Photo: The Peace Bridge (between Canada and the U.S.)
Credit: By Óðinn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Course: Anti-Black Racism in the U.S. (Fall 2020)
Lead Faculty: Jeanais Brodie
Editor’s Note: What follows is Sandi Augsburger’s self assessment. Sandi lives in Boise, Idaho, and has taken a number of courses with the Wilmette Institute. We wish her “added strength” and many confirmations in her journey to becoming an anti-racist.
I learned a lot from the readings about what has been done to our African-American brothers and sisters, and about systemic racism. Some of this information totally surprised me. I have learned that I can survive when there is severe backlash to my thoughts and comments on this subject (by receiving it in class), so I don’t need to be afraid anymore to talk with African Americans about racism (although at first I was shaking and in tears).
At first, I felt the class was designed to make me feel guilty about what was done centuries before I was born. I do not. I am very sad, though, and I am committed to making it right as much as possible. Below is an article I wrote on this subject.
Guilt and Reparations
In “Be the Bridge,” level 2, one reads the following about the subject of shame and guilt:
“Western [white American] morality is based on individual guilt and innocence (for instance, a person who obeys the law is “good,” but one who breaks the law is “bad” and deserves to be punished). It reflects the assumption that the individual is the primary unit and source of identity, accountability, and status. For this reason people from individualistic cultures struggle to grasp the concept of collective shame, or a morality based on communal honor (or, where individuals share responsibility in the preservation of a community’s integrity and reputation).”
Communal honor and shame exist somewhat in white culture – when the child misbehaves, the parents are embarrassed and may offer restitution to the wronged party.
“In general, however, when communal shame is aroused beyond the level of familial association, which frequently happens in conversations about racial inequality, it is rapidly countered with proclamations of individual innocence – “I didn’t do anything wrong!”
This dichotomy is also expressed in Phil Vischer’s short video: Why Do White [American] Christians Vote Republican and Black [American] Christians Vote Democrat?
“Conservative white Christians see sin as mostly an individual problem, wrongs committed by one person against another, requiring only individual confession and repentance as the solution.”
“Black Christians see sin as a systemic problem – sinful systems needing broader solutions and broader confession and repentance.”
I think this might be why the response by many white Americans to a discussion about reparations is often an individual response: ‘I didn’t enslave people, and I didn’t know about the awful things that have been done to our black brothers and sisters. Why should I be held accountable for something that happened hundreds of years before I was born?” Most publications these days label this need to justify oneself as “white fragility” or “white defensiveness,” and they shame people who respond in this way. I propose that it is a normal response in the white culture and, when white Americans are made to feel guilty for responding in this way, the act of shaming them creates hurt feelings and makes unity harder to achieve.
On the other hand, the Bahá’í Writings speak strongly about justice, both in individual lives and in society as a whole. The terrible injustices that are being perpetrated against black Americans today must be stopped. The focus, then, is on providing justice for the present-day people of color in America, as opposed to providing monetary remuneration for acts directed at people who are no longer alive. As explained above, most white Americans will probably not feel responsible for what was done many generations ago. However, it is important that white Americans learn about the 250 years of history that have created the present-day inequalities and violence. In that way, they can more fully understand the present result – and the fact that they (the whites) are actually benefiting from these injustices. We must identify areas where injustice exists and start to work on the areas that can be addressed now. Over time, all areas will be addressed as humanity learns that we are one family and that what hurts one of us, affects us all.
I feel I have gained more confidence to talk with Black friends about racism because of the new knowledge I have gained in this class. So far, I have not been able to do so, however, because I have been homebound due to Covid-19.
I have learned what my opinion really is on various subjects, such as reparations. It does not agree with my mentor’s opinion, but I feel comfortable with it. The article above shows where my opinion differed with my mentor’s on the subject of reparations, because she felt there had to be reparations.
I now feel more comfortable with the whole issue [of anti-Black racism] because of what I have learned, which gives me courage to reach out to African Americans once the virus is under control.
Now that the course has ended, I can reach out to African Americans, both Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í. There are no Black Bahá’ís in my community, but there will be in the future, and I hope to be an understanding person about the severe injustice they have faced, and to welcome them into the Bahá’í community, and to help make them comfortable. I can be an ally for them when white Bahá’ís who have not yet learned about the injustice and systemic racism in this country express something that is micro-aggressive to the Black Bahá’ís. In this way, I can help to “build bridges.”