White Supremacy Teach-In

During last year’s presidential campaign there was an almost constant outcry from white conservative and working class voters who were tired of being called racist. They were especially tired of progressive white people on the coasts and in large cities calling them racist. ‘Just because we want to end illegal immigration doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support law and order doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support a temporary Muslim ban doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ Even traditional white supremacists started asking, ‘if it’s ok to say black lives matter, why is it racist to say white lives matter?

As you may expect, I have responses to each of these arguments. Each of them, if enacted in real life, have racist outcomes, regardless of the intent of the people who promote them. But this White Supremacy Teach-In is not about other peoples’ racism. It is about how white supremacy continues to operate in our beloved Unitarian Universalist faith.

I remember hearing that outcry during the campaign. I remember wondering for a moment: have I become a coastal elite, looking down my hypocritical nose at heartland, rust-belt and southern white people who support a candidate who expresses racist views? Some of you asked that same question: ‘Are we those coastal elites at whom conservative white voters are so angry?’ And to some degree, at least for me, the answer is ‘yes.’ I was—and continue to be—angry at not only the racism, but the misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry and classism driving major policy proposals and executive orders in Washington, DC, and having a negative social, economic and political impact not only on people of color, indigenous people, women, GLBTQ people, Muslims, but on many of those angry white voters as well. But if that is the extent of my analysis, then shame on me.

If the problem, as I assess it, lies only with those people out there and not with me too, then not only have I become that stereotype of the liberal, coastal elite, but I don’t really understand how white supremacy works. If all I really do is point fingers at other people, am I not excusing myself from taking any responsibility for the problem? Whenever I heard that outcry—stop calling us racist!—I wondered if there might be some legitimacy to the request, but only for a moment. It’s not a legitimate request. But the reason I feel confident saying that is because I know the problem does not lie simply with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Jeff sessions, Breitbart and Fox News, or police over-reaching, ICE deporting, and big energy companies building pipelines across lands sacred to indigenous people. It lies with white liberals too. It lies with me too. As much as our nation was founded on egalitarian ideals, it was also founded on an unexamined assumption and vision of white supremacy. Despite centuries of resistance, that foundation has yet to be sufficiently eroded, and thus white supremacy continues to move through virtually all aspects of our lives, including our religious lives. I don’t give those other white people a pass, because I don’t give a pass to myself, my family, my community or to this faith I love deeply.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles name the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the imperative of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. As such they call us to be constantly vigilant about confronting white supremacy and other forms of oppression in ourselves and in the world, and I could and should be preaching this sermon at any time. But why today? And, for that matter, why are more than 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country doing the same thing today?

It’s been a rough few months for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As many of you know, in early April, the Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the UUA in the midst of allegations of racism in hiring practices. For background, I want to read a section of a March 27th UU World magazine article entitled, “Critics Decry ‘White Supremacy’ in Hiring Practices.”

“The hiring in March of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the [UUA], an organization in which almost all the top staff positions are held by white people, has sparked controversy over whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values.” News of this hiring “emerged as UU religious professionals of color were gathered in Baltimore for [an] annual … retreat on March 17. One of those religious professionals [who identifies racially as Chicana-Latina] … told colleagues at the retreat that she had been a finalist for the job but had been told she was not “the right fit for the team….”

Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over [a] woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job. Critics pointed out that the five regional leads, who supervise the fifty members of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff … were all white ministers….

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing…. One of those emails—a letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals—said that ‘the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming….’ Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent …, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff.”[1]

Over the next few weeks the controversy grew. On April 1st Rev. Morales resigned, saying he had lost the trust of too many people to effectively lead the UUA at this time.[2]  Eventually more senior staff announced resignations.

As soon as the controversy erupted, many Unitarian Universalists religious professionals of color and their white allies began using the term white supremacy to describe it. (Actually, many of us have been using this term for decades, but this is the first time in my memory that Unitarian Universalists are engaging deeply with it.) The organization Black Lives UU and some of its partners called for congregations to dedicate their worship services on April 30th or May 7th to a “white supremacy teach-in.” That’s the reason for today’s service.

Wait. What? White supremacy? In Unitarian Universalism? How can white supremacy apply to our justice-seeking, Black-Lives-Matter supporting, refugee resettling, criminal-justice reforming, GBLTQ-welcoming, earth-saving, answering-the-call-of-love, liberal faith? There must be some mistake. White supremacy applies to those other white people—the Alt Right, the people who want border walls and Muslims bans, who desecrate Jewish cemeteries, who commit hate crimes. Well, yes, but in pointing my finger at someone else, I am likely excusing myself from taking responsibility for the problem. Let’s explore this.    

When my people of color, indigenous people and white antiracist colleagues—people who I know and love and have worked with for many years—use the term white supremacy to describe Unitarian Universalism, I’ve learned to listen. I’ve learned to open my heart, approach the conversation with curiosity, and try to understand why the term makes sense. I’ve learned people don’t use this term merely to be provocative. They don’t use it to be mean. They don’t use it to make white people feel guilty. They use it to make sense of their own painful experiences within Unitarian Universalism. They use it to help themselves and others understand why decent, compassionate, loving, justice-seeking white people can nevertheless do and say things that are hurtful, often with no awareness. They use it to help themselves and others understand why spiritually open, love-centered, justice-seeking institutions can fail to practice stated commitments to diversity, multiculturalism and antiracism. In using this term, no one is calling anyone else a white supremacist. No one is likening the UUA or our congregations to the KKK or the Alt Right. But they are pointing out how our institutions center white people, white identity, experience, culture, ministers, history and spirituality; and how it makes them feel excluded, ‘less than,’ and invisible. When a hiring pattern favoring white people for high level positions becomes apparent, it is evidence that a deep-seeded white supremacy is operating. Not a hateful, violent white supremacy, but one that nevertheless has a painful impact on the lives of people of color in our denomination.

Remember that the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were founded by white people to serve the spiritual needs of white people in the decades following the founding of the United States, which was by law a country for white people.[3] People of color were present among our spiritual forebears, but they were highly marginalized, in part because they had a less-than-human legal status in the larger society. White identity, values, culture, spirituality, music, food and concerns were at the center of early Unitarian and Universalist institutional life. That’s the white supremacy we’re talking about—that unexamined assumption that the center is always white. Today much has changed about our faith. And much has changed about America.  But if our institutions have never made a serious commitment to decentering whiteness, then it is always possible for white supremacy to operate. Even in the midst of our support for Black Lives Matter, refugee resettlement, former inmates, domestic workers and undocumented people—all of it essential work expressing our commitment to confronting racism—we can still perpetuate white supremacy.

Does it operate here? Yes. It’s not easy to say that, but yes. We were talking about this at the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meeting this past Tuesday. The UUA has a stated goal of hiring a diverse, multicultural staff. They failed to reach that goal, but at least they have such a goal. We can’t say the same thing. Over the past five years, as we’ve done hiring for two major positions, we never specified that a racially diverse staff should be an outcome of our hiring efforts. One could argue ‘that’s not white supremacy—we just want to hire the best person for the job regardless of race,’ or, ‘it’s impractical to set racial quotas with such a small staff.’ There are hundreds of arguments like these. But if we never affirm that we want racial and cultural diversity in our staff, in our leadership team, in our membership, in the artists whose work adorns our walls, in our Sunday speakers, or in our partners in the wider community, then we’ll never give ourselves the opportunity to think through how these goals might be achievable; whiteness will continue to be our unexamined institutional center; and the risk of white supremacy operating here will remain.

What can we do? If white supremacy operates because whiteness occupies the center of our institutions, then our task is to learn the art of decentering whiteness and centering the experiences of people of color and indigenous people. This is not a punishment or a demotion for white people. It does not mean white people are bad or any less deserving of love, care and support, or that we somehow have less inherent worth and dignity. But it does ask white people to intentionally make room for, to listen to, to follow, to be accountable to, to act in solidarity with people of color and indigenous people.

In my conversations with people of color here and in other UU congregations, people say it can be exhausting to be among white people who never seem to fully acknowledge the profound differences in life experience. One person says, “I would like someone to recognize that to be Black in America is to have lived an entire life perceived as inferior and illegitimate, directly and indirectly, daily from early childhood to adulthood compounded over a lifetime and that it is a significantly different way of existing and experiencing America than [for] those [who] benefit from white privilege. These differences need to be acknowledged.” And it’s not just the experience of oppression that people of color can bring to institutional center; they also bring traditions of resistance to oppression, as well as different experiences of culture, family, spirituality, language, history, creativity, vision. It strikes me that if these different experiences were regularly spoken aloud and fully embraced at the center of our congregational life, it would be much more difficult for white supremacy to operate in that unexamined, often unconscious way. It would be more visible, easier to confront; and our congregation would start to change in beautiful and compelling ways.

I’m describing a huge shift in the way Unitarian Universalism approaches its institutional life. I have no illusions that making this shift will be easy, or that we will not consciously and unconsciously seek ways to avoid it—old habits do indeed die hard. But I am convinced our principles call us to embrace this shift.

I leave you with words adapted from white UU antiracism activist, Chris Crass, who says: “White supremacy, you cannot have me. You cannot have my family; you cannot have my faith; you cannot have my congregation. I will not bow to the … fear you put on me. For today, I choose to rise — to rise for racial justice, to rise and show up for my siblings of color and indigenous siblings…. They have courageously led us into a fight to make ourselves the faith that these times call us to be: the faith of salvation from the death culture, the faith of [rituals, ceremonies, theologies, and sacred actions] that nourish and grow beloved community. I might be scared. I might be out of my comfort zone. I might not know what I’m supposed to do. I might even disagree…. Yet, I’m going to show up … with my community, with my faith … and say ‘yes’ to racial justice, ‘yes’ to being on the journey, ‘yes’ to building a new way, ‘yes’ to shattering that which does not serve this goal. I’m going to find sources of strength, hope and courage I didn’t even realize existed. Today I say ‘yes’ to getting free from supremacy systems and ‘yes’ to a Unitarian Universalist faith that is alive for racial justice, on a path to be a spiritual home for more and more people hungry for beloved community working for collective liberation.”[4]

[1] McArdle, Elaine, “Critics See White Supremacy in UUA Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 27, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/critics-challenge-uua-hiring-practices.

[2] Walton, Chris, “UUA President Resigns Amid Controversy Over Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 30, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/peter-morales-resigns.

[3] The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. See: http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226.

[4] Crass, Chris, “Let’s Move Beyond Fear of the words ‘White Supremacy’ and say Yes to Racial Justice!” April 28, 2017. See: https://medium.com/@chriscrass/im-scared-too-and-together-let-s-say-yes-917dd4317786.

 

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