Before beginning the annual IMPACT service on April 9th, 2017, I spoke briefly to the current events and conversation(s) going on within our wider Association. This post from the Youth and Young Adult Ministry's blog Blue Boat, "Reflections on White Supremacy in our UUA," provides a good summary and overview. The conversation has, no doubt obviously, continued and evolved since then, but this is a helpful place to start. (There are also some great links through which to go more deeply.)
I'll note that I've included in the text below a link to the coverage given to this in UU World magazine. This is useful, yet I would suggest reading it with a "critical" eye. I know from my own knowledge of some of the events that the coverage does demonstrate its own bias.
A question that frequently comes up in homiletics class – sermonizing, that is – is how to know when to throw out what’s been planned in order to respond to something going on in the world. I took preaching twice, with two different sets of teachers, and never heard anything like a concrete answer. “You’ll know it when it comes,” was pretty much the best anyone could do.
Even though I’ve elected to stay on course for this Sunday, I don’t think I can do so without at least an acknowledgement of what’s happening within our Association. Some people have no doubt been following it closely; there are certainly others who have no idea that anything at all is happening.
What is happening – what has been happening – is that there has been a sudden awakening, if you will, to an awareness that for an institution committed to an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural vision for itself and our world, our leadership is overwhelmingly white. The same systems and structures that perpetuate white supremacy “out there” are embedded in our Association as well. 78% of people working in so-called “service jobs” at the UUA are people of color, and there is no other category of employment in which people of color make up more than 11%. People who identify – or are identified – as white make up only 17% of those doing “service jobs,” and there is no other category in which they are less than 75%. That is systemic racism; that is white privilege; that is white supremacy.
I know a lot of people have had some very strong, negative reactions to that phrase “white supremacy.” Good. It’s supposed to be shocking. It needs to be shocking, because it points to a reality which people of color have been talking about for more years than you can count, yet to which most white folks have been blind (or uncomprehending). We need a term that shocks us – even good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks (maybe especially good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks); we – and I’m talking to myself, here, and to those who look more or less like me – need to be shocked if we’re going to wake up and open our eyes.
The term is also accurate. In the dominant culture in the U.S., people who identify, or are identified, as white are held up as supreme – “greatest in power; dominant; greatest in importance or significance.” And so – shocking though the language may be – it is no stretch to say that the dominant culture in the U.S. is one that supports and perpetuates white supremacy. (I saw a Facebook post this morning that said, “Why argue about the words? Why not ask what pain has caused them to be used?)
As I said, there has been a sudden awakening (among white UUs) in the UU universe, and because there has been this sudden awakening to the reality that the institution of the UUA is as fundamentally, essentially, and inherently as mired in white supremacy as any other institution in the U.S., things have been shaken up. The President, Peter Morales, has resigned, as have the UUA’s Chief Operating Officer and head of the office of Congregational Life. And these departures, and both the rhetoric and the realities, are generating a lot of differing reactions. Some are calling it “implosion;” some merely say, “chaos.” There are some who think that none of this should be happening, and others who think that it’s more than about time. And, of course, there are lots of positions in between.
We will be joining with over 200 other UU congregations who, on May 7th, will be engaging what’s being called the "White Supremacy Teach-In.” Between now and then I would not be surprised if there is more upheaval, more change, and, as I said in my Bulletin column, opportunities for transformation. (I’ll also be in the Parlor immediately following the service, for those who would like to share their feelings or ask their questions.) Ultimately, it is my hope – and the hope of so many who are committed both to dismantling systems and structures of racism and to our Association – that we make this an opportunity to be “a people so bold … in a time such as this.”
I’d ask that we now take a moment of silence – for our Association, for those who are shocked and dismayed at what is being revealed, and for those UUs of color who are, painfully, not shocked at all …
* * * * *
Note: the term White Supremacy is a sticking point for a lot of people. For many it feels like the wrong way to speak about institutional racism, as it is likely to alienate a lot of potential allies for the work of ending oppression. Much of the response stems from the idea that the word is too clearly linked to White Sepremacists, and, so, is open to negative misunderstanding.
It is true that there is an almost automatic defensiveness in many white people -- and I'll acknowledge it in myself -- which wants to cry out, "But I'm not a skin-headed, neo-Nazi, Klu Klux Klan robe wearing white supremacist!" This response misses the distinction that there are "white supremacists," who commit overtly racist acts, and the use of the term "white supremacy" to describe a culture that privileges whites and holds them "supreme" -- in other words, the dominant culture of the U.S. As such, even people who are not overt white supremacists participate in a culture of white supremacy, and the systems, structures, and institutions within that culture intentionally or unintentionally support and perpetuate it.
The "White Supremacy Triangle" (or "iceberg") has proven useful in helping people visualize the multiple meanings of the term white supremacy, and to see how it can be appropriately applied even to "good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folk."
I fully expect -- hope, actually -- that the conversation will continue. Feel free to talk with me about any and all of this. The members of the Executive Team of our Racial Justice Committee will certainly be open to talking with you as well. Part of our work as Unitarian Universalists (and members of this Unitarian Universalist congregation) is to come to one another, and receive one another, with openness and respect. I hope we will do this as we wrestle/dance together with this vital issue.