No wonder issues of race in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting are in a mess.
I’d read and interviewed and blogged about this on March 23, 2017; but it was brought home to me directly in early June.
That’s a restrained way to put it.
More plainly, I was set upon, ambushed by two persons claiming to be part of the self-styled Philadelphia “Undoing Racism Group,” or URG, as they called it for short.
It began at Pendle Hill in early June, where I was visiting their Young Adult Friends conference, as a specimen Geezer Quaker, before moving on to the Quaker History Roundtable later in the week. It came as a request to hear some “concerns” about my March blog post; I agreed.
It turned out, though, that the two URGers, a white male and female, wanted rather more than to “express concerns” about the post. In a session that stretched to three hours, they declared it was full of racist lies, had damaged their cause, and that it and I were thereby shown to be enablers, even pillars of racist white supremacy.
To set things right, they insisted I must retract the post, publicly apologize for both the text and its headline, and as a sign of real repentance, become a booster of their agenda.
I was unable to meet their demands. For one thing, there are no lies in the post; I stand behind it. For another, URG’s repeated rebuffs in PYM came well before it appeared, as did the turmoil and division that accompanied their efforts. The post may have echoed the questions of some others, for which I am not sorry; it was hardly their source. And I am not moved to become URG’s scapegoat.
While no doubt well-intentioned, I remain doubtful about URG & their work, but won’t repeat the points here, except to note that my own labor on what many call “anti-racism” is continuing, but has developed in other directions, and outside their claimed jurisdiction.
I soon began to sense that this acknowledged unorthodoxy might be my gravest infraction: they seemed to have little if any room for “diversity” of thought or approach; there was but one “side” to their issues, only one acceptable form of words to use about it, and dissent (diversity?) was racist treason.
Nevertheless, I suggested they write up their complaints about the post and send them to the blog’s Comment section –which already included several critical responses.
That offer still stands, but as of today has not been taken up.
This is sad, but not a surprise. They had scoffed, asserting it would be of no use, due to my unfair advantages of “power” and “privilege,” shown by the fact that the blog post had been widely read around PYM.
I challenged these terms: I have no “power” in PYM: I can’t hire or fire anyone; no projects depend on my donations; I’m not on any committees. If a blog post should be widely read there (& many are not), it may influence some readers, but this is never guaranteed.
As for “privilege,” which denotes grants of special advantages or immunities, it’s true this blog brings together forty years of study, reporting, and writing about Quakerism.
Such a body of work may be “special”; it is surely unusual. But nobody “granted” it to me, or thereby withheld it from anyone else. It was acquired one day, one page, one inquiry and experience at a time; and has been shared as widely as way opened. This work has been personally satisfying, but has neither brought wealth nor deterred sometimes loud criticism — as this confrontation, not the first, showed clearly enough. But if it has any influence, then good.
So anyway, when we parted I offered to continue the conversation the next day if they wished, before my departure.
There was no response then, and I left Pendle Hill on schedule, headed 400 miles west to convene the Quaker History Roundtable.
As I drove, the thought came that, if this was an example of how URG dealt with adversity and critique, no wonder it had stirred opposition in PYM, and its prospects seemed cloudy. I also hoped this sad encounter was over.
I’d worked on the Roundtable project for almost two years, and now it was to happen, at the Earlham School of Religion. By June 8, all seemed ready: presenters checked in, the meeting room was in order, the opening dinner served on time. But I had butterflies.
That’s too mild: I was actually quite tense. There was trouble in the air.
When I arrived at ESR, a faculty member told me he’d had a strange call from a student, who had spoken about some upsetting talk with me, and saying she was preparing to “confront” me about it. What, he wondered, was going on?
Good grief. The young woman at Pendle Hill was the ESR student.
I filled him in on the background; he had read the blog post.
We considered possibilities: a picket line outside? I could hardly object to that; how many times had I picketed or vigiled? Hundreds.
But what if there was disruption inside, which has been happening often on college campuses (or so I have read)?
And in PYM sessions as well . . . . In that case, I figured I’d just have to wing it.
When Thursday’s dinner was finished; it was showtime for the opening session. I stacked my plate to be washed, and walked into the meeting room.
And there she was, making her move: putting flyers on all the chairs.
I picked one up. Here it is:
To its credit, the indictment was concise. A couple Friends & I collected them for recycling, but she slipped back in when our backs were turned and deposited another set.
There was nothing for it, I figured, but to go on with the program, not rising to the bait, and see what happened.
This first panel featured two Quaker archivists, who talked avidly about some of the hot outside issues that have made their way into this field: who gets “remembered” in our collections and research? Who gets forgotten, marginalized or ignored? How do we detect our own biases and bring in the work and memory of those who have been left out?
If this sounds arcane, it was not to us. It was more like what politicians call “red meat” for a group of working historians, be they professional or amateur. As the archivists finished, I could sense lots of questions and comments straining to be voiced,
I carried the microphone and handed it first to Betsy Cazden, whose hand was raised. Besides doing pioneering history, Betsy has also clerked a large yearly meeting and an international Friends group. One could fairly call her inclined to a “no-nonsense” approach.
She held up the flyer: “Who is doing this?” She asked, scanning the room. “There’s no name on this. That is not appropriate.”
I was standing next to Betsy, waiting to carry the mike. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Would this be the moment when my long-anticipated Roundtable blew up like a defective rocket on the launching pad?
When the URGer identified herself, Betsy admonished her again, said she would talk to her more later, then turned and asked the archivists a question.
The URGer had misjudged her audience. These were historians, who by training and inclination are devoted to evidence and solid sources as the starting points for serious discussion. But neither were included in the flyer. Asked why not, she said she did not want to help enable anyone unfamiliar with the post to read it. (To denounce it, yes, on cue; but to read what they were to excoriate, no. Noted.)
Which reduced the flyer to no more than printed gossip — and many in this group would have known how sternly the old Disciplines disapproved of what they called such “Defamation & Detraction”, viz.:
“Friends are every where exhorted to maintain a strict watch over themselves and each other against the subtle and mischievous spirit of tale-bearing and detraction — the manifest tendency of which is to lay waste the unity of the body, by sowing the seeds of disesteem, strife, and discord among brethren and neighbours . . . .”
Betsy did speak to her later. And the URGer did not return after that first session; no more was said of this at the Roundtable.
So that was the end of that.
Well, almost. There was a brief flurry the next morning, when I came into the main building early, and found the rooms we used festooned with another similar flyer, urging unnamed persons to “Write Truth to Power . . . Even on blogs,” evidently her parting shot. By breakfast time, they were about all gone, even the ones taped in the toilet stalls of the Men’s room.
With this, the walk-on moment in the ongoing URG melodrama passed. (As campus disruptions go these days, this was pretty mild. An oldtime elder would have said of it, rightly, “Thee was favored.”)
But it could well resume on PYM’s main stage, as soon as a called meeting this weekend.
I hope that meeting goes well, and hope also that PYM Friends will take care not to let the blinkered attempts at undoing one recognized evil become a tool of yet another, that which can “lay waste the unity of the body . . . .”
It wouldn’t be the first time.