Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Are Quakers systemically racist?

Understanding White Privilege

My attention has been drawn to Understanding White Privilege by Frances E. Kendall, who is an American and writes about her own country, but her argument has been used to suggest that British Quakers are systemically racist. The argument runs that we inhabit a culture of white privilege that is systemically racist, in that there are many subtle ways we all operate that privilege white people over people of colour. This isn’t limited to the issue of race;  we inhabit a system that privileges men over women, straight people over LGBT+ people etc. So this broader definition of racism, related to white privilege, makes all white, privileged men racist, who have a responsibility to look inside themselves and work to heal the ways in which they unconsciously perpetuate a system that disempowers non-white people (as well as women, LGBT+ people, temporarily able-bodied people etc.).

What is a systemic discrimination?

A system to me is more than a loosely understood pattern of human behaviour; it is something objective like the tribalism of ancient Israel, the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South (which have informed Kendall's work),  the apartheid laws of former South Africa, or an overt social convention like the caste system in India.  Against these examples, modern Western liberal democracies, which enshrine equality in law (by, for example, legislating for same-sex marriage) are the least systemically discriminatory societies there have ever been.

Beware the sociologist with an agenda

To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own biases and values.  I am white, educated and middle class but I am also far below average height for a man and have problems with my behaviour and mental health. By one set of measures I am privileged, by another not.   What Kendall seeks to do is to classify people, which is what sociologists do, but it runs counter to the non-judgementalism enjoined on us by Jesus (Mt 7:1); by George Fox, who told us to should walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone; and by Isaac Pennington in his beautiful words of about not laying accusations one against another (QF&P 10.01).

A further point on the danger of labelling people is that I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So by the standard of the Kendall school of thought, I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says. According to the report 'Our Faith in Action: Quaker Work in 2016' (p.8),
Quaker communities are loving, inclusive and all-age. In a Quaker community all are heard, valued and supported in their needs and leadings.  Everyone's contibution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.

People not sociology

It's true that some people are more favoured than others, for a host of reasons, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on the circumstances. We should be aware of the subtle play of power between people and we should be open-minded about ourselves and others. However, Quakerism is about spirituality not sociology.  There is nothing wrong – indeed, it is positively desirable – that we congregate with like-minded people, which is what the sociologist would call affinity bias.  Affinity is the glue which holds people together.  The Quaker calls it fellowship, even love.

Plain speech not jargon

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language.  More seriously, as I say above, it is being used to turn Quakers against each other.  Before the words of BYM quoted above, Edmund Harvey wrote in 1928:
In the name of Friends the people called Quakers have set before them a great ideal.  Men are separated one from another by ignorance, by selfishness and by fear; the Light and the love of Christ draw them together to become a society of friends. (Quaker Language p.29)


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