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.