Racism Hurts and Challenges Everyone

In October, Friends gathered in Maryland to work on behalf of the Religious Society of Friends. I was one of 160 Friends who traveled to New Windsor to participate in my fifth Friends General Conference Central Committee meeting. This was going to be an especially challenging meeting for me and a few other Friends who were going to lead this group on a journey. We were going to publicly bring up the issue of racism, present the awareness of its existence in the Religious Society of Friends and hopefully demonstrate how it hurts us all.

Racism is a problem for all of us, black or white. The denial of the full humanity of any person diminishes us all. Racism hurts everyone and challenges everyone. The challenge involves confronting pain and confusion, and discarding notions we may discover to be destructive. However, it is often when we are thus challenged that we are open to new light, fresh insights into ourselves and the world around us.1

One of the first things I did in the presentation was to talk about language. Examining words and their usage in a culture tells us a lot about that society. As Friends we used language as a means to distinguish ourselves from the dominant society. Our ancestors used plain language. Because words have different meanings I want to define the terms I am using so that we can have a common understanding.

  • Prejudice-to have opinions without knowing the facts and to hold onto those opinions, even after contrary facts are known.
  • Racial prejudice-to have distorted opinions about people of other races.
  • Racism-the power to enforce one’s prejudices.2

Racist language can be explicit or hidden. Language is dynamic and meanings change over time. For example, black and white can refer to color, or character. Look up both words in the dictionary. How many times is white used in relationship to things of value and desires? How many times does the word black embody those characteristics? The majority of the definitions of black in my dictionary denoted worthlessness and undesirability. Why is this meaningful? The negativity associated with the word black, and the fact that black is indeed a color are both reasons why I choose to call myself and have others refer to me as an African American. I am more than a color or a characteristic. I am a person born in this country, which makes me an American of parents whose ancestors are originally from the continent of Africa.

Racism is a part of my daily life. Everyday I encounter someone who treats me or a person I love, who looks like me, as less than a human being because my skin is light brown. Racism, I am sad to say, is a part of our culture. Fortunately, my parents and extended family gave me important tools, which I use everyday, to help me understand that regardless of how I am treated, I am a person who is valuable and loved by God. It is God to whom I turn when I need the strength to continue this daily battle.

The presentation I facilitated at Central Committee was one of several programs I have participated in this year examining racism within the Religious Society of Friends. Racism is a part of our culture; that includes Friends. Most of the racism I have encountered in Quakerism has been subtle. It is present in the language and some of our traditions. When we celebrate our history and traditions, is it done in a manner which is inclusive? Do we use terms, or focus on certain aspects of history, leaving out the painful parts?

I see racism as an extension of slavery. Racism, like slavery, is an issue permeated with controversy, one that involves both money and power. Racism, as did slavery, denies the equality of everyone before God. Racism undercuts the commandment to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Racism awareness is not static, but like peace, it is a process. We all are someplace in this process and everyone benefits when we grow. Here are a few suggestions which were shared with me, and I pass along to you to help you advance your awareness.

  1. Acknowledge and accept that we have prejudices, no matter how painful this is.
  2. Be open to, and learn from, the experience of Quakers and attenders who are People of Color.
  3. Educate ourselves about the language which offends.
  4. Put ourselves in situations where we share experiences with Quakers who are People of Color.
  5. In your daily life, search your own heart for what you and your Meeting can do to move along the spectrum.

Some members of the Religious Society of Friends have begun working on eradicating racism within our Society. We met this summer during FGC’s Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin and decided to continue working together on this subject. We appointed an ad hoc steering committee and organized a conference this spring. On April 9-11, 1999, we will spend the weekend together at the Burlington Youth Center in New Jersey; that weekend we will share information about our work and examine how we can work collaboratively to address personal, institutional, and organizational racism within Quakerism.3

Vanessa Julye, a member of Central Philadelphia (PA) Meeting is associate secretary of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas.

  1. Melanie Ndzinga and Len Singh. Identity and Belonging. ↩︎
  2. Joseph Brandt. Dismantling Racism: The Continuing Challenge to White America. 1991, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortess. ↩︎
  3. For more information contact co-clerks, Joan Broadfield of PYM or Paul Ricketts of OVYM ↩︎
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