Monday, 10 July 2017

See the person not the stereotype

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.

'System' is an example of sociological jargon which is a departure from Quaker plain speech and is being used to dress up slogans, rash generalisations and actual falsehoods in pseudo-scientific language. 


To say that there is white privilege is a sociological assertion which only works if we are willing to accept the proponent’s own ideological 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).

The irony is that those who loosely talk of racism are themselves out of touch with modern, sociological thinking.  Race is a hardly a term with any biological meaning, and the current appropriate term is cultural diversity, in recognition of wide acceptance that identity is largely socially constructed.  In short, each of us is free to choose the characteristics with which we each identify.  This is consistent with the Enlightenment idea of the autonomy of the individual.


In contrast, there is danger in our labelling other people by our own standards.  For example, I have a Jewish background.  I could (though I don't) choose to call myself Jewish.  So the corollary of the Kendall school of thought is that  I could be branded Jewish and privileged, which puts the Kendall proponents a whisker away from anti-semiticism.  In fact, there is an obverse racism and discriminatory outlook in Kendall which contradicts her own thesis, because if some people are going to be labelled white and privileged there is a need for others to be labelled black and deprived. For this reason, it contains the seeds of its own irrelevance.  Even if we were to accept the contention about systemic racism, what would follow?  Would we institute re-education classes and self-criticise each other as happened to the 'capitalist road-ers' and 'bourgeois intellectuals' in China's Cultural Revolution?  We might institute positive discrimination, which is a policy in the US and has had some examples in the UK, for example in the field of housing management education (as I know from my own experience in the 1980's).  I am doubtful about such policies.  They can be contentious and divisive, and are probably best only as temporary or short-term measures to overcome particularly egregious instances of unfairness. 

Beware not only the sociologist but the ideologue, particularly the ideologue who believes in their own unquestionable objectivity and their special privilege (sic) to judge and label others.

What BYM says

The sociology is also contrary to what BYM says about Quakers in Britain. 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 contribution is accepted according to their gifts and resources. All are welcomed and included.
It seems to me that it is impossible to subscribe to this assertion and to the proposition that Quakers in Britain are racist.

What Advices & Queries and QF&P say

Those who promote division and name-calling amongst Quakers should reflect on the following:
Respect the wide diversity among us in our lives and relationships. Refrain from making prejudiced judgments about the life journeys of others. Do you foster the spirit of mutual understanding and forgiveness which our discipleship asks of us? Remember that each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God.   (Advices & Queries 22)
 Similarly, they ought to study the section on unity and diversity in Quaker Faith & Practice.  For example, John Woolman at 27.02:
Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life, and the Spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.
This attempt to understand others from one's own point of view would seem to be a good instance of the behaviour which Kendall attacks.  Another example of the privileged, white male is Robert Barclay, who was university-educated and the son of a landowner.  He writes at 27.05 in the fourth edition:
The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life...Under this church...are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.
This is a powerful assertion of unity and universalism from the pen of the foundational Quaker theologian.

Not in QF&P but worth quoting are the words of my beloved Edmund Harvey:
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)
Those Quakers who uncritically swallow the idea that we should be separating the sheep from the goats are promoting ignorance, divisiveness and fear.  Isn't there enough of that in the world already?

Love not ideology!

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 or secular ideology.  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.

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