Category Archives: oppression

“Meet Others on Equal Ground”: A Slogan Post

I started my day by reviewing comments I’d made on a facebook friend’s post to see if I’d been contributing to anti-blackness (anti-blackness is a more nuanced term for prejudice against people with dark skin; this term includes concepts of racism and colorism). The discussion was a challenging one; this friend was calling out white Jewish people who attempt to deny their prejudice against black people by saying they’re not white, they’re Jewish. This friend is black and had been hurt by pale-skinned Jewish people in the past.

This kind of conversation has many layers of prejudice that can be in play at any time. As someone involved in “social justice work”, when I come to a conversation, how do I “meet others on equal ground”?

To me, this means I need to be aware of the privileges I bring to any interaction and try to limit the effects of those privileges. 

My ethnicity is half Armenian and half European, but I have white privilege, which is why I’ve started openly identifying as white online. My dad’s family’s culture may not always be white American, but in interactions with the public, in general, I am given the benefit of white privilege. So, in conversations with black people, I try to “check” my white privilege. What does this mean? What does “checking your privilege” mean? It means that I do my best to make sure I’m not coming from a place of assumed superiority in interactions. It means I’m willing to listen and let them lead the conversation. It means, in short, doing what I can to reduce the effects of my privilege for this conversation by not claiming the power white people generally have in interactions with black people. It means doing my best to meet them on equal ground while being aware that society has done its best to prevent that ground from being equal. 

That’s one example. Another privilege I have is neurotypical privilege. This is something I am still learning about. But in interactions with autistic people, I try to give them the space to control the interaction. Or at least accept that my perception of a social interaction may be vastly different than theirs, and that theirs is no less valid than mine.

This leads me to another aspect of meeting others on equal ground: the acceptance of their truth as real, even if their truth is completely different than my own experiences. On another blog, I wrote about how disabled people are often questioned and doubted about the validity of our experiences as disabled people. About how “I believe you” can be life-changing for us to hear, because we exist in a constant challenge to prove our health conditions are real (particularly those of us with conditions that primarily affect women, such as fibromyalgia). 

This need for lived experiences to be believed is not unique to disabled people, however; as this article shows, black people also are routinely doubted and questioned when they share their lived experiences of racism. I believe that any marginalized/oppressed group will have similar experiences; that when a marginalized group tries to explain how their marginalization affects their lives, that people who aren’t part of the group, who have no experiences that match those, will tend to express skepticism.

This is also a way of the non-oppressed group to exert its control. “Oh, racism is over, thus we white people don’t need to change anything or do anything differently because you black people are just exaggerating.” “Oh, your pain can’t be that bad. I’d kill myself if I had to live your life.” “There are gay couples in TV and movies now; what do you mean representation is still a problem?” “Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, so clearly transgender people are now accepted by society.”

Etc. Denying the experiences of an oppressed group can be a method of abuse called gas-lighting

We need to listen. We need to be sure we’re not contributing to oppression in our interactions with people who are oppressed (and oppressed people, we are not blameless here; just because we’re oppressed in one way doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the oppression of other groups). “Meeting others on equal ground” may not always be possible. We may have internalized prejudices, or they may (yup, oppressed people often end up believing the stereotypes about their group; disabled people can have internal ableism, etc.). We may not be able to fully equalize the ground we’re meeting on; in fact, chances are, in a meeting between an oppressed person and a member of the oppressing group, we won’t be able to reduce the effects of our privilege enough to have it be a fully equal conversation.

But the first step has to be listening. It has to be believing the “other”, whoever that “other” may be, when they tell us about their life experiences that are different than ours. (For example, if a black person is telling a white person about a negative interaction they’ve had with police, that the white person’s positive interactions with the police does not negate the black person’s experiences or mean that they are seeing racism where there isn’t any. It means that they, as a black person, have had a difference experience than the white person has. That experience is no less valid just because that person is black while we are white.)

We need to accept that being aware of differences is not the same thing as being prejudiced. Because those differences matter, and the differences are not what’s bad–it’s the discrimination and oppression that is. And if we aren’t aware of this, we may never have the opportunity to meet someone from a different social group on truly equal ground.

“Meet others on equal ground”. When the ground that society has laid out isn’t equal, how do our interactions support or lessen this inequality? In what ways do we deny the truth of others different than us? In what ways are we supporting and empowering others? In what ways are we failing?

As a Quaker and a Buddhist, today’s slogan is a challenge, and one I know I need to keep working on. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under buddhism, discernment, equality, oppression, practice, racism, slogans, speak and listen with love

About “All Lives Matter”

Imagine a friend asking you, “My life matters to you, right?”

What would your response be? Would it be, “Well, yes, your life matters to me, my life matters to me, all lives matter to me.” How do you think this response would make your friend feel? Do you think it would make them feel like you cared about them?

Or would you respond, “Of course your life matters to me. Why do you ask?”

When I first read the slogan, “Black Lives Matter”, that was my response. My response wasn’t dismissive of the statement by saying “all lives matter”. It was acceptance: of course black lives matter. And then, I wondered why black people felt the need to make this statement?

  • When African American children are three times more likely to live in poverty than Caucasian children;
  • when unemployment rates for African Americans are typically double those of Caucasian Americans;
  • when African American men working full time earn 72 percent of the average earnings of comparable Caucasian men and 85 percent of the earnings of Caucasian women;
  • when 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police;
  • when Black Americans are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for selling drugs and 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for possessing them;
  • when one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males;
  • when African-Americans with college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed as other graduates;
  • when the unemployment rate among blacks is about double that among whites;
  • and when whites with felony records fare as well in job interviews as African American men with clean records…

The message black people receive from American society is pretty clear: No, they don’t matter. The fact that the statement “black lives matter” even generates a response at all is an indication of how uncomfortable American society is with the idea that black lives might actually matter. Because if black lives truly mattered to us, we would care about mass incarceration. We would care about redlining. We would care about lack of education and job opportunities in primarily-black neighborhoods. We would care about the unarmed black men, women, and children who have been killed by police because they were deemed “a threat”. Black lives would matter to us. We would be forced to change our society, a society that has benefited many of us.

So, instead, we say “all lives matter”. Because if a friend came to you and asked you if their life mattered to you, you’d say “all friends matter to me”. And then you’d start talking about how much your other friends matter to you, to try to prove to this friend how much they do matter to you. This is what you’d do, right?

 Cute little black girl in pigtails. Text says: Yes, they do. *The only acceptable response to Black Lives Matter*. 


Sources to the statistics listed can be found in a previous post, We Can Do Better.

Leave a comment

Filed under human rights, leadings, oppression, racism, speak and listen with love, testimonies

I’m Not Okay.

I’ve been trying to stay silent about what’s been happening in Missouri.

Because I wasn’t there. Because I don’t know the facts. Because there seem to be no unbiased, perfect perspectives. Because the 18 year old who was shot and killed by police may have had a gun. May not have been totally innocent. 

But you know what? I’m not okay with this. I’m not okay with the idea that a black person has to be totally innocent for people to care they died. I’m not okay with police occupying a neighborhood. I’m not okay with a tank going down an American street.

I’m not okay with crime. I’m not okay with neighborhoods all but abandoned economically, educationally. 

I’m not okay with black people being killed by police who, more often than not, face little to no judicial or employment consequences for the death of a person. I’m not okay with cops fearing for their lives, and I’m not okay with the crimes that makes their jobs necessary. 

I’m not okay with poverty used as a means of controlling groups of people. I’m not okay with redlining, with segregated neighborhoods and schools, with communities who close schools and then open more prisons.

I’m not okay with for-profit prisons. 

I’m not okay with transgender people being murdered and the defense that “they tricked me” is still considered a legal excuse. I’m not okay with trans and LGBQ kids being kicked out of their homes, told they’re going to hell and will be damned, forced into conversion therapy, and rejected by the people whose love matters the most to them–their parents.

I’m not okay with any of this. 

Leave a comment

Filed under compassion, equality, GLBT rights, leadings, lgbt issues, ministry, oppression, racism

“I Can’t Go Back”

(Trigger warning: trans- and homophobia.)

Since that first Sunday after the Charleston Emanuel AME attack, I have attended my local AME church three times. (You can read about my leading to attend here.) My second visit was even more powerful than my first; I visited alone and felt more free to participate in worship. I loved the overwhelming sense of God I felt there and the consistent message from the pulpit to love yourself, but be and do better.

I, quite frankly, began to love that church. I loved the worship. I loved the music. I loved the freedom to give yourself up to God without fear or embarrassment. I loved that there was dancing–in church! I loved the fellowship I felt with people who are quite literally my neighbors. I loved that the services inspired me to rekindle my relationship with Jesus and reminded me of what I found appealing in him in the first place. I loved the energy and the sense of constant praise and wonder at God. I found myself looking forward to the next time I could attend church.

Yesterday was my third time visiting. I felt comfortable with the service now. I could sing along with most of the call-and-response songs. I stood up and swayed to the music. I waved my hands. I was there, and God was there, too. It was a divine celebration of all life had to offer and all we had to be grateful for. When the time came for visitors to stand and introduce themselves, I stood for a second time. The Sister who oversees services saw me standing and said, “Hey, you a regular now.” I felt honored to be so welcomed. But I introduced myself anyway and said, “I know, this is my third time, but I was so nervous the first time I attended I forgot to say my name. It’s [name] and I live over on [street a mile away]. I’m a Quaker, but my Meeting is in Easton, and you all know how beach traffic can be on a Sunday…” Everyone laughed. “So, my hope is to be here when I can’t be there, because I love being here with you all.” Everyone smiled at me, and I felt welcomed. I felt open. I felt safe.

Later in the service, a guest preacher rose to give the sermon. She–and I was so happy to see a female Reverend!–was the sister-in-law of the reverend. The theme of the service so far had been transformation–the title of this post is from one of the songs we sung, “I Can’t Go Back”; and during that song, I was thinking about how I can’t go back to closing my eyes about the truth of racial inequality. I thought about writing a blog post about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and replacing their names with Jesus’s. I thought about how happy I was to be Woke and how much joy it has brought me (pain as well, but the joy had been a surprise, and a lot of that joy came from my attending this church).

And then the guest preacher said (obviously this is not verbatim, as I am relying on my memory here), “God made you who you are, and you have to accept that.”

I nodded, but began to feel on edge. Where was she going with this?

“God made you who you are, and there’s no changing that.”

I felt myself tense.

“Do I need to spell it out for ya? God made man and he made woman, and what he made you, there’s no changing that. You can’t lie with another man as you would a woman. You can’t lie with another woman as you would a man. Accept who you are.”

And I felt my soul turn cold. I felt like God had left the building. I was shocked. I looked around me, hoping to see other parishioners with the same shocked expression on their face. But everyone was applauding or voicing their approval of her words.

I wanted to flee. I wanted out of there. But there was a woman sitting next to me, and I couldn’t leave without causing a scene.

I tried to let go of the painful words and focus on the rest of her sermon. She spoke about “dropping your baggage”. She spoke about “loving who you are, accepting who you are” and “not judging other people because you don’t like the way they dress or look”. She spoke about how we can all be ministers, that there’s nothing special about her that makes her more able to be a minister than the rest of us. She spoke about how none of us is perfect and we all make mistakes. She spoke about the danger of gossip. But most of her sermon was about loving and accepting who God made you to be.

The thing is, God made me bisexual. God made me agender. And neither of those is an affliction I need to be saved from. They are part of who I am. They are part of who God has made and called me to be.


I was trapped in that church for an hour more before I could sneak out and leave. I tried to find the joy I had felt just moments ago, but it was not there. God wasn’t there anymore for me. When the parishioners were called to the altar to proclaim their faith, I stayed in my pew and began to cry.

The truth is, I loved this church. I loved worshiping with them so much. But now I know that I can’t go back.

On the short ride home, my husband immediately noticed something was wrong. Normally, I am exuberant after these church services; I’m excited to tell him how it affected me. This time, I was silent for a few moments; and when I began to speak, I started to sob.

I wouldn’t stop sobbing for more than an hour. I could not–and still cannot–understand how someone can preach a message of loving and accepting who you are and at the same time, tell me that part of who I am is an affliction that needs to be healed by God.

“Hate the sin, love the sinner” makes no sense when you become aware that being LGBTQ isn’t an activity one participates in, but a part of who a person IS. A person isn’t gay only when they’re in a same-sex relationship; they are gay if they’re attracted to members of the same sex (and not attracted to members of the opposite sex). And attraction is not a choice. (When did you choose to be straight? is a question no one can honestly answer.)

What people who are LGBTQ hear when you say “hate the sin, love the sinner” is that your love and acceptance of them is conditional and depends on them denying an essential part of who they are… Which isn’t love at all.

And so, as much as I loved worshiping with this church community, as much as I want to go back, I know that “I won’t go back, can’t go back, to the way it used to be”.

4 Comments

Filed under belief, christianity, christians, different faiths, discernment, faith, GLBT rights, leadings, lgbt issues, oppression, racism, worship

Reflections from Discussions on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

A Friend and I organized a discussion series at Third Haven Friends Meeting about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. (See here for a link with information about the discussion series.) What follows are my reflections at the end of the discussion series, written to share with my Meeting.


  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” pg. 6
  • “One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue…” pg 9
  • “Between 1980 and 984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced.” pg. 49-50
  • “When the War on Drugs gained full steam in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, and then increasing steadily until it reach in 2000 a level more than twenty-six times the level in 1983… The number of whites admitted for drug offenses in 2000 was eight times the number admitted in 1983… Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” pg. 98
  • “The racial basis inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men… One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006.” pg. 100
  • “African Americans were more than six times as likely as whites to be sentence to prison for identical crimes… African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.” pg. 118

This is the truth we have been hiding from: that our United States prison systems are mostly full of young African American men; and that they are full not because young African American men are more likely to commit crime, but because they’re more likely to be arrested and incarcerated because of crimes committed. This is particularly the case with the “War on Drugs”, which has been used disproportionately against African American males to imprison them in federal courts with mandatory minimum sentencing, whereas their white counterparts are instead more likely to be tried in state courts, where mandatory minimum sentencing rules may not apply.

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness”, argues that incarcerating young African American males through the “War on Drugs” was done intentionally as a method of control for African American males after the Civil Rights movement. While some may find her premise difficult to believe, what is made abundantly clear in her book are the statistics that show African American males are being imprisoned for the War on Drugs at an obscenely high rate compared to their white male counterparts. For anyone who cares about equality, justice, peace—which I would hope would be all Quakers everywhere—the system has to be changed.

The question then becomes: what can I do? What can we do?

The first step, as always, is education and conversation. Nothing will change if we are unwilling to discuss race in our criminal justice system. We at Third Haven took this first step during our book discussion group on “The New Jim Crow”. L.A. and I will continue to make ourselves available to any who wish to discuss this issue further or who were perhaps unable to attend the discussions. Other recommended books include:

  • “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”, an African American Quaker who was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington;
  • “The Soul Knows No Bars” by Drew Leder, a Baltimore Quaker who teaches philosophy in local prisons;
  • “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights”;
  • and “Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice” by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye;

all of which are available in Third Haven’s library; and “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, about the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to the North and Midwest, which is not available in Third Haven’s library, but is available through the Maryland library system.

But what next? As individuals, there are two kinds of actions we can take: local and federal. Federal actions may include: rallies for social justice, emailing Congress and lawmakers to change the laws that support racism in our justice system. There are several non-profit organizations directly involved in ending mass incarceration and the racism in our justice system. They are:

  • Drug Policy Alliance: See this link for a flier that contains a brief summary of “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race”.
  • Center for Constitutional Rights: They’re the group that sued the NYPD for racial profiling in their Stop & Frisk policies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Since the publication of “The New Jim Crow”, the ACLU has become more involved in ending mass incarceration and racism. See this link for information about marijuana prosecution in Maryland.
  • The Sentencing Project: This group is primarily involved in research about mass incarceration and racism. They’re the group that funds the kind of studies that provide the statistics Michelle Alexander uses in her book.
  • All of Us or None: Supports people in prisons and those released from prison, particularly those with children.

Local actions may include: investigating local policies regarding the War on Drugs, petitioning local agencies to become more aware of racial bias, encouraging venues to sponsor events about the subject, writing letters to the editor, supporting our local prisoners by donating books to the prison library or becoming involved in groups such as Alternatives to Violence, and more.

We can take any of these actions as individuals or collectively, as a Meeting. But what it all comes down to, Friends, is that we must care. We must open our eyes to the racial reality of our society. We must be willing to acknowledge race before we can confront racism. As Michelle Alexander says,

“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was [Martin Luther] King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

8 Comments

Filed under equality, leadings, oppression, racism

Poems

“A Just Being”

Being as just
Being
Sitting to sit
Writing to write
Writing to right
Wrongs left
From
Unseeing
Unfeeling
Believing non-being
Instead of
Just
Being


“Holy Differences”

Wholly different perspectives
Stand their ground
Trip me up
Put motes in my eyes and
Cotton in my ears.

Where is the common ground?
Where is the shift we need to
See the same?

Yet in the differences rests
Diversity, the
Holy harmony of humanity,
That which turns the
Wholly different into
Holy differences.

Leave a comment

Filed under human rights, inspirations, leadings, oppression, poetry, racism, speak and listen with love, that of God

Maitri Practice on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

Today is the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, what has been called the world’s first genocide. In fact, the term “genocide” was coined to describe the events in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 toward the Armenians.

Hitler admired the Genocide and used it to persuade Germany to begin its racial exterminations:

“Thus, for the time being only in the east, I put ready my Death’s Head units, with the order to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of the Polish race or language. Only thus will we gain the living space that we need. Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”

Prior to 1915, there were over a million Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey. Over 800,000 Armenians were killed, and that’s the “conservative” estimate.

I’ve been doing the Buddhist practice of maitri/metta daily now for nearly two weeks. Today I chose to attempt wishing maitri/metta on Talaat Pasha as my fifth stage maitri/metta (this is the stage when you wish wellness on someone you hate or feel aversion towards). Talaat Pasha was the Director of the Interior of Ottoman Turkey during the Genocide. This is the man who bragged about the massacres of Armenians by exclaiming,

“The Armenian problem doesn’t exist anymore.”

He wasn’t the only man responsible for the Armenian Genocide—it’s doubtful whether he actually killed any Armenians himself—but he was instrumental in the organization of their deportation and mass slaughter.

As the time for wishing maitri/metta on Talaat Pasha approached, I felt increasing apprehension. When the time finally came, my body began to shudder and I felt my eyes water.

Talaat Pasha to me during this meditation was not an individual. Not really. After all, he died long ago. Anyone directly involved in the Genocide is almost certainly dead. So what was I doing, attempting to wish him well, happiness, and freedom from suffering?

How much suffering must one face to honestly—fervently—wish the extermination of an entire race of people? How much fear?

And today, as Turkey continues to deny that the “massacres” were a Genocide (they say the Armenians were collaborating with the Russians and that’s why they had to kill all of them), I wonder not only about the effect of an unrecognized Genocide on the race that was killed, but the effect of an unrecognized Genocide on the nation who still denies it. To have something so horrible in your past that you cannot even allow your citizens to openly discuss it (to call the Genocide a Genocide in Turkey is illegal; it’s a “crime against Turkishness”). To live in fear that perhaps one day you’ll be forced to name those actions “Genocide” and the result will be the partition of your country almost in half (Turkish Armenia in Ottoman Turkey was a significant part of the eastern-central geographical block).

So, to Talaat Pasha and all like him, to Armenians who still suffer from this Genocide, to Turks who still deny its reality:

May you be well. May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.

Leave a comment

Filed under buddhism, compassion, cultural integrity, human rights, oppression, practice

Held without Hope

I don’t know where they’ve taken me or why they won’t allow me to call Rob to tell him I’m okay. I don’t know if I am okay, but the thought of Rob worrying about where I am is unbearable. The facility I’m being forced to call home is large and institutional, with lots of plain white walls and green linoleum tiles. The phones are old rotary phones that are apparently more for decorations than use; no matter how many times I try to call Rob, the phone refuses to connect. There are perhaps one hundred women trapped here with me. Each of us has been given our own room, not out of respect for our privacy, but in an effort to keep us from forming bonds. We’re not allowed to talk to each other, even a brief “Hello” results in a reprimand from our supervisors.

It’s made clear to me from the beginning that I am not to be released, that my only chance lies in escape, an escape which necessitates my pretense of acceptance and contentment. The more one shows her unhappiness here, the more notice one receives from the supervisors. The only women who go relatively unnoticed here are the ones who have been broken into accepting that this is what their lives have become.

We are, in a sense, well-cared for. I’m given the medications necessary for controlling my Rheumatoid Arthritis, the food is nutritious; we have access to medical care as needed, fresh water, bathing facilities; we’re even given a job: every day, we make baskets.

But the truth is that we are being held here against our will and without the knowledge of our families. The agony of not only being separated from Rob and our cats, but imagining the despair he (and the cats) must be feeling is soul-crushing. Though I know my chance for escape relies on a content facade, the truth is that I cannot hide my despair. I worry that the only way I’ll be able to put on a content facade is when I’ve forgotten who I am and who I’ve left behind.

________________________________________

When I woke up, the despair of the dream smothered me into tears. My normal routine for dealing with nightmares is to remind myself that it was only a dream and wasn’t real. Yet as I tried to comfort myself, I was struck with a crushing realization: that my nightmare is a reality for so many people around the world.

For Palestinians held indefinitely in Israeli jails whose families are denied access or information. For Muslims who have been detained by our American government that professes freedom at the expense of the rights of those we deem unAmerican. For the illegal immigrants all around the world, who never know when they might be detained and if their families would know. For all of those who’ve been kidnapped from their homes or workplaces to be detained in jails because they had the courage to speak out against an oppressive government or militia.

This was only a nightmare for me. I was able to wake up from the dream, safe and sound in bed with Rob, our cats clustered around us. I was able to let the nightmare fade and move on with my life. But the knowledge that my nightmare is reality for some people broke me open.

After that dream, I can no longer ignore the suffering of those who are held without hope of release. It’s not about guilt or innocence. It’s about suffering.

If my nightmare shook you at all, I urge you to join me in supporting Amnesty International, an organization that fights for the rights of those detained without hope.

May everyone living my nightmare have the chance to wake up and start living again.

Leave a comment

Filed under amnesty international, charities, compassion, dreams, human rights, leadings, oppression

Quaker Wit and Intelligence?

I was bothered by something in August’s Friends Journal, and not bothered in a good “Hey, spend some time thinking about this!” way, but in a “What???” kind of way.

With Quaker wit and intelligence, Minott blends the personal with the political to provide a vivid bird’s-eye view of life in Afghanistan…”

August 2009, Friends Journal, Book Review of “Letters from Kabul: 1966-1968, A Memoir”, page 37

What? What exactly is Quaker wit and intelligence? Look, being witty or intelligent has NOTHING to do with being a Quaker. It certainly isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a defining characteristic. Quaker integrity? Quaker peacefulness? Quaker silence? Yes. Quaker wit? No. Quaker intelligence? No.

Yes, as Quakers, we do a lot of writing and encourage a lot of reading. But does one even have to be literate to be Quaker? No. Communing with the Divine, which is, after, supposed to be the purpose of our Meetings for Worship, doesn’t require wit. It doesn’t require intelligence.

It just requires us to be open. And if we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for our “wit” or “intelligence”, I think we’re missing the point.

(And thanks for Jeanne’s blog on classism issues within Quakerism for opening my eyes enough to be bothered by this.)

Leave a comment

Filed under classism, oppression, quakerism

Bayard Rustin

I’d like to share with you a perspective-changing experience I had a few weeks ago. This experience was so deep and profound that I doubt my ability to share it fully and in an understandable, linear fashion.

The catalyst for this change was the book “Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”. Before reading this book, I had a very simple, trite understanding of what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. I thought the Civil Rights Movement started with Rosa Parks sitting down in the front of the bus, which was illegal because of Jim Crow laws. And then, there were some peaceful protests, Brown vs. the Board of Education and desegregation, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot of speeches and was assassinated, and that was the end of the Civil Rights Movement, which was, of course, mostly successful.

This impression of the Civil Rights Movement was challenged on the first page of “Down the Line”, where I read this:

“Recently I was planning to go from Louisville to Nashville by bus. I bought my ticket, boarded the bus, and, instead of going to the back, sat down in the second seat. The driver saw me, got up, and came toward me.

‘Hey, you. You’re supposed to sit in the back seat.’

‘Why?’

‘Because that’s the law. Niggers ride in the back.’

I said, ‘My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.'”

This was written in 1942, before Rosa Parks. “If what I thought I knew about Rosa Parks was wrong–that she wasn’t the first to sit in the front of the bus–what else am I wrong about?”

The answer: pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Civil Rights Movement was, if not wrong, misleading and over-simplified. And this understanding of the Civil Rights Movement is, frankly, dangerous. If I believe that progress comes in big, gigantic steps over a fairly brief period of time, I’m more likely to give up when the progress I’m fighting for doesn’t happen that quickly. And if most Americans my age have this same understanding of the Civil Rights Movement, we’ll give up too quickly when our ideals don’t come to fruition fast enough, when the big, giant steps don’t seem to be happening. What I learned most from Rustin’s description of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was not a movement of large steps, but a movement of small moments that all merged together to create change. This lesson is particularly important for those of us now engaged in GLBTQ rights, or fighting poverty, or any number of modern rights movements: to stay optimistic because we are making those small steps and not give up because the steps are too small and take too much time.

So much of what Bayard Rustin had to say still holds true today; for example:

“They [what he calls “New York Times moderates”] apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty.”

That was written in 1964. And reading this, knowing where we are today–that trillions of dollars have been spent on war in the last 8 years alone, that at least half of our government spending is “defense” spending, Katrina and the destruction of Section 8 housing that is not likely to be rebuilt–it filled me with such a sense of sadness that what he said over 40 years ago is not only still true today, but even more true today than it was when he wrote it.

On the other hand, reading Bayard Rustin’s writings showed me how far we have come as a country. I grew up in Massachusetts. I’m only 26 years old. I had no conceptual understanding of what the Jim Crow laws actually meant. I knew they had existed; I had read Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” in high school; but none of it was real for me. It was as fantastic as the fantasy books I read. And Rustin’s descriptions of events, protests, being in jail… I became aware of how much progress has been made… and how meaningful it was to have Obama be elected as President when one of the excuses given to prevent blacks from voting had been “You don’t want Martin Luther King to become our President, do you?” (Yes, we do.)

Rustin makes the strong claim that the civil rights movement needed to change from a political movement to an economic movement; that it wasn’t enough to just make it legal for blacks to go to school with whites, etc., but that unless economic opportunities were made equally available, the desegregation law was tepid as an instrument of change. What did it matter if you were allowed to sit in the front of the bus if your state was cutting mass transportation funding or you couldn’t afford the busfare? What did it matter if schools were desegregated if the inner city schools were filled with inner city residents, who were mostly black?

And reading through his eloquent, powerful arguments for economic change (he proposed a guarenteed living wage for every able-bodied man and woman who wanted to work, universal health care, increased funding of mass transportation, liveable public housing and enough of it, etc.) made me sad to know that we still don’t have those things today, that however far we’ve come, we haven’t come that far yet.

Quakers might find the next two quotes to be particularly interesting:

“The peace movement finds itself in a peculiar position. On the one hand, it would like to protect the integrity of its activities and objectives; on the other, it is somewhat unhappy over the fact that the civil rights movement does not openly ally itself with peace efforts…

…thousands of Negroes, in order to rehabilitate themselves, are forced to take a stand beyond morality and exploit the opportunities presented to them by their country’s military involvement. I myself can afford the luxury of drawing those moral lines, but it is more difficult to suggest to people who are hungry, jobless, or living in slums that they turn their backs on opportunities that promise them a measure of economic betterment.

If this attitude on the part of thousands of Negroes horrifies the peace movement, then perhaps the peace movement might well conclude that it must give a large part of its energy to the struggle to secure the social and economic uplift of the Negro community.” (written in 1967)

And:

“Lower class does not mean working class; the distinction is often overlooked in a middle-class culture that tends to lump the two together.

The distinction is important. The working class is employed. It has a relation to the production of goods and services; much of it is organized in unions. It enjoys a measure of cohesion, discipline, and stability lacking in the lower class. The latter is unemployed or marginally employed. It is relatively unorganized, incohesive, unstable. It contains the petty criminal and antisocial elements. Above all, unlike the working class, it lacks the sense of a stake in society.” (also written in 1967)

Speaking of Quakers, Rustin was one, and influences of his faith (our Testimonies) can be found in all of his writings and his actions. He didn’t talk about God much or mention Quakerism often, but his actions were a result of his Quaker faith. He had faith AND practice, and he wrote an enormous amount.

Why do we Quakers not claim Rustin enthusiastically and vocally as one of our own? In my Meeting, it’s George Fox, John Woolman, and Rufus Jones that get talked about. Why don’t we talk about Rustin more? To be fair, I first read about Rustin in a Friends Journal a few years ago. I’m sure I’m not the first Quaker to read Bayard Rustin. But I want to encourage more of us to read his writings.

Writing this has been more difficult for me than I expected. It almost felt like I wanted to write two different posts: one about how reading Rustin affected me, and one about how I wish Quakers would make a bigger deal out of Rustin. I think I’ve said enough about both in this post, but I can’t seem to weave the two of them together. And I know this post is a little disjointed.

But maybe that’s the point: that disjointed doesn’t mean unconnected. Each of those little moments Rustin describes, each time a Quaker speaks about our prejudices and the limits of our perspectives, each time one of us speaks up when being silent would smother who we are, we move forward.

5 Comments

Filed under bayard rustin, books, classism, inspirations, oppression, quakerism, racism, speak and listen with love