Articles

Combating Racism Personally, at Work, in a Bahá’í Community, and with the Help of the Bahá’í Administration

Jun 29, 2021

Course: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society (Feb., 2021)
Faculty Mentor: Jeanais Brodie

Student: Naghmeh Moshtael

Editor’s Note: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society continues to be one of the Wilmette Institute’s most popular courses. The iteration that ended in April had some 113 students, a lead faculty, 5 faculty mentors, and 12 teaching assistants. More than 100 students have joined the June course. Yet another one will be offered in October**, which means you still have time to make yourself part of this extraordinary learning experience.

But this story is about the gift of Naghmeh Moshtael’s reflection on what she learned in the February course (she is serving as a teaching assistant in the June course). It may help to define a few of the terms Naghmeh uses. A Personal Learning Plan is the name of the document that each student creates at the beginning of a course, setting out the goals that she or he hopes to achieve in the course. An active bystander, referred to in the course as an “upstander,” is one who confronts casual racism when she or he sees it. An ally, according to the Rochester Racial Justice Toolkit, created by Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara, is a “a person of privilege” who “works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.”


As I reflected on what I learned in the Anti-Black Racism course, I reviewed my Personal Learning Plan, and it is interesting that I find it now quite rudimentary! I did my absolute best to read and watch the recommended material, as I did when I was in graduate and medical school, and it felt once again like “drinking from a fire hydrant.” I did discuss the material at home with my spouse, Larry, who was also taking the course, and I did my best to recognize my “own” blind spots and to recognize racial prejudice wherever I go/work/travel.

From the course I gained some new understandings and insights. Although I have read, studied, and memorized Bahá’í writings through my entire life and was aware of the terminology (for example, Bahá’u’lláh’s and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s reference to African American’s as the Pupil of the Eye), I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of this metaphor and its importance and what amazing roles our friends of African descent have played and continue to play in our world. 

I moved to the United States when I was nineteen years old after I completed my elementary and secondary education in Cameroon. I was blessed to have a balanced education including years of history (world history, African history, and so on). I discovered in the course how much this education (and subsequent education) lacked. I was also reminded that the history books I studied were published by European and American publishing companies.

I found the material and discussion in this course so stimulating. This has translated to more enhanced discussion with family/friends/colleagues about the important topic of anti-Black racism in the United States.  Even though I belong to a biracial/bicultural household, I discovered that my immediate family (particularly those who are Persian) have yet to learn about the history behind racism, its profound ramifications in our day-to-day life and how it continues to permeate and negatively impact all of us including our new culturally diverse family members, including my husband, who is African American; my daughter who we adopted from Ethiopia; and so on

At work, thanks to the material shared in the class, I have had more meaningful conversations with my colleagues. We are planning to host a training for my staff, and I have invited Larry to present.

I have experienced so many feelings during the ten weeks of the course. I have felt sadness and disappointment at my own lack of knowledge and understanding: I have lived over thirty years in this country and had such little understanding of the depth of injustice around me.  I am raising a beautiful adolescent of African descent in this country and worry more than ever for her well-being. I live in a community with very little racial/ethnic diversity and have observed in the last four years more instances of systemic racism. As a Bahá’í, I believe in the healing message of Bahá’u’lláh: Why else would he have used the metaphor of Pupil of the Eye?  Why else would ‘Abdu’-Bahá have traveled to this country to remind us about the importance of racial unity? Why else would the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, have written The Advent of Divine Justice. [in which he calls racism the “most vital and challenging issue” confronting America]. And, finally, why else would the Universal House of Justice send us its message of July 2020 about racism in America? So, despite the sadness, disappointment, and fear, I am also hopeful that with knowledge we can change our attitudes and become beacons of love in my community to those of true and genuine love. 

As for new things I learned: I was familiar with the terminology “ally.” I appreciated the presentation on active bystander and the role that each one of us can play. I had very little knowledge about the prison industrial system in the United States, and, unfortunately, this impacted my views on laws/policies/proposals (and how I voted in the past) and so on. The material in this unit was quite enlightening. From the introduction to Unit 8, which was about the prison-industrial complex and Black Lives Matter, I reflected on “Indeed, scholars now know that notions of American freedom did not develop in spite of slavery but because of it. The confinement of one group has always bolstered the relative freedom, wealth, and worth of the other. By analyzing the past and the current injustices, consciousness is raised to create a more just society.

Now that the course has ended, how am I applying what I have learned? I feel that this course has offered us some foundational material—for self-reflection and observation of our Bahá’í community and the world at large. Since we know that racism and specifically anti-Black racism is the most challenging and vital issue that we are facing in this country, we need all hands on deck.

In my personal life, I am planning to continue to read and educate myself about this subject.

At work—both at the clinic where I am a medical director and at the hospital—I will explicitly promote anti-Black racism training for our medical students and fellow physicians. 

Larry, my husband, and I have been asked to present at a monthly fireside and will likely present a topic from the material we learned from this course.

In our Baha’i community, we will continue our ongoing consultations about how to uplift our brothers/sisters of African descent and how racism can impact our entire community.

Our Spiritual Assembly has worked on a multi-year strategic plan and has included components to address systemic racism, micro aggressions, and means to support members in our community and to promote friends to take courses such as this one (in fact, a line item was created in the Assembly’s budget for scholarship support). In two weeks, our Assembly is planning to consult with the faculty of this course and the Regional Bahá’í Council of the Northwestern States about our learnings and the next steps for our community at large.


Register in advance for Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Society, which starts Thursday, October 21. You may wish to read the guidance on How to Register a Study Group.

Contributors

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Naghmeh Moshtael

I am originally from Iran, grew up in Cameroon (Central Africa), where my parents pioneered, and now have lived in Oregon for thirty years. I have a multicultural household, and we call ourselves the “United Nations on wheels”: My husband is African American and was raised in Seattle, Washington, and Compton, California. My twelve-year-old daughter is adopted from Ethiopia. I am a pediatrician and find joy in learning from my patients and their families. Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. and Building a Unified Community was my first Wilmette Institute course.

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