Stumbling Forward toward Racial Justice among Friends

© Kathy Barnhart via Flickr.

This talk is adapted from a June 2016 plenary address at the annual sessions of Illinois Yearly Meeting. Thsis version is expanded from the print version (web-exclusive sections in boxes).

Noah White

At an early age, I realized that Quakerism wasn’t for people of color—or at least that’s what my surroundings taught me. While I was growing up, neither of my parents put a huge emphasis on subscribing to one religion or another. They didn’t mind where we worshiped, so long as it was somewhere. Several times I ventured out and accompanied friends and their families to their churches or synagogues, but for the most part, I went to meeting with my mother.

Noah White (top right) and his family.

The meeting in which she grew up—and is now a member—was relatively close. Therefore, just about every Sunday, my mother would gather my siblings and me and travel to the neighborhood next to ours to attend meeting for worship.

Over time, the constant questioning at the meeting taught me to be more mindful of my surroundings. For the next seven years, the questions never stopped. How much of that is her hair? How often does she wash her hair? Why do you listen to that music? Why do you speak like that? Why doesn’t your father come to meeting? Do you celebrate Kwanzaa with your father?

I became aware of who asked me the leading questions and who didn’t. I began to notice that I enjoyed the company of people who didn’t interrogate me prior to speaking their mind much more than the company of those who hid behind smoke-screening questions. I became aware that the neighborhood the meetinghouse was located in was a community inhabited predominantly by people who were not of color. I also noticed that my father never came with his family to attend meeting for worship. (Years later, I would find out why.)

My experiences within Quakerism were helping me understand that it was a culture that cultivates a community that is lacking in diversity. I didn’t get questions seeking new experiential learning opportunities; the questions served as a buffer between me and them. Quakers continually challenged my viewpoints and interests. Although the intent of the interrogation was unconscious, that did nothing to mitigate the callousness of the impact.

I learned that Quakerism was where liberal people went to show off how liberal they are and pat themselves on the back for having a desire to learn. I grew to understand that Quaker spaces were places for people not of color to prove how much they weren’t contributing to the injustices affecting people of color by showing how good they are. It was not a place where anything was actually going to be done to stop the injustices from happening. As my consciousness grew, I found myself in Quaker spaces less frequently until I stopped attending altogether.

Lucy Duncan

I was born in a small town in Iowa and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, a very segregated city. Spending most days primarily in the company of other white people, I assumed that living a segregated life was normal. I passed by people of color in stores and at restaurants, but for the most part, people of color did not appear in my circles of engagement. And like many white children, I was not taught to reach out and greet the people I passed by.

Lucy Duncan at a Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia.

I learned racism by who wasn’t in my sphere of encounter, by who wasn’t named or included. I didn’t know I was being carefully taught to be blind, to close my heart to the pain and experience and joy of others, but that was the program of study.

There were occasionally more explicit lessons. When we visited my grandmother in her big white house in Atlanta when I was five years old, we were told not to interact with her African American housekeeper. I find it disturbing that I can remember her presence but not her name, and that I didn’t resist this lesson.

The patterns of this dynamic with my grandmother are deep; they are in the DNA of this country. Most slavery was not plantation slavery. Most slaveholders were small farmers who enslaved a few people like Tom Lea in Roots. They held one or two people in bondage, and a major way they increased their “property” was by raping the women slaves they held and enslaving their own children, selling them off. The institution was built on child abuse—child abuse that led to a pathology within white families. Though the white children got to “stay together,” their relationships were marred by this habit of disconnection, of control, of betrayal within the oh-so-intimate institution of slavery.


In December 2014, my mother told me of a meeting that was being held by a group of Quakers to address the proliferation of white supremacy and white privilege within Quakerism. I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine what that looked or sounded like, so I had to find out for myself.

At the meeting, I learned that this movement already had some traction. The Undoing Racism Group had formed four sub-groups designed to address specific areas needing attention: Accountability, Supporting Friends of Color, Learning Communities, and Connecting to Communities of Color. Could this be what my Quaker experience had been missing all along? How could I fit my energy into it?

The Undoing Racism Group provided me with the clarity to reconnect with Quakerism in a way that I had previously written off as not possible. The idea that I could one day experience Quakerism without the corrosiveness of white supremacy and privilege was something I was willing to put my energy toward.

As I slowly reintegrated myself into Quakerism, I decided to attend a Young Adult Friends winter retreat at Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting. The theme of the retreat was centered on naming racism and white supremacy, and cultivating ways to address them in our lives.

As I pulled onto the Swarthmore College campus where the meetinghouse is situated, I encountered a situation with a security guard who perpetrated a very obvious display of power against me. He followed and questioned me about my belonging. Initially, my life’s conditioning led me to believe that this was an act of discrimination. However, it was late and I was equally exhausted and frustrated, so I decided it was best to sleep on it and process it in the morning.

The following morning, we were led through a workshop that focused on recognizing and owning some of the ways we unconsciously perpetuate white supremacy in our everyday lives. Of the themes we investigated, the right to comfort—or the right all people have to feel comfortable in their surroundings—immediately resonated with me. Given the incident from the previous night in which the security guard made it clear that his right to comfort superseded mine, I felt the situation was an obvious case study of who has the right to comfort and who doesn’t. However, I was led to offer the previous night’s events as a platform for growth for the whole group.

As the conversation unfolded, white supremacy cultural norms surfaced almost immediately: “You should write a letter” (worship of the written language); “I don’t see anything wrong; sounds like they were just doing their job” (defensiveness/ paternalism).

However, the Spirit blessed us with an amazing facilitator who seized the opportunity for a teaching moment. She interrupted the processing to identify the difficulties in being the only person of color in a situation like this and stated that she had to deal with situations similar to this one growing up as a Quaker. She pointed out the cultural norms for what they were, and challenged Friends to use the information we discussed in the workshop to come up with genuinely Quaker solutions devoid of the cultural norms. She then asked me if I was okay to continue with the process.

With leadership like that, how could I not be? Naming the feeling of being “the only one” helped me come full circle with why I left Quakerism so many years earlier. Once the questioning reached the level where I felt like I had to choose between culture and religion, I chose culture.

The next time I saw my parents, I rehashed the situation with them and told them about the events of the gathering. My mother, true to her Quaker upbringing, was nervous about the confrontation with the Swarthmore College security. Her solutions centered on my dealing with the situation internally, and she offered advice that helped me cope with my frustrations, rather than confront my transgressors.

My father told me: “You live in their world; you have to follow their rules, or they’ll kill you. Stop making a mountain out of a molehill, and fall in line.”

My mother’s response didn’t come as a surprise, but my father’s left me with a sense of emptiness. After a meandering conversation, he explained why he never came to meeting with his family. While studying to become an ordained minister, he came to appreciate the overwhelming joy Quakerism brought to my mom. He decided that to show his love and devotion to my mother, he was going to join her religion. They arranged to be wed in the meetinghouse where she was a member. He took it a step further and also applied for membership, but the request was denied.



In the mid-90s I lived in Omaha with an African American friend. We stayed up late talking about social justice issues and Quakerism, the state of the world. We listened to the radio when Willie Otey became the first person in decades to be executed in the state. People were shouting, “Fry Willie,” and other hateful things. She went to the protest, I stayed home, but we grieved together.

She accompanied me and another white Friend to a yearly meeting retreat, a Pendle Hill on the Road event in Paullina, Iowa. We talked about Martin Luther King Jr., and she got really upset when she realized we didn’t know that Martin Luther King had been influenced by Gandhi and had visited him. (Considering that Quakers and AFSC had a lot to do with this connection, I can understand her frustration). She was angry at our white blindness and we didn’t understand her. The car ride was uncomfortable. I remember thinking she was being really hard on my white friend; someone she had just met.

We arrived at the meetinghouse. She was the only person of color, and things continued to be tense. The course began, and while I can’t remember the core content, I vividly remember one moment.

A discussion of Quakers as abolitionists began and the white Friends in the room patted themselves on the back, saying that, oh, it may have taken 100 years, but we worked nonviolently and we were some of the first to be proponents of abolition. (Now I think, weren’t those enslaved always proponents of abolition?) There were nods and affirmations, then I saw my friend, shaking, stand up.

She said, “How many of my ancestors were brutalized and murdered, torn away from their families, while you all figured out that slavery was wrong? How can you congratulate yourself for a stance that should have been obvious based on Quaker principles?”

There was stunned silence, though the truth of her words reverberated in the room.

My relationship with her fell apart after that. I shut down in a fog of white fragility and couldn’t handle the information she gave me and didn’t understand why she was pissed when I was one of the “good white people.”

Since that experience in Paullina at the meetinghouse, I’ve had many patient teachers who opened my eyes and countered the silent, dangerous lessons I had learned. Still, I watched as other people went to anti-racism trainings and didn’t understand how it related to me. I didn’t understand that there was a whole level I wasn’t apprehending.

I remember well the moment that really changed. I was at a Beyond Diversity 101 training, an intensive experience in uncovering racism, sexism, classism, and white privilege in order to reclaim human wholeness and connection.

I had been hearing stories of the deep daily impact of racism on people of color in the workshop. We had just finished an exercise in which we danced and moved in order to free up our understanding. Suddenly a floodgate opened in me. I realized then how deeply I had been schooled in disconnection. I thought of how cold my grandmother was; how, when my mother was little, my grandmother subscribed to a popular parenting philosophy that recommended not touching your children. I thought of my father, a closeted gay man who was married to my mother for 33 years and couldn’t acknowledge who he was.

I realized that all the ways of disconnection from others that have been taught to white children for so long—that were taught to me—result not only in horrible, systematic consequences for people of color, but also lead to dehumanization in white families and between white people. I realized that the apartheid I had experienced, the lies I’d been told about being better than other people, resulted in a kind of constant anxiety, a sublimated awareness that the comfort I enjoyed was built on the suffering of others.

I recognize that keeping my heart open, soft, and receptive requires that I hear and take in the stories of injustice of people of color without defensiveness and with a thick skin. It requires daily action fueled by these stories. White supremacy tricks white folks into believing that we can’t survive without it, that we are white supremacy. Understanding that whiteness is (as umi selah says) like a virus, recalcitrant, persistent—that it is socialization, that is not us—is a critical step in beginning to disentangle our spiritual selves from our socialized selves.


Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) has been actively engaged in a journey of addressing racism within our body for three years. We wanted to explore the personal before embarking on a community journey stumbling toward racial justice. It’s been a bumpy story.

In 2014, a small group brought forward a proposal to restructure the yearly meeting. There was no mention of diversity and inclusion, no mention of addressing racism in the proposal. Spirit rose. About 30 of us spoke about how the body couldn’t move forward without addressing racism and diversity and inclusion in the plan. We stayed up late writing a minute for the body’s consideration, gaining clarity together on our stance, which we presented the next morning. Jada Jackson, the clerk at the time, pointed out that we had lots of minutes, but the action stopped with those minutes. The body was not able to affirm the minute, but committed to moving forward with this work as a community.

The 30 of us gathered at meals, and the Undoing Racism Group was born. We met for the next five months preparing a plan and statement that we had ready for the January 2015 called meeting for business on addressing racism. At that meeting, the body committed to do this work, understanding that it meant going back to our meetings and struggling, and that it would not be only one committee’s work but the work of the whole. Four hundred people affirmed the commitment, and ending racism became PYM’s primary spiritual concern and social justice commitment.


During annual sessions last year, a committee was tasked with penning a query that would be a focal point for our corporate witness. After careful deliberation the group produced “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end White Supremacy and racism in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?”

When it was finished it was presented to the sitting clerk. The following morning, she responded stating the word choice was too harsh and it was being changed to: “What is God calling PYM Quakers to do next to end racism in the Religious Society of Friends and beyond?” She felt naming it White Supremacy was too harsh.

The committee that penned the query, the co-clerks of the Undoing Racism Group, and the rising clerk worked to push through the structural racism that just occurred. Through this work, the rising clerk gained clarity on why the original query was important and she seemed to understand the white supremacy that occurred. Accordingly, she supported the query in its original construction.

Throughout the year, the Undoing Racism Group worked to find its place in the PYM structure. We considered several options and ultimately decided on one that gave us a structure that best supported our corporate witness and the yearly meeting’s structure. In an effort to co-create, we asked for—and were granted—a seat at the implementation committee meeting where our structure would be vetted.

But once again, white supremacy culture resurfaced. In choosing a time for the meeting, it was communicated that the morning would conflict with pre-existing schedules. By controlling what voices would be heard in the meeting, the outcome was being manipulated. A select few hiding behind structure were attempting to silence the voices of many.

In the summer of 2016, we received correspondence from the implementation committee that our document was rejected. The rejection came without edits attempting to co-create. The response included the suggestion to remain unofficially connected to the yearly meeting. It was recommended that we continue propping up the yearly meeting’s corporate witness by being a pseudo-sessions planning committee.

We believe this is the pushback we’ve been organizing for. Power concedes nothing without a struggle.


Here is an image for what we’re up to when we seek to transform the system:

I have f/Friend O. She studies evolutionary biology and she told me a story about how caterpillars become butterflies. Structurally, the caterpillar and the butterfly are completely different organisms. Through metamorphosis one transforms into the other.

After a while of ravenous consumption, the caterpillar finds a limb and forms a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis the cells dissolve into caterpillar soup. Within the caterpillar cell soup, the organism begins producing imaginal cells. These hold the promise of the butterfly and vibrate at a different frequency. The map of the creation of the butterfly is within them.

Initially the caterpillar cells treat the imaginal cells as invaders and the caterpillar’s immune system attacks the cells that are turning into the butterfly.

But more and more imaginal cells are produced until the immune system can’t kill them all. They continue to vibrate at the butterfly frequency and collect together, communicating with one another, resonating.

The surrounding caterpillar cells begin to change with them. The imaginal cells clump together until they reach a tipping point. They begin acting as a multi-celled organism, and a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.

What kind of ancestor do you want to be? Are you called to be a caterpillar cell or an imaginal cell? What would it mean for you to stop identifying as a caterpillar and learn to vibrate in the Quaker system like an imaginal cell?


Lucy Duncan and Noah White

Lucy Duncan serves American Friends Service Committee as director of Friends Relations and is a storyteller and member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. Noah White is an adjunct professor at Temple University in the College of Public Health. He loves a challenge and the thrill of competition. He also enjoys helping others attain their kinesthetic goals.  

4 thoughts on “Stumbling Forward toward Racial Justice among Friends

  1. I find this article by Noah and Lucy to be so meaningful to me, particularly the “lessons or messages” they were taught in childhood and older formative years, and how these “lessons” affected them later in life. Their stories remind me of the book “Learning to be White” by Thandeka – sometime in our childhood or in our second decade of life, we receive deep psychological wounds from our families or friends, wounds that unconsciously tell us how to interact with and view other people. If we accept these wounds, we remain as part of our immediate and larger family, but we are psychologically scarred for the rest of our life, and so find that we are unable to relate easily to everyone and even refrain from relating to those who are unlike us. If we reject these wounds and rebel, we become outcasts to our immediate and larger family. Only by recognizing and acknowledging these wounds, can we return to wholeness in our relationships to others. It is time for all Quakers to recognize and acknowledge the deep psychological wounds that we received when we were young and how these wounds have kept us separated from many others in our society whose lives and histories are different than ours. If we can do this as a religious society in the 21st century, then we will no longer stumble, but rather forcefully walk towards racial justice within our faith community.

  2. Reviewing the areas of concern: Accountability, Supporting Friends of Color, Learning Communities, and Connecting to Communities of Color –
    It would be nice to read more details about exactly what these involve, how they are planned and practiced. Justice that is Friendly is surely restorative rather than retributive, and the devil is in the details.

    In re Accountability, I have noticed in the 15 years I’ve been attending that key decisions about monthly meeting affairs tend to be made by elders, typically those who are on the relevant committee/s, who are presumably seasoned weighty Friends. Thus, there may be little transparency about some meeting decisions.

    And I get the distinct impression that this aspect of a meeting’s decision not to accept his father for membership still weighs on Noah’s heart. But who should be accountable and who has standing to demand transparency and accountability in this situation? I did not read much about his mother’s response to this decision, yet it seems to me that this is key in the situation.

    I support Noah in coming to terms, whatever those terms may be, with the facts that life is not fair, relationships are complicated, and society is huge, and diverse, and contains any number of people who are at best clueless or tactless. I support him in living in the present more than in the past, and in his sharing that adds to the learning path that people of good will are following.

    Connecting to communities of color, I have lately been learning, is an issue for many well-meaning white people. Since black folks have been part of my life since before I was born, if not always a large part, I had not noticed the nervousness created by the total lack of exposure to, and/or negative messages about, black folks, that many white children such as Lucy have experienced in the past.

    So I realize I have been rather fortunate with always feeling generally comfortable with black folks, and I have never hesitated to join them in their public activities, whether community organizations or church services. Possibly it is in part my comfort level, but I have always found these communities to be very friendly and welcoming. And I have noticed that black folks’ church services are typically not at all like Quaker meetings.

    At the same time, growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and 1970s, it was pretty clear to me that black folks had some things to be justifiably angry about. So when such anger was occasionally brought to my attention, primarily in books written by angry black men, I didn’t take it personally. And I suspect that anger and nonviolence tend to be mutually exclusive.

    More recently, during the ‘naughts,’ I had a friend who was a lot like ‘bad Leroy Brown.’ It seemed to me that there was honesty and trust between us. In any event we used to argue about which was deeper or earlier, sexism or racism. Well, we never agreed about that (though I may not have told him the story of when I was about 12, walking alone through my white grandparents’ all-black neighborhood and being implicitly propositioned by some guy out in his front yard—fortunately I had developed the wariness to sense the opportunism). But my friend could not deny that middle-class blacks in the US were generally doing better than poor whites.

    Finally, I would just say that the learning I most support in any community is to focus on the future rather than the past, on respect rather than wrongs. After all, part of the past is the fact that it was other Africans that sold into slavery the ancestors of those who are now our fellow citizens.

  3. Thank you both for the testimony you shared in writing this together. I felt riveted as I read it.

  4. Thanks to Noah and Lucy for this article and sharing their personal experiences with us.

    Friends may be interested in a few documents related to the Undoing Racism Group, comprised of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PhYM) members and, as of 4/12/17, still not granted official status in PhYM.

    Working document – distributed in January 2015 following the Called session on racism.

    Structure proposal – presented and not approved during PhYM’s 2016 summer sessions.

    Minutes from PhYM’s summer sessions related to anti-racism work and URG’s structure proposal are at the following links:

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