Reflections from Greenbelt – Beyoncé and white Quaker discomfort

This year like most years I attended Greenbelt, a festival of arts, justice and faith. As a last minute decision, I attended a panel discussion entitled ‘The Lemonade Effect: Beyoncé, blackness, feminism and white discomfort’. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival, being both educational and energizing, prompting me to think more about how my own Quaker tradition talks about race. (You can read chair Chine McDonald’s account of the panel here, and an account from christiantoday.com here.)

The starting point for their discussion was the impact of Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’, a work described as unapologetically black. It makes reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, the treatment of black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the performance of ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl that featured Blank Panther imagery. The panel spoke, sometimes tearfully, about how much this celebration of blackness meant to them, with lines like ‘I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils’.

From the affirmation felt by Beyoncé’s black audience, the discussion moved to the discomfort felt by her white fans and critics. It has been joked that this was ‘the day Beyoncé turned black’.

In response to ‘Lemonade’, Piers Morgan wrote in the Daily Mail:

‘The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second. I still think she’s a wonderful singer and performer, and some of the music on Lemonade is fantastic. But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one.’

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Where does white discomfort spring from? Is it embarrassment arising from white privilege? Is it a reluctance to admit white privilege in the first place? The panel spoke of it as what occurs when people of colour call white people out on unintentional racist remarks. (See here for a useful parody of ‘white sensitivity’)

I have my own experience of white discomfort. When living in London, I was invited to speak at a local church about Quakerism. During the Q&A, a black member of the congregation asked what I thought about Quakers and slavery. I started talking about John Woolman and the work of Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. She stopped me and said ‘but Quakers owned slaves!’ Things got rather heated after that. I was indignant that she’d asked a loaded question and I felt under attack. She was implacable, and was outraged that I would claim to be ‘proud’ of being part of a religious group that had once allowed the enslavement of people. It didn’t end well. Reflecting on the event years later, I can see that I was naïve in my understanding of Quaker history – Quakers did indeed enslave black people, and John Woolman spent a lot of his time trying to convince other Quakers to free them – and I should have approached the question with a greater degree of humility.

The panel also suggested that ‘liberal’ churches are more reluctant to talk about institutional racism than ‘conservative’ churches. White discomfort occurs when a white person feels they are accused of racism, but as one member of the panel pointed out, it would be very surprising to meet someone who wasn’t racist in some way. This isn’t about personal morality, it’s about admitting that we inhabit a system that is deeply racist. This then causes us to behave in an unconsciously biased manner. How could our racist culture not plant the seeds of racism within us? It’s not about attributing blame, but still being able to admit there’s a problem.

In the British Quaker community, I find ‘sin’ to be a dirty word. We are very reluctant to speak about sin. This may be for several reasons. Sin may be associated with crippling guilt, with unconvincing theories of the atonement, or with bad experiences in other churches. We also have a very optimistic view of human nature and moral progress, and talk of sin may seem to go against this. ‘That of God’ in everyone is sometimes translated to ‘that of good’ in everyone. I think as Quakers we’re also used to being the ‘good guys’, generally on the right side of history.

Are we one of those ‘liberal’ churches that find conversations about race difficult? If so, does our reluctance to speak about sin have an impact on our willingness to discuss race and systemic racism? Are we reluctant to admit that ingrained within us are the patterns of racism by virtue of the society we inhabit? Is this a kind of original sin that we soak up from the moment of our birth? Do we need to get better at talking about sin?

Is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion?

Something that many British Quakers will be familiar with is the anxiety that as a Religious Society we are too white, too middle class and too intellectual. (Although I would say this is true, it’s sometimes forgotten that globally there are a lot of black Quakers, although they’re mainly evangelical, and I get the impression that for many British Quakers, being evangelical is a Bad Thing.)

Accompanying the realization that, despite our theological pluralism, we are generally culturally homogenous, I feel that in general:

  • We are discomforted by this, as we want to be a diverse group
  • We don’t know how to become more diverse
  • We are worried that in order to attract more black people we would have to become evangelical like the Quakers in Kenya (which as I’ve said, many would see as a Bad Thing).

It is very easy to say that Quakerism is for everybody, and I think it should be for everybody, but it’s worth at least posing the question – is there something intrinsically white, middle class and intellectual about how we operate as British Quakers? As an educator I learnt that for a long time the British music education system claimed to be for everyone whilst favouring those students with certain musical values and backgrounds. Would it be that surprising if the way we are as Quakers is biased towards particular groups of people?

The collective identity of liberal British Quakers, rather than being formed around a particular story, is formed around how we do things, what Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion has called a ‘behavioural creed’. Although the way Quakers behave has changed slowly over time (e.g. we no longer separate worshippers according to sex, the length of worship has decreased and worshippers rarely, if ever, kneel in prayer), with increasing diversity of belief the pressure to maintain behavioural conformity is even stronger. To change how we behave becomes a threat to our group identity.

For me this raises the question: is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion? The panel highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is welcoming different people, but according to your rules. Inclusion is welcoming new people, and remaking the rules together. The message from this was – if you want to include more people, you have to be prepared to change. Authentic welcome means a readiness to take part in something new. At another point in the festival, I heard an Anglican priest relate how she had welcomed a large number of refugees into her church. The Guardian reported that ‘some members of the local congregation have been receptive. But many have left, saying they feel alienated by the hundreds of new-look Christians, uncomfortable with the multicultural flags and incredulous at what they see as people taking advantage of [Rev Sally] Smith.’

If we want to be more non-white and less middle class, are we willing to change?

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Preparing to be discomforted

Chine McDonald closed the panel by quoting from Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from A Birmingham Jail’:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.’

I saw in this description of ‘creative tension’ a parallel with the words of early Quaker leader George Fox:

‘Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’

With words like ‘cheerful’ and ‘blessing’, this passage sounds awfully nice, but answering that of God in someone is not about being nice, it is about challenge. Through public truthful living, we seek to challenge others to self-examination, ‘waking the slumbering Christ’, providing the opportunity to turn to the Light that shows us our darkness, opening the door to negotiation.

Are white Quakers ready to be discomforted? Are we ready to have that of God answered within us, and our darkness disclosed? As well as welcoming others so that they may be changed, are we ready to be changed in order that we may truly welcome others into our communities of faith?

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13 thoughts on “Reflections from Greenbelt – Beyoncé and white Quaker discomfort

  1. Just re-read your post Mark, it’s a really useful comment. With regard to how the media see us I thought you might be interested to know that in the recent filming at Frandley Quaker meeting , for the ITV drama ‘paranoid’ the group of extra’s was much more diverse than our M4W usually is. The crime drama airs from Thurs 22nd September. We found it interesting that the Red production company should choose to make the meeting a diverse group. It’ll probably only get a few seconds, but we’ve been filmed for 6 episodes

  2. Loved this post, Mark. (And am gearing up for a “Lemonade” discussion with my Dance and Culture as we speak!) We’re grappling with these same issues this side of the pond… and for many acknowledging that racism still exists (and that privileged groups benefit from it) is a very hard first step to take.

  3. Thanks Mark, very much appreciated this, very, rightly, Q intro-spective, both at the group and the personal level. I had Greenbelt in my diary this year but in the end couldn’t go, another time I hope…

  4. Quakerism is definitely not for everybody, and if there is something intrinsically white, middle class and intellectual about how we operate as British Quakers then so what? There is something instrinsically black, working class and physical about how charismatic churches run themselves, but that is not a problem. Why do you feel it necessary to stick labels on people? Can we all be free to do what we want without you pointing the finger?

  5. ouch ouch ouch to both of you. How does this help us meet each other’s souls? where’s the listening?I sniff mock outrage. I agree there is some pretty ghastly racism among Friends but I wouldn;t associate it particularly with power or even feelings of superiority more with lack of experience, thoughtlessness and ignorance. Need to do more – yes of course. I am beating myself up right now about failing to make a complaint about an incident I witnessed.at our local hospital. Time to man up. .

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