by Margaret Damghani
Growing up in the Baha’i Faith exposed me to discourse on race unity and discussions on fighting racism within ourselves and in the community at large at a young age. It’s an important thing for white people to be exposed to the discomfort of confronting racism with people you share a common goal with, and while I learned and grew from these discussions, our Community has much work to do, and the levels of understanding of systemic racism amongst us as individuals within the Baha’i Community vary widely.
Recent letters from the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and the Universal House of Justice have prompted discussions on racism, including my own smaller community.
At a recent Feast, we read and discussed some of these letters, such as the one from February 4, 2018 from the Universal House of Justice, which states:
“The House of Justice appreciates your thoughtful comments and admires your unflagging efforts over many years to address the challenge of racism in your nation, particularly at a time of its overt resurgence in a manner that would justifiably give rise to despair even in the stoutest heart. However discouraging the present events, however outrageous the injustices laid bare, however intractable the problem appears, such fresh evidences of this pernicious blight on American society can come as no surprise to those friends well informed of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s dire warnings as well as Shoghi Effendi’s trenchant analysis anticipating the ultimate eradication of this evil tendency from the lives and the hearts of their fellow citizens. How much more must people endure in the years ahead? The current polarization in American society makes constructive dialogue and action ever more elusive. Even those fair-minded individuals who long to free themselves and their society from this problem—surely a vast portion of the nation—are paralyzed and divided by their divergent views, unable to create the unity necessary to advance along the path of constructive change.”
We do indeed see our fellow community members acting surprised at the “fresh” evidences of racism in our society.
Another letter we read from the same body from April 10, 2011 states:
“For this is not a process that some carry out on behalf of others who are passive recipients—the mere extension of a congregation and invitation to paternalism—but one in which an ever-increasing number of souls recognize and take responsibility for the transformation of humanity set in motion by Bahá’u’lláh. In an environment of love and trust born of common belief, practice,and mission, individuals of different races will have the intimate connection of heart and mind upon which mutual understanding and change depend. As a result of their training and deepening, a growing number of believers will draw insights from the Writings to sensitively and effectively address issues of racial prejudice that arise within their personal lives and families, among community members, and in social settings and the workplace.”
One person asked how and if this excerpt could possibly be talking about racism within the Baha’i Community. It’s a question that many might have, because they’ve never recognized, experienced or heard of racism, as prevalent as it is in American society, within the Baha’i community. Most people that are unaware of what racism within the Baha’i Community looks like would likely be either white or Persian.
Racism very often manifests itself in the Baha’i community, in the United States, and many parts of the world, as microaggressions (for lack of a better word)— everyday digs, questions, misunderstandings and attitudes that build up to cause hurt and estrangement for people of color in our communities. Racism can also be seen when overtly racist tropes that are common in the United States are repeated at Baha’i gatherings (or in online Baha’i discussion groups), or in racist stereotypes imported from home countries when people immigrate to the United States, since anti-black racism is hardly only an American phenomena. Apathy and dismissive attitudes from white and Persian believers to the plight of black and native communities with regards to institutionalized racism is racism, too.
So, which microaggressions and tropes are often repeated by Baha’is, yet sound acceptable to most white people within the Community without further self reflection and education?
- I don’t see color
- Racism is in the past. We had a black president and things aren’t like they were when I was a kid.
- Labeling people as white or black is the real problem
- Paternalism and derailing
- A lot of the problems in the black community would be relieved if: people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; black on black crime; victim blaming
- Calls for “kindness” towards white people when pointing out racism makes white people uncomfortable
- Telling people to calm down to be listened to
- Talking about racism is “divisive”
- Changing the subject to so-called “reverse racism” when a person of color talks about their experiences in life, including needing to be wary of white people for personal safety
- Calls for “unity” during discussion of present day inequality
- Tokenizing Baha’is of color in order to add “diversity” to Baha’i gatherings
- Belief that interracial marriage and families inoculates one against the trappings of a racist society
- Belief that multiracial people mark an end to racism
- Belief that anti-black racism and fetishizing mixed race people is a uniquely American problem
- Belief that cultural appropriation is always cultural appreciation
- Belief that anger is antithesis to spirituality
- Manifestations of respectability politics
- Thinking of racism only in terms of “good” and “bad” white people; white fragility
- Shutting down conversation of racism by calling it “politics”
- Classism is the real problem
Racism in America leads to regular state violence and discrimination towards people of color, yet most white Americans are completely apathetic or blame the discrimination in some collective form on black and native communities. That makes the naivety of white and Persian Baha’is microaggressive to a person of color at best. We can remember Shoghi Effendi’s directive for white Baha’is:
“Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds.”
Naivety is never meant to harm, or to hurt, but white Baha’is, in primarily white or Persian Baha’i communities, over 100 years after the Faith has been introduced to America, cannot assume their communities have no issues with racism simply because we have not witnessed anything overt. We have, inevitably, perpetrated a microaggression ourselves. Every one of us.
This is the part where white Baha’is tend to get angry and exclaim that they did not become Baha’is because they were racist! That it is not what we believe in! However, we are no different than other Americans and we have not, in any large percentage, educated ourselves more than other Americans on how to be actively anti-racist. We often repeat the mantra “there is only one race, the human race” whilst remaining naively unaware of how our attitudes can mirror the rest of society that dismisses the reality of life for black and native Americans.
We are largely unaware of how dismissive it sounds to someone when we repeat our variations of “There is only one human family” when a person of color brings up any of the realities of racism at Baha’i gatherings or in conversations about racism, online or in person. It feels as if we, as a collective Baha’i Community, tried to skip to the end goal of unity before the work of justice was anywhere near completed. Our zeal for and belief in Baha’u’llah’s message of racial unity somehow got misunderstood— we seem to think we have evolved much further in the process than we have. We must fully take in Baha’u’llah’s words, “The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity.”
And as we seek to advocate for justice in our core activities, Race Unity Day events, Holy Days, and community building activities, we need to think about the microaggressions we may accidentally commit.
I have been blessed with several friends in the Baha’i community and other areas of my life that were real with me. At the Baha’i race unity discussions I’d attend as a teen, often when a racist comment was repeated (I recall a friend claiming that slavery was over and it was time to stop talking about racism, at discussion specifically about understanding racism), I saw it being addressed by various Baha’is of color from a young age. The labor put in to educate me and others at these talks is invaluable to me, and represents nothing short of genuine love and overwhelming patience for us as co-religionists. We owe our fellow believers of color our appreciation by setting aside our ego and listening to the fact that we contribute to our imperfect communities in imperfect ways.
Each link to the topics that we as a community have problems perpetuating, or understanding the depth of, is from a black writer or other person of color. We as white and Persian Baha’is should take a posture of learning, admitting that the things we say that we think sound fine, may not be fine at all. They may be dismissive, microaggressive, or othering, good intentions aside.
It is true that we are all one family, and that race is a social construct. We may indeed be charged with seeing each other as souls, and not bodies that are confined to a racial identity. But until the vast majority of white people understand how deeply ingrained racism is the world over, and how much it is still affecting people’s lives, bringing up unity without understanding justice will not solve the problem.
Race is a social construct, but racism is real.