by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Jalane Schmidt came into the world, almost literally, in the transition from “Civil Rights” to “Black Power.”
Schmidt, now associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville (a position she has held since 2015, though she began teaching at UVA in 2007), was at Bethel College April 16-17 to talk about white privilege and white supremacy.
A 1991 Bethel graduate, Schmidt had a pointed message and challenge for the white people in her audience – many of them with a history of social activism – to use their inherent power to be “accomplices” in people of color’s struggle for equity, dignity and freedom.
Schmidt was born on the South Side of Chicago in October 1968, “almost six months to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated,” she says. “My parents could stand at their front door and see buildings going up in flames” after King’s death was announced.
Schmidt, who is biracial, was adopted at birth by Kansans Steve and Wanda Ream Schmidt. They had moved to Chicago for Steve to do his alternative service during the Vietnam War. He then went to the University of Chicago for graduate school and worked as a teacher, while Wanda was a nurse.
The family attended Woodlawn Mennonite Church for the first two years of Schmidt’s life. The church building was heavily damaged by arson in July 1970 because of the (African-American) pastor’s refusal to cooperate with a local “black power” group. Steve and Wanda decided to take their two small daughters (Jill was born about 18 months after Jalane) and move back to Kansas.
Steve and Wanda then helped found an intentional Christian community in Newton called New Creation (it is still New Creation Fellowship Church, a Mennonite congregation, though no longer a community). One of its main reasons for existence, Schmidt says, was that members wanted to live simply, with incomes below taxable levels so as not to contribute to the U.S. military budget.
So from an early age, Schmidt was steeped in the social justice implications of the Bible and the Anabaptist faith. That upbringing made her into a campus activist at Bethel as a member of the Peace Club and the women’s collective Sappho, led her to a Ministry Inquiry Program pastoral internship at the interracial Markham (Illinois) Mennonite Church, and pointed her toward Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office after graduation from Bethel.
She planned to go to seminary and expected it to be the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. But a number of her colleagues among affordable-housing advocates – a main part of her Washington Office portfolio – plus Bethel mentors and family members had attended or graduated from Harvard Divinity School, and encouraged her to consider it.
At Harvard, she especially enjoyed studying ethics, biblical and church history and African-American religious history. “I was fascinated by the African-American struggle for peace and justice,” she says, “and also with the religions of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.”
It was the latter interest that turned her from an earlier intention toward pastoral ministry to further studies. She has an M.Div. and went on to earn M.A. and a Ph.D. from Harvard as well, both in religious studies. Her dissertation focused in part on 20th-century Cuban festivals for the Virgin of Charity.
At UVA, she teaches classes such as “Conquest and Religions” and “Magic and Witchcraft” – but also “Whiteness and Religion” and “Whiteness: A Racial Category.”
In her first Bethel talk, “Huck Finn Moments: Using White Privilege to Dismantle White Supremacy,” Schmidt went through a list of white Americans who had been willing to “go to hell” as Huck Finn was willing, in his words, when he decided not to turn in his friend and traveling companion, Jim, a runaway slave.
The list started with Samuel Worcester, who defended Cherokee Nation sovereignty in court vs. the state of Georgia, leading to a Supreme Court decision that the United States must honor its treaty with the Cherokees. President Andrew Jackson defied the ruling, resulting in the Trail of Tears, and Worcester later died in “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma).
It concluded with a small group of UVA students who resisted a white supremacist torch rally on the evening of Aug. 11, 2017, and were assaulted while police stood by and did nothing, and with Heather Heyer, killed when a white supremacist attacked a group of counter-protesters with his car during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
In her second presentation the next day, Schmidt talked specifically about Charlottesville history from the Civil War to the present day, setting the context for the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017.
She told how whites and people of color in Charlottesville organized to resist the alt-right and white supremacist groups who had targeted the town (because of a long, drawn-out and still ongoing effort to remove two statues of Confederate generals that date from the 1920s, and which Schmidt’s historical research shows to have been erected to help solidify Jim Crow law).
Schmidt told of “holding space” – rhetorically (through spoken and printed word and social media), politically and physically.
The latter takes place largely through “people showing up,” she said.
In Charlottesville, that meant showing up to disrupt, with signs and shouts, white supremacists and neo-Nazis meeting at outdoor tables at Charlottesville restaurants; showing up at city council meetings first to push for the statues’ removal and then to try to get the council to deny Unite the Right a permit; showing up on Aug. 12 ready to be arrested, to be injured, possibly to be killed.
In Charlottesville and Albemarle County, at the time of the Civil War, a simple majority (52 percent) of the population was enslaved – yet today there are two large monuments to Southern generals and one small plaque on the sidewalk to mark the site of a slave auction.
“We are standing with the 52 percent,” Schmidt says. “We want their narrative to be raised up and celebrated, not those of their enslavers.
“You can’t give an inch, you have to keep showing up and showing up. ‘Ignore them and they’ll go away’ does not work. ‘Stop fanning the flames’ [is useless advice].”
She repeated several times her message of “Accomplices, not allies.”
Being an ally, you can “pat yourself on the back” for being supportive while not actually doing a lot, she says. But an accomplice is “a co-conspirator, someone with skin in the game, willing to take a risk.”
Being an accomplice also implies you are taking your orders from someone else, which is imperative, Schmidt says.
“White people, you are joining in a struggle that people of color have been carrying on for centuries,” she says. “You have to give up the need to be in control” and take cues and directions from people of color.
“Resist white supremacy. Inconvenience yourself. Stop being polite. Get comfortable with making racists uncomfortable.”
After the events of last August, when the narrative they intended to communicate was disrupted, the alt-right and white supremacist movements trying to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville have largely imploded, Schmidt says.
“Do what you can to throw a monkey wrench in this thing called white supremacy. White supremacy only functions with collusion. It doesn’t take that many people to stop cooperating or colluding for it to fall.”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2016-17 Forbes.com analysis Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu