Building White Racial Stamina

A black woman confronts Trump supporters at a 2016 rally in St. Louis, Mo. Photo © Patience Zalanga.

Back then

“Just show up!” That was a refrain I heard many times from the Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American participants in a number of workshops during the White Privilege Conference gatherings in 2010 and 2011. It was in response to the frequent question from white participants, “What can we do to help?” It was a simple directive that could easily be met. And yet . . .

For ten years before that, I had been haunted by a query lifted up by Deborah Saunders, an African American Quaker, as she spoke to a group of Friends who were part of the LGBTQ community: “If you say you support racial diversity in our religious society and your life itself isn’t diverse, then ask yourself why that is.”

Back then I saw myself as a good person, which to me meant that I wasn’t racist. Yet her question began to exercise me. In my daily life, I was completely surrounded by white people in worship, at work, and in my social circles. What was I doing wrong? Why weren’t my good intentions and my “right attitude” enough to calm my conscience? How could I make my life racially diverse and go about it in a way that was authentic and not performative?

I simply could not see that I had chosen to isolate myself in predominantly white neighborhoods, university classes, and worship communities. Society taught me to stand by my intentions with vigor and to minimize or ignore their impact‚ÄĒ¬≠in this case, the lack of people of color in my life.

Later, Quakerism itself misled me to believe that charitable work was deep anti-racist work: volunteering at soup kitchens, donating to food shelves, and opening up the meetinghouse for a week each year to homeless families. Involving myself in these activities may have helped me feel better about myself temporarily, or may have helped the individuals receiving those services, but my life and heart were not transformed. I yearned for more.

The mix of white norms, middle-class norms, and so-­called Quaker values makes for a powerful, often invisible, multilayered system that actually stifles healthy multiracial, cross-­class community building.

Seeing the invisible

Ten years between Deborah Saunders’s message and the directive by people of color to “just show up,” way opened for my spouse and me to go to the secular White Privilege Conference in 2010. That’s where I learned that whiteness in the United States socializes white people‚ÄĒ¬≠and to some extent people of color and Indigenous people‚ÄĒ¬≠to not see whiteness or systemic oppression; to prioritize individualism over community; and, ironically, to prioritize conformity over authentic truth telling. We are all socialized without our consent.

Mainstream norms in the United States are centered on professional middle-class norms, including how to engage in conflict; under what conditions to share or hoard wealth; whether to pursue promotions at work, value a college education, or put food on the table at any cost; and how to protect our personal reputation rather than be in solidarity with someone who is facing oppression daily.

White norms and professional middle-class norms come together in Quaker communities in the United States as the acceptable norms. These ¬≠unexamined and superimposed norms are ones that some people don’t experience or value in their own familial or societal culture. The mix of white norms, middle-class norms, and so-¬≠called Quaker values makes for a powerful, often invisible, multilayered system that actually stifles healthy multiracial, cross-¬≠class community building.

The pressure and unconscious choice to conform to racialized and class-¬≠based norms harms efforts to build deep, authentic community. Over the years, I have heard from a variety of Friends about those who can’t or won’t bend to white, professional Quaker norms. They often feel forced to choose between their authentic whole selves and a white-¬≠centric, middle-¬≠class normed Quakerism. The forced choice isn’t anything that our Quaker meetings, clerks, committees, and business practices intentionally set before Friends of color, Indigenous Friends, and poor or working class Friends, yet it happens.

At times, I have been part of the problem‚ÄĒpoor and working-class Friends and Friends of color have told me so. One time I gave an interview that should have centered my supervisor of African descent but instead centered myself. Just as we are responsible for harm caused when we accidentally drive through a stop sign and hit another car, so too we are responsible for the spiritual and emotional harm we cause when we impress upon worshipers of color the “Quaker” way of doing things without examining and reforming our tradition’s class-¬≠based or culture-¬≠based norms.

Education alone doesn’t stop police brutality or predatory lending or slavery… And education doesn’t guarantee the building or sustaining of a racially diverse worship community.

Mistakes

A June 2018 demonstrations at General Dynamics Corporation in Bloomington, Minn., protesting the company’s selling of building materials to the U.S. government for immigrant detention facilities at the border that aid in the separation of families. Photo ¬© Patience Zalanga.

“Just show up and keep showing up, even after you make a mistake. And you will make mistakes.” Along with that refrain, for a while it seemed the best advice was “Educate yourselves. We can’t always be the ones doing that; we’re tired!” Yes, we Friends love our life¬≠long learning. That’s in part due to our middle-¬≠class norms of valuing education. But education alone doesn’t stop police brutality or predatory lending or slavery-¬≠through-¬≠mass¬≠incarceration or the cultural genocide of Indigenous people. And education doesn’t guarantee the building or sustaining of a racially diverse worship community.

Neither does doing anti-racism work in isolation or writing letters to elected officials or insisting that we know what’s best for “those people” when we don’t have direct, meaningful involvement in each others’ lives. “Nothing about us without us is for us” is a maxim that comes out of the disability rights movement, and it applies to many anti-¬≠oppression movements.

Many of our Quaker meetings in the United States couldn’t see ourselves clear to come under the weight of the vision and protest of Black Lives Matter, because movement leaders were “too angry” or were seen as not going through the “proper” channels for working for change. We Quakers wrongly center our Quaker ways as the best way to bring about change, yet we won’t even sit in or speak openly about the painful truth that before a handful of Quakers actively worked for abolition, an appalling majority of early Quakers in the United States were enslavers or otherwise directly connected to the slave trade. Full stop.

We don’t develop stamina by taking workshops or by saying daily affirmations, just as we don’t learn to swim by reading about how to move our arms and kick our legs.

Wade in

The advice to “just show up, even after you make a mistake” is an invitation to white Friends to get off of our Quaker benches, out of our steeplehouses, and into the communities where people are hurting. It is ¬≠not to prop ourselves up and say, “Look at how I’m a good white person for coming here,” but to practice a humility that demonstrates that we were wrongly asserting our leadership, or that we have been wrong to have stayed away so long, disconnected from our fellow human beings.

For me, reorganizing my life around justice work means I continually need to build, broaden, and deepen what sociologist Robin DiAngelo calls racial stamina. She mentions that attribute in the context of her work around white fragility. But who wants to own up to being fragile or weak or defensive? It seems to me that as “proud” Americans, we’d much rather strive for endurance, resilience, and stamina.

The thing is, we don’t develop stamina by taking workshops or by saying daily affirmations, just as we don’t learn to swim by reading about how to move our arms and kick our legs. The primary way to develop racial stamina is to wade or dive in and have a variety of direct experiences among people whose racial identity differs from our own.

More of our predominantly white meetings must consider what we can do to increase our racial stamina.

Getting full and coming back

A June 2018 demonstrations at General Dynamics Corporation in Bloomington, Minn., protesting the company’s selling of building materials to the U.S. government for immigrant detention facilities at the border that aid in the separation of families. Photo ¬© Patience Zalanga.

This past summer, my dad nearly died. Because of my long experience among intergenerational Quaker communities, I have seen Friends approaching death’s door, so I was unafraid to travel to be with my father. My brother, on the other hand, doesn’t participate in an intergenerational community, and for him, his first exposure to such proximity to death was our father, who lives just 30 minutes away from him. The intensity was such that my brother at first had to spend less than an hour or so with our father before becoming overwhelmed.

I immediately began coaching him on how to build his stamina. At my first opportunity, I took my brother aside and said the following:

This will be hard. Dad looks terrible and might be dying. When you’re in his room, you’ll probably get full up with emotion. Do your best to take some deep breaths to stay present. You’ll get full. Then leave the room and go for a walk or take a break. What’s important, though, is that you come back after a while, when you have more room again. You can’t just walk away and not return; it’s not fair to Mom and me. It will be hard but you’ll get better at it, with time.

My brother nodded as if he understood. And during the course of the next few days, he got better: his stamina increased. (Our dad got better, too.)

Increasing stamina of any sort requires a mix of increasing frequency, building intensity, and extending the duration of an activity. When predominantly white Quaker communities take up significant deeds as well as write powerful minutes on becoming a racially diverse religious society, we must consider and engage in these three components of increasing our individual and corporate racial stamina.

For me, I started with reading authors of color, donating to Indigenous-led organizations, and getting involved in a African American-­led reparations project. Along the way, I had my missteps, like that interview I did, but I still joined marches for Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter. My life is transformed, but I worry that my Quaker faith is not.

More of our predominantly white meetings must consider what we can do to increase our racial stamina. How can we have direct, authentic cross-racial experiences that increase in frequency, grow in intensity, and build endurance? Find a starting point and wade in. See what paths emerge, and remain open to what we can pursue together.

Elizabeth A. Oppenheimer

Elizabeth (Liz) A. Oppenheimer carries a concern for addressing whiteness and racism among Friends. She recently distributed an open letter to white Friends, which is on her web-log at _thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com_. She is a member of Bear Creek Meeting outside of Earlham, Iowa, and worships with Laughing Waters Friends Preparative Meeting of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

31 thoughts on “Building White Racial Stamina

  1. There is a way of being, conscience, and consciousness wherein we are not guided by outward political and religious ideological constructs, opinion, and contrivances. In this different way, the direct experience of immanent inshining Presence itself in itself guides and informs our actions, relationships, and interactions without regard for outward political and religious ideological constructs, insitutions, and the leaders who profess such constructs. In this experience of immanent presence itself in itself, we are come out of reflective thought as a process to inform relationships. It is discovered to us that being guided by outward constructs like *whiteness* is of the same nature a being guided by constructs like *blackness* or *racism*. It is the very process of being guided and informed by reflective (outward or mirrored) thought in our relationships and interactions that blocks or shadows the immediate and direct expereince inshining impulse and motion of immanent Presence itself. The appearance of immanent Presence in our conscience and consciousness discovers to us, in the life itself, a laying down of all outward political and religious constructs and contrivance and a coming into the living Impulse and Motion itself in our relationships. This living Impulse itself is not of the nature of relfective thought and discovers to us a consciousness or being that settles down into Life itself as guide. This inshining Life itself works and is experienced through the relative experience of increase, decrease, or stasis of the Impulse, Motion, or inshining Light itself and not in a leading into particular reflective political or religious thought. The relative experience of the impulse in our conscience and consciousness in the very act of our relationships and interactions guides us through the experience of the increase, decrease, or stasis of the inshining motion itself; so that, should the direct expereince of immanent Presence decrease during a particular action, we alter our interaction to come into accord with an increase of the inshining impulse and so on. This different way of being is come out of relfective thought and is come into the sufficiency of inshining immanent Presence (Spirit of Christ) itself in itself to rule and guide or actions interactions, and relationships.

  2. I find it helpful that you clarify each part so a reader can see how you arrived here: “The mix of white norms, middle‚Äźclass norms, and so‚Äźcalled Quaker values makes for a powerful, often invisible, multilayered system that actually stifles healthy multiracial, cross‚Äźclass community building.” Sometimes we say these things in ways that raise emotions without promoting understanding. I loved reading this and identifying with so much of your journey. Thank you.

  3. Thank you, Elizabeth Oppenheimer! This is so well said and so needed. May it help me and the many others striving to be anti-racist in true and meaningful ways.

  4. “Wading-in” seems to be another ineffective ‘same-old’ solution, only bolstered by inflated language. If a small portion of involvement in soup kitchens, for example, is ineffective in resolving material discrepancies that supposedly create imbalances-seeking-remedy, then shouldn’t the author and her adherents simply divest themselves of their relatively financially-elite property-and-privilege portfolios, give it to oppressed people, and relocate to ‘oppressed neighborhoods’? I don’t see ‘privileged’ office holders demanding their seats be surrendered to ‘people of color’ or the ‘undocumented’, and I wonder really how far she has actually “transformed” her life.

  5. Thank You Liz for your written words. They resonate.

    Two Resources that helped me and could be applicable to Friends Meetings are:

    The FGC Spiritual Deepening Program:
    Understanding and Healing White Supremacy
    Held October – November 2018, co-facilitated by Regina Renee Ward and Polly Washburn This course will be repeated again.

    The self help book : My Grandmother’s Hands- Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem

  6. As a black Quaker in racist, reactionary, rebel, right-wing, Republican Richmond, Va, I break down barriers in this monthly meeting by identifying the haters and shame/blame in the name of Black Power against White Privilege. It is surely true as a maxim, aphorism, or adage that : anything about us but not by us is not for us. The Quakers need to address human reform and racial reconciliation under the parameters of social reparations and cultural repatriation as far as their’ noise” is concerned. A gradualist, quietist, anachronistic cloud covers meetings while black rage and white denial continues it’s march. Like a death grip, the white Q is really stuck on their “Caucasian” origins and Semitism. Richmond is ground zero and we will be victors and not victims in the vanguard of the beloved liberation struggle of the noble Negro race.

  7. Thank you Liz Oppenheimer for raising this most important issue, one which has been a source of consternation to me for some time. It has been difficult for me to articulate my distress in the meeting I attend in Colorado. I moved here just 8 years ago ( still retain membership in NY state), to be closer to a son as I age (I’m 85).
    The places I’ve lived in the past have been more heterogeneous, here in Fort Collins there are very few people of color. When race comes up in the meeting, the conversation immediately turns to sanctuary for immigrants, and while I sympathize, that is not where I wish to use the energy remaining to me.
    A SURJ group formed in town last year but it is quiescent, if not moribund. I went to a few meetings and while I love being with young people and was welcomed, the group was purposely all-white,. I believe it had a connection with Black Lives Matter or a similar group but that was never made clear. Attendance, after a few meetings, plummeted.
    I was privileged to attend a workshop co-facilitated by Vanessa Julye and Regina Renee Ward at the Boulder meeting house, the only Friend from Fort Collins MM to do so. It was great to be among Friends who care about this issue. I would like to be able to communicate my concerns to Friends in Fort Collins in a way that might reach them. I’m not really sure what I can do about enlarging my circle to include people of color because of my age and the diminishments of aging. There, I have gone on too long so will stop now. I welcome suggestions from you or anyone else reading my statement.

  8. Thank you Friend Liz,for your article and for your reply to Keith. And Susan C., thank you for your comment that scoops my own. I have been part of these conversations a long time, but also have been living what appears to be a multi- racial life, but I never thought of it in those terms until this discussion arose. Frankly, I do not have much time for the discussion, I would rather use my diminishing energies to continue to ‚Äėjust wade in‚Äô.

  9. My first time reading online FJ. With no meeting closer than an hour away, I kept my local branch of NAACP in mind as I read. I come away with encouragement to build stamina.

  10. Brother Ace
    Thank You for your Jerimiah -like prophetic stance.
    Your anger particularly resonates this morning.
    So, too does your message to mend our hearts/ways.

    I am finding helpful, Resmaa Menaken’s work on Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies in his self and group help book entitled “My Grandmother’s Hands”.
    I would hope that every Quaker meeting would come to work through this book, and to finally hear /see what is really going on.
    Your words help.
    Mary

  11. Why disparage middle class values? Aren’t those the values of a civil society? Respect for one another, charity for those in need, self sufficiency, intact two parent families, community involvement, participation in government by voting and speaking out. Are middle class values not desired by all of us? I fear when we talk of white privilege, black lives matter we forget the dream of Martin Luther King for all of us to be judged by the quality of our character not by the color of our skin. When can we stop dividing ourselves by race and begin joining ourselves with attention to the work which needs to be done?

  12. Donald,
    I needed to center down before responding as I did. I think that there is a nuanced difference if the values you describe as middle class are accurate. For example “charity for those in need, self sufficiency: would be more in our family/community as “We are all in this together sharing rather than seeing someone as the other needy one” or “Save me from charity. Justice-like sharing is better”.
    Likewise for many , community interdependence is more taught than self sufficiency. I have more to sit with. Thank you for the leading to do so.
    Mary

  13. Very difficult to hear and respond by taking action (wading in).

    I am considered too white by blackfolk, and therefore not accepted. I am considered too black by whitefolk, and therefore not accepted.

    I’ve been wading for many years without understanding, outreach, or peaceful co-existence.

    Anybody got any platitudes for that?

  14. UPDATE/Correction: I was re-reading the online reference I had come across in 2018, regarding the large number of early Friends who had enslaved people, and I just now realized that the quote I allude to in my piece was that 70% of “leaders” in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (not all Quakers, not everywhere) enslaved people. I don’t know how “leaders” is defined, but there remains this quote: “Most Quakers did not oppose owning slaves when they first came to America; to most Quakers ‘slavery was perfectly acceptable provided that slave owners attended to the spiritual and material needs of those they enslaved…’.” The quote is here: with an additional reference to the book Albion’s Seed, which apparently is where the quotation appears.

  15. I’ve read thru this thread and my head is in an absolute whirl of the complicated ideas. This sounds like liberal Democrat stuff, which is ok I don’t participate in such things so I don’t have a dog in the fight but this isn’t what I expected.

    I’m from the midwest, my wife is an immigrant and we are a mix-raced couple in a very white place, in an all white place really. My parents were married in a quaker meeting house but stopped attending before i was born and I just recently reached out to that meeting house about attending, we are going to go in January to our first. I have been reading everything I could find about Quaker history and the modern state of the religion and honestly I’m not sure what to make of it.

    I was lucky enough to be born into poverty and perhaps I’m just not smart enough to understand but we do have some experience with racism and discrimination and I would like to convey some experiences and my thoughts on it, please be kind. I had been in the same line of work my entire adult life and marrying someone who wasn’t white put an end to a 20 year career for the simple fact that it wasn’t accepted in that business. I’ve been fired multiple times since our wedding and been flat out told it was simply because we were different, We’ve faced housing discrimination, We’ve had nasty notes saying that our marriage was an abomination, calling her terrible names and people even went as far as to put feces in my belongings at one job. Eventually we gave up and moved back to the area where I was raised and I left that career behind.

    We hold no grudges because we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to turn the other cheek. We’re happy, very happy and I suspect the those who were treating us poorly are unhappy people that simply don’t understand what they are doing and that they are in pain. Jesus said Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. I feel sorry for those people, they are misguided not evil and I know God loves those people every bit as much as he loves me. I don’t think debate, clever arguments or eloquent phrases will change someone’s mind. There is something I heard once and I’m not sure where but it was, Thru our suffering they will see their injustice and I think Jesus understood that people have to see their own misdeeds for what they are before they can really change the way they think and the only way to accomplish that is to allow yourself to turn the other cheek, to love your enemy, to pray for those who hurt you.

    I don’t have any big ideas or theories about how to fix racism or any other issues that are as old as humanity itself as I am unimportant and in no way great but I think that if you want to change things you need a simple approach, speak in a language that people can understand. Maybe I’m wrong, or naive but if you want a wider variety of people in your religion and in your lives why don’t you just ask them, people want to be loved if you love them most people will love you back, it’s human nature.

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