Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Tobin Miller Shearer have worked together on dismantling racism for almost 30 years. They are co-founders of the Roots of Justice Anti-Oppression Program (formerly Damasus Road Anti-Racism Program). Been in the Struggle offers the wisdom they have gained over that time, including the need for an “antiracist spirituality.” But such a spirituality, they warn, “is only as good as the results it emboldens, strengthens and sustains.”
Because dismantling racism is difficult, long-term work, those involved need spiritual resources. One of these is analysis — looking at the reality of racism and bringing it to account.
The book provides such a helpful analysis and calls readers to participate in confronting racism. An important part of that for white readers is to recognize that racism is a systemic problem, not simply an interpersonal issue. It means looking at white supremacy, the cultural idea that white people “should be trusted more without having to do anything to earn that trust except to show up.”
The authors embrace Blackness in an anti-Black culture and consider the Black/white, good/bad dynamic that shows up in the language of faith (they provide many examples, such as being washed white as snow or being cast into utter darkness). Anti-Black racism, they write, “is a window through which we can understand U.S. racial hierarchies, how they function and how the culture itself compels everyone to participate in it.”
The authors consider antiracism in popular culture and again provide many examples, both good and bad. On the one hand, popular culture affirms white supremacy or promotes the idea of the white savior. On the other, it prompts conversation, provides spiritual icons, models resistance to racism, invites celebration, fosters intersectional discussion and helps us imagine a future yet to be.
The authors look at foundational principles for integrated relationships. One is “the heart and gut work of grieving on both the individual and collective levels. I have felt this grief as I have learned the experience of friends who are Persons of Color.” Another grounding practice is “a commitment to give veto power to the Persons of Color in the relationship.” In the authors’ relationship, when they cannot agree on how to proceed, Regina has veto power. A third practice is to be about more than just the work — to have fun together.
The authors note that whites often have trouble identifying as white. Their Roots of Justice trainings encourage whites to caucus, deepen their analysis of whiteness and learn how to reach out to other white people with understanding. They write: “The more we can help others understand, for example, the racism present in real estate practices, the criminal justice system and the health-care system — to use just three such examples — the more it becomes possible that those we are speaking with may reconsider how racism operates around them.”
The authors acknowledge that discussing racism raises conflict because of the imbalance of power. They quote organizer Robert Terry: “Being white means not having to think about it.” Black people, on the other hand, must learn “the ways of white folks” in order to be safe. “Learning to work together in antiracist ways,” they write, “means understanding power imbalances.” At the same time, “Relationships built on guilt, pity or a grudging ‘It’s the right thing to do’ will not equip us to build the kind of antiracist world we imagine.”
The authors devote a chapter to the spiritual work of institutional transformation. They provide seven principles: 1) Anticipate and work through three paradigm shifts — acknowledging that racism is present with us and has been for a long time; understanding that the purpose of racism is to maintain white power and privilege; and recognizing that this power and privilege shape white people. 2) Analyze white structures. 3) Start with what is usually ignored. 4) Evaluate results before intentions. 5) Establish accountability to communities of color. 6) Remember that money matters. 7) Practice mutual support.
Been in the Struggle includes many stories — of the authors’ experiences as well as those of historical figures and those working today to dismantle racism. Their tone is humble yet insistent on the critical need for such work. They lift up their own relationship as a model for that work.
The work of antiracism includes bearing witness, fostering justice and sustaining effort for the long haul. It requires spiritual discipline. This book will help us all in taking part in that important task.
Gordon Houser is author of Present Tense:
A Mennonite Spirituality.