Anti-racist Practices to Share:
Noticing Patterns of Oppression and Faithfulness
by Antonia Saxon, with Cai Quirk & Sarah Way
Last month, a group of New York Yearly Meeting Friends attended a workshop via Zoom held by the Center for the Study of White American Culture. The workshop, “Transforming White Organizational Culture,” helps organizations which are predominantly White take steps toward confronting racism in their workplaces. The workshop provides space for participants to look critically at institutional conventions familiar to educated White people. In church-affiliated organizations, these may range from closely governed scheduling and the assumption that everybody finds technology accessible and comfortable (like the web-based app with which this article was written) to valuing tangible gifts such as administrative and financial competence over less quantifiable spiritual gifts such as healing or empowerment.
The workshop also focuses on the small, daily interactions (“microaggressions”) that can seem insignificant to those who are White, but stay with those who are Black and Brown—interactions that cause repeated harm and can build up to intolerable levels. Casual asides, teasing, and remarks that assume that everybody in the group shares a common experience—a college education, a savings account—can have the effect of excluding, and even shaming. So can awkward questions asked of new people (“But where are you from really?”).
Friends mean to be kind. Friends mean to be inclusive. More White Friends are becoming aware of the way that their good intentions do not mean that their words do no harm. The speaker may not have meant harm, but it is the listener who gets to say where the harm is, not the speaker.
Friends are perpetually rediscovering and redefining what it means to extend grace to others. Older Friends may have grown up in an era where brusque language and jokes from parents, coaches and bosses were considered normal, to be shrugged off. But language changes, and behavior changes. Now it must change again.
Within the Society of Friends, these practices are not about politeness. Though they may seem political, the concern is deeper than that. This is work that is rightly ordered in the Spirit. When Friends are excluded, it is not just those who are excluded who suffer damage. The excluders also suffer harm. When we exclude others, we cannot be fully in community with a body that reflects Spirit’s infinitely loving embrace.
In breakout rooms during the CSWAC workshop, Friends from NYYM shared experiences that taught them to look at these interactions with new attention. This gave rise to a conversation about how to bring anti-racist awareness and practices to the larger body. How do we make Friends aware of these moments respectfully, without putting them on the spot?
In 2018, New England Yearly Meeting united with the following minute: “Develop a practice to appoint people who will observe, name, and reflect back to us long-standing, (unseen) patterns and practices that result in our complicity in oppression.” During yearly meeting gatherings, Elders for Noticing Practices of Oppression and Faithfulness (neym.org/news/noticing-patterns-oppression-faithfulness) listen for moments in which Friends are erased, ignored, or not heard. Elders notice ways that their own bodily sensations and connection to Spirit led them to be able to call other Friends “in” rather than out, to name their own experiences and reactions to exchanges. At the end of the gathering, they are given time to read out observations they have made. A passage from an article by one of these Elders (neym.org/sessions/news/noticing) gives a sense of the kinds of noticing they do:
"I heard 'weighty' Friends make hurtful jokes about things like getting consent before touching another; about people who have hearing loss; about the inconvenience of Spanish language translators. I watched Friends who hold powerful positions in the Yearly Meeting falsely deny their own power. I saw Brown and Black Friends hurt by comments that said “we” this and “us” that, that didn’t actually include them and their experiences. I heard repeated assumptions of financial and educational privilege that were hurtful to Friends from working class backgrounds, and those whose experiences were not reflected in these assumptions. I heard people talk about the safety and sanctuary of our Quaker community in ways that do not reflect the experience of a Black Friend who felt the need to leave Sessions rather than endure another day of the micro (and macro) aggressions that White Friends deny or downplay or excuse. I learned during the week that noticing is like a muscle, in that the capacity to do so increases dramatically with use."
Can New York Yearly Meeting Friends develop these practices of observing and noticing? Can we adopt the practice of Noticing Patterns of Oppression and Faithfulness, or something like it? Join us as we begin this conversation.
—Antonia Saxon, with Cai Quirk & Sarah Way