The Role of White Quakers in Ending Racism

I know of at least three people who believe it is possible to end racism in this century. Most of the time I am one of them, until I get discouraged. Then I am not, even though I continue to work as though I were a believer.

What would it take to end racism in this century? I believe it would take a commitment from all of us to admit to our parts of the problem. It makes sense that the first step in ending racism is getting rid of our own. Why do we white Quakers, in particular, need to focus on ridding ourselves of racism? Because we as a community treasure our deep faith commitments to speaking truth and equality, and we are proud of our story that lauds our early stand against slavery. We have not faced the harder, more embarrassing parts. Like many, we stop short of looking at ourselves. It is not easy to admit we are infected by racism; it’s much more comfortable to think it’s those others out there who make racist remarks and commit racist acts, not us.

Unfortunately, whether we admit it or not, the reality is that all of us who live in this society have been infected by racism. As children in school we learned a one-sided version of United States history, not the true history of our brothers and sisters of Native, African, Asian, and European heritage and what they suffered in the U.S. In the movies, on the radio, and on TV we heard stereotypical remarks about people whose skins were a darker color than ours. Our parents made negative comments about people of color. We learned to think that white was the norm and that we were better than others were. We didn’t even notice it was happening. We still don’t. It is so ingrained in every part of our society that we don’t even see that it’s there.

And yet when we do notice, what happens? What do we feel when we hear about the Trail of Tears, or the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps? Or when we see the jobless youth of African and Latin descent standing on street corners? How do we deal with it? Sometimes we go numb; we just don’t want to hear about it. Usually we feel bad, maybe even guilty. Racism affects us every day and every minute of our lives.

In spite of the insidious nature of racism, please let’s remember that it is not our fault. We did not start it. We do not want it in our world. But we do need to look at it, how it affects our lives, and how it affects others. And we do need to take responsibility for doing whatever we can to end it.

So here are five reasons why we white Quakers need to work on getting rid of our own racism:

Our Faith Challenges Us to Do This

The queries in Faith and Practice of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting ask us:

  • Do I examine myself for aspects of prejudice that may be buried, including beliefs that seem to justify biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, and feelings of inferiority or superiority?
  • What am I doing to help overcome the contemporary effects of past and present oppression?
  • How does our meeting help to create and maintain a society whose institutions recognize and do away with the inequities rooted in patterns of prejudice and economic convenience?

We Quakers believe in practicing our faith through works. While I was studying to become a Friend, I was inspired, and still am, by the concept that our faith has to be practiced every minute of every day—not an easy thing to do. James, a favorite of early Quakers, emphasizes the point, in the second chapter of his epistle: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14)

If we have a faith that asks us to examine ourselves for aspects of prejudice, then we need to put this into practice, into works.

For Ourselves

Since all of us in the United States have grown up in a society based on the practice of slavery, white people have benefited from the wealth and the privilege based largely on the free labor of the ten to fifteen million enslaved Africans. Many of us have feelings of guilt as we notice that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, many of whom are the descendants of those slaves. Hopeless feelings can arise as we consider being the ones to effect significant change in our society: “Can I really make a difference? I’m only one person.” In spite of our hopeless feelings, we yearn for a just and equal society.

One of the ways to work personally on ending racism, and an antidote to hopelessness, is to get to know people of color and to make friends with them. It’s true that we have been isolated from each other for generations, and our cultures are different, so when we go to make friends, we may feel uncomfortable, not quite sure of ourselves, and we may try too hard: Will they like us? What if we say something stupid or hurtful, make a dumb mistake? Will they forgive us? Even if we have these feelings, and make mistakes, we need to try. From my experience, people can tell when others are trying their best and try to be generous and welcoming in return, and most importantly, they forgive mistakes.

I’d like to share a personal example of my own racism work. Both my parents were descended from wealthy slaveholding landowners in Virginia and South Carolina. As a young child I saw the way my southern family treated “colored,” especially their own servants. Ashamed of my southern family, I consciously disowned them. I was proud of my few Yankee ancestors and considered myself a true Yankee.

Now come with me as I attend my first adult workshop on ending racism. The leader tells me I can never end racism until I reclaim my family and my heritage. This seems an impossible feat, because for years I have purposefully avoided contact with my southern cousins. However, the workshop stirs up vivid memories.

I recall a family trip to South Carolina taken a few years before. As we pass the sign to Edisto Island, I tell my children about our first Carroll ancestor who sailed there from England in the 1700s to start a rice plantation. He became wealthy and owned many slaves. Being there and admitting that my ancestors were slave owners, my heart is in turmoil. In Beaufort, we tour a plantation owner’s mansion. While holding tight to the fact that I am really a Yankee, I wonder if this is the kind of cool, comfortable house my family lived in while their slaves worked the blistering island rice fields. We drive on to Columbia, where my father’s family moved in the 1800s. The streets are old and tree-lined; the white houses stand easily next to each other, with their shady porches and rocking chairs. As we drive slowly by, all of a sudden on one of the porches, I see the rocking chairs moving. I think, “There they are, my ancestors, sitting and rocking, waiting for me, waiting for me to come back.” A deep, warm feeling comes over me, filling my chest almost to bursting. Somehow I feel forgiven for disowning them. An understanding and a forgiving of them starts to form in my heart. They are my people. I welcome them back. They welcome me back.

As a result of this personal experience and more workshops on ending racism, I can now claim my family and have largely given up the guilt that I used to feel about being descended from slave owners. I know they were good people, even though I am clear they were acting on ideas that were wrong. As I let go of more of my racism—a Friend calls herself a “recovering racist”—I find myself easier among people of color, and though I still make mistakes, I count a number among my good friends.

This personal story is only one example of experiences we have all had that need healing. Doing this work is critical if we want to put our faith into practice. It promises big rewards.

For Our Brothers and Sisters Who are not of European Heritage

They are separated from us as we are separated from them because of the hurts they suffered and still suffer in this racist society.

Five years ago, we had a big racial incident in our town. Our bank had been fined $100,000 by the federal government for discriminatory practices—for not giving just cause for refusing to hire 15 people of African descent. This was the second year this same bank had been fined for its discriminatory practices. As we picketed, African American citizens stopped to tell us their experiences of discrimination at the bank: a mortgage refused for no apparent reason; a regular request to show identification when white people were not asked to produce theirs. Once again there were no African American tellers at the bank, though in the 1960s we had picketed all the banks in town for this reason, and won. In the end we won again. What I learned from this is the constant, vicious, everyday effect racism has on people of color, the damage it does, and how much it hurts.

In addition to many people from Southeast Asia, we have a large population of Spanish-speaking people in our community—from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and South America. While our chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gets phone calls from African American parents for help in dealing with the discrimination against their children in the schools, Latino parents do not call. Yet their children drop out of school earlier and in larger numbers than any other population. Also, more children of color are being pushed into special education settings than are white children.
People of color are bombarded with racism in many forms while they are out in public. It has a serious negative effect on their health, longevity, and generally on the quality of their lives. While we whites continue to bask in the privileges our society affords us, our friends of color continue to be ground down by the racism in our society.

We must also keep in our hearts and minds those children of color who are being adopted by meeting members. For their sake we need to get rid of our racism; they need us to think well about them and not be color-blind, but be aware of what they go through daily as young people of color. Thinking selflessly, and with God’s help, we can surely put aside our own hesitation and take a step, any step at all, to get rid of our racism.

For Our Meetings

We are talking more widely among Friends now about making our meetings welcoming to all people of color. The Committee for Ministry on Racism and the Advancement and Outreach Committee of Friends General Conference produced a valuable pamphlet, Seeking Racial and Ethnic Diversity: Welcoming People of Color. A few very helpful topics in this pamphlet are tips for achieving a truly welcoming environment in your meeting, and finding ways to publicize your meeting and its activities among people of color. Friends who want to take a step towards ending racism would be well served by ordering these pamphlets.

We white Friends often wonder why we are still in the majority in our meetings when our history is so full of abolitionists, when we believe that there is that of God in every person, and when we are really such good people. There is no question that we are good people. But, Friends, we are finding that our history is blemished. A number of us did good and courageous things to end slavery. Yet a number of us kept African Americans from becoming members, and kept them sitting on a separate bench in the rear. And a goodly number of us today haven’t done the work needed to make close friends with people of color. We know from our own research that the best way to bring in new members is by personal invitation. To change the population in our meetings to match the population in our communities, we need to make personal friends with more people of color.

While there has been some movement in the Religious Society of Friends in the past few years, many monthly meetings seem to be able to get behind other issues, such as peace, more easily than dealing with our own racism. Why is this? Recently a woman of African descent who leads racism workshops nationally told me, “It is hard to get white people to look at this issue and do this work. They would rather not think about it.” But isn’t racism a contributing factor to all wars? Are we sticking our heads in the sand? Is the whole issue too painful for us to look at? Are we unwilling to face the fact that we, too, are infected by racism?

For Our World

Looking at the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we only have to hark back to the slavery we allowed to happen. At that time we were willing to devalue Africans, to treat them as less than human, to enslave and brutalize them for our own purposes, using skin color as an excuse. In the recent wars with Afghanistan and Iraq, we again have allowed it to happen, killing people and destroying their countries for our own purposes. These people, too, are people of color.

We all carry the cultural memory of what has happened to our civilization. To become aware of how we have been shaped and molded is the first step toward unshaping and unmolding ourselves, until we are free of the distorting influences of racism. If we take that first step, and another, then another, and if all of us white Quakers work to end our own racism, perhaps we can get rid of racism in this century!

Dorothy H.L. Carroll

Dorothy H.L. Carroll is a member of Birmingham (Pa.) Meeting. Both inside and outside Quaker circles she leads ending racism workshops for people of European descent.