All White people benefit from systems of oppression and exploitation simply by living in a culture created in their favor. We spoke with several White Quakers about what it means to acknowledge their privilege, and how that awareness informs their efforts to live in a way that fully honors that of God in all of us.
As Tom Hoopes says, “For Quakers in the early 21st century, to take on this challenge is unbelievably difficult, heartbreaking on a daily basis, and exactly what we need to be doing.”
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Tom Hoopes: As a Quaker in the early 21st century I am acutely aware that I have inherited and am an active participant in a tradition that has benefitted from centuries of exploitation and domination. That is not something that we usually advertise and talk about openly but I think that we need to.
Quakers Confronting White Privilege
Reexamining Our Quaker History
Laura Goren: Quakerism was founded in industrializing England in the 17th century and spread around the world as English colonialism spread around the world, and that’s a really integral part of our history.
Max Carter: Early Quakers didn’t condemn slavery. George Fox encouraged people to treat their slaves well, to educate them, to preach the gospel to them; William Penn owned slaves. But already by 1688, Quakers and Mennonites in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then a community just outside of Philadelphia, had gathered to protest slavery as White Europeans, appalled coming to the Americas to escape religious persecution in Europe to find that Quakers owned slaves.
Olivia Chalkley: I think a lot of Quaker meetings right now over the past 5-10 years, some for much longer, have been going through the process of reckoning with the overwhelming whiteness of Quakerism and the history of racism within Quakerism as a faith, which I think… It’s an interesting study in the White psyche because Quakers for so long have, I think, ridden on the knowledge that early Friends — not early, early Friends– but early Friends in the United States were abolitionists, and of course that’s true and I look to those Friends when I’m trying to understand how to live my life but there’s also Quaker history of violence against indigenous people, keeping Black people out of meetings, and so I think that process of reckoning is really important and everyone’s at a different stage in that process and every meeting is at a different stage in that process.
Defining Racism and White Supremacy
Patricia McBee: Some people think of racism as having an opinion that people of a different race are in some way inherently inferior to the people of my race and that that inferiority justifies having laws and social practices that disadvantage those people. If a Quaker were to define racism that way, they could very honestly say, “I’m not racist!” I have been helped recently at a meeting for business. We were working on this and there was a definition of White supremacy. The part that I recall was a “setting in which the decisions are mainly made by White people,”and I thought, well I can see that, and I can see that in a room full of Quakers, most of whom are White, if a person of color has a different view it’s very difficult to get that view into focus in the decision-making process, and I know of instances– I can see instances in my meeting when that was true.
Why I Engage in Racial Justice Work
Olivia Chalkley: The idea that there’s that of God in everyone informs my understanding that to exploit another person is to sacrifice your humanity and so doing work that counters that is, I think, the only way to have integrity to my faith as a Quaker and to have integrity to my understanding of God because if I believe that there is that of God in everyone and then I go around engaging with or profiting off of systems that exploit others then I’m–I can say I believe that but I mean, we’re supposed to let our lives speak and I wouldn’t be doing that.
Tom Hoopes: Those of us who have benefitted from White supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchy need to call that out and name it and do something about dismantling that not in the future and not only through our electoral choices, but in the here and now.
Laura Goren: I think there’s a lot of different types of work that needs to be done towards racial justice and towards undoing racism within our own communities as well as the wider world and within ourselves, and I think different folks are called to different pieces of that work. So for some folks doing racial justice work may mean seeking out books written by authors of color about systemic racism and about the psychology of race and perhaps finding some folks to read those books with them and doing some work within themselves. And other folks are going to be called to go and stand beside organizations in their communities that are led by people of color that are trying to change some aspect of our social structures that are racist, and both those things and many other things are important types of work. I think that particularly for White Friends when addressing racial justice it’s important to admit that we don’t have all the answers and we have a set of lies that we’ve been taught by our society, and that is not our fault and yet it is something that we need to work on challenging within ourselves and within our communities.
Tom Hoopes: How can I role model for my own children, how can I role model for my students and for my spouse what it looks like to live in a world that’s not about domination and control? What can I do that shows people that people of European descent are not better and that my particular aesthetic preferences are not superior, that I honor other people’s choices? How can I expand my world– the world of my friend group so that I include people from all over the world; so that for me and for everyone in my life it becomes increasingly normal to think of all people from all the world’s communities as part of my tribe — so that we are not a small, insular tribe? So for Quakers in the early 21st century to take on this challenge is unbelievably difficult, heartbreaking on a daily basis, and exactly what we need to be doing so I’m grateful to be alive to do the work.
- American Quakerism has a complex history with race. How do we uphold the progressive parts of our history while continuing to recognize and critique the problematic aspects? How can this same thinking be applied in a modern context?
- Is your meeting doing anything to confront White privilege in your community? What is being done at a structural level? An interpersonal level? An individual level?
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.
11 thoughts on “White Quakers Confronting White Privilege”
I did not get much out of this – we need to confront and work on white privilege — ok, how, some examples of “working on” . . . ? not the best of the series. . . but good topic. Maybe can revisit with more proactive examples of what we can do. By now many Friends know there is white privilege. . . time to move on to the next phase. But thanks for taking this on.
We must get past the emphasis on pathology and onto the sameness between people. The acknowledgement that African Americans,in particular, have added so much to our culture,style and the way we use language for example. We must work toward espousing our multi-ethnic culture by sharing positive experiences with like minded people of other races. It does no good to go around feeling guilty. Invite an African American friend to a meeting. Share pizza, Chinese, and soul food with him/her. Celebrate what it means to be an American with all its good components. There are plenty of African Americans out there that want to be looked upon as individuals,not just representatives of an oppressed group. Let Go and Let God.
I did like it. We all need a kick. I’m Mexican-Cuban with light skin. Adopted by a step-father, I have a “white” last name. The were no Latino last names in my honors classes. There were no Latino last names at my college. Only as an adult did I start to see what privileges I had. Still processing.
A perspective from a Non-Theist Quaker:
A humanistic Quaker
I’m a humanistic Quaker, I’ve decided. The distinction between the noun ‘humanist’ and adjective ‘humanistic’ is significant … it signifies a tendency and mode of expression rather than an ideology.
I see a humanistic understanding as central to the true spirit of Quakerism, for two reasons: First, ‘humanistic’ expresses the focus of ‘that of god IN everyone’. Just as Quaker Buddhists might talk of Buddha nature potential in everyone, so Quaker Christians might talk of Jesus’ spirit potential in everyone.
Early Quakers operated within the limits of the understanding and blasphemy laws of their time, but ‘the spirit within’ is what they felt. Second, ‘humanistic’ expresses the focus on Earthly matters, via the Quakerly virtues of standing firm in support of those who are suffering, speaking truth as we see it, nurturing that of god in everyone as we understand it, and doing what we can to help make a better world. If our spirituality has any value, it will lead us to respond to the global situation at this time of global need, to embrace the spirit of activism and need for global healing, to work together nontribally. ‘Hands that serve are worth more than lips that pray’. That is the humanistic commitment…to humanity. I want some way to make that commitment clear. But is it possible to be a humanistic theist? I would argue yes…if one’s notion of god is not as a supernatural being, for example if one were taken by the Chinese notion of heaven, populated not by god but by heavenly virtues we can respond to, and source of the ‘laws of nature’. Similarly, one might be a humanistic Christian while denying the existence of an historical Jesus…taking Jesus as a symbol of a universal spirit found in all peoples (‘…in everyone’). In fact the essence, divested of the person, is a far more useful concept I’d argue. More suited to the present day. Similarly with Buddhism, one can see Buddha as a composite of various teachers’ teachings. The person is a symbol, sometimes helpful, but sometimes not. Following this line of thought, I wonder whether we ‘nontheists’ should consider a name change to ‘humanistic’. I think it might be beneficial, not just for our small group but for the RSoF as a whole. Few Quakers worship a supernatural being these days. It’s a much more nuanced and variable activity space…a space between two modes of thinking/expression that needs exploring. The nontheist/theist distinction creates a yesno division that is unhelpful to interaction, and thereby alienates potential supporters as well as alienating ourselves from interaction too. So I’m keen to know whether there’s any support for the idea. Piers Maddox The aim of the Nontheist Friends Network is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation. We want to ensure that our Religious Society of Friends is an inclusive rather than an exclusive Society. We seek to explore theological and spiritual diversity and their practical implications, in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journey
The Rev Martin Luther King said (I don’t remember the exact words but here is my interpretation of the message): He looked forward to the day when we did not judge each other by the color of our skin but by the character of our hearts. Let’s look to what we have in common rather than how we are different.
Quakers are Christians. We believe in God. Our lives are based on our personal relationship with God. We serve God by serving all of God’s children, but we ourselves are The Religious Society of Friends.
All are welcome to join us in worship, but please, do not attempt to turn our Religious Society into a secular organization. There are plenty of clubs and societies for that. We are Christians. Please honor and respect our Testaments and Practices within our Religious Society of Friends.
I am a White man.All but one of the remarks was a mashupnmix of word salad signifying an annoyance that the issue was even brought.
In 2020 what do you expect from us White Quakers?
A lot more. Settle into stillness and maybe you’ll get the answer.
This is my favorite Quaker Speak video so far. At 77, I’ve been a Quaker for about 35 years, and I’m grateful both for those 35 years of experience, and for the root value and practice of questioning and querying that Quakers have validated in my life.
Looking at the intersection of white privilege and Quaker simplicity confronts root issues that have troubled me since childhood, and the voices in this video clarify my understanding and encourage my efforts. The lies perhaps told in good faith in my childhood are integral to the changes I want to live going forward.
First recognize the lies, next see the damage they caused and are causing, finally see a clear road forward. I can’t live any life but my own, but I can address the impact of my ill-informed choices.
I am disappointed by the fact that this provided no new messaging on how to confront White Privilege.
I am disappointed that no perspective from POC Friends was offered, eventhough the issue around the difficultiws of including these perspectives at meetings for business was highlighted by one of the participants.
I would appreciate Quaker Speak taking on the much more difficult topic of how Quakers dismantle institutionalized racism within each meeting today.
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