Torry Dickinson Blog

Addressing Racism in White-Dominated Religious Organizations
August 13, 2012, 2:02 pm
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Helping White People Address Racism in White-Dominated Religious Organizations

I’m a white person who would like to help Whites address unexamined racial and class privilege that gets expressed in society, including in White-dominated religious organizations. Because of my commitments and interests, I attended the 2012 White Privilege Conference in Albuquerque. Participating in this conference was like going into a lively, open city where everyone was talking about all aspects of privilege.
I’ve been pushing myself to examine why—when I’ve rejected racial and class privilege in my everyday life—I’ve been able to accept the lack of diversity in my religious organization. I think one answer is that I ultimately saw my spiritual engagement as an individual and family experience, and not as a community experience. This is disturbing to me because it shows how much I accepted subtle definitions and parameters set by my religious group, even though I personally did not live that way. In fact, I’ve lived in a culturally diverse world since I became an independent teenager.
In the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, I did voice my discomfort to those in my spiritual organization, but I let the majority of members set the tone. In the early 1990s, I wasn’t the only one who noticed that something was missing. At that time two of us from my religious group started a small study group where we read about and discussed issues relating to racism. One question that came up was: why can’t the members of our spiritual group talk about racism, and why do Whites drop their eyes and try to avoid the subject when it comes up? I thought maybe it was because of guilt and because they hadn’t figured out how to see themselves as part of the solution.
This might have been part of the answer, but I think it’s more complicated. Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s something about the ways we work in terms of our processes and operational guidelines that serve to keep our group closed, limiting our diversity and spiritual richness.
It’s important to remember that people from dominant groups shape what happens in “their” organizations. Without questioning how their practices impact our spiritual group in relation to the larger community, many people perpetuate exclusion instead of inclusion. The ways people carry out particular organizational practices, which are shaped by long-established and perhaps even seemingly egalitarian traditions, could keep them from becoming a fully alive, holistic community.
It’s important to ask ourselves if we can identify ways that have limited our ability to become more diverse. I’ve been asking myself: does our reluctance to look like we could be “converting” others keep us from building diversity in our spiritual body? Does our practice of working toward unity keep us from building diversity? And how does the over-representation of white and economically secure individuals affect the ways we do things? I’ve always accepted our general rules and reasons for interacting in previously established rhythms. Now I wonder if these reasons for practicing in the ways we do can turn into barriers that limit our growth, and if the idea that “we need to practice in the way we do” can turn into an unexamined reason or “excuse” for not struggling to become more diverse, and for not working toward change.
What can we do to bring about change? I hope everyone in White-dominated religious groups puts their ideas together and tries to do things differently. We all see a lot and we all know a lot. And we’re all creative. We can come up with better ways of relating to each other, to people in our neighborhoods and towns, and to the world around us.
There are a number of levels of change. They include change in the specific worship groups, in regions, in national bodies, and in international groupings. They include change between religious groups. The include change at individual, family, and community levels.
Far more attention needs to be given to organizational change, and not just to individual change and individual responsibility. Organizational change can help us address how different kinds of privilege and feelings of entitlement can open up and transform race-, class- and sexuality-related dialogue in spiritual groups.
Making new friends and having fun together is a way to extend and develop spirituality and community. Attending diverse religious meetings and councils can help us learn and we develop ourselves. People from “building-centered” religious groups could participate in culturally diverse activities and organize gardening or other projects on their own. Intense interaction and sharing in neighborhoods is helpful. Cooking and eating together is a way to create new relationships. Inviting people to share food and joining neighborhood picnics, fairs, celebrations, and events are ways to reach out. Buying products made in culturally diverse neighborhoods and from local and international cooperative fair-trade groups is helpful. Supporting local farmers and farm coops is another way of saying, “we’re with you.”
I always think that animals can bring people together and help us show the personal side of ourselves. So maybe join or carry out an activity that brings people together in this way.
Organizing with neighborhood people as a part of spiritual life connects people in these communities. It involves making new friends and establishing strong, reciprocal friendships.
Because memories of what didn’t seem to work weigh on our mind, it helps to remember positive collective work that moved us forward. Many good relationships have been established by the activities we’ve conducted. It helps to examine the things we didn’t do well, and the things we didn’t do at all. But it hurts to get stuck in negative memories about how we didn’t go in the direction that we hoped. This memory of the not-so-positive things can make us forget all the ways that we have reached out, and all the ways we could reach out. If we concentrate on past “failures” or on “what can’t happen,” we may stop imagining what can happen and how we can make it happen. Seeing our way forward and leaping with confidence into this better future is what we need to do.
We can build on some of our activities and projects and use our connections and knowledge to work with new people on related projects.
By studying and understanding history, we have another tool that helps us move forward. Having facts about the past and present, and relating these to the future, can help everyone see new things and come up with ways to go forward.
The time to do this is now.
In terms of the unintended exclusion that has been part of my spiritual life, I now recognize that I had mothered my own kids, but I had failed to mother others. I am taking responsibility for this. I am vowing to change this in my life, starting now.
People make change all the time. And we can do it in our spiritual homes, building community as we do it.
Thank you for opening your hearts, and may we open our hearts to everyone,
Torry Dickinson, August 13, 2012

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