neym.org --> M&C Working Party on Racism --> Ayvazian Notes
The following is an outline of comments by the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian at the 2002 New England Yearly Meeting. Now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, Andrea was a member of the Religious Society of Friends for many years. A longtime activist for peace and social justice and an anti-racism educator, she holds a Ph.D. in Racial and Ethnic Studies from the Union Institute and a Masters in Divinity from Yale. She is Dean of Religious Life at Mt. Holyoke.
New England Yearly Meeting of Friends
Outline of comments by Andrea Ayvazian
Thank you for asking me to share some reflections, share some discussion, to be part of your important work on racism. I feel grateful this evening, and humbled. I have read a great deal of material [you have sent me] about Friends and race…. About Quakers and the abolition movement, Quakers and the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, summaries of Friends' current discussions on racism as well as queries, minutes, workshop highlights, newsletter articles, etc.
So having digested all that material, this is what I would like to do: first, share with you some thoughts about what I believe Friends are doing that is strong and in the right direction regarding racism; second, share with you some areas where I have concerns, some challenges that I believe lie ahead; and third, offer some summarizing words.
First, areas that I think Friends are doing well, things that I believe are strong:
A firm commitment to work on issues of racism and prejudice within the New England Yearly Meeting. The commitment seems to be widely held and enduring. You are clear that your work is rooted in your past but looks to the future. I believe that your commitment to confront and dismantle racism gives you a strong foundation upon which to proceed when resistance develops (as it has) and to sustain your vision when the inevitable ebb and flow of attention and energy occur. Your work over the last several decades has been through different degrees of intensity at different times, but your commitment to dismantling racism is strong, it has endured, and it appears to be clear and vibrant today.
A desire to tell and to hear the story of Friends and slavery and racism and prejudice throughout history. And there seems to be a real commitment to telling and hearing the whole story. There are so many proud stories that countless Friends and non-Friends know about the prophetic words and daring acts of William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, Lydia Marie Child, Rebecca Buffum Spring, Lucretia and James Mott, John Woolman and many, many others. The stories about what these Friends did and said is deeply inspiring and have moved others to join in the struggle, to be brave, to discern a way forward through prejudice and pain.
What is also important and impressive is your willingness to tell less inspiring stories—when Friends failed to take action, or acted poorly with regard to African Americans or other people of color. I found among the materials you sent to me, honest accounts of the ways that Quakers failed to do the right thing and an openness to discuss this, to learn from these difficult and painful stories, to embrace the complete history of the intersection of Quakers and race.
Although I was a member of the Religious Society of Friends for a dozen years, I learned for the first time about Quakers hesitation and lack of action when African Americans requested membership. I found honest accounts of how Black people who attended Meeting for Worship sat on a bench set apart from others or were tucked away under the stairs; I found the truthful retelling of stories of Friends working against slavery and hiding escaped slaves, but shunning African Americans socially and not allowing Black children to attend Friends schools. In their article, "Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship," Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye quote Samuel Ringgold Ward, a noted African American abolitionist who escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad: "They will give us good advice. They will aid in giving us a partial education—but never in a Quaker school, beside their own children. Whatever they do for us savors of pity, and is done at arm’s length."
Friends are well known for their good deeds and brave acts with regard to the abolition movement, the underground railroad, the civil rights movement, and so on. Consequently, I was surprised to find the more painful side of Quaker history also being told and I believe this is a good thing. I commend you for your good hard look at your past.
Strong leadership on the issue of racism present and emerging among Friends. The leadership that has developed to confront issues of racism within the society of Friends is impressive and important—Friends General Conference’s Committee for Ministry on Racism, NEYM Ministry and Counsel’s working group on racism, research and writing by Friends … (Margaret Hope Bacon, Vanessa Julye, Donna McDaniel, and others). The very impressive list of resources that you have amassed is excellent. Among these is the FGC "Resources for Working Against Racism." You are dedicated and thorough, and the resources you have made available will continue to serve you well.
A clear awareness that listening deeply to Friends of Color is important— that listening non-defensively, and believing Friends of Color is important. That sounds embarrassingly simple, but I think one of the most radical things I learned early on as a white ally is to listen deeply to people of color and to believe them. And I see in the materials sent that Friends of Color are being asked to speak their truth, to write about their feelings, to tell their stories. It is clear that an opening has occurred and at least some Friends of Color are feeling safe enough to speak out even when the truth hurts. The Friends of Color among you are brave.
What I am concerned about and the challenges that lie ahead:
Great emphasis on diversity, which I believe is misplaced. Emphasis should be on anti-racism. I do not think integrating Quaker Meetings should be your focus. Quaker Meetings throughout New England could remain exactly as they are today, predominantly white, not increase their "diversity" at all, and still be anti-racist. [A New Englander recently asked]: "How does this relate to my Meeting, which is small and all white, in a small town that is all white?" I don’t actually think a lack of diversity is your problem; I think a fundamental shift in your self-identity is needed. Anti-racist churches and Meetings are possible even in Northern, rural Vermont (the whitest state in the Union).
Think about: the curriculum in the First Day School, Meetinghouse decorations, printed materials; the Meetinghouse library (you’ll need not just books about Quakers and famous people of color, but books about whites fighting racism, anti-racism initiatives in schools and churches, racial identity development for white people and people of color. Cambridge Friends School has many examples.)
Great emphasis on cleansing Friends of prejudice, which I believe is misguided. Focus on racism—systematic oppression—not personal prejudice. Here is an example of what concerns me: From "Queries concerning Racism and Social Justice 1972 Race Relations": "Do you endeavor to cleanse yourself of every vestige of racial prejudice…?" I think it is an unrealistic goal…because prejudice is a constant reality and should be recognized and challenged on an ongoing way. It cannot be eradicated once and for all.
An emphasis on personal prejudice overshadows the more important work which is on the nature of systematic oppressions: institutional racism and white people’s greater access to social, political, and economic power. [I define racism as] A system of advantage based on race (for whites); Or a system of disadvantage based on race (for people of color). Prejudice is too individual, reduces racism to individual acts of meanness. Look broader in your work to the systems that unconsciously, relentlessly, and automatically give unearned advantage to whites.
Great emphasis on reaching out to people of color, being welcoming, being sensitive. All good, but focus is again misplaced. I believe you should start by focusing on the meaning of whiteness, the feel and benefits of white privilege, the experience of growing up white in America, or growing up in white America. Learn about what it means to be white. Focus on that.
Repeated use of the following words in the literature that was sent to me: unity, harmony, love, silence, tolerance, healing. For example: in FGC Connections, the bedrock guidelines for work on racism: "our work will be healing…"; The Plainfield Minute (FGC Connections): "We will move with the Spirit to seek justice, healing and reconciliation"; the often quoted words from William Penn" Let us then try what love will do…"
All these are laudable and make Friends the strong, consistent, loving, and unity-seeking people that Friends are. My worry is that Quaker culture that totally embraces love, harmony, and unity, also seems to be allergic to conflict and anger. I read this sentence in The New England Friend (in a report article called "Quakers and Racial Justice Conference"): "We challenged ourselves to separate those parts of ‘Quaker culture’ that are truly a part of our Quaker practice and those parts of our culture that are not necessary to Quakerism per se. For example our horror at and lack of acceptance of expressions of passion, often interpreted as anger outside meeting for worship as well as within…our unwillingness to hear or express anger."
The phrase "our horror at expressions of passion" reminded me of the time when I was eldered for closing the meeting and making announcements in a too-spirited fashion. Now I am not a person of color, but I am Armenian, and closing Meeting in a spirited fashion is just the way I am. But I was also a loyal Quaker and an active member of my Meeting. I was crushed, and I never in the decade that followed ever agreed to close Meeting for Worship again. I fear the Quakers’ horror at expressions of passion, abhorrence of anger, desire for unity, and emphasis on love will not serve you well in discussions about racism. Do not hear me incorrectly: this is not a plea for unlovingness! It is a worry that being focused on love and unity may prevent the hard and messy work that has to be done.
In my experience as an anti-racism educator, discussions about racism can get heated and difficult and frustrating, people get angry and hurt. I worry that you will shy away from the natural course that these conversations sometimes take because of a need to remain very Quakerly. Western politeness is no friend to anti-racism. I hope you can wed the following: "Let us try what love can do" with ‘Let us try what struggle can do…
Temptation to let acts of charity, good will, acts of mercy substitute for change. Systematic change comes from brave acts that question systems that routinely give advantage to one group over another. And systems need to be challenged. Acts of charity often let the dominant group off the hook. We must serve guests in soup kitchens and work to eradicate the ongoing causes of poverty. We must give money to the United Negro College Fund and work to dismantle the system of tracking in most American schools. It should not be Change vs. Charity, but acts of charity ALONG WITH the continuing struggle for social change.
Here is a quote from Alison Oldham (p. 169 of Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity by Catherine Whitmire)
All of us are enmeshed in that net of racism, whether we choose to be or not. But there is hope. Let me share an analogy with you….Racism is very much like alcoholism. The alcoholic doesn’t choose or intend to be an alcoholic; neither you nor I choose or intend to be racists, or to benefit from a racist society. Both are things that happen to us, through no choice of our own, without our intent. The alcoholic is not a wicked, evil person; neither are you and I…The illness of racism, like alcoholism, is not my fault; but it is my responsibility. I didn’t cause it, but I must and can control it.
In both cases—racism and alcoholism—the first step on the road to health is to acknowledge the reality, to stop making excuses, to stop denying it. We need to face the facts before we can cope with them. In both cases you’re never fully cured; the alcoholic is always an alcoholic. And I really doubt, sadly, that those of us who grew up in a racist society can ever totally shed our unconscious racist attitudes. But we can take responsibility for our actions from now on….We can choose to work to end racism, and learn skills to do that.
The wonderful path for white people in the struggle against racism is to claim a proud identity as a white ally. The wonderful path for people of color in the struggle against racism is to strive to be fully empowered. Guilt and shame and fear and trying to be perfect and thinking you are to blame and using language like oppressed and oppressor—all those are in the past when we step into the roles I believe we are called to assume: White allies and empowered people of color.
“Graffiti” at New England Yearly Meeting Sessions 2002
After her presentation at NEYM Session, 2002, the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian asked Friends in the audience to respond to the points she had raised by developing queries or making comments; these have been called “graffiti. After her talk, they were collected, by Donna McDaniel of Framingham Monthly Meeting, on papers turned in from small groups, and on the easels in the corridor:
In Vermont, everybody’s white and nobody’s worried.
White people see a black in a Mercedes and think he’s a drug dealer.
Whether you see black people is a matter of geography/density—Concord vs. Roxbury, for instance.
Affordable housing is the question.
We need to admit, “I’m a racist,” and form coalitions with others.
We need a new testimony about reducing the effects of institutional racism.
The United States is described as a “melting pot,” while Canadians speak of a “stew” in which each group has own identity and not all have to become the same. As Andrea Ayvazian said: Melting pot is not the goal—not melting to be white; that image has damaged us. Better analogies are “tapestry,” “symphony.”
At first I felt hostility about looking in the mirror and seeing a racist, but when I thought of it more carefully, I saw that I contribute to racism every time I buy something made in sweatshops in other countries, far away.
Query: Is our meeting openly and energetically engaged in dealing with pain and conflict?
I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist youth in the sixties. Our youth group was considered quite liberal. We’d go to Roxbury to clean up, etc. A black person said, “I trust much more the white who tells me he hates blacks than the white who comes with liberal ideas. As Andrea Ayvazian said, quoting a Black American: “I’m much more afraid of white men in suits who control my life than white men in hoods. I can see the hoods.”
I saw a poster: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
I’m a white person from New Haven trying to keep my children in the public school system, but it’s a poor system (a systematic problem in our country); I feel like I have one foot out the door, but I am trying to hang in.
Query: Are you ready to take the first step, as you see it, in eradicating your own anti-racism, anti-Semitism, anti-?
I’m concerned about language and how to use it. I’m afraid to say to my meeting, “I am a racist.” I’m not a racist but I make errors, and I miss opportunities to eradicate racism. I want instead a set of words such as, “I'm a white ally and learning.” As Andrea Ayvazian said, “If you don’t want to say ‘I’m a racist,’ how about ‘I benefit from racism every day.’ Try that.”
Racism shouldn’t be thought opprobrious. Don’t get hung up on the word. A definition I use is: “You are by complicity guilty of racism if you are white and don’t respond negatively to the status quo.”
Race is institutionalized. Racism is a willful acceptance of the culture.
Two years ago, I brought an article in New England Friend about an incident involving race at Yearly Meeting to the attention of NEYM Ministry and Counsel, and they took all else off the agenda and listened to my concerns. As a black man, as a human being, as a Quaker, I’m thrilled and overjoyed and that gives me some hope that change is possible.
Several workshops on race and inclusion at NEYM 2002 were offered out of response to Ministry and Counsel’s working party on racism.
If we do not create a Religious Society of Friends of inclusion, it will be an extinct Religious Society of Friends.
How can Meetings and the Society create a safe place for passion and anger to be expressed and heard?
How can we learn not to shut down, but to listen through anger and passion?
Before we use racial terms, such as black, red, yellow, mulatto, do we always reflect on the possible impact on the listeners?
How does our whiteness keep us from understanding the problems of racism?
What can we whites do to better understand the domination of whites over blacks in our society?
What step can we whites take to gain greater understanding and become better allies of people of color? I come from one of those all-white small meetings in a small all-white town. What would anti-racism look like in our meeting? If one can walk into a school and know that it is anti-racist, how can we make that happen in our little meeting?
Is your meeting considering the possibility of taking an anti-racism course together? Can it happen soon?
What place should passion, emotions, anger have in our Quaker meetings and at our work places?
What can I do, beginning tomorrow, to change the institutions I am connected with so that they become more inclusive?
Do we white Quakers realize what privileges we gain just from being white in this society?
What would an anti-racist meeting look like? What would an anti-racist society look like?
Many in our community have chosen to take people of color into their lives through the route of adoption. Our JYM is much more colorful than our adult population. What might this mean for the future of the Religious Society of Friends? How can we support these parents and these children? Could a future issue of the New England Friend be dedicated to exploring answers to these questions?
As a new participant at NEYM, I see that Quakers do a lot of talking and writing. Business meeting, as far as I can see, consists mainly of writing statements and approving them, then sending them around to other Quakers. We’re talking to ourselves. People of color have no reason to trust a mostly white group like the Quakers unless we have done something to earn that trust. There will not be trust until we start living our commitments by doing, not just writing statements and sending them to ourselves. We need to start at the local level, working in solidarity with groups that are working on issues that matter to people of color, like public education, affordable housing, and immigrants’ rights. We need to be anti-racist, not just talk about it.
What would it look like for NEYM, or each monthly meeting to be actively anti-racist? What would change?
How do NEYM and its monthly meetings participate in or act out of systematic oppression? Consider that no one on the permanent board is a person of color. Do our nominating committees consider and seek out people of color to be on committees? Maybe we need to go overboard, for a while, with affirmative action, to balance things out.
The language and content of Faith and Practice should be examined for racism. Just having a query on racism isn’t enough.
How does NEYM or your monthly meeting benefit from racism?
I am tired of hearing that any kind of conflict, loud voices, and passion, “aren’t Quaker.” I am tired of being told to leave long silences to make sure the discussion stays calm and peaceful. I’m not black or Armenian, but one side of my family is Jewish, and loud, overlapping speech—what Friends label “interrupting”—is my heritage. This isn’t “Quaker culture.” This is British culture.
In Cuban Friends’ business meetings, things get very heated, with interrupting, arguing, and at times strong words about other people’s opinions or actions. Then they ask for forgiveness, forgive each other, and it’s over. Then they go on loving and working.
1. Anti-racism is a double negative. The positive could be build bridges.
|2.||a)||Anger is legitimate.|
|b)||Some formats make anger safer and more productive.|
|c)||Care is necessary, because anger can backfire.|
|d)||Quakers are good at process—use it here.|
3. Individual acts of kindness and love are important, too.
4. Light will help each person move forward in his/her way as called.
5. See what does work: study the models in practice which live out MLK’s Dream.
6. Arts are useful tools in social action.
7. Note progress as well as problems; otherwise folks get discouraged and “burnout.”
It is not helpful for white males with PhDs to lecture other people about not being angry. Sometimes anger is the most appropriate response—as it is when U.S. bombs kill children and elders at a wedding in Afghanistan. When one is deeply betrayed by a close friend or family member. When a child is battered. As Andrea Ayvazian said, “If we’re not outraged, we’re not paying attention.” What matters is what comes after the surge of anger.
“Be angry and/but do not sin.” Sit with your own anger and other people’s and watch it be transformed into joyful passion. Forgive yourself and each other for words whose edges were too sharp. Say, “I’m angry at you and I love you anyway.” Thank people for caring enough to let their passion show and for acting and speaking boldly. Then the loving community will be real and not just surface nicey-nice.
Here’s a nit to pick. I do not choose to ask my children to identify their friends by race. Racism is rooted in ignorance. Therefore the more we become known and know others of all races, the more we move away from racism and towards understanding.
“SOFTT Approach” is using communication skills that are
Optimistic (we can work it out)
This is love?
WHITE NO MORE!
WHITENESS NO MORE!
WHAT BETTER THINGS HAS THE WOLRD IN STORE
FOR PEOPLE OF EVERY HUMAN HUE!
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