The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

A Personal Reflection on Racism and Inequality

Authored by Sydney Reed, M.S.W.

In these turbulent times of an unending struggle with a deadly virus and a growing awareness of social injustice and systemic racism, many in our country are supporting Black Lives Matter and reading books on racism.  There is a growing consensus that some fundamental changes need to be made to address racial and economic inequities.  Change at a personal level will not come about easily as it involves examining long standing beliefs related to basic personal identity.  The split in our country over issues of race shows that change will also not be easy on a societal level. Changes on both levels must be addressed before the policy issues that maintain the inequalities will be changed.  The broad-based support for civil rights for the LGBTQ community demonstrates that after enough marches, enough education, enough open conversation and airing of differences change can come about.  Some believe we are at a “tipping” point regarding race relations in our country.  I believe we are at the stage of opening communication with each other and sharing of facts, thoughts, and opinions.  This blog is my effort to contribute to the conversation.  I recognize that this is a complicated and complex issue and I most certainly do not pretend to cover it thoroughly.  Rather, I will share my journey with the expectation and the readiness to listen to the experiences and opinions of others to continue the conversation.

I have been thinking a lot about where I stand on these important issues and how I got here.  It is interesting to look at the choices one has made over a lifetime to discover how one has lived one’s life.  Considering myself quite liberal, I have been humbled by the moments of implicit bias and White supremacy I have seen in myself.  Over my lifetime there have been many people, books, articles, movies, classes, and experiences that have informed my quest to become “anti-racist”. I will reference only two of the most recent books.  Although I will not make many direct references to Bowen theory, the systems perspective of the theory provides me with a foundational understanding of the emotional process in society and in self.

Montana, where I grew up, does not have many Afro-Americans.  There are, however, seven Native American reservations in the state.  The town I grew up in from 9 years to 18 years, Hardin, was just outside two reservations, Crow and Cheyenne.   It was not until I left home in 1960 and was engaged in thinking about the condition of civil rights in our country that I began to recognize the systemic racism in Montana.

On a visit home, I listened to a White longtime family friend angry that the lease price on his Indian land had been raised, and frustrated that the native land owner would not sell him this land that he had farmed for years.  The intense interdependence of the wheat farmer and the Crow landowner was a shock to me.  These groups had truly little to do with each other as far as I could see.  Yet, the farmer and, I suspect, the Native landowner were locked in a very intense emotional and economic relationship that determined both their livelihoods.

The moment had some similarities to the economic interdependence of slavery and Jim Crow in the south.  I observed little awareness or appreciation on the rancher’s part of the history of persecution and oppression that Natives have endured as the American government conquered the tribes, broke treaties, confined them to reservations, worked to destroy their families and culture with  forced boarding schooling and in some cases adoption of Native children in attempts to assimilate the younger children into a White culture.  Even as recently as a few years ago, a South Dakota state child welfare agency headed by the deputy governor was removing children from Indian homes placing them for adoption in White families against the will of the Indian parents.   I was shocked once again as I saw the results of institutional racism played out.

After I left Montana, I became more interested in the Crow culture. My family and I would frequently attend the Crow fair and rodeo on the reservation 14 miles from my hometown.  We were among the handful of White people attending, dipping our toes into the Native traditions: interesting dances, drumming, and competitions.  I was an outsider living far away in the Chicago area wondering why more local Montana White people would not avail themselves of this cultural enrichment.  The institutional racism and the interdependence of the relationships help explain the reactive distance in these relationships (A note to those in Chicago:  The Field Museum is opening an exhibit on the “Warriors and Women” of the Crow Tribe.)  Novels by Louise Erdrich and other native writers provided me with a greater understanding of relationships between Native Americans and White Americans.

Considering myself a progressive, I was privileged to choose a college that had a strong reputation for social justice.  I marched for civil rights in the 1960’s, lived in East Harlem upon graduation, spent time in India in the Peace Corps, and finally settled in Evanston, Illinois, identifying it as a progressive integrated city.  For the last 20 years I have been attending Lake Street Church, (LSC), because of its strong commitment to social justice and peace.  This church, labeled progressive American Baptist, originally had Black and White members.  The Black members sat in the large balcony.  About 148 years ago they decided to form their own church, Second Baptist Church (SBC) in Evanston.  For the last five years our two churches have been working to repair this cutoff that occurred in 1882. Three years ago, the two congregations made a more serious commitment:  We became Sister churches by a vote in each congregation.  A former White pastor of LSC admonished us that if we were to succeed, LSC members would have to examine their White privilege.  The bar had been raised.

In one meeting several years ago the lay leadership of each church gathered to share leadership experiences in our respective churches.  I was surprised by remarks of several people from SBC that they wanted us to know they had forgiven us for the way our two churches had come apart.  Since it happened 148 years ago, I had given that history little thought.  Now Black history, local and national, is an important anchor for the work LSC and SBC are doing to address this historical cut-off. Efforts to get to know members of SBC meant sometimes putting myself in uncomfortable spaces: Second Baptist’s  annual church picnic sitting with Black Evanston residents I’d not known in the 49 years I’ve lived in Evanston, singing gospel hymns in a very different choral tradition, sometimes sitting through services that were much longer and coming out of a different theological tradition, finding areas of common interest with SBC choir members who came to our choir picnic.

I would like to describe one weekend that was a turning point for me.  On a Thursday night I attended a play called “Niceties”, which was a dramatization of an intense debate between a White history professor and a Black student about the contributions that Black slaves had made to the economic development of this country.  The professor wanted published written documentation in the paper.  The student used more recent articles from the internet citing the lack of published material on the subject. There was a powerful, at times thoughtful and at times emotional, debate about Black history and White privilege.  I was very moved and conflicted by the dramatic and personalized portrayal of each side of this complex issue.

The next night our choir sang at a rally sponsored by SBC to address racism in Evanston.  What was most interesting to me was the number of times I noted the difference AND SUPERIORITY of our White hymns, our choir, our manner of dressing for the evening.  I felt critical of the militant attitude of some of the Black speakers.  Of course, I was aware of my reactive thoughts and embarrassed to see them coming from an attitude of White superiority.  That did not prevent these thoughts from repeating themselves throughout the evening.

The next night some LSC members attended the NAACP banquet at the invitation of SBC pastor.  The main speaker was Reverend Moss, the pastor of Trinity Church on the south side of Chicago who has become a principle spokesman on issues of racism for national progressive churches.  Moved by his presentation and the experience of having my consciousness raised three nights in a row, I asked my youth minister dining companion about the book, “White Fragility”, recommended to me by a CFC faculty friend.

She wanted to read it as well and so we decided to sponsor a book group at church to discuss the book.  It became more and more impossible to avoid looking at my own implicit bias.  I was becoming more uncomfortable, but I felt that I was moving in the right direction.

Within the last year I have read an abundance of factual material about racism.  The New York Times publication of “1619” provides the scholarship by academics from leading American colleges focused on Black history including how the economic foundation and wealth accumulation of our country was built on the backs of unpaid slave labor.  T.V. and news commentary set in motion by the killing of George Floyd has provided multiple perspectives and opinions.  The graphic portrayal of Floyd’s murder left me horrified and dismayed as it did many in the country.

Our church discussion group is now reading Ibram X. Kendi’s, “How to be an Anti-racist”.   Kendi documents how the practice of slavery and ongoing discrimination served the economic self-interests of the slave dealers and now serves current policy makers. These practices have been rationalized as resulting from the inferiority and lack of humanity of Black people.  “Racial inequality is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximate equal footing”, Kendi writes.  The book reports his personal journey growing up and becoming a professor of Afro-American history. He reflects on the many times his own attitude and behavior could have been considered racist as he has now come to understand racism.

Kendi’s work reminded me of two of my core beliefs based on Bowen theory; 1.) if a problem persists over time, everyone is playing a part in keeping it going, and 2.) when a person can enter a room of many people and can find a way not to put herself above or put herself beneath any other person, she is operating in a manner that respects self and other. Bowen theory states that healthy mature relationships are determined by a practice of standing up for one’s beliefs while staying in good connection to important others, listening to their beliefs and allowing them to be themselves.   Easier said than done but essential at this time when our country appears to have an opportunity to redefine itself as a nation of equal opportunity for all its members.

I believe that there are positive changes happening in me and in our country. Heightened self-awareness and more careful viewing of the context and consequences of long-standing racism in our county has pushed me to learn how to be anti-racist, and how to make contributions and actions to change policies toward creating a more equitable society.

This morning my brother sent me a copy of the Big Horn Country News, a weekly paper from my hometown of Hardin.  I was delighted to see what I could consider evidence of real change.  Wayne Hare, a Black writer from Colorado in article called “Ain’t None of Us Can Breathe” about racial injustice toward black people (with no reference to the racism in the West toward Native Americans) raises the question, “How do you explain racism when it is so subtle and ingrained that it became invisible to white people generations ago?”  I hope the article prompted good conversations in Hardin.

References

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Interview with Ibram X. Kendi on NPR

The 1619 Project published by the New York Times

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism  by Robin DeAngelo

Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families by Michael E. Kerr

Sydey Reed

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4 Comments on "A Personal Reflection on Racism and Inequality"

  • Jean Saballus says

    Thank you, Sydney, for sharing your racial autobiography with us – something all of us should try to write as we grapple with our White privilege. Many of us, myself included, are only dimly aware of that status which we have not had to be conscious of every day of our lives. In 1997 I met my husband, Don, in Evanston where he attended Lake Street Church and soon joined him on Sunday mornings. Before we left Evanston in 2006, LSC tried to reconcile with the Second Baptist Church but made little progress. SBC was a thriving, active church and had little reason to reconcile on LSC terms. It was gratifying to read your comments about how a reconciliation has begun to happen between two churches, equal in value, culture, and contribution to the community. We are all trying to understand our White privilege by reading the books you mentioned and by listening to others who are different, but not less than, ourselves. Thank you for reminding us that becoming an anti-racist is not always easy and is a long process that we have to do ourselves.

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