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—­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—­and to some extent people of color and Indigenous people—­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—poor 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 life­long 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-­mass­incarceration 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).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *