Quaker whiteness

In Britain, most Quakers are white. A far smaller proportion of us is BAME, Black, Asian and minority ethnic, than the population. What can we do to change that?

In my last Anglican parish, the vicar worked hard to include Afro-Caribbean people. The church warden was Afro-Caribbean, as were half the choir, and people came to my church from all over the borough. The BNP was rampant there at the time, and the vicar may have saved one member from involvement with them. And still, at church socials, usually black and white people sat at different tables. Coffee after the Eucharist was mostly white.

For me, Yearly meeting is like a colossal party. I shed my radiance on many people there, and on leaving was stopped for two hugs of beautiful warmth and togetherness. I am grateful. There are many people there whom I have worshipped with over the years, and made connection, but also I can go up to someone I do not know and start a deep conversation, thoughtful, playful, sharing, truthful. Heart meets heart. A thousand people in Friends House might suit the more extrovert of us, and I see some reserved folk whom I know only by reputation, powerful intellects, equally deeply feeling but not showing that as profligately as I do.

I stayed with a local Friend who volunteered to put up Friends from elsewhere. On Sunday night I went to worship at eight, and heard the buzz of conversation down below ebb away. I felt it enriched our silence. I went back on the Tube, and on the platform was recognised by a Friend. Three of us talked in the car, and I enthused about Yearly Meeting Gathering last year. It was like a party, I said. And the man of Asian heritage asked, “Why is this different?”

A day after that conversation I was doubting my interpretation of his question, and two days after my doubts increase, but I remember my certainty of the meaning that evening. It would be impertinent for me to speak for him, and this was my impression: that while YM in London may be more intense than YMG, more focussed on the meeting for worship for business, for him there was not that ease of moving into groups, hearing and being heard, togetherness, a relaxation and removal of masks more profound than alcohol could ever achieve- and part of that was white racism. White people there were not interacting with him in quite the same way as with other white people. We are great apes, with fifty million years of primate evolution behind us, and dividing up others into in group and out group is hard to shed completely.

I love to be with people who are like me.
Who is like me?
How can I expand my understanding of “who is like me”?

There are a lot of us queers in BYM, possibly more than in the general population, and much of the reason is the welcome we get. Quakers are alive to HoBiT- homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (maybe less so to biphobia) and have worked against it. Our support for equal marriage is a powerful witness. I am Quaker because I am trans- I might have found the Society if I had not wanted to transition, but as it was I was a stranger and you took me in. One answer might be to find some equivalent principled work that we could do to serve BAME people, though it is hard to see an example. And supporting equal marriage does not just benefit us queers, but the whole Society: we are all enriched when more voices are heard.

I am aware of the working class origins of many Quakers, but generally because people have told me their histories. About three quarters of us have at least one degree, and many regional accents are moderated or even expunged. We are more homogenous than we should be. There is that of God in every one, and you do not need a degree to hear it in yourself, or feel that spiritual connection with All that we so value. There are people inspired by the Spirit who would enrich us, if they could find us and we could welcome them.

I am an aspiring ally to disadvantaged groups, because I am trans and it behoves me to see other oppressions beyond my own. Yet I am not speaking as an ally here. An ally would say, what barriers are we white people erecting to make it harder for us to connect to others? Speaking as a white person, wanting the good of white people, I ask, how can we hear other voices, expanding our understanding of truth, and enriching our knowledge of God?

4 thoughts on “Quaker whiteness

  1. I guess Quakers in Aotearoa New Zealand are no more representative of the population than Quakers in the UK. I know this a concern among Friends here – Māori in particular are very much under represented. We tend to be middle income, educated Pakeha, with a high proportion of members and attenders who are involved in academia. I’m not able to attend the nearest meeting die distance and health reasons but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any non-Pakeha in attendance apart from when my daughter has accompanied me.

    I’m nit sure if it’s because Quakerism doesn’t have much in the way of pomp and ceremony or highly ritualised spirituality, or whether that lack of diversity among current membership is a turn off for those belonging to other ethnicities. On the other hand, there does seem to be a higher representation of the LGBTQI+ community than in the general population.

    I seem to recall reading that small groups tend to be more homogeneous than large groups, and as there’s only around 1500 members and attenders combined throughout the entire country, perhaps the current makeup is inevitable.

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    • Often, our worship will suit introverts, and introversion itself is not cultural, though whether it is valued over extraversion is. There are other cultural matters at work. I went to an enquirers’ day when I was an enquirer, where a woman said her comparative low intelligence did not prevent her from valuing Meeting, but again our internal culture in some meetings might put such a person off.

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      • Yes we do seem to present as being reserved and even stodgy, which no doubt is a turnoff for many from a more vibrant culture. I feel they are judging a book by it’s cover, but if it’s only the cover that is the deterrent, perhaps we should provide a different cover?

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        • It might depend where you meet someone. If at a demonstration, we might talk about what we love. Before meeting, some meetings are very quiet and contemplative, but at mine we chat in the porch before worship. That can be welcoming, even if sometimes I feel a need to descend to worship more gradually.

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