at the same time, you have unconscious fears that lead you to lock the doors when you go through a black neighborhood. There’s a disconnect; you believe one thing, and unconsciously you have all of these negative images.
I’ve read a lot about how our unconscious minds hold all the things we’ve heard in the past that are not complimentary to people of color; these biases can leak out and embarrass us, and we’re very afraid of that. It makes us afraid to address race.
What do you think about the way white people use the terms “African American” and “black” in different situations? What does that language seem to communicate for some people?
I know African Americans who use both those terms, and so do I. But it’s not the biggest issue in the world. A lot of people think that using the right terminology is what it’s all about. As important as words are, the issue is everybody having a chance to have a good life.
On page 24 of your pamphlet, you say that white families generally have an easier life when all other circumstances (education, income, etc.) are the same. But what is your response when someone talks about affirmative action as a way that people of color have a leg up?
Affirmative action is supposed to level the playing field, not give an advantage. If kids have uneducated parents, go to a high school that doesn’t adequately prepare them for college, and have no real role models for taking education seriously, they probably won’t do as well on their SATs. They may be brilliant people who can succeed in college and in life but don’t have the same advantages; affirmative action is supposed to give them a boost. Also, the recent Supreme Court case about whether the University of Texas can consider race in accepting students is about the question of whether the school, as a whole, is better off having a diverse student body. Everyone benefits from diversity. I hope that at some point, we won’t need affirmative action anymore, but we aren’t there yet. The height of privilege is for people to think that they have a right to get into a school or get a job without considering the advantages they have experienced.
How do you think parents can effectively and sensitively teach their children about these issues of privilege?
The best thing for parents to do is to live in a multicultural world. Kids can grow up knowing that some people look different, but they’re all our friends. Parents also need to talk with their kids about racism and prejudice because their kids are hearing mixed messages about race. Many parents find these conversations difficult, but they are important.
How do you think these problems of race impact our country today?
People don’t have honest conversations. Most of the talk that has to do with race is veiled; it’s like when people would call President Obama the “food stamp president.” The majority of people on food stamps are white, but the image that comes to mind is poor black people. That’s a big problem.
It actually surprised me that President Obama won by such a big margin in 2008 and substantially in 2012. I really think most white people’s best selves don’t want to be prejudiced. We each have different levels of consciousness, though. Many people liked the idea that we were able to elect a black president, and some of the same people were a little freaked out about it at the same time. Part of this problem is that we haven’t talked enough about race and been self-reflective about the negative things the white culture has told us. Our understanding lacks nuance.
Is there anything else you want to communicate to people about what you’ve learned doing this work?
White privilege means not having to think very much about race; it’s about thinking that you’re the norm. Some of us don’t think of having a race—we think, “Those people have a race and we’re just people.” The goal is to see white as one of several races and the dominant white culture as one of many. Then we need to broaden our understanding of who we are as a society.
The other thing I’d like to say is that when you go beneath surface politeness, race relations are hard. There is so much painful history. White people are afraid of making mistakes, and we probably will. So take the chance and learn from your mistakes. If we don’t take risks, we won’t move forward.