This took shape for me while I was sitting in silence in a weekly Meeting for Worship hosted by Canadian Friends Service Committee. In that receptive and giving space, I felt led to stand up. The coming together of a number of events and conversations in my mind and heart showed me that we often buy into thoughts and practices that in fact imprison us. They put us in old patterns that benefit very few people. These patterns don’t create change. Let’s be courageous, Friends, and stand up! This is something I’ve been “seasoning” and wanting to share for a while now: I feel a concern that some of the stories we’re hearing about anti-racism are actually harmful.
Take stories about historical Quakers. These Friends, people of their time, did not all live lives that upheld or evidenced Quakerly practice. In the time of slavery, daily injustices, and cruelty, some Friends owned slaves, showed outward discrimination, and barred people of colour from joining Quaker Meetings. It is important to know this active violation of the foundational Quaker belief of that of God in all. My query is, “How come the violation stories are those most frequently used today to define Quaker history?”
There were also Friends risking their lives and livelihoods to take part in the protest of slavery and the ensuing discrimination and exploitation of people of Africa and their descendants. These Quakers must have equal space in the story today. Why? Because they are the “examples and patterns” that must be our teachers of what we do to face injustices and fight to be a world that is egalitarian and in right order.
These were the Friends raising their voices and having brave conversations in their Meetings, in their communities and families, breaking the laws and directions of the time, risking isolation and personal discrimination and exclusion from communities and families as well as imprisonment and death. We need to remember the many Friends who were doing this and be inspired by their examples.
Referencing historical racism in a way that tells only a part of the story isn’t true to those Friends who suffered and went through hardships in the struggle against slavery. And it isn’t true to those of us today who continue to outwardly call out any practice that does not honour the fact that human rights are everybody’s rights. Only picking the parts of history that tell a story we want to hear, and leaving out what goes against that, that’s dishonest. Quaker history was mixed.
“Guilt or dwelling on the past isn’t constructive… We need to ask: what are the problems right now and how do we address them in a way that leads us to right order for everyone?”
Today, too many stories and excuses are being made about history. We don’t have to keep going back over and over it to go forward. It’s good to know the truth, but our work has to be about what are we doing now about exclusion, discrimination, and current injustices? Are there Quaker Meetings today that do not accept people of colour? Are there Meetings today active in supporting worker discrimination and exploitation? If so, that needs to be addressed openly.
But if we’re just talking about past history and then making assumptions about today, then we’re not doing our work for justice. We need to think more about how this or that idea actually fits, or doesn’t fit, with who we are now and how we’re making progress together.
If you see your job as reminding people about historical wrongs, what are you doing beyond that? Knowledge can lead to truth, but we have to be mindful that old stories repeated can just have us spinning our wheels. Guilt or dwelling on the past isn’t constructive. It’s a personal thing. It’s not what we need. We need to ask: what are the problems right now and how do we address them in a way that leads us to right order for everyone? How do we work towards exemplifying the belief of that of God in all with the same measure?
We have to challenge and lay down preconceived ideas, boldly demonstrating that we believe in and live the life of equal justice for all.
Our work today includes allowing the unjustly treated to tell you what they want now, not only what was done to them. That is activism is practice.
As a faith community that cares about justice, we can’t expect people to fit into our neat boxes for them. For instance, I don’t fit the ideas some people have of what it means to be Black. I think those ideas are the problem, because they stop people from knowing me. Black people or people of colour are the ones who will tell you who we are as individuals.
I object to any anti-racism work reinforcing preconceptions about being a Black woman/person as the same common experience solely because of skin colour. People of colour should have no requirement to follow external definitions of who they are. Don’t be thinking about only people’s colour, their gender, their wealth. We can’t keep spinning on this wheel. We need to lay this thinking down if we want behaviours to change.
Being an anti-racist Quaker to me means intentionally laying down the surface level of consciousness that focuses on what boxes to put people in.
My advice is to ask, “What is it that will best serve justice for all in this situation?” Quakers only exist because of change. We can’t get stuck on the past as if progress hasn’t happened. We only exist as a faith community today because Friends like George Fox gave up comforts and took action from the stirrings of the Divine within them.
I feel there’s a misunderstanding of what Quakerism is. We need to be asking as Quakers, “What canst thou say?” What can each of us do to put our own lives in right order and to work for real change now.
We need to look at each situation to identify what the injustice actually is, not some grand theory about people from this group against people from that one. We have to drop that and get to know people for who they are and what they see as justice in right order. And we have to work together accordingly.
Unless we’re willing to outwardly demand and work for change now, history ceases to be a teacher.
Monica Walters-Field, Toronto Meeting, is on CFSC’s Personnel Committee. She wishes to thank Communications Coordinator Matt Legge for editing a first draft of this article from her dictated comments. This article reflects Monica’s views and experiences and not necessarily unity amongst CFSC on the issues covered.