Institutional Racism and Quakers

Earlier this month, Anglican theologian Jarel Robinson-Brown tweeted that the cult of Tom Moore was a cult of white nationalism, and that he would not be joining in with the national clap. His words, boldly articulating the white nationalist dynamic at work, captured the source of my discomfort around the use of Moore’s image. But very quickly, Robinson-Brown became the target of a torrent of racist and homophobic abuse, including death threats. He was not the only person to publicly name the problematic use of Tom Moore’s story, but just as Moore’s whiteness and status as a veteran strengthened his aura as a national hero, so being black and gay made Robinson-Brown a particular target of hatred.

As well as having to endure this horrendous level of abuse, even after issuing an apology, Robinson-Brown was failed by those who should have stood up for him. Although the Diocese of London’s statement condemned the abuse, the focus was on appeasing those who were outraged by the tweet, as well as distancing themselves from Robinson-Brown’s words. In naming the problem of white nationalism, he became the problem. The Diocese has since issued another statement, now focussing on Robinson-Brown’s wellbeing, but the damage has been done. Through a knee-jerk reaction focussed on preserving their reputation with the white establishment, the institutional racism within our state church was revealed once more. A. D. A France-Williams writes that racism within the Church of England ‘is often more about subtraction of support than addition of suffering; more about a retreat from people of colour than a full-on direct assault,’[1] and this withdrawal of support was once again on display.

It’s not unusual for Quakers to speak as if they are free from the problems of other churches, and so in our Quaker smugness we might see institutional racism as a non-Quaker problem. Yet on 12th February, Sahdya Darr shared her own experience of institutional discrimination within a Quaker organisation on Twitter. As part of a wider exposing of discrimination with the charity sector, Darr lists a disturbing combination of racism, classism, Islamophobia and Quaker snobbery. This leads her to raise multiple grievances, but her concerns are not taken seriously by managers or trustees, and those responsible for discrimination are not held to account. Like Robinson-Brown, by naming the problem, Darr becomes the problem.

As Quakers, our immediate response might be disbelief – ‘surely not in a Quaker organisation?’ We’re still at the stage where a member of Meeting for Sufferings can say of racism within the Society of Friends: ‘this is the first I’ve heard of this problem.’[2] Or we might want to sympathise with those who failed to stop the discrimination – ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean to’ – or even to distance ourselves from them – ‘they aren’t true Quakers.’ We are so used to speaking of Quakerism in glowing terms, that the instinct to protect our reputation is strong.

The reverse side of emphasising Quaker goodness, is neglecting our brokenness. We don’t pay enough attention to our sin. We can’t conceive of ourselves as racist. In this we’re hampered by our own theology. The traditional Quaker understanding of sin is that we’re only guilty of sin when we consciously choose to do the wrong thing. This belief was developed in opposition to infant baptism and predestination, and the idea that we are born guilty and deserving of God’s punishment. Liberal Quakers in the 20th century have continued with this understanding. In this vein, a Friend at a recent Meeting for Sufferings ‘said that he could not join with an apology for Quakers’ historic involvement in slavery, because he could apologise only for something for which he was personally responsible.’[3]

But if we only sin when we consciously choose to do so, how do we explain systemic racism? I was brought up to believe that racism meant specific, intentionally racist acts. Because I didn’t say mean things about black people, I wasn’t racist. But now I see that racism is also perpetuated through the actions of well-meaning white people, people who don’t consciously choose racist actions, but are still responsible for the harm their actions do. I came to see that, without wanting to, I had soaked up a culture of white supremacy which I then replicated in all sorts of small ways. In the words of Paul, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Rom. 7:15). In the words of Hannah Arendt, there is a ‘banality’ to institutional racism, which like all evil, is perpetrated through the actions of people who are ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal.’[4] You can be working for a good cause, and perpetuate racism. You can have good intentions, and perpetuate racism. You can be a Quaker, and still perpetuate racism.

If we are going to foster a Quaker culture that can name racism and discrimination, and move quickly to the defence of the victim, we have to rethink our understanding of sin. White Quakers like me have to acknowledge that, however good our intentions, we will unthinkingly perpetuate institutional racism. We will do this unconsciously, but we are still responsible for the damage we do. Our ability to act in a non-racist way has been perverted. Without our choosing, we are sinners. Theologian Nicholas Adams, writing in support of Jarel Robinson-Brown, quotes Theodor Adorno: ‘There is no right life in a world of falsehoods.’ As long as racism is in the world, we are not individually free of it.

In coming to see ourselves as sinners, I’m not saying we need to become filled with shame or self-disgust. I’m not saying that we should see ourselves as worthless or damned. What I’m saying is that, in order to fully side with victims of discrimination, we need to abandon any sense of needing to be ‘Quakerly’. We need to be able to say with Jesus: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’ (Mark 10:18). In his death on the cross, Jesus reveals a world riddled with sin. He is crucified by a system that claims to be for peace and justice, and for the good of the whole world, and yet is built on inequality and violence. Paul writes that, when faced with Christ’s revelation, everything he’d previously built his sense of self-worth on counted for nothing. His pedigree, his good works, his reputation – none of these were a true foundation for lasting goodness (Phil. 3:1-11). Can we follow Paul’s lead, and abandon any faith we may have in our Quaker ancestry, our Quaker heroes or our shared history of good works, in order to admit that we remain today a broken faith community in need of forgiveness and repentance?

[Featured image by Lukas Robertson on Unsplash]


[1] A. D. A France-Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England, 2020, 89.

[2] Harry Albright, “Meeting for Sufferings,” The Friend, December 11, 2020, 7.

[3] “Letters,” The Friend, December 18, 2020, 6–7.

[4] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Classics (New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2006), 276.

25 thoughts on “Institutional Racism and Quakers

  1. Thank you for your article Mark, and for speaking truth to power… There is a depth to your blog that I’ve been unable to find elsewhere.
    Racism is something which raises powerful thoughts and feelings, and I wonder if sometimes, it’s the power in the feelings that move us to deflect when we or those we identify with are called out for racism. It’s uncomfortable. But it is also speaks truth to our own power. As much as I would like to write a response that decries the racism that Sahdya and Jarel experienced – I realize that what you are offering instead, is an invitation to recognize that it’s not out there, in an organization or in the figureheads of that organization. No, instead the invitation is to recognize that it is something which is a part of who am I and the privilege that I have as a white person.
    So, I’m going to be honest, whilst sociologically speaking, I have had the best start possible, spending some of my formative time in a black global majority (BGM)* country, I also had diverse positive role models as a child, parents who taught me about the impacts of racism and I am now married to someone who is part of the BGM, results from the Harvard unconscious bias test which reflect the positive effects of this upbringing. *And yet…* I can still attend a conference and wonder why the (BGM) caretaker is moving chairs in a suit. The truth, I saw a black man and assumed a menial role – when he was in fact a manger. I still catch my responses being driven by the stereotypes that society has created. Its an uncomfortable truth that having a BGM husband, does not make me immune from racism. So thank you for your invitation to recognize the racism that lives in us. In the words of Heather McGee ‘Being aware of our prejudice is one of the most powerful things we can do to change things’.
    Our next most powerful thing that we can do to change things is to listen when someone talks about the racism they have experienced. This is hard. White people and people who have lived experience of racism live in different racial realities, white people often find it hard to believe something they have not experienced personally. In marrying my husband I was introduced to a completely different racial reality, one where empty restaurants had “no tables”, and where we were chased for “unpaid” restaurant bills (when we’d left a tip). Most of what people are exhausted with living with day in, day out is implicit. So when we hear Sahdya and Jarel’s accounts, it is too easy to skate over their lived experience and supplant it with our own. Are you sure it happened like that? I know so and so, they are a good person… This is where your words Mark continue to be helpful – ‘however good our intentions we will unthinkingly perpetuate institutional racism… unconsciously.’ I like the words of Jeff Chu which offer an alternative to this, in writing about his friend Megan’s break with Westborough Baptist Jeff writes ‘As she de-centered her own experiences and feelings, she found more room for others.’ To hear the truth that Sahdya and Jarrel speak to our power, we must de-center our white perspective, to make more room for them. As white people we take up too much space.
    When Sahdya and Jarrel call out the racism that they have lived and experienced, it is an invitation. We have a choice, we can hide because of the shame we feel or perhaps deflect before even getting to that feeling). Or we can accept their gracious invitation and face the truth that their lived experiences speak to ourselves and our world.
    *As Sophie Bevan writing on the Quakers in Britain blog says, Black Global Majority. We’re not a minority and we never were.

  2. “The traditional Quaker understanding of sin is that we’re only guilty of sin when we consciously choose to do the wrong thing.” This is also the Roman Catholic understanding of mortal sin. That infant baptism, in Catholic doctrine, removes the stain of Original Sin, and then it’s up to us to exercise our free will in accordance with God’s law.

    Ignorance, or unconsciousness of the harm done by a sinful action, is a vey limited defence against the guilt of venial sin, as the Roman church teaches that all of us have an innate moral sense, aligned with God’s law. The Protestant, and especially Reformed, view of sin and free will is, to me, as a former Catholic, less comprehensible, less charitable, less loving, and less help. I wonder whether the ghastly, smug nonsense spoken by that the Quaker boss, as reported by Sahdya in her shocking tweets, has its roots in some vestigial Reformation sentiment that to “be a Quaker” is to be a regenerated and justified man, filled with the Spirit and beyond sin, a persisting saint. If the Mass does nothing else, it reminds the faithful, baptised and confirmed and they are, every time that they are always at risk of falling into sin.

    How did that Quaker boss’ Meeting, and its Elders, let him get into a state where he could think and say these things? For me, “being Quakerly” means a public commitment to strive towards being more moral, more just, more kind, more loving. I don’t understand how any Quaker could arrive at the point that Sahdya describes, but clearly they can. Something has gone badly wrong there, but I’m not sure that a revived focus on sin is going to help much. Perhaps more of a focus on a journey of change and growth, and not deciding that one has, must have, arrived at a destination?

    1. I don’t share your disbelief that a Quaker could behave in the way Sahdya describes. I find their behaviour abhorrent, but not surprising. I don’t think their behaviour springs from a sense of being a persisting saint – that is, righteousness at an individual level. Rather, I think liberal Quaker culture encourages a veneration of the Quaker tradition, a sort of Quaker exceptionalism – righteousness at a corporate level. Quakers are very at ease in talking about how great Quakerism is.

      I also don’t think that, in practice, contemporary Quaker Meetings and Elders generally concern themselves with the ethical development of individual Friends. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but I think corporate concern for individual virtue is of a previous Quaker era.

      In my discussions with Quakers, I find that the language of journey and growth is commonplace. There’s a provisionality to liberal Quakerism that favours journey over destination. For me, the language of sin offers a way to name evil’s pernicious and destructive nature, and how we are caught up in it, in a way that the language of change and growth doesn’t.

      1. “Quakers are very at ease in talking about how great Quakerism is.”

        Yes, that is a problem. These days it’s eXtinction Rebellion’s halo (such as it is) that many Friends borrow, formerly it was Amnesty, OXFAM, Greenpeace. We should really cut that out.

        As regards veneration of the tradition, it may be a failure mode of believing that we have direct, unmediated access to God to also believe that we have uniquely close and effective access to God, much better than anyone else’s. I hope that I personally am somewhat protect from making that mistake by my view that “God” is the name for something which emerges out of the constructive interaction of the little “that of God”s in every one, rather than being some external agency that inserts a bit of themselves into us at some poorly understood time no later than birth.

        Meanwhile, I agree with Barbara that “sin” is an unrecoverable term. For me, it is a tool used by profoundly flawed institutions, perpetrators of great harm on vast scales, to inculcate fear, demand obedience, and manipulate into compliance. It’s history is overwhelmingly (although not exclusively) that of a tool used by hypocrites to oppress. I don’t think can be useful to us.

  3. “I don’t share your disbelief that a Quaker could behave in the way Sahdya describes.”

    I have no such disbelief. What about my comment suggests that to you? I absolutely believe Sahdya’s account, both on general principles and because I’ve seen enough of enough of those things myself.

    What I said is that I don’t _understand_ how a practicing Quaker could get into such a state. I’m not sure I find it surprising, either. Sad and disappointing, yes. It points to some grievous failure modes. But I struggle to see how such an loaded term as “sin” is going to help fix those.

    1. I didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t believe Sahdya’s account. I was referring to the sense of shock that comes across to me in your comment.

      1. I am shocked. It’s a shocking account. As a manager and a qualified company Director I’d be shocked to hear such an account from any employee of a “normal” company. That in no way implies disbelief.

        And I’d expect that company to receive a well-deserved mauling at any ensuing Tribunal for multiple failures in duty of care and something that looks a lot like constructive dismissal. I am in addition saddened and disappointed to hear such an account from someone who work for a Quaker (led organisation).

      2. As I said, I didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t believe Sahdya’s account. What I should have written is ‘I don’t share your sense of surprise’. But you’ve subsequently said that you’re not sure you find it surprising, so I’ve clearly misread your previous comment.

  4. I agree that some Quakers can act in a “holier than thou” way and are too ready to take credit for good things (sometimes not wholly achieved by Quakers) but reluctant to admit to bad actions.
    Can’t say I like the word sin though – too many people (sinners?) have been beaten with it without justification. There are other words without the historical connotations

  5. I find this a really helpful, detailed response to a number of difficult topics – thank you for writing it. I did not know that was how early Friends saw sin, and I am now trying to work out what on earth they were thinking – it is so alien to my own understanding, which surprises me, as I often agree more with early Quakers than I do with later ones!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! It seems to me that a lot of early Quaker theology was articulated in response to critics, which means that it can sometimes feel quite ‘lumpy’ – it’s not always fully thought out. Reading Robert Barclay’s Apology, I’m often thinking ‘I like where you’re trying to get to, but your route leaves a lot to be desired!’

      1. I was thinking about your post again during the Ash Wednesday liturgy. In the general Anglican confession it asks for forgiveness “for what we have done, and what we have failed to do, through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate faulty”. Saying this with institutional racism in mind gave it a while new meaning for me today.

      2. I’ve been thinking about that phrase too! I think there’s something to be said for cultivating a readiness to repent, if that’s the right phrase – recognising that we need forgiveness for things we don’t even know we’ve done.

  6. Thank you for your post, Mark; and thanks to those who have responded. I guess my understanding of the early Quakers was that, despite being hidebound by the rampant Calvinism of their day, they did take Jesus’ central focus, what he called the ‘Kingdom of God’, as their central focus too. This is plain to see when you read their many tracts. It was a focus they did their best to maintain throughout the 17th century.

    They gave the ‘Kingdom’ many names, the most prominent being the ‘Inward Light’. There is really no difference theologically between the Inward Light and other descriptors of ‘that of God within’ such as the Presence, the Christ (not the man, Jesus here), the Seed etc. For me, living in these times I can freely add Brahman, Visnu, Allah, Divine Consciousness etc. In saying such I am not a universalist in the Quaker understanding of that term (a pseudo-universalism) but a Christian universalist in the early Quaker mould–i.e. I believe the Light of the Christ is a universal presence in people. By ‘the’ Christ I mean Spirit, Love.

    Modern Quakerism has moved away from the ‘Kingdom’ (or ‘The Way’ as I usually call it) and has thus deprived itself of the one common language that it actually still craves. Having such a language does not mean conformity, devotion to a creed or dogma. To maintain such would be to admit ignorance of The Way’s actual meaning. Paradoxically, in moving away from a conscious understanding of The Way repeats what the wider Church has done ‘since the days of the apostles’, as the early Quakers said of the Church at large. Since then, there has been an accumulation of theological insights which our Society has dismissed over the years as ‘notions’. The present Society is theologically impoverished; the result is a smugness that is hard to take, an arrogance that is impossible to accommodate.

    As prayerful contemplation within the Society has decreased, and atheism and agnosticism increased, the Society has become obsessed with social and environmental justice, a spiritual immaturity that ignores the wisdom of giving priority to prayer and meditation. Nothing wrong in social and eco-justice, of course, but there has to be a healthy imbalance between contemplation and action in favour, as I say, of contemplative practice. Thomas Merton is very good on this as I suspect you know already. But sadly, modern Friends are likely to dismiss him because he was Roman Catholic (there is an anti-Catholic bias among Friends) and thus a Christian, an ordained priest and a theologian.

    A corporate decision to recognise, understand and spread The Way (you can’t ‘build’ what is already present) will open many eyes to who we are as individuals, who we are as a corporate body. And It will open us all to working towards eradicating the evil system that oppresses us all, makes us oppressors of others, and despoils the blue miracle upon which we all live and which has given rise to all life as we know it. There is, then, a wonderful (‘One-derful) interconnectedness between The Way, humanity, the Earth and the more-than-human-world, an interconnectedness whose politics and economics comply beautifully with the corporate Testimonies of our Society, Testimonies whose origin lie in the Sermons on the Mount and Plain.

    The Kingdom, who is Unconditional and Unlimited Love, can only love, nothing else. It is not so much concerned with sin, the ‘cross’, and ‘forgiveness’ but simply with Love. if God is indeed such Love there is no need for God to forgive; we forgive ourselves, something which depends entirely on ‘knowing ourselves; as the great seers and sages down the centuries have taught. Our prayer is a way of aligning ourselves with this Unconditional Reality which localises in us all as ‘personal’ consciousness (‘that of God within’). ‘Personal’ consciousness is characteristic of ‘Divine’ Consciousness (= the Kingdom, the Way, the Christ, Inward Light, Presence, Brahman etc.), a localisation of Divine Consciousness. It is who we actually . We Consciousness, we the Light. This localisation, this Light, as long as it is localised in our mortal body, illuminates our distancing from Itself. This distancing is based on ignorance, and the Light shines on our shortcoming in the hope that we can repair the damage done to ourselves. This damage takes many forms, and racism is one of them. Other forms are the systems which fuel racism, and, in reality, we can only work individually and collectively—and hopefully with a great deal of patience and persistence—to eradicate these systems from the inside because we cannot go outside them.

    1. Thanks for reading Gerard. You’ve written a very long comment, and I won’t respond to all of it. In relation to the content of the blog post, you and I have very different understandings of God and God’s relationship to sin. Your understanding of God seems to be detached from any one particular story. For me, the God of Jesus Christ is the God described in the Biblical narrative. The God of this narrative is very much concerned with sin and forgiveness. The cross is an absolutely central symbol for understanding who this God is.

      I also disagree with your emphasis on the now-ness of the Kingdom. I find it more helpful to see the Kingdom as something we can anticipate, something we can taste in the present, but its fullness is still ahead of us. I think a too present-focussed understanding of the Kingdom neglects its relational nature. The Kingdom isn’t fully present for one until it’s fully present for all. To quote James Cone, no one is free until we’re all free. In a similar vein, I can’t see forgiveness as being restricted to something we bestow upon ourselves. Forgiveness (like sin) is relational. We forgive one another. And I think God does forgive, because God is not indifferent to injustice.

  7. Last paragraph, line 9 should read “It is who we actually are. We are Consciousness, we are the Light.’ Something has happened in the posting.

  8. Hi Mark, Perhaps I didn’t explain myself too well; the following excerpt from my upcoming book “Consciousness” (slightly amended to suit this post) may help to explain myself better vis-a-vis Jesus, the Kingdom and Divine Consciousness:

    “Our understanding so far has Consciousness as the all-pervading Mind who, as ever-Presence, is complete, aware, unlimited, sharing, creative, simple, unifying, pure potential and intention, loving and therefore ‘personal’. By ‘personal’ I don’t mean an anthropomorphised Being, a transcendent superhuman ‘out there’ or up in a literal place called ‘heaven’. As we’ve seen, ‘out there’ does not exist. The ‘out-there’ god, the Sistine Chapel image, is a chimera, a naïve representation of the ‘Something Else’ who is real, particularly as beauty in all its forms, and in our empathy and agape towards ourselves and others. This Cosmological Presence never ceases to translate as our Centre, our Reality, as Consciousness. In this way, It helps us comprehend better the directly relational nature of Love who is always with us—gentle and freeing. We are never alone.

    “The biblical Greek word, prosopon, helps us to appreciate more this relational and liberating Love. Theologically, it means we can meet Love ‘face-to-face’. In Mark 8:22-26, for example, when the Gospel Jesus ‘cures’ a blind woman, the first ‘face’ the woman ‘sees’ is that of Love. She is ‘cured’ because of her faith and trust in the assuring ‘attendingness’ of Love that comes to her through Jesus whose own love went to the heart of what it was to be Divine. If we remember that sight in the Gospels is often a sign of faith, then the woman’s confidence in Jesus provides her with in-sight into the Presence. Once she really ‘sees’, the sickness of her distancing from The Way-Love, of which her blindness is symbolic, is then cured. Her ‘cure’ involves turning her face towards Love and, in so doing, taking full responsibility for her own sickness, her distancing. More accurately, it involves turning her whole being towards Love, thus assuming responsibility for what had been the directionless state of her spiritual life. The emphasis here is not so much on Jesus but on the response to Love in what is a deeply religious interaction. My use of ‘religious’ from the Latin “religare” signifies a re-binding of that which has been torn asunder. Her relationship to Love-God had been torn asunder and she drew on Love to bind her wounds for healing. Herein lay the miracle.

    Thanks again for your posts,

    many blessings,

    Gerard

  9. I wonder if it helps to define sin as “that which gets in the way between us and God”, which is one definition I have heard. Racism (and homophobia, classism, transphobia, ableism etc.) are all things that get between us and God, whether we understand the word in traditional terms or prefer to talk about the Light, Spirit, the Divine or use some other form of words. If we find that there is that of God in each of us – or, as in traditional Christianity, that Jesus can be seen in the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, the ill and the oppressed – any discriminatory attitude that gets between us and other people also prevents us from seeing that of God in them, and from learning from their spiritual insights.
    A member of my Meeting who died years ago used to say that the besetting sin of Quakers is smugness. I think he had a point.

    1. Thanks Kathleen, for reading and commenting. Yes, I think that’s a helpful definition of sin. Related to that might be the idea of ‘loving that which is not God’, which to me suggests a closing off, because God is infinitely expansive. Sin is to do with restriction, or setting limits on Love.

  10. Hi Mark, thanks for another thoughtful post.

    When I reflect on this though I find myself somewhat lost in the woods. Surely whatever we think sin may best be understood as it must carry with it the possibility of repentance? Indeed you make the point eloquently in your closing. What does repentance here look like?

    Historically large social inequities, whether they be to do with race, class, or sexuality, have best been challenged by open and clear speech that aims at, and hopes for, a better future. Moreover since the time of Fox this has been a truth of the Quaker story.

    It may be I am misunderstanging your point, but I fail to see how a public lament our own personal lack of purity will help. The self falliglation of publically declaring that ‘I too am a sinner, I acknowledge my priviledge, and as such will now remain quiet’ seems unproductive in solving inequity. Moreover it also a peice of self indulgent moralising (one characteristic of the worst excesses of Christian puritanism) where without making any real practical change we get to assert our purity by empty guesturing: ‘hear me, I acknowledge my whiteness, my maleness, my Europeanness, my strightness, my middle classness, my meat eating, my consumerism, hear me… (aren’t I good)’.

    Augustine’s error was not in identifying sin as a problem but in thinking that sin defined us; that view of human nature led Christianity to a very bad place, and I for one, am ill-disposed to seeing it return there. Inequity is something we must battle out there, spending all our time in here won’t help.

    1. Thanks for reading Sam. I think you have misunderstood my post. I’m definitely not advocating that we just acknowledge our sin but do nothing about it. Speaking from my own experience, accepting myself as a sinner brought freedom – it freed me to act without needing to justify myself. Before this acceptance, my concern was with being a ‘good person’, being seen as such, and ameliorating my own feelings of guilt; afterwards, that self-centred motivation has fallen away. I can act without a concern for my own standing in the eyes of others. I keep meeting people who are acting out of an all-consuming guilt, and it doesn’t need to be that way. Of course inequity is something that needs to be battled out there, and the inner work is part of that too.

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