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Leading through strength of diversity

APCE hears a white South African share wisdom on expanding our anti-racism efforts

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Warren Chalklen

LOUISVILLE — A self-described “proud South African,” Dr. Warren Chalklen had plenty to teach the 1,000 or so people attending last week’s online national gathering of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators about how diversity makes churches and organizations stronger.

Having grown up in a mixed-race family in segregated South Africa, Chalklen displayed a photo of the home from which his family was evicted after his father lost his job. Families and friends opened their hearts and homes to Chalklen and his white brother, but not to his sister, who is Black. It was the first time he’d become aware of racial injustice.

During his near 90-minute talk Friday, he told the gathered educators and clergy that “to challenge injustice, we have to be uncomfortable, and to be uncomfortable, we have to be brave.”

Chalklen, who trains doctors and nurses in anti-racist practices across the country, was upfront about what he called “my bias.”

“Diversity is the entry point to conversation about social justice. That’s what leading through strength of diversity is all about,” he said. “A key perspective for me is there is no such things as neutrality. The biblical texts are not neutral.”

A strategy for transformation can be found in the acronym LIPS, he said, for Language, Institutions, Policies and Symbols.

On the first element, language, Chalklen recalled being surprised when he arrived in the United States that most white people referred to themselves as “Americans,” while people of color were referred to as African Americans or Native Americans. Why, he wondered. What he learned is that many white people think of themselves as Americans because they are white, requiring people of color to describe or qualify themselves. “Language is critical about who belongs,” Chalklen said.

Language can also influence the mission of institutions. Police departments call themselves police forces, not police services. “A force uses force,” he said. “A service conducts itself in a way that is service oriented.”

Policies are ways of determining procedures and actions to, in turn, determine priorities and the resources needed.

Symbolism, finally, “carries meaning that represents people in power, such as the faces of four white men on Mt. Rushmore, “as if Indigenous people weren’t there,” Chalklen said.

Participants then put what they’d just learned into an online discussion of the tape of Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York City’s Central Park who called the police last year when a Black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to put her dog on a leash in an area where park policy required leashing dogs.

“Please call the cops,” he tells her. “Please tell them whatever you like. Please don’t come close to me,” he says when she advances on him. She, on the other hand, uses language including, “I am going to call the cops and I am going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

“She assumes when the police arrive and see a white woman and a Black man, the Black man will be the suspect,” Chalklen said. The fact that Christian Cooper filmed the incident is significant, he said. “We can begin to make up our own minds,” he said. “When we have the media, it can be a source of justice for us.”

Among the policies involved in this case is one that’s unwritten but underlying, Chalklen said: A white person belongs in Central Park, but Black folks aren’t allowed roam freely.

“As a white person, I can’t go to my sister and ask, ‘How can I dismantle racism?’ when she’s dealing with it on a daily basis,” he said. “Equity is a posture. It’s not a destination. People say, ‘I’m woke,’ but what you label yourself is irrelevant. Show me the work. Show me the cost. If you’re not experiencing cost, then you’re not working for justice.”

During a question-and-answer session following his talk, Chalklen was asked how educators and pastors can help children see diversity in the world.

“Growing up in South Africa, I accessed the world through my imagination, reading and watching TV,” he said. “I lived in a segregated country but could still access the imagination of others.” The first step, he said, is exposure to such things as museums and great books. The second step is to engage in curiosity and critical thinking. “We think a mission trip will transform [youth], but it can reinforce existing bias and racial stereotypes,” Chalklen said. “It’s the powerful interacting with the powerless.”

He called liberation “the beloved community” and equated it with heaven. “We have to do the hard work of building the world we want,” he said. “We all have spheres of control,” the spaces where “we can begin to create the world in which we want to live with others.”

One reason racism is such an uncomfortable topic is that many of us have been taught to feel shame in conversations around race, he said.

“When I feel shame I don’t engage, and when I don’t engage I’m unable to identify, and when I’m not able to identify I’m not able to be an active participant in dismantling [racism],” he said.

As an educator, an important lesson has been a ideal someone once shared with him: “Warren, equity is when students teach you how to teach them.”

“Listen and humble yourself,” he suggested, “an in that, real education can take place.”

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