What I have Learned about Racism

Jeff Kisling

I am speaking from my personal experience.  I do not claim to be an expert on this issue, but I have been blessed with a number of experiences related to this recently.  I hope my experiences might be of use to you.  I feel it is essential for Friends’ own spiritual integrity to address this now.

Four years ago I was struggling for ways to address racism in my own life.  I had become increasingly upset by the privileges I have in our society based solely on the color of my skin, and denied others based on theirs.  The lack of diversity in the Midwest means these issues often seem removed from our daily lives, and is also the reason it can be more of a challenge to address them.  Friends are often bewildered when they are challenged about their privilege.  We have hundreds of years of history of building these privileges into our societies, and being taught that this is how things should be.  This is what systemic racism is, and what is meant by unlearning racism.

The Quaker approach is the key to my experiences.  I could not find the answers I was seeking by my usual methods of reading, or from stories other people had to share.  I am now grateful for this, because that forced me to pay much more attention to the Inner Light.  I found what my grandmother, Lorene Standing, said to be true, that God often reveals his will in a series of small steps.  My spiritual orientation changed as I began to depend on the Inner Light to guide me into these new experiences.  My new normal became “what do we do now?”.

I found the Inner Light had a lot to say, I just had to pay much closer attention.  One important thing I realized was I often translated what I was hearing into my existing world view.  Since that view was flawed (for example, related to privilege), I was often corrupting the message.  I began to learn to trust what I was hearing and stop making it conform to what I thought I knew.

The path the Inner Light led me down related to racism started about four years ago.  I was deeply involved in the environmental activist movement, mainly through the Keystone Pledge of Resistance.  At that time various environmental groups would organize national days of education or action to try to raise awareness about our environmental crisis.  These things were organized via the Internet.  When I learned of an upcoming day of action, I looked to see where something in Indiana was occurring, and the only event was at a place I’d never heard of, the Kheprw Institute (KI).  I was led to attend that event.  I found an old building that had previously been a convenience store in an inner city neighborhood in Indianapolis.  But it was full of young, black kids enthusiastically showing us their aquaponics system and rain barrel making enterprise as ways they were working for the environment.

I was intrigued, and wanted to learn more.  They did have a web page, but the only contact information was an email address.  On the web page I saw one of their projects was “Open Source Activism”, to develop computer applications to support activism.  Being a computer programmer, I thought this would be the way for me to connect with KI.

I sent an email message indicating that I would like to be involved with that, but did not receive a reply.  I was thinking this was not meant to be, but this was one of those times when the Inner Light was not going to let me give up, so after a couple of weeks, I sent another email message.   After some time, I received an offer to meet at KI.  I arrived on my bicycle on a dark, rainy evening, to find the same group of about a dozen kids in their early to late teens, and KI’s leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Miss Fair, and Alvin.

After some greetings, we all sat down, and I thought we would talk about programming languages and projects.  Instead everyone looked at me, and Imhotep said, “Tell us about yourself.”  I talked a little about being concerned about the environment and working with the Keystone Pledge of Resistance, and my work at Riley Children’s Hospital.  “Tell us some more.”  So I mentioned I was a Quaker, and Miss Fair enthusiastically talked about Quakers and the Underground Railroad.  When she stopped, everyone looked at me.  I said something along the lines of how grateful I was that my ancestors had done that work, but Quakers try to not take credit for things they personally hadn’t done.

Which led me to talk more about how Quakers didn’t see religion as something only involving listening to a sermon once a week, and left me at the point where I needed to provide an example from my own life.  Since KI is built on concern for the environment, I spoke of how I had reluctantly purchased a used car for $50 when I moved to Indianapolis, mainly for trips home to Iowa.  Car rental was not common in the early 1970’s.  When my car was totaled several years after that, I decided to see if I could live in the city without a car, and have since then.  I was hoping that would show how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel God is telling them, into how they actually live their lives.  At that point Imhotep, with a smile on his face, said something like “Thirty years?  You are a warrior.”  I had never been called a warrior before.  It seemed a humorous term to use for a pacifist (and I suspect that was his intention now that I know him better) but I liked it.

I have since learned that Imhotep is very good at drawing stories out of people.  So again he said, “OK, tell us some more.”  I finally realized, and should have anticipated, that this was actually an interview to see if I was going to fit in, and the usual surface information wasn’t going to be adequate.  I remember everyone looking expectantly at me, and I wondered what to say next.  I also clearly remember the Inner Light telling me what I needed to do then.   I said “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone” and I turned to each person and said “that includes you, and you…” The first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “Ok, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?” And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic YES, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it intentionally.  At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”.   I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit among us.

That finally seemed to satisfy the questioning.  This was a real revelation to me, how it is important to express spiritual matters as well as you are able when the situation calls for it.  (It is also important NOT to do so when the situation does not call for it.)  And to be alert for those possibilities, and how the Inner Light guided me through that evening.  That set the tone for my involvement with KI since that night, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Because the relationships and experiences at KI over these past several years are how I began to understand racism, and how I can respond.  The crucial, essential first step for a white person is to find some way, anyway, to develop friendships with people of color.   Not (just) attend meetings and vigils, but become friends.   We are all children of God, and I have been so blessed to be connected with these children.

It is by sharing our lives and our stories with each other that a way forward together is revealed to us. 

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