Guest Post: My Relief Society’s Anti-Racism Discussion
By Nicole Sbitani
The Relief Society mission statement declares that sisters in Zion “work in unity to help those in need.” The past few months have reminded me that there is much work for us to do, particularly in support of our Black siblings in the United States and around the world. Many white women have only just begun to realize how much racism is still hurting God’s children. They are starting to recognize the harm they cause through their silence and complacency with white supremacy. And as a woman of color who is non-Black and of mixed-race, I have also begun to recognize my participation in this system as well.
Setting up this discussion is an important example of how women in the church can begin the much-needed and long-overdue work of anti-racism. On one hand, the fact that almost all of those who participated on the call were white women (with the exception of myself) was positive in the sense that this is work white people primarily need to do. At the same time, it is problematic in the sense that it underscores how our ward (like many areas of the church in the United States) is so lacking in diversity and so unrepresentative of our local area demographics that any Relief Society activity is almost always composed of only white women. For example, in the Washington, DC, metro area where I live, white people only make up about 40.4% of the population. Attending most of the wards in our region, however, anyone can see that the overwhelming majority of members are white.
Before the meeting, I received an email from my ward’s Relief Society leadership inviting all the women in the ward to participate in a discussion group on race and building a better community. The invitation included the following:
“We recognize that each individual is in a different place in processing the tragic death of George Floyd, recent protests, and overall injustice. Some may welcome this discussion opportunity, while others may not feel comfortable participating. If you are not in a place where you feel ready to engage on this topic, there is no pressure or expectation of participation in this discussion. For those who would like to participate, our intention is to provide an opportunity to talk about understanding others, elements of a good community, and how we can build a better community.”
Other Relief Societies facilitating similar discussions can opt for a more or less direct approach. If the invitation is less direct than this, I believe the focus on anti-racism will inevitably become lost and muddled in platitudes of generalized wishes for peace. On the other hand, a more direct approach in terms of pointing out the necessity of everyone—especially white women—needing to participate in anti-racism work would be useful to clarify that as sisters in Zion we are committed to lifting up our fellow human beings. In a society pervaded by white supremacy, the Relief Society charge to “work in unity to help those in need” cannot be accomplished without working to uproot racism. An alternative invitation could emphasize the importance of engaging in long-term anti-racism work however each sister is able, whether they participate in this discussion or not.
Just under ten of us met over video chat. Here’s what I took away from it:
– Addressing issues directly: From the first invitation, the organizers acknowledged the issues of race and building community directly. They highlighted how as sisters in Zion (particularly as mostly-white sisters in Zion), we have the power, the ability, and the responsibility to build a better, more inclusive community for all of God’s children. It was refreshing to hear something more focused than a generic expression of hope, and it set the tone for a more substantive conversation.
– Leveraging existing resources: Participants were invited to review race and community building prompts from the National Museum of African American History and Culture in advance. This gave us a common reference and helpful framework for discussion.
– Setting ground rules: At the top of the meeting, leadership set helpful ground rules such as using “I” instead of “we” statements and avoiding over-generalizations.
– Creating a safe space: People shared personal experiences and thoughts in an environment of openness. Sisters didn’t always agree. But because the space was safe and filled with love and respect, we discussed uncomfortable and sensitive topics.
– Sharing actionable advice: I was thankful sisters offered practical tips and lessons learned for improving our individual anti-racism work. For example, we discussed how to speak up against racism in a group setting, including in church. One sister shared how speaking up in the moment against racist teachings in Sunday School, for example, is much more important than waiting to make sure we have the perfect rebuttal prepared. Moreover, there is often a fear among women that we will come across as too emotional when we disagree with the status quo, or concern about being criticized as “chasing away the Spirit” if we become angry, especially at church. Yet if we look to the scriptures, there are countless times we see God respond justly to grievous sins and false teachings with righteous anger. Passion, emotion, and righteous anger are appropriate when responding to racism and any ideology or practice that devalues the equal, divine worth of our spirit siblings.
What Could Be Improved
– Allocating time: I’ll be the first to admit I talked a lot more than many who attended. Part of that was because I wanted to push the conversation into more uncomfortable territory and part of that was because an hour went by too fast. I would recommend at least two hours for a meeting like this and to use something similar to Zoom breakout rooms to help everyone get speaking time. For instance, my employer recently facilitated a session where breakout rooms of five people each discussed the same set of open-ended questions on race and current events and it worked well.
– Representing all: As I previously mentioned, our Relief Society (like our ward) is overwhelmingly white and not representative of our geographic area. I appreciated that the organizers acknowledged this explicitly during the conversation and recognized the topic needed to be discussed. At the same time, we must make our spaces more inclusive and diverse so we aren’t a group of mostly (or only) white women in such discussions. We need to educate ourselves about church history, including past racist teachings, and we must separate church culture from doctrine. One sister highlighted her experience attending a meeting of the Genesis Group, an African-American auxiliary of the church, saying she became aware that Gospel music, clapping, and other things unheard-of in our church’s predominantly white culture can be a reverent and meaningful part of our church’s worship, too.
Women in the church have a crucial role to play in anti-racism work on an individual, family, and societal level. We have an enormous work to do. But Relief Society is not a bad place to start.
Nicole is an adult convert, a non-Black WOC, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com. (The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.)