“Difficult Questions” Addressed by Racial Forum

Personal Reflections by Colette Harrison

An audience of more than 50 people participated in a discussion of challenging issues faced by the Bahá’í community. The August 9 Regional Council’s Racial Justice and Unity Forum featured three presenters: Van Gilmer, Sahar Sattarzadeh, and Masud Olufani particpated in a panel discussion moderated by Gwen Etter-Lewis [1]. Each presenter selected one of five questions they received ahead of time and shared their personal reflections.

Moderator Dr. Gwen Etter-Lewis, Professor of Intercultural Studies at Miami University

The questions selected were:

  • How can the community-building process be used to eliminate racism?
  • How does systemic racism affect the Bahá’í community and how can we overcome it?
  • What do Bahá’ís need to know about racism inside and outside of the Bahá’í community?

Their responses gave me quite a bit to reflect on and consider how they apply in my own community. The key concepts for me were to first build loving personal relationships, and then consult on how to take more effective collective action based on the interests, skills, talents, and availability of our fellow Bahá’ís. Also, to collaborate with like-minded individuals and organizations.

Some of my personal “key take-aways” were:

Panelist Van Gilmer, Choir Director, soloist, composer, activist, and speaker on racial prejudice
  1. We need to determine ways to reach more people of African descent, if we want to make the process of community building inclusive. We have to speak sincerely, with love fostered in intimate conversations. It is essential that we consider how we go about including African Americans in the planning and execution of activities. All must know their contributions are welcomed, genuine recognized, and valued.
  2. Systemic racism has affected the Bahá’í community. That community must be reframed and reimagined through systemic oneness as a countermeasure to systemic racism that infuses every facet of human life. Viewed through this lens, slavery survives under another guise — disparities in education; criminal (in)justice, housing — to name a few.
  3. We have to ask ourselves: What type of community do I live in? What can I do to transform it into what we believe is possible?
    We must strive to make our social reality conform to spiritual principles; we often don’t realize how much anti-Blackness permeates the fabric of our society, so we need to engage in social action and the discourses of society to apply Bahá’í beliefs about the oneness of humanity. (A Nov 27, 2001 letter from the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer on “Agents of Social Change” was referenced.)
  4. We need to acknowledge that racism still exists! Overcoming racial prejudice is the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community. We need to bring ourselves to account each day — focusing on how our actions support and promote racial justice (or not). While being outwardly focused we also must attend to our inner being. We must recognize that we are family. We need to confront and address those attitudes and behaviors that are antithetical to the goals we strive to achieve. We can’t give up on ourselves or the wider community. We must keep our eyes on the prize and do the daily work; it’s my responsibility to confront those things that make me uncomfortable and stand firm. There is also so much to learn from those outside the Bahá’í community — practices we can learn, as we link up with others in a synergistic process.

“A long and thorny road, beset with pitfalls, still remains untraveled, both by the white and the Negro exponents of the redeeming Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.”

Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice

After these brief presentations, the panelists were invited to talk with each other before taking questions. Here’s what I gleaned from both their conversation and the questions posed:

Panelist Masud Olufani, Actor, mixed-media artist, sculptor, and writer

Inclusion at every stage is essential; however, it’s not always there … How do we reach out in love to those who haven’t had the opportunity to share these messages personally? Get to really know people who are “not like us”. Intentionality is key! Move from head space to heart space. We have the moral responsibility to consciously and deliberately ask, “Who is missing from the table?” Bringing together a diverse group to work on all aspects of the Robert Turner [2] monument project is a good example. Unless we continuously work to address the disparities in all facets of life, we are not doing what we must to bring about the oneness of mankind. Think about where and from whom you buy goods and services, and how their underlying policies and actions affect the wider community. What values and actions do we want to support? Who do we want to engage with and why? We need to seek out innovative ways to connect with those around us.

We must continually ask ourselves: How can a Black person be sure of our sincerity and trustworthiness? Do we White people recognize when we’re operating from an inherent sense of superiority and come across as patronizing when we reach out to Black people? How do we combat the feelings that many Black people have that they are tolerated but not included?

Q: How do we have honest conversations in our Bahá’í communities about what’s working and what isn’t?

A: Dissent can take place without it being disunifying; be honest with our concerns; consultation is key — sometimes it may need to be processed with a small group to figure out how to bring things up in a wider group.

Q: How can we use the core activities more effectively?

Panelist Sahar D. Sattarzadeh, Professor of Education Studies at DePauw University and Research Associate at Nelson Mandela University

A: Show up and participate! That’s how we can spiritualize the community and make it better; where it can coalesce…. Show up authentically and genuinely, even when it seems difficult — that’s part of the “adulting” of our community. When we take action, we are assisted by the “Concourse on High”.

Q: What is the role of Black Americans in this process?

A: There needs to be a demonstration of trust from the Whites and willingness to forgive from the Blacks (“centering” the Pupil of the Eye [3] by the Whites …) There is an archetype of the bloodthirsty tyrant that can be seen in systemic racism — and it is right to be angry with that; how that is then processed and expressed is the choice needed to make that more effective — justifiable righteous indignation must be channeled into activity to love deeper and speak truth — use it as a transformative force.

Q: How can we include “others” without being accused of “tokenizing” them?

A: Intentionality from a heart-centered space — genuinely wanting the input of the “other.” It must stem from a place of love!

Closing comments from the panelists included:

It’s frustrating that it seems we’re not able to do what we know the words tell us to do … Don’t pigeonhole people — we are multi-faceted and multi-talented — learn what is true and important for and about each individual; recognize that diversity & inclusivity mean we are all full partners (and that within the Black — as in the White — community there are many different “cultures” and perspectives represented).

We need to work toward, and be more open to understanding about, the significance of the spiritual realities of being “Pupil of the Eye” — don’t just invite them to talk about race, there are many other things that are important about them and their interests.

We need more encouragement of each other rather than impatience — being intentional about our relationships, being more aware of what we say and do. Intentionality and encouragement is a force that unlocks human potential.

Lastly, I wanted to share the questions that were not addressed, but are well worth each of our personal consideration and reflections — especially in light of what was shared:

  • How do I understand and overcome my own personal prejudices? How can I develop the courage to speak and act?
  • How do I start conversations about race? What terms do I use? How do I act effectively? How can I interrupt acts of racism?

I add to these questions I’m pondering from another group I recently participated in:

  • Am I doing what God said I should be doing all the time or am I being prideful and only in alignment when it’s convenient or materially advantageous?
  • Am I involved in Racial Justice work from a spiritual place or am I doing it from a purely intellectual place?

Definitely things I need to ponder further as well as reflect on with my fellow Bahá’ís (and others)!

Colette Harrison

[1] From the event invitation:
We look forward to seeing you at the August 9 session of the Racial Justice and Unity Forum. Our topic “Difficult Questions Facing the Bahá’í Community” will feature four distinguished members of the Bahá’í community who have extensive experience addressing issues of racial prejudice. The panel will be moderated by Dr. Gwen Etter-Lewis, professor of Intercultural Studies at Miami University. The panel will feature:
Van Gilmer—Choral director and soloist who has performed, arranged and conducted music for over sixty years. Born and raised in the Jim Crow south of Greensboro, North Carolina, Van’s early encounters with racism helped to shape his activism as a non-violent protestor during the student sit-in movement of the early 1960’s. Van Gilmer is known for his honesty and eloquence when speaking about racial prejudice.
Masud Olufani—Atlanta based actor, mixed media artist, and writer whose studio practice is rooted in the discipline of sculpture. He has presented at the Association of Bahá’í Studies and on bahaiteaching.org.
Sahar D. Sattarzadeh—Assistant Professor of Education Studies at DePauw University and a research associate at the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University. She believes that scholarship and teaching have the capacity to serve as forms of “activism,” an ever-evolving means to achieving social transformation.

[2] Robert Turner (1855/6-1909) was the first African American Bahá’í in the United States.

[3] “Bahá’u’lláh,” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá moreover has said, “once compared the colored people to the black pupil of the eye surrounded by the white. In this black pupil is seen the reflection of that which is before it, and through it the light of the spirit shineth forth.” The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi, 1938.