Course: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S.—The Most Vital and Challenging Issue (June 2020)
Faculty: Gwendolyn Etter-Lewis, Anthony Outler, Chitra Golestani, Emily Tancredi-Brice Agbenyega, Niki Daniels
by Naree Chan
When I was twelve years old, I found out I needed glasses. Before I put on my new frames, the optometrist asked me to look out the window. I saw a pine tree in the parking lot. “What’s the big deal?” I thought. After I put on my new glasses, she asked me to look out the window again. “I’m just going to see the same pine tree,” I thought to myself.
What did I see?
Yes, the pine tree was still there, but this time I saw pine NEEDLES. Each and every single one of them, not just a green blur of branches. I remember walking out of the store in a bit of a daze admiring how the world had suddenly become more beautiful, focused, and clear.
Fast forward a decade: I have just completed Ruhi Book 1: Reflections on the Life of the Spirit while serving as an English teacher in Beijing right after graduating from university. Once again, I have that feeling of being dazed and in awe of how much clarity I have about my purpose in this world—I had donned a new pair of spiritual glasses that gave me answers to questions I did not know I even had.
Now, more than a dozen years later, while studying the rich materials from this course, I am once again feeling I have upgraded the prescription on my lenses (or perhaps now need bifocals). In all my interactions and observations, I see the world, events, and activities around me through a new anti-black racism lens.
A common complaint I have heard and feel is that in Bahá’í consultation about race issues, the immediate answer is often to focus on the core activities. After reflecting on the Bahá’í writings and recent guidance, I would agree BUT a very important step is often missing—have the friends in our community acquired and/or donned their anti-black racism glasses?
This is part of our twofold moral purpose which requires both the STUDY of anti-black racism (being) and SERVICE in the core activities (doing) with the proper lenses. Are we seeing just a blurry green branch when we participate in a devotional, study circle, children’s class, or junior youth group? Or are we seeing each and every single pine needle of systemic racism? Can we identify the problem, name it, and thus begin to even grapple with how to solve the issue.
From the September 6, 2018 message from the Universal House of Justice, we are asked to “address the question of race unity as a part of life in ALL of the social spaces” we are engaged, including the core activities. Here is the rest of the passage quoted (the emphasis is mine):
Here, the Guardian is calling for the friends to address the question of race unity as a part of life in all of the social spaces in which they are engaged, and, similarly, the House of Justice is now saying that freedom from racial prejudice must be the watchword of Bahá’ís in the social spaces in which they are engaged for the activities of the Plan. In such intimate settings, people of diverse racial backgrounds encounter the Word of God, and in their efforts to translate the Teachings into practical action, are able to generate bonds of love, affection, and unity, and to learn what it means to establish a true interracial fellowship that is powerful enough to overcome the forces of racism that afflict them and their society.From a letter dated 6 August 2018 written on behalf of the Universal House
of Justice to an individual believer
I was also struck by the 1991 message from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States:
“To ignore the problem is to expose the country to physical, moral and spiritual danger.”The Vision Of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States
“In no other country is the promise of organic unity more immediately demonstrable than in the United States because this country is a microcosm of the diverse populations of the earth. Yet this promise remains largely unrealized even here because of the endemic racism that, like a cancer, is corroding the vitals of the nation.”
Systemic racism can be compared to cancer because even when you think it is gone it has actually just continued to “mutate into new malignant forms” (From a letter dated March 4, 2020, from the Universal House of Justice)
Here is the definition of cancer remission from cancer.gov:
“A decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body.”
(National Cancer Institute)
So even if “all signs and symptoms” of racism may appear to have “disappeared” from society, racism may still be present. It is because of this ever present threat that we all have to be continually on guard through both internal reflection and outward service in all the professional, religious, and social spaces we navigate in this world.
My biggest question is how do we get everyone to realize that they too need a new pair of glasses?
Editor’s Note: Naree Chan joined the Wilmette Institute’s online learning community as a learner in March, 2020, when she took a parenting course. Her next course was the community learning course on racism, and in October she joins the teaching team for the same course as a faculty member. We look forward to her insights and contributions.