Below is an shortened version of David Zarembka's Address to Baltimore Yearly Meeting´s Annual Session August 4, 2009
Dave is Coordinator of African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams and has given permission for me to share this with you. I really like what he says.
About five years ago I was at St Louis Friends Meeting (unprogrammed). Early in the Meeting, an elderly woman gave a message in which she indicated that "Whites" were "us" and "Blacks" were "them." Uhgh! I couldn´t let this pass, but then Quaker Meeting is not a debating society and one needs to respect what people say, even when it shows racism. So after thinking deeply on the proper approach, I shared the message about the uselessness of racial classifications and the need to see everyone as a human being.
After the Meeting, a half European/half Asian member of the meeting thanked me for my comments as she felt that some response needed to be made. The really discouraging aspect of this interaction was that a young, White man was listening to us and he commented, "I didn´t hear any racial slurs". So I had to explain to him that when you call "Whites" as "us" and "Blacks" as "them," you are excluding Blacks as a separate, alien group.
Then, recently a few years ago, there was a Quaker conference in Washington, DC and one of the main Quaker leaders working with the African Great Lakes Initiative in Rwanda was going to be in the United States at that time. I arranged for him to be a presenter at the conference. About two months later, the invitation was withdrawn because the organizers of the conference said that this particular African was homophobic. Really - I didn´t know that! I complained but he was not put back on the agenda, although he was allowed to attend like anyone else. It then occurred to me that the organizers were confusing this Rwandan Quaker leader with a Kenyan Quaker leader who at that time was publicly quoted as opposing the elevation of the gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire. Are all Africans the same? Were they confusing two black men without investigating?
So I talked with the Rwandan and found that he was not homophobic. To really test this issue, I arranged for him stay with a lesbian couple in DC during the Quaker conference. The organizers of the conference had seen themselves as "us" and Africans as "them." One aspect of this labeling is that all of "them" are given stereotypes.
There are so many variations of this. White versus Black, rich/poor, male/female, educated/illiterate, pro-gay/homophobic, pro-choice/anti-abortion, blue states/red states, Friends General Conference (FGC)/Friends United Meeting (FUM). The list can be endless.
My understanding is that we all do this "us/them" dichotomy too frequently. When we do, it becomes a hindrance to understanding an issue and more importantly a block towards a resolution. As peacemakers fondly say all the time, "Conflict among humans is inevitable. It is how people deal with this conflict that is important". My small bit of wisdom that I am adding to this is that when a conflict is defined between "us" and "them", it becomes almost impossible to resolve. Think of the major, long-standing conflicts in the world-Israel/Palestine, Hindu/Muslim in India and Pakistan, the Christian/Muslim conflict now called the "War on Terror". All are based on an "us-them" mindset. An important attribute of these dichotomies is that no one is allowed to be in the middle. People are not allowed to be "half and half", to be mediators, to be neutral, to stand outside the fray. This is why us-them conflicts are so hard to resolve.