We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently.
Friends House London, the headquarters of Quakers in the UK, recently renamed the William Penn room in favor of Benjamin Lay, an abolitionist Quaker. The controversy around renaming this room has produced many arguments for and against. One of the common arguments against the renaming is that we are rewriting history. But history is intact – there are no new historical facts here. We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently.
As Friends, with a testimony to equality and a promise to be anti-racist, we naturally feel some guilt about the fact that we have long revered someone who was an enslaver. It’s hard to accept that we as individuals are imperfect, flawed. I believe that this unease creates the sort of cognitive dissonance we are seeing in the current discussion.
Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results when our actions conflict with our values. For example, we might feel cognitive dissonance if we drive a car while campaigning for climate change. In the current case, the dissonance comes from our belief that racism is wrong and that we are good people. This doesn’t square with the fact that some of our actions as well as some of the actions of William Penn, who we admire, were racist. The cognitive dissonance we feel in the context of racism has a separate name: white fragility.
I believe that the action on our part that is creating the dissonance is the fact that we didn’t care that Penn was an enslaver. It’s not the historical fact of Penn’s enslavement of people that is the problem for us, but the newly acknowledged fact that we didn’t care until now. It’s not about Penn and the customs of his time; the custom of our time demands that we bring enslaving into the light. And that forces us to acknowledge that until now we didn’t care.
How much of the emotion around this issue comes from white fragility and the fact that our failure to notice points to our own racism?
Viewed through this lens, the arguments about renaming rooms or buildings or taking down statues can be understood as efforts to reduce the guilt we feel: if it’s ok to leave the rooms or the buildings or the statues, then it’s ok not to notice that these are racist. Then we are not obliged to notice that we ourselves are racist.
Perhaps another way to reduce the dissonance is to recognize that it is caused by the reverence we want to feel for someone who is fundamentally flawed. There are two ways we might reduce this dissonance. First, we might remember and accept that we are all flawed, that we can simultaneously do good things and bad things, and that our heroes always have feet of clay. In this way we can live with William Penn’s racism and perhaps begin to live with our own.
Secondly, we might question the need to revere other people in the context of our testimony of equality. Perhaps instead of celebrating individuals it would be better to celebrate the actions that let their lives speak, knowing that these come from flawed humans. Examples of those actions might be creating a space for religious freedom, fighting enslavement, working for equal rights for women and children, working for climate justice and racial justice. The list is long.
Then perhaps we can let go of the distraction of naming rooms, buildings and statues and begin the hard work of understanding our own racism. When we can bear to look at that, we may find ourselves needing to know more about white fragility and the structural racism that has benefitted us as white people.
When we are formed in a racist society, it’s not our fault if we are racist. However, it IS our fault if we choose to stay racist.
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