My Quakerism Will Be Feminist and Anti-Racist or It Will Be Bullshit

[Content warning: this post discusses sexual assault, micro-aggressions, victim-blaming, and 'progressive' sexism and racism].

Just over a year ago, Flavia Dzodan wrote a incisive piece for Tiger Beatdown. In it, she calls out mainstream feminism for the rank hypocrisy of claiming to work for the betterment of all women while refusing to stand up for, listen to, respect, and welcome women of color and other marginalized women. She said MY FEMINISM WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WILL BE BULLSHIT!

I can relate.

Not because I'm a woman of color who has to put up with a steady stream of micro and macro-aggressions from white people who claim to be my allies. I'm not a woman of color, and the intersectionality I have to deal with is a very different sort.

But I know what it's like to be part of a movement that congratulates itself for its egalitarianism and dedication to social justice out of one side of its mouth while belittling and silencing me out of the other. I know what it's like to put up with a steady stream of micro and macro-aggressions from people who think equality is all well and good until they have an opportunity to use their size, age, gender, and the timber of their voice to cow me into submission. I know what it's like to look around a gathering at a sea of white faces and listen to someone congratulate us on how 'inclusive' we are.

Yeah. I know all about what that's like. I'm a Quaker.

It's exhausting, is what it's like. It's having to keep my guard up all the time; having to suffer hypocrisy in silence; having to live every day knowing that the love and acceptance I get from my faith community is conditional on that silence.

I have known for a long time that my silence on these issues does not serve God. I have prayed for the strength to live my witness, but I haven't found it yet. When Quakers say 'speak truth to power,' rarely do they mean they want you to speak your truth to their power. I don't think I'll know whether I'm actually going to say it this time until I hit 'publish.'

But here it is--this is my truth. I feel the presence of God in my heart, and he has asked me to say: my Quakerism will be feminist and anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

And so will yours.

One year, two of my meeting's regular attenders--a young couple of color--decided to use our first-time attender coupons to check out our Yearly Meeting's annual sessions. They came back the week after to report that practically every conversation they'd had started with the other party wanting to talk about 'diversity' and brag about their personal progressive credentials. One of them called it the "Oh My God, You're Black!" conversation. We offered them sympathetic laughter.

They stopped attending Meeting shortly after that, and joined a nearby church.

I don't blame them.

I heard a white Friend compare a space for Quakers of Color to apartheid once.

I'm not kidding.

I've also heard white Friends use the term 'reverse racism' as if that's a real thing that exists in the real world.

When we refuse to respect and believe the lived experiences of people of color in our communities, we are contributing to a system of structural violence that lifts white people up at the expense of people of color. It's not ok. It's not just. It's not honest. It's not God's will. And it's Not Quaker.

So my Quakerism will be anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

When I was a teenager, I was sexually assaulted at a Young Friends conference.

I was asleep at the time, and I never spoke up about it because I was half-convinced I'd dreamt it. Years later, I was going through another Friend's old conference photos, and there it was, like a punch in the gut: a picture of an older Young Friend with his hand up my shirt, while I was asleep. And around us, a room full of other Friends--some of them adults--going on about their business as if nothing was happening.

The young friend in question went on sexually harassing me until we were both well past our high school days. Eventually he assaulted me again--while I was awake, that time. Once I'd had a few days to process that, I decided I was officially through with being anywhere near him. Mutual Quaker friends of ours have told me that it's a personal conflict between him and me, and they don't want to be involved.

Or they've just told me to stop saying mean things about their friend. That happened too.

I wish that I could trust the larger Society of Friends--my meeting, my yearly meeting--to help me heal that bleeding wound in my heart, but I can't. I've been around Quakers long enough to know what will happen. Some people will be sympathetic, but reluctant to 'take sides.' Others will ask me, in concerned voices, if it's possible that I led him on, and he didn't realize. Others will demand proof, and in its absence (I don't have that photo), they'll insinuate that I'm a liar. Others still will just weaponize my story and add it to the arsenal they level at Young Friends when trying to paint them as irresponsible and incapable of running their own community. (For the record, the current generation of Young Friends were in grade school when this happened).

My community's love and acceptance is conditional on my silence, and I'm tired of it. My Quakerism will be feminist or it will be bullshit.

When I was serving as clerk of my meeting, there was an incident at the rise of worship one day. A male attender tried to kiss the female attender next to him. She told him no. A few minutes later, when I invited Friends to share their prayer requests, he held forth at length about how Quakers are too 'prudish' and 'uptight.'

I was the clerk. I should have said something. Instead, I thought of what happened when I tried to speak up for my own physical and emotional boundaries, and sat silently seething while he passive-aggressively upbraided her for exercising her right to decide who touches her, and how.

No one else said anything, either.

At this year's Annual Sessions, an older, larger Friend approached me while I was alone, in the dark. He took a threatening stance and took me to task for helping another group of Friends stand up for themselves in a manner he took personally. He called me immature, and an embarrassment, and when I refused to apologize, he used his size and the timber of his voice to frighten me into silence.

These stories may seem like little things, on their own. These two men probably didn't even think about the fact that they were using their masculinity to threaten. I'm sure they didn't think of their actions as acts of violence. But they were. Those little aggressions add up, and they build a community in which women are not safe, let alone respected equals.

I'm tired of living in that community. My Quakerism will be feminist or it will be bullshit.

A few years ago, a Friend posted a sexist video on Facebook. One of those 'funny' college-humor style jokes where the 'punchline' is "hahaha women are lying bitches, am I right?"

I responded, "Wow. That's really sexist."

He told me that he and I would have to 'agree to disagree' about that, because his wife thought it was funny.

If that was the end of it, I probably would have brushed it off. But it wasn't the end of it.

A friend of his who'd never met me--and who identifies as a Quaker--jumped into the comments. He posted a 'translation' of my comments, complete with caveman-style grammar, suggesting that I was offended because I was just like the women in the video (which is to say that I, like them, must be an emotionally immature, passive-aggressive liar). I tried to engage with him about sexism and micro-aggressions; he called me a 'little girl' (I was an adult out of college), and told me that sexism didn't exist. When I asked for an apology, our mutual friend (the one who'd posted the video) asked us both to take it off his facebook page because he didn't want to see us arguing.

I guess asking him to stand up to his buddy for being a sexist jackass who blatantly disrespects women he's never met was too tall an order.

I stopped going to meeting, after that.

I didn't even tell my friend how deeply he hurt me. I still haven't, because I suspected our friendship wouldn't survive that conversation (though he's probably going to see this, so I guess he has a chance to prove me wrong). I just stopped going to his meeting. And shortly after that, I stopped going to my own.

There are extenuating circumstances. I've got a health situation that can make it hard for me to get out into the world. But even on Sunday mornings when I wake up pain-free and don't have a hundred other things to catch up on, I don't go. I contemplate the exhausting notion of facing more micro-aggressions amidst a community that claims to be dedicated to justice and equality, and I just stay home.

It's not all Quakers. There are many wonderful Friends in my life who work very hard to recognize their own privileges and decolonize their minds of the racism, sexism, ableism, and other brands of injustice that we're all poisoned with from birth. But the Religious Society of Friends--the people once called the Friends of the Truth--are supposed to be dedicated to justice as a whole. We are supposed to answer God's call to listen deeply, to think critically, to improve ourselves, and thereby improve the world. It's very difficult for me to be around Quakers who aren't doing that.

Because it's become a leading, for me. My Quakerism will be feminist and anti-racist or it will be bullshit.

EDIT TO ADD: I've written two follow-up posts on this subject: part one and part two. In Part Two, I discuss a basic step that Friends can take towards building a more inclusive and welcoming community: acknowledge the privilege to walk away.

A Note On Commenting: I haven't had comments on this blog yet, but if any of my posts are likely to start a conversation, it'll probably be this one. Since this is such a sensitive topic, and especially so for me, this thread is going to be heavily moderated. The following things are specifically not ok:

  1. If I wanted to name names, I would have. Please don't ask, don't speculate, and if you already know, keep it to yourself.
  2. The following things are not up for discussion:
    1. Whether or not sexual assault survivors have a responsibility to name and shame.
    2. Whether or not what happened to me was 'really' assault.
    3. Whether or not I'm telling the truth.
    4. This also isn't the place for an introductory-level discussion about the basics of racism and sexism, and how they affect racial and gender minorities. If you are new to the idea that racism and misogyny are still alive and well in our society, here are a few resources to get you started:
      1. Mary Anne Mohanraj gets you up to speed, Part I
      2. Resist Racism: Racism 101
      3. Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog
      4. Shakesville-- The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck

Writing this post has taken a lot out of me. In fact, contemplating putting this up and linking to it where other Quakers--including the Quakers I've just refused to name--will see it has pretty much taken all I've got to give at the moment.

So in order to make it possible for me to post this, a F/friend has agreed to step in and help me moderate comments. Here is the comment policy. If your comment breaks those rules, or the ones stated above, she is going to clean it up with the Squeegee of Gentle Eldering. And if you take this conversation somewhere she can't moderate it--to my email, or twitter, facebook, g+, etc-- for the purpose of violating the boundaries I've laid out here, please be prepared for that to be the end of any relationship you and I have.

All comments are subject to my Comment Policy.
Posted on October 25, 2012 .