Articles

Becoming an Upstander in the Quest for Racial Unity

May 31, 2021

Course: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society
Faculty Mentor: Carol Mansour
Lead Faculty: Jeanais Brodie

Editor’s Note:

Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society, one of the Wilmette Institute’s most popular courses, ended in April. It had some 113 students, five faculty mentors in addition to the lead faculty, and 12 Teaching Assistants. The course was studded with amazing articles, weekly Zoom sessions, an upstander workshop (more on that term later), and viewings of two plays on racism by Najee Brown (The Bus Stop and Stokely and Martin.)

The course examined anti-Black racism and racial prejudice in North American society in some of its most serious manifestations, explored the content and significance of relevant Bahá’í authoritative texts, and considered how Bahá’ís can initiate meaningful conversations and public discourse in a variety of contexts. Anti-Black Racism started by defining race, racism, and prejudice. It then turned to such subjects as colonialism and slavery; the prison/industrial complex; Black Lives Matter and policing issues; white privilege and bias/stereotyping; housing and education segregation; violence against black women; Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement; and “one human family”—the experience of the Bahá’í community.

Sounds great, you are thinking. You are right, and you are in luck. The course will be offered again twice this year—a second iteration starts on June 24 and a third one in October. After reading the student comments below, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to learn how you can apply Bahá’í teachings on the eradication of racism to everyday life and community-building efforts. Here is what one student from Racine, Wisconsin, took away from the course. She had six goals for her learning experience, what she calls her Personal Learning Plan.


I received so much more from this course than my Personal Learning Plan! Reflecting on my learning, it seems one has a choice of approaching a course on the history of anti-Black racism as either an intellectual experience or as a participatory experience. It’s possible to study anti-Black racism from a third-person perspective and intellectualize the process, keeping one’s self “safely at a distance.” Or I can use the knowledge to help me see myself as an intimate part of the whole and from the studies realize and take responsibility for my role in the process. This course was for me, the latter, in a very visceral way. I am beginning to understand deeply the harm we have caused to Pupil of the Eye, and I am beginning to understand my role in dismantling racism going forward, especially unconscious bias in Bahá’í communities. [Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá both refer to people of African descent as the Pupil of the Eye; the phrase has been adopted by many African Americans as a way of referring to themselves.]

I have gained deeper understanding and insights in all topics; previously I understood a “tiny bit” of each topic, but this course has filled in huge knowledge gaps in my understanding. As a result of this deepened knowledge base, my ability to speak with others about racism is more direct and with more confidence.

In terms of experiencing new feelings and attitudes as a result of taking the course on anti-Black racism, I can say this: I am heartbroken at the unjust long-suffering the Pupil of the Eye has endured, as we whites have gone about our business as usual. I am saddened at the lack of Bahá’í response for so, so long. I am grateful that many now are beginning to see, myself included. I am hopeful that this is the time of great change as more and more friends awaken and work to dismantle anti-Black racism. I am confident that humanity will eventually together succeed, because of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching of the truth of the oneness of humanity. Regardless of the heartbreaking pain we can cause, the truth from Bahá’u’lláh is oneness, and this must come to fruition. . . .

Now that this course has ended, I will strengthen relationships with local anti-racism groups. I am soon co-facilitating a group on unlearning racism for Bahá’ís. I will also continue ongoing grassroots efforts in my neighborhood, building relationships and working with neighborhood protagonists to better understand the needs of our diverse community. I will strive to improve as an upstander [a term used in the course for an ‘active bystander‘ who confronts casual racism when he or she sees it], within Bahá’í communities and in the world at large. And I will continue to educate myself, to continually look within and see how I am doing regarding my own unconscious white bias. For me, this brings new personal meaning to the Words of Bahá’u’lláh cited in the very first section of Ruhi Book 1 [also in Gleanings 305]:

“Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds.”

Thank you to faculty and teaching assistants. I am eternally grateful for your service.

Contributors

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Caroline Juzenas

My name is Caroline Juzenas, and I have been a Bahá’í for twenty-one years, blessed to be part of communities early in my Bahá’í life where race unity was a focal point of action. Personally, what really changed my heart in realizing the truth and scope of racial injustice and oppression was Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching of oneness. Some years ago I began to really, really study and meditate on oneness. Eventually, I began to see how oneness impacts everything. I could begin to see the difference of how I was treated as a white person and the atrocious injustices on Black souls . . . yet we are one. The resulting painful cognitive dissidence helped begin my journey to look deep within myself, to listen and learn all I could from others, to remove the veils that still blind me, in order to take action for justice against anti-black racism. Looking forward to this journey.

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