In The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi laid out a path for the U.S. and Canadian Baha’i communities to contribute to the transformation of their societies, as summarized in introduction to the Advent of Divine Justice. Addressing the United States in particular, he identified “racial prejudice” as “the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Baha’i community,” for this issue permeated the entire nation, which he called “a prey to one of the most virulent and long-standing forms of racial prejudice.”
Though this message was penned in 1938, I believe it remains highly relevant today because the “cancerous growth of racial prejudice” continues to eat into the body politic. “Black Lives Matter”: this basic assertion of human value, proclaimed by the protestors who are filling the streets of U.S. cities, responds to the routine, systematic treatment of People of Color* as disposable. Racism remains “the most vital and challenging issue.” I wish to share with you Shoghi Effendi’s guidance on deconstructing it, along with my reflections as a white person living in the United States.
Baha’is widely understand that racism is, as Shoghi Effendi puts it, “a flagrant violation of the spirit that animates the Faith of Baha’u’llah.” Yet, we are not immune to it. As a white person, every day I receive implicit messages about People of Color from media representations, the (almost exclusively white) people I study and work with, and so on. Every day, I receive benefits from my whiteness that are largely invisible to me. It’s impossible to not absorb some bias in favor of people who look like me and against People of Color. And that is in spite of me knowing, as the Baha’i teachings make clear, that race is socially constructed, that we’re stronger when integrated, and that People of Color, especially Black people, have a preeminent spiritual destiny.
It is not enough to know all this. We all have an obligation to act: this is Shoghi Effendi’s paramount message about racism. As he exhorts white and Black Baha’is alike:
Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved. Let neither think that they can wait confidently for the solution of this problem until the initiative has been taken, and the favorable circumstances created, by agencies that stand outside the orbit of their Faith. Let neither think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country.
Standing on the sidelines of the struggle for racial justice is not an option for Baha’is, according to Shoghi Effendi.
Moreover, white people in particular need to step up. I am especially struck by Shoghi Effendi’s call to white Baha’is:
Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds.
To carry out this task of self-reform leading to social reform, we must resolve to grow our “genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort.” We must channel these qualities into constructive action. So, what kinds of action should we take?
Especially for the majority of us, who do not occupy positions of leadership, we might feel that we have no power to address a gargantuan social malady. But anti-racist efforts can be made in the most mundane of circumstances—they should occur “in every phase of their activity and life, whether in the Baha’i community or outside it, in public or in private, formally as well as informally.” Freedom from racial prejudice should be “deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Baha’i meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.”
Freedom from racial prejudice should be “deliberately cultivated”: I see deliberately as a key word here. To be deliberate means to be conscious and intentional. It certainly doesn’t allow for us to merely pay lip service to diversity and inclusion while keeping the status quo intact. When it comes to deliberately breaking down racial barriers, this means, in my perspective, to first devote concerted energy to becoming conscious of one’s standpoint and blind spots. For example, as a white person, I may take for granted the whiteness of the circles I move in; to grow my consciousness, I need to start asking why my workplace, my school, my friend group, my neighborhood, and yes, even my Baha’i community, are populated by people who look like me. Then, I need to address this disparity with intention. What can I do to make sure People of Color are included and heeded? How can I, as a member of the majority, work so that the interests of the majority do not steamroll those of the minority? How can I use my white privilege to dismantle white supremacy?
Shoghi Effendi provides Baha’is with one clear way to do so: to put members of minority groups at the center of our communities, rather than relegating them to the fringes, as so often happens in society at large. “If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated, it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favor of the minority, be it racial or otherwise,” he writes. Every Baha’i community “should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it.” Minority members should be favored for leadership roles:
So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community.
This policy of diversification applies to all “representative institutions” of the Baha’i community, including “Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees.” Imagine—Shoghi Effendi wrote this guidance in 1938. Today, more than eighty years later, we are just now seeing acknowledgment among corporate and political leaders that the whiteness of the highest echelons of power might be a problem. Shoghi Effendi was, I believe, ahead of his time in recognizing that only a diversity of leadership can make policies that advance the cause of social justice.
In closing, let me end with Shoghi Effendi’s rousing exhortation to dismantle white supremacy:
Casting away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries, and welcoming and encouraging the intermixture of races, and tearing down the barriers that now divide them, they should each endeavor, day and night, to fulfill their particular responsibilities in the common task which so urgently faces them.
*Editor’s note: We have chosen to capitalize the terms “People of Color” and “Black,” but not “white,” as a way of grammatically expressing an acknowledgement and dismantling of white privilege.