Unlearning racism is a process and a journey. Like any journey, there will be potholes and along the way. Being a vicar, or a faith community doesn’t make the road any smoother.
Late in the spring, as Black Lives Matter protests were taking place across North America, incidents of racism were being documented and shared on social media. Canadians seemed to find comfort in the fact that high profile instances of racism being protested had taken place in the United States. Then a video was posted to social media that shook that belief: a woman was recorded in New York’s Central Park telling a black man to get away from her or she would call the police. He was a “birder” who had approached the woman, asking her to put her dog on leash. Instead of leashing her dog, she threatened to call the police and tell them “there’s an African American man threatening my life.” That woman, it was later revealed, is Canadian.
The Rev. Helen Dunn read an interview in which that woman said she couldn’t believe those words came out of her mouth because “I’m so progressive.”
Helen saw in that incident, and the woman’s own evaluation of it, a chance to provoke reflection. Where are racist attitudes lurking within each of us that we might not be aware of?
To invite people to embark on that journey of reflection, Helen thought of launching a book club. The idea was to invite people to read Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” -a book that in itself is controversial. Working with trustees and wardens Helen announced the creation of the White Fragility Book Club.
Like the book, it was aimed at white women.
When Donna Wong-Juliani heard about the White Fragility Book Club and it’s invitation to white women, her immediate reaction was “how can you talk about racism without non-white people?”
“I wasn’t even thinking of myself being non-white, I just thought ‘you can’t do that!’” Donna recalls.
She and Helen had a long conversation, during which Donna “mischievously” proposed she would start a parallel group, aimed at non-white women. More conversation took place and the White Fragility book club evolved further. Helen and Donna would co-chair the book club and open it up to everyone.
On the first day the registration for the book club opened, 23 people signed up. In one week, 40 people had signed up.
But exploring one’s own attitudes on racism is never comfortable, nor should it be. Among the group norms the pair laid out was to “hold space for tension” and not rush to try to resolve tensions over differing points of view.
“This was definitely a non-traditional book club,” says Helen.
The deep dive into exploring one’s own personal attitudes led to personal insights and a new lens with which to view the wider world.
Donna says she started looking critically at government initiatives to support people of colour. “With Trudeau’s announcement of money aimed at black business owners my instinct was ‘what about the other groups affected [by racism] in Canada? What about all those other people?”
For Helen, the book club journey led to reflection on her personal habits. Thinking through the protests she’s taken part in she realized, “when it affects me personally, I’m there. But with Black Lives Matter, even though I was invited to attend, it fell off my priority list,” she said. Looking at her list of priorities when it comes to protests, she says she saw an “inherent racism”.
Both women also realized because the public discourse can shift so quickly – -in part thanks to social media – “we’re not gonna get this perfect” but it is important to start a dialogue, acknowledging the imperfection of the process.
The book club experience also turned up surprising revelations about how participants viewed the parish community.
Participants were given a survey at the beginning and end of the book club. One question on the final survey was “On a scale of 1 to 10 how do you rate this statement: My church community holds racist attitudes.” The vast majority of responses came in as 6, 7 or 8.
That surprising revelation led participants, and Donna and Helen in particular, to ask two questions: “what can we do?” and “If our motto is ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, what does that mean in this context?”
While each participant will have their own answer to that question, the two co-chairs quickly found things they could do to foster dialogue and attempt to shift the white-centredness they became aware of during the book club.
“I’ve committed to a year long challenge of not preaching or posting white, male authors,” Helen said, admitting “it’s really hard.”
Meanwhile Donna’s thoughts turned immediately – and quite naturally – to the arts. She is looking forward to bringing back her monthly arts series, “Spotlight,” and planning to feature artists of colour. She also has plan in the works for an exhibit on the topic of racism.
Both co-chairs say the biggest thing they each learned was that “we have to start where we are, light the match” and stay committed even when the social media hashtags move on to the next big issue.