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.

27 thoughts on “My Quakerism Will Be Feminist and Anti-Racist or It Will Be Bullshit”

  1. I’m Catholic and not very knowledgeable about Quaker beliefs, but here goes: I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had to undergo this much pain and crap to come to these important conclusions. Some thoughts of mine:
    Sometimes some faith ideals are better in theory than in practice for some people. Part of it is the lack of recognition of their own views and behaviors that run counter to the beliefs they claim to value as important (especially those who are born into a faith and did not choose it as adults). Others simply are not transformed by their faith – it simply is a convenience and ignored at other times when it becomes a challenge. Tenets of faith are generally ideals, while people: not so ideal. A lot of people fall short.
    The desire to not get caught up in making waves or taking sides is really damn strong in people, even in people who supposedly share your values. Be grateful for those who are willing to stick their necks out to really live their faith. But people who turn a blind eye to sexual assault? That is bullshit. Shame on them.
    You are a good person and it takes strength to speak truth. I hope that God continues to let you speak the truth, even if it is uncomfortable to others. Don’t let them grind you down. Catherine of Siena stated: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire” Hang in there. Make your Quakerism be feminist and anti-racist.


  2. First time reader, and thank you for this post! The reasons you’ve laid out here are why I’m a solitary Quaker — add on my need for mobility aids and trying to find a meeting just does not appeal.I note from your bio we’re in the same general area — please feel free to drop me a line if it would be helpful to you.


  3. Thanks for bravely sharing your experience and feelings. These issues you describe related to racism and sexism were recently described to me by a dear friend as an autoimmune diseases in the human community, much like aids is an autoimmune disease in the human body. More egalitarian and progressive groups suffer from this like other organizations, the response to the infection (racism of sexism) damages the whole community, rather than attacking the true infection. This idea is new to me and I am still playing with it, but how could Quakers respond to these issues in a way that attacks the infectious agent and not just weaken and damage the community as a whole? I don’t have the answers…..just more questions.
    Respectfully Yours,
    Tom Manthey


  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you. If there was an anti-racist, feminist Quaker community, that would be my spiritual home.


  5. yeah…this is a thing. This is my experience from Quaker institution, no less. I have been sexually harrassed and assaulted as a staff member of an institution run by Friends, and despite bringing it to the attention of the administration multiple times, no action was taken that led to real consequences. Because no action or consequences were taken, the next time I was sexually harrassed (by a different man who was a part of the “community” of this institution) I didn’t even bother to alert anyone. Can’t have community without serious boundaries and accountability. Both of these men were my father’s age.Even now, writing this is fucking uncomfortable.


  6. I’m SO sorry that people have physically, verbally and spiritually assaulted you, especially in Quaker space. It’s never excusable. I hope you won’t beat up on yourself for not speaking up then or at other times. Fear is natural, especially after one has been attacked. What happened is NOT your fault, nor is the natural reaction your body will have later that will manifest as a difficulty in speaking up.I’ve seen this kind of thing at other Meetings, so, sadly, yours is not an uncommon experience. It’s up to all of us, not just those who’ve experienced assault, to speak up and end the violence in our midst.


  7. What you’ve described here isn’t just a Quaker problem, it’s a white liberal problem.
    People want to be comfortable, quite often, not to be challenged and stretched. As for the instances of rape culture you have mentioned, these regrettably stretch into all arenas of society.
    Faith communities should be better than this.
    I do believe that salvation and grace is available for all who would receive it. If we concede that we are not perfect and should constantly work on ourselves, I think that we’ve made the first step towards spiritual maturity.
    The back-patting that goes on in many Quaker circles, especially liberal Quaker circles exists inside those who fail to understand that learning and spiritual growth continues throughout the whole of a life.


  8. I’m glad you found the resources within yourself to share this, it’s an important post. I’m really sad that Meeting in a corporate way and Friends as individuals failed to keep you safe, and that it’s an ongoing problem and not being addressed, let alone fixed. I’ll be trying not to take things for granted and be less complacent/complicit/naive thanks to your post.


  9. This post was very refreshing. I am a young adult white male who is just starting to seriously break into the Society of Friends. Although the core of Quaker faith is in the right place, I agree that the practice of what is often preaches can be pretty week. Something that really stuck out for me was the use of the term ‘critical thinking.’ I think that this is so vital in any religion, especially a religion like Quakerism, which, for me, is rooted so strongly in intellectuality.


  10. I can agree. Some of the tenets of Quakerism are a breeding ground for passive-aggressive behavior and judgement of other over responsibility for self, or are interpreted as such. It wouldn’t have to be this way, but often, it is. Sad.


  11. As liberal Quakers we’re more concerned about being inclusive than about having boundaries (of behaviour and of theology) we want to be a place where everyone feels accepted an nurtured so we don’t challenge unacceptable behaviour such as that you’ve experienced and witnessed. Theological liberalism has led to total, unregulated, freedom of expression and views. When someone acts in a way that is rude or offensive or abusive the response is “Oh we can’t say anything about that, they might get upset.” or “oh don’t mind X, that’s the way he is, we just allow it.”
    What we don’t realise is that those who we should be providing a space for feel excluded by the way we are, and that not having boundaries also excludes those who want a space that is safe spiritually, physically and psychologically.
    You might have guessed from my spelling that I’m British and it’s a issue Quakers in Britain face too. We have to act, thank you for speaking out I hope it might encourage some Friends to act up and to set some boundaries – it might put some behaviour outside those boundaries, and some people too but it will make far more feel that their Quaker meeting is a place they want to be and more importantly it is more Quakerly to have corporate discipline that is upheld by the community.


  12. And what is really creeping me out at the moment is the young Friend, or, even worse, FAP, who TOOK THAT PICTURE of some guy with his hand up your shirt and didn’t say or do anything! Somebody’s boundaries are being violated and you just photograph it??


  13. Amen! I won’t get on my usual pedestal because you beautifully put into words a very real issue within and without Quaker circles. I have been considering participating in/creating a sexual education program for Quakers and religious folks in general. Any tips or words of encouragement?


  14. To clarify, while I was visible in the picture, the picture was not of me. The person taking it may not have even noticed what was happening.
    The community definitely failed to keep me safe, and failed to stand up for me and for a creep-free environment. But I don’t think the photographer was trying to photograph my assault, either for good or ill.


  15. The world has been refreshed by your honesty. The next generation(s) have been improved by your choice to speak. Regardless of any discomoforts, celebrate.
    Be encouraged! Stay refreshed! (it may sound ‘shallow’ ‘unrealistic’ or ‘demanding’ to some for me to say this, but i say it anyway… “Allow no bitter root to remain deep in the soul towards ‘types of abusers,’ Speak your piece for the benefit of all.
    We will all be evaluated for how we handled the ‘poor training’ and ‘ruinous atmosphere’ that we walked through, as well as our ‘excellence of character in the moment,’
    We do not live long enough to ‘fix’ the evils that we have lived through. No generation lives long enough to ‘repair’. This is a fire/transformation/power from the creator-spirit of lovingkindness who SPEAKS.
    You are loved and not alone. You have an invisible friend and defender. I am the son of a Quaker dad and a researcher of primitive christianity (yes the christianity that i LOATHED has a sweet and magnificent core that is tremendously ‘complete’; regardless of the ‘ugly crust’ that we see.
    Your troubles are common in all the gatherings of the ‘church mess in america’..and beyond, im sure. Your troubles have been faced in the finest organizations of various sorts. (sadly!!! common!)
    Here is the one difference. ‘the mercy seat’ of the early disciples who were hated and slaughtered was the ‘ecstasy and honesty time’. An intimate ‘clearness committee-family’ that considered their ‘after meeting meal’ to truly be ‘the stuff of heaven.’ Oh, yes..we are Quakers-no sacraments..whatever. The point is this. This lovely expression of lament and honesty can be a ‘calling forth’ of the gathered meeting to be PERSONALLY honest about wrong behavior, wrong attitude.
    What if every week we were able to stand up and say ‘i was nasty in my words and tone towards my sister this week. i hurt Gods heart and carry a sadness. Please hold me in the light. What if (like the ‘first peoples’ of ‘the way’ and the FRIENDS who stood in a ‘personal challenge’ of righteousness) the visitors to a meeting came and heard a ‘forum of honesty and care’ or ‘description of clearness committe to deal with a ‘publicly stated list’ of standard life-problems as well as the silent worship? The big ‘talking heads and entertainment’ church and the ‘formal sacramental church’ do a lot, but still have these same problems of ‘nobodys being REAL and honest about the ‘wrong stuff!!’
    -sorry about the long comment. you have empowered all of us by your offernig here. Its a challenge for me to do some of the same sort of work. -peace and wholeness for you and your associates and assets! -David-S


  16. Thank you for your courage to speak truth. Speaking truth to power IS Quaker, is prophetic, and is what we as a faith community need to be doing. This is common among humans, not only faith communities. It is an insidious aversion to taking responsibility and setting boundaries. It is an aversion to doing the very messy and painful work of relationship and community. In the mid1980’s when I began my recovery work, I had closed off, buried memories surface. They were very real and very clear memories of being sexually abused by my mother. After a few years work, I began to trust myself more, I wrote a short article asking feminists what we do with women on women violence. I submitted it to Ms. Magazine and it was rejected. I did receive a response that said we are not ready for this. Which I believe is Bullshit. Frankly, I wasn’t ready for it either, but that didn’t make it right to ignore it, bury it again or keep running away from it. That is not healthy. There are two Friends meetings that I personally know of, that have done deep and long work around how to be community with both survivors and perpetrators of violence in the same meeting. We are talking about processes that have and are in process for years, involving not only the meeting members, but sometimes mental health professionals and law enforcement. It is a painful, messy process that is not fun. In fact, it really sucks. But it is the right thing to do. Our faith demands no less than trying. It does not require or guarantee success. It does require attempting to tell the truth, and attempting to find a path of healing for all involved. It requires being and living community. Thank you so much for your prophetic voice, and the healing that you have dared to ask for.


  17. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ve been active in Friends meetings and participating in/organizing youth programs for about seven years, I’ve heard similar stories and experienced similar situations time and time again, especially with regard to sexism and ageism. Quakers were founded to be a radical sect, willing to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society in order to follow god in the way they felt was right. Given this, I’m continually at a loss as to how Friends have become so exclusive, so discriminatory, and so painfully quiet and indifferent when it comes to issues of inequality. It saddens me greatly, and it’s why I’ve begun to seek out other religious communities where I can feel more welcomed and more at peace with the group’s collective actions. Best of luck in your journey.


  18. Thank you for speaking. The heartbreak I’m feeling requires a newer deeper commitment to this work in this community.”I should have said something.” I have felt this so many times, including (perhaps especially?) in Quaker spaces.
    “No one else said anything, either.” I’ve experienced this collusion all too often as well.
    I pray that I and others learn to stand up and speak our minds and risk being wrong or shamed.


  19. Thank you for this reminder. I am a Friendly Adult Presence at Quaker youth gatherings. I’ve never observed threatening or harmful behavior occur at a retreat but this post makes me more aware of my responsibility to be aware of deeper dynamic than the energy I perceive at the surface. You’ve reminded me that I need to know our Young Friends more intimately, as individuals, so they know me as someone they can turn to if they feel discomfort or unsafe in any facet of their lives. Thank you for your courage to speak up.with love,
    Mary Linda


  20. Thank you for this courageous blog. I am a former Roman Catholic and have been an attender at my local Friends meeting for about 8 years. Sometimes I observe that Friends equate pacifism with passivity and so do not take stands when they really should do so. I hope this posting means I’ll be getting updates. I can imagine Friends listening to you and refusing to take sides and that is sinful (to use the Catholic description). Thank you for speaking out, sister. I will hold you in the light.


  21. Thank you for writing. I am disturbed by some of your examples but not surprised. So many liberal quakers shy away from taking a stand, as if the lack of creed means that there is no right or wrong. Or they are so self-congratulatory about our principles that they think it’s enough to say them, not necessary to live them.
    I was old enough when I entered the community that I never experienced the predatory behavior you describe. But every time I enter a Meeting, I am struck by the lack of people of color. It is not enough to believe in equality and community. We must live it.


  22. As a straight male who went to a Quaker school, I am well versed in being friends with/being surrounded by Quaker feminists. I was wondering this: I’ve stood up for female friends in similar situations to the internet discussion you’ve described (in a non white-knighting manner) and been told that I shouldn’t fight their battles. I have been told that my willingness to tell people to shut up and think tells said attacked Feminist that I don’t think they can do it on their own. As such, I wouldn’t have said anything either. Not because I was thinking the behavior was acceptable- but because I’ve been told by others in similar situations that I would be effectively saying that a man had to handle it.
    Is there some way to know when to step up? I’m pretty good at judging this in person, but the internet doesn’t provide tone, body language, or any other factors that usually assist an individual with assessing how people feel about a specific situation.
    And, not to get into your personal business, but perhaps this friend of yours followed a similar thought process? Perhaps he has had similar experiences and kept silent out of respect for your capacity to defend yourself? I only ask because I could see this happening to me, despite having nothing but the best intentions.


  23. Hi Bernie,
    This is a great question. I’ve heard from other guys who feel the same reluctance to ‘rescue’ women for fear of disrespecting them.
    Every woman is different, and we’re interested in being supported (or not) in different ways. But when you’re a part of a community (Quaker or otherwise), it is perfectly legitimate to speak up for your own sake if someone’s behavior is bothering you. It doesn’t have to be a matter of “Hey, I’m here to protect this woman from you being a jerk.” It can be “Hey, it really bothers me to hear you talk to people like that. Please stop.” Even if the person being targeted really is consenting 100% to being treated that way and/or doesn’t want any help, you have not consented to participate as a witness, and you have every right to say you don’t want it happening around you.
    The key is to make it clear that you’re intervening because the behavior is bothersome and unacceptable to you, and not because you think someone else needs saving. ‘I statements’ are a cliche, but they work.
    I can give you another bystander story, in which I did speak up: I was hanging out with some old friends this summer, and one of them was in something of a giggly mood. She kept trying to offer a hug to another friend, who clearly didn’t want one. It got progressively more awkward until eventually I said that I didn’t think it was funny to ‘jokingly’ disrespect someone else’s bodily autonomy. Now, she and the hugee are pretty close, so it could have been that the hugee wasn’t actually bothered by her behavior. I didn’t presume to speak for the hugee or indicate that she needed my protection; I just said it was bothering me. The hugger apologized and stopped, and the conversation continued. (And later, the hugee thanked me for intervening, because she was in fact uncomfortable and didn’t know how to say so without making things even more awkward).


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