At Annual Session this year, the Working Group on Racism (WGR) invited Friends entering the dining hall to submit anonymous questions about race. We then discussed these questions in an interest group on Saturday.
The most frequent question, almost 20% of about 50 questions, asked why we are still talking about race. “Does our preoccupation with race not perpetuate racism?” one person asked. The question deserves an answer.
First, let’s distinguish between institutionalized racism and the personal discomfort white Friends sometimes feel in talking about race. The statistics on the former are easy to find if we look for them. The preponderance of Native, Hispanic, and African Americans in American prisons has long been a concern of Friends. People with white-sounding names are twice as likely to be called for a job interview as those with African-American names. Babies born to African American women with college degrees have three times the rate of infant mortality of those born to similar white women. A federal judge has found that black homeowners have been discriminated against in the distribution of grants to property owners whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. We have progressed since the days of legal discrimination and “separate but equal,” but people of color continue to be treated differently to their detriment because of their race. Talking about that reality is a necessary part of working to change it. Ignoring it does not help.
With regard to personal discomfort, many white Friends feel awkward and afraid that speaking openly about race will offend a person of color. White Friends also may fear disapproval or discomfort from other whites. Others whose intentions may be sincere may be oblivious to the potential for offense (here, the distinction between intention and impact is a crucial one to learn). Many may think that, because there is only one race, the human race, we should just be people together and not bring up such a meaningless and uncomfortable distinction. However, race is a social reality. And it is wedded to ethnicity. African, Native, Asian, European, and Hispanic American cultures — and all cultures — are rich, and to ignore them is to not really see the people who are formed by these cultures. We may feel somewhat uncomfortable about differences, and yes, we may be criticized for what we say or how we say it. Yet not talking about differences can only lead to further misunderstanding or, at the very least, distance. How do we start such conversations, both with whites and with people of color? It is not as difficult as we sometimes fear, and awareness and practice will build comfort levels.
Talking about race, in the spirit of our testimonies on equality and truth, plays a major role in addressing ongoing inequities and breaking down cultural barriers. Members of the WGR are available to help your meeting start the conversation. If interested, contact WGR clerk Elizabeth DuVerlie, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or any other member of the WGR. For more information, go to bym-rsf.org/quakers/committees/racism.shtml