Sunday, November 18, 2007

Class and Race in the RSOF

I promise I will still get back to Part II of "What Privilege Do You Have," but I read this New York Times article about race and class and had to share it with you.

Of late I've been wondering about the connection between class and race in the Religious Society of Friends, but since I'm white, I don't feel like I have any authority on the matter.

After reading this New York Times article though, I realized that I have a question to put forth.

If you are black, do you need to also be middle class to be accepted at all in the Religious Society of Friends?

In my storytelling class, a woman told a story about her life in the inner city. She called herself a 'ghetto girl.' She wore big hoop earrings, a tight belly shirt, short skirt, and stilettos. She had an urban accent.

I couldn't help but wonder what Friends would think if she walked into Meeting. How would she feel among Friends? And what would Jesus think about how we treated her and how she felt around us?

(And I posted this before I read Martin's blog here, but if you've read this far, you'll be interested in reading what he has to say about it all).


Allison said...

Hi, I find your blog very interesting as I contemplate membership. I must admit that the questions you pose about class and race are the same questions that gave me qualms about joining. As an Asian-American who was adopted into a white family, I have almost all of the privileges mentioned on your other blog, but all the while knowing it could have been completely different. I am very conscientious of race and class and think a testimony of unconditional, nonjudgmental love would overcome cultural differences.

Jeanne said...

Hi Allison, thanks for stopping by and adding your comment. I'd be curious to hear more from you about your qualms regarding membership, class and race specifically. I've read your blog posts about your questions about exclusion. Is that your primary concern about membership or are there other things related to race and class?

And regarding testimonies...if testimonies were responsible for changing our actions, then the Religious Society of Friends would not have the same incidence of domestic violence as the rest of society (because of our Peace testimony or our Equality testimony). My experience of testimonies isn't that they changed me, but that God changed my heart and soul and I could say I believe in the testimony. Without that change, without that inward transformation, the testimonies are just words.

Lots of Friends would say they believe in unconditional, nonjudgmental love. I certainly do. I've even had some interesting transformative experiences about it. But in practice we are all human and sometimes act in direct and intentional ways against such a belief.

A few months ago, one Friend reported some 'gossip' to me, about me, and at the end of the conversation, when I asked her about the gossip and told her how much it hurt me, she told me she'd made it up, that she'd lied about it. She admitted to doing so in order to hurt me.

This had nothing to do with unconditional, nonjudgmental love, but I bet if I asked her if she believed in such a thing, she'd say yes.

I'm curious, have you talked with Friends about your proposed testimony? What have their thoughts been?

Eileen Flanagan said...

Hi Jeane. I think you are right about the intersection of race and class. I was raised in a working class family (though my mother did take me to museums on the discount day and got me financial aid to a Quaker school). I felt that being white helped me to "pass" at that Quaker school, and occasionally I still feel that way. I do think we respond differently when a black lawyer, say, visits us, as opposed to a black person who seems more working class. But as you point out in your comment, we believe (and want to believe that we practice) universal love. There is a lot of work to do around this, and I think raising people's awareness is an important part of it. Keep up the good work.

Allison said...

Hi Jeanne,

From a few opinions I've sought, I gather that even when I take out my unrealistic expectations of a religion (I was searching for a "perfect" one, but have since realized that can't exist as humans are flawed), I still have qualms.

I wonder if with the existing testimonies, Quakers may be inching closer to a creed-like existence. And as a result, people who don't seem to embody the existing testimonies would be subject to judgment. I do think this applies to race and class because different cultures come from a different set of experiences.

A few opinions I've heard say there is a difference between Friends and friends because the former have chosen to follow the Light, whereas the rest of society may have not. But then it bothers me who judges this.

I understand that just because a testimony exists, it doesn't mean that people will necessarily ever achieve it because we're human. But I think that the purpose of testimonies is supposed to remind Quakers of the direction of the Light, yes? And I think Love should be at the forefront of everything.

I have only talked to one person frorm my local meeting about this. I am not sure what to do with it. I kind of regard joining a religion similar to dating a person. I shouldn't enter the relationship already knowing I want them to change!

Allison said...

PS - I think another thing I was annoyed with was that even though everyone has told me I don't need to rush into membership, there does seem to be a sense that I should start spending more time with Friends. As opposed to other "friends", who I define as everyone else in the world. I felt it was an underlying assumption that other people may not be as "virtuous". What irked me was that when I was posing my questions about Friends v. friends, I wasn't so much talking about my personal friends, but doing service work like volunteering with the homeless. The response I seemed to get was that others don't "follow the Light". But perhaps from my understanding of Jesus and other religious readings, I can probably learn more about patience, nonjudgment, love from being with those who don't necessarily follow the light. Jesus and St. Francis spent all of their time with the "sinners" of the world than with other people.

Peter Bishop said...


You wish for “a testimony of unconditional, nonjudgmental love,” but that’s already one of the clearest dictates in the Bible. It doesn’t come from Paul, off on one of his rants, or from some obscure piece of minutia buried in Leviticus; this is Jesus himself telling us what he thinks are the most important words in all of scripture:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:37-40]

And to the question of “who is my neighbor?” we get the famous parable that tells us your neighbor could be anybody, even one of those dirty, good-for-nothing Samaritans. What could a testimony say that’s any clearer than that?


You tell us of yet another instance of petty meanness in your meeting, and again I have to ask, why are you putting up with this kind of crap? Class issues are important, yes, and class dynamics will be part of any conflict between people of different class backgrounds, but…

Are you allowing individuals to be mean to you because you feel powerless to fight the structures in society that create and perpetuate stratification? So you feel like you can’t do any better?

Or are you allowing individuals to be mean to you because you’ve internalized the class contempt that you were taught while growing up? So you feel (on some level) like you deserve it?

These are not mutually exclusive options, of course. I see you struggling on both fronts, on the one hand pointing out the injustice of differential tuitions for different majors, and on the other hand probing your own feelings about food preferences and class snobbery. But I am shocked at some of the things that have been said and done to you at your meeting, and I haven’t yet heard you say anything as simple as, “My God, what a jerk!”

You have shared with us a number of specific examples of behavior that give me the impression that you’ve landed in a particularly dysfunctional and mean-spirited monthly meeting, but I don’t know if I’m jumping to conclusions based on just a couple of bad experiences in a community that, overall, might be worth sticking around and fighting for. I asked you this in a comment on your Cool Whip post, and I’ll ask again now: What do you get out of Quaker meeting?

Quaker meetings have structures in place for dealing with hurtful behavior in the meeting. Have you requested a clearness committee to help you discern your right relationship with the meeting? Are the committees in charge of Ministry & Worship or Care & Council aware of the level of petty meanness that seems to be going on in your meeting? Less formally, is there anybody in your meeting you trust enough to go to for support, comfort, and a reality check? Anybody you can ask, “Is she like that with everybody, or is it just me?”

Jeanne said...

Peter, I hold these things up as examples of larger cultural issues within the Religious Society of Friends as a whole. I'm talking about systems, not individual actions. The system of classism that exists within the RSoF. I can list all the things that I have felt to be injustice, and you can come back at me with "why didn't you get a clearness committee" about each one, but clearness committees do not deal with systems of oppression. They are likely to not even see it as such.

Classism isn't a collection of individual actions. It's a system of power and oppression.

In addition, not all the things I've raised up have happened at my Meeting. Some have happened among regional Friends, some in the Yearly Meeting, some in national groups such as Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC) and some at Friends General Conference (FGC).

Until this summer when I took George Lakey's workshop, I did not recognize my own internalized classism. So you're right, I have in the past accepted these things and I'm now struggling to overcome my tendency to want to 'pass' as middle class. I'm trying to identify those things that I have learned (like cool whip contempt) that I want to discard, and those things I wish to keep. It's a process and I've not gotten there yet since July 2007. I know I will get there (having gone through a similar process when I finally understood how the patriarchy had impacted my life). It'll be a while.

What do I get out of Quaker Meeting? Right now, nothing. I am in my own desert of sorts, my own exile. I need to do some healing and figure at where I need to go. This God-sized wedge I blogged about before...seems now to not be a wedge but a nudge into exile. And I mean exile.

Before then, Meeting for Worship was the place I could feel most closely connected to God. I find my relationship with God to be too tender for ritual. And I don't feel the same thing in group meditation--in Quaker Meeting, I feel a connection to those in the circle and through them to everyone and everything else in the world.

It is my spiritual home.

Or was.

I'm not sure yet.

From Kathleen Norris: "This past year I have needed to remind myself that life, and especially spiritual life, is not a progression, but a constant turn of withering and blooming, sin and repentance, exile and return."

marsha said...

I am new to this site but have an interest as I have a bi-racial adopted son.
I offer my experience for discussion.
My paternal family has been Society of Friends for at least 250 years. I was brought to meeting until my parents divorced, I was 6.
In the past, about 10 years I have rediscovered
my roots in our faith and have attended several meeting houses without joining any.
Last year I attended a meeting with my son. We felt very comfortable, it is an open meeting and I appreciate the silent worship and a place to do so. I decided it was time for me to rejoin the ranks.
When I made my intention to join known, I was, I believe, questioned about my son's relationship to me, son's racial beliefs.... ie. is he black... no, he sees himself as both....and after the meal was. nicely, told not to ask for membership. I was welcome to attend.
I am a Friend, I will be a Friend whether I am with a group or not. I would like to believe my son was not involved with the decision, but i don't know, as no reason was given.
I have since decided to return, on occasion, to my family meeting which is about 45 min. away. I may never ask for membership again.
The rejection is too painful.
I only relate this to encourage those in meeting to reflect on their actions. Rejection to us is doubly painful as we deal with it so often in our lives. I did not expect it from my place of worship.
I continue to proudly call myself a Friend, but, I don't believe Jesus had an exclusive club.

Allison said...

In response to Peter's comment:

Maybe Love is the word in the Bible, but as far as I've been told, Quakers aren't required to use that one book. It probably depends on which branch of Quakerism is being talked about. So I don't see anything wrong about making a more generalized testimony that can appeal to everyone, regardless of which text they choose. But to play devil's advocate, why have testimonies on pacifism, integrity, simplicity, etc if it's already in the Bible? That hasn't stopped anyone from making testimonies before.

Also, to talk about someone "allowing" others to make disparaging remarks is doubly blaming the victim. I don't think anyone would ever say that it was the slaves' fault for allowing themselves to be enslaved. Yes, on one hand, individuals do need to stand up for themselves. On the other hand, everyone else needs to realize and be reminded how hard that can be sometimes and examine their own role in the situation. One can ask "What do you get out of Quaker meeting?" and assume that the benefits outweigh the costs, and one can say that there is a due process for handling such discrimination within the meeting, but that doesn't mean people can't share that there may be a larger problem within the system. For example, I like being an American citizen, and if I had a problem I would take it to court or my legislator, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't spread the word to the people about what's going on.