Building Diversity in our Spiritual Body: A Quaker’s Reflection on Participating in the White Privilege Conference

By Joan Broadfield

From the time I was about nine, a question was growing in me: How could Christians be part of the system of slavery?  How could people who believed in Jesus think that people could be bought and sold?  And as I was growing up Quaker, and learned that William Penn also had enslaved people, I was shocked. Even more troubling was my experience that as I tried to engage with other Friends, they did not want to talk about it. Nor did I hear any sincere feelings of regret. What I heard was, ‘Well, he treated them well.’ 

I am white, and grew up in a family of Anglo/European heritage, aware of prejudice.   From my mother, I heard about World War 2 and the Holocaust.  My parents had important friends of Jewish heritage.  From my father, I heard about his upset at what he saw as he grew up in Texas in the way African Americans and Mexican Americans were treated.  His brother’s son had married a Mexican American, and became persona non-grata to many in the family. An anthropologist, with focus on Western African – Nigeria and the Gambia, principally – taught me that all human life began in Africa, that while ‘races’ were defined by anthropology, the popular notions of race were off base.  I never heard from him any idea about why race had been an important rubric for anthropologists beyond looking at culture and understanding human patterns of family and community. His death in the late ’80s ended any hope of more nuanced conversations on the topic.  

During my teenage years, I grew up at a historically black college, where my parents taught. On campus some, like my mother, were organizing to integrate still segregated movie theatres in Media, West Chester and Newark, Delaware.  A campus bus was planned for the March on Washington. At 20, I married Ed, an African American, and we had 2 children. Despite attempts to assure their ‘safe’ place in our Friends community, I continually experienced issues of racism, particularly with my son.   I wanted white Friends to take racism seriously, but found few that were open to engaging in the conversation.    Our Yearly Meeting committee on racial concerns was comprised of more Friends of color than of white Friends.  Issues of racism that arose in the Yearly Meeting were quickly deflected. Over the decades, I have found people who are committed to learning more.  I was part of an ad hoc group of staff and others who chose to be trained for workshops to help Friends address racism. And I continue to learn.  I have learned to recognize that we who are white often assume that our experiences, based on being white, reflect the norms from a white/Euro-centric ‘baseline’ – and may not be appropriate assumptions for people with different backgrounds.  This is where a desire for ‘colorblindness’ comes; we forget that such ‘blindness’ assumes the world we white people define. 

When I go to the White Privilege Conference, I participate with others who share both my concern for patterns of oppression based on supremacy of one people over another, and the role of assumptions that continue these patterns, and with others who show a commitment to change.   I feel inspired by the people who show up, heartened that there are many who feel as I do, encouraged and challenged by what I learn in workshops and hearing speakers.   I feel enriched, nurtured, in addition, through the experience of the caucuses we participants attend, based on our heritage or race, providing a space to face our challenges as we feel able.   The focus on paying attention to and engaging in noticing, in ‘confessing’ (as we are able) and in committing to change is helping me grow more into the person God wants me to be.  Every year I see newer Quaker faces, more people in general and continued commitment to address the change needed for a society to recognize and change patterns – patterns that continue to oppress people of color, and patterns that continue to privilege people of European background. This conference is the place I began to understand more clearly how such oppression appears at the intersections of class, gender and gay/trans oppressions as well – intersectionality.  This is a place where I join with others who like me cannot ‘choose’ to work on issues of ‘isms’ – oppression over concerns – because wherever a diverse population works together, the actions that continue old patterns are possible.  In addition, past patterns of oppression can easily affect the concerns being addressed.  Building strong relationships and awareness keeps my spirit strong.

Next year it comes to the Philadelphia area.  I hope many more from Philadelphia will join us.

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