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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

I went to a Unitarian Universalist Church this morning.

It was quite intentional.

The sermon was on White Supremacy.  Which is why I went.

I mean, can you imagine such a sermon topic in an Episcopal Church?

Well, I can. But, I can't imagine too many rectors who would be brave enough to step up to the plate and take on a topic like this on a Sunday morning.

Maybe in the parish hall in an adult forum. But, never from the pulpit.

Okay, I can think of one or two but they are rare as hen's teeth in this beloved church of ours.

The Minister there is presently an interim position. (The final candidate comes at the end of this month for a long weekend where she will preach and teach and mix and mingle and then 90% of the congregation has to approve her before she is presented with the 'offer'. Not 90% of the search committee. 90% of the congregation. Pay attention, Episcopal Church.)

However, the entire Unitarian Universalist Association is participating in these sermons on White Supremacy over the next few weeks. This is due to a serious shake up at the national level during which the President of the Association resigned over controversy about problems with - you're not going to believe this - diversity in the staffing practices at the national level.

Yes, I'm still talking about the Unitarian Universalist Association, one of the most overtly and obviously affirming and inclusive of diversity of all the religious denominations or movements.

A white male was chosen to lead the group’s Southern region, replacing another white man who was retiring. Christina Rivera, a Latina laywoman who has served on the UUA’s board of trustees since 2014, revealed that she was a finalist for the position.

In her blog, "On being a good fit for the UUA" Rivera wrote:
I do not reveal this lightly…in fact it is with real fear that I am jeopardizing any future career within UU communities. But as I consider what has happened, I keep coming back to the thought that if they weren’t willing to hire me for this position then what makes me think that will change for any theoretical future? And ultimately how do we hold the UUA accountable for racial discrimination and upholding white supremacy if no one stands up in the public square and says “me, it was me, you did this to me and it is not ok, I demand you make this right!”
Yes, she said, "racial discrimination".

And yes, she said, "upholding white supremacy".

About the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Which begs the question, if it's possible for a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association to be a White Supremacist, could I be a White Supremacist?

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

The UUA minister handled the sermon / reflection time brilliantly. She began by framing the issue in terms of what had happened at the the national level and then invited four people to share the reflections they had at their "Tuesday evening UUA Seven Principles Reflection Group."

I so want to hit the pause button here and imagine what it would be like if The Episcopal Church could articulate Seven Principles and then had reflection groups around them but in most places we can barely gather 3-4 people of a Sunday morning - much less mid-week - to a Bible Study or to reflect on the lectionary for the coming Sunday so I'll just stop right here.

The topic that evening was the Fourth Principle:
"A free and responsible search for truth and meaning." 
Apparently, this principle was discussed in terms of the charge of White Supremacy. Three very different women and one TransMan each gave a very short presentation which ranged from righteous indignation tempered by open, honest questioning, to a wonderful comparison to the early days of the feminist movement when women burned their bras publicly and charged men with being "chauvinist pigs". (Oh, yes we did.)

This had been preceded by a reading from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It was followed by the UU Interim Minister giving her reflection - which was intelligent and eloquent, honest and passionate and deeply moving.

She reminded us that, at the end of the service, the congregation would meet in the Library for refreshments during which there would be a "Twitter Storm" to support groups/individuals seeking to promote environmental awareness.

Following that, there would be "Circles in the Sanctuary" were people would be encouraged to share their reactions to the day's service.

I just have to press pause again here and note: Twitter Storms and Circles in the Sanctuary. Not to mention moving Shells of Joy and Concern and Lighting the Chalice. I've always said that no one can beat an Episcopal Priest at ringing at least 3 sermons from one symbol or metaphor but, ya know, ya just gotta love the UUAs.

So, here's the deal: No one in that church this morning was a White Supremacist.  Of course. If they were, they wouldn't have been in that room - or, in fact, anywhere near it.

And, we would have been able to easily spot them with their skin heads and tattoos, right? Or, the white sheets over their head? Or, surely from the red baseball cap with "Make America Great Again."

In academic usage, particularly in usage drawing on critical race theory the term "white supremacy" can also refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level.

I believe Ms. Rivera, in making her charge of "White Supremacy" was talking about the assumed, unexamined privilege of being white. And, who, indeed, will be held accountable if someone - if she, herself - didn't stand up and say, loudly and clearly, "OUCH!"?

If we don't - if she didn't - put a face on an ism or an ideology and say, "ME! It's ME! Look at ME! The Chicana, Latina. See ME! The same woman that has been serving on the national board for the last three years. The same woman you carefully considered for the position. The same person you said was equally qualified for the position. It was ME. You did this to ME and it is NOT okay. I demand you make this right." - then how will it ever have a chance of being made right?

It was a personal, political decision and she was personalizing the political.

She was also using the same technique the early feminist movement used to wake people up from their complacency. No, not every man is a male chauvinist pig but making that charge caused a few men to wake up and pay attention.

It's like that old analogy from the early days of the feminist movement: Fish don't know they're in water.

If you tried to explain it to a fish it would say, "Water? What's water?" They're so surrounded by it that it's impossible to see. They can't see it until they get outside of it. And then they are also able to see how polluted some parts of the pond have gotten.

That's what happens when you charge UUAs - or any nice, polite, white person - with "White Supremacy". It's like taking a fish out of water and saying, "Look! Look what you've been surrounding yourself with! Look what you've been living in! Look what it's doing to some of the other fish."

Our service bulletin this morning included this "White Supremacy Pyramid" which makes it pretty clear that being White carries with it assumed, unexamined privilege which can, and does, negatively impact people of color.

Add maleness to the white supremacy model and you get the culture of Fox News and most of the culture of corporate America.

And now, the Oval Office of the White House.

Like most pyramid or ice bergs, the tip of it is just the obvious, presenting problem. It's what's below the tip, the bottom of the pyramid, where the covert, socially acceptable behavior exists - and becomes more dangerous the more attention is paid to the tip and the less is paid to the base.

I don't know about you, but from time to time in my journey I have wandered around the base of that pyramid. I confess that I've been an ardent subscriber of the "But We're Just One Human Family" perspective.

It's a lovely thought.

It's a marvelous goal.

It's not our reality.

Not unless you don't know that you're swimming in water. And, it's polluted.

I have come to believe this: Western Christianity is built on a frame which assumes the supremacy of Caucasians. It begins with the blond, blue-eyed Jesus and works its way through various manifestations like pew rents and tithes, and continues to ascribe higher value to literacy, social and educational status and social location than the content of human character.

You can find it in more subtle manifestations of spiritual disciplines which ask people who may not be able to afford food to "fast" and asks people who are are suffering the indignities of the oppressed to subscribe to Lenten disciplines which "sacrifice" something in order to better understand the "sufferings" of Jesus.

We've got an awful lot of work to do in order to dismantle the framework of an institution which is so immersed in the waters of prejudice and discrimination that it doesn't even know that there is a different environment in which we can all swim freely.

Please hear me clearly: Wealth and educational and social status are not inherently evil. It's the arrogance and greed that prevent the wider distribution of wealth and opportunity that is evil. It is the valuing of individual wealth and social status over human ability and potential based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc., that is evil.

Especially in the church or any religious community.

If you need a recent history lesson in this, just watch the movie Hidden Figures based on the book by Margo Lee Shetterly. 

As the service came to an end and the candle in the chalice was extinguished (I know, the images are confusing to me, too), we sang a song which was written by one of their former Ministers who has since retired. The hymn has become a closing tradition for them:
We extinguish the flame in this chalice, but not the one in our hearts.
This is the light of our soul that shines forth when the world seems too dark;
it is the spark that ignites hope when that seems lost.
Your light is precious; carry it with you.... always.
I came away from that service with a hunger that was nourished with a renewed committed to the work of justice.

And that work begins, once again and as it always does, with me. With "this little light of mine".

My light is precious. And, so is yours.

Could YOU be a White Supremacist?

That's a question I encourage you to explore for yourself.

Start by tending to your own light.

Then, take a look around at the water in which you swim.


Fr. carlton kelley said...

I am really unsure what a conversation in the UU church has to do with Christianity in general as belief in anything in the UU is completely optional. A UU pastor I met some years ago was offended when a group asked why belief in God wasn't assumed necessary to be a member of her church, though I hesitate to use that word. Yes, there is a great deal wrong with Western Christianity beginning with its domination by white males and there are people everywhere working for needed change, within and without the church, but I truly do not believe that UU is the place to start or an example to hold up.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Carlton - Think of the worst experience you've ever had during a worship service at an Episcopal Church. Now, imagine judging all Episcopal churches based on that experience. Think of you on one of your worst days having an exchange with another clergy person and having that person judge all Episcopal clergy on that one exchange.

Listening in on conversations on the General Convention FB page, I wonder where some of these people are from - certainly NOT any Episocpal Church I've ever attended. How can you be an Episcopalian and dismiss a perfectly legitimate point of view as being a "Snowflake"? Aren't we the church with an "open tent"? Don't we embrace the Via Media?

No, you don't have to believe in a particular manifestation of God in order to be a UU. That doesn't make them, as a body, atheists. That makes them radically inclusive. They meet you where you are on your journey and walk with you as you have a conversation.

There is a wideness in God's mercy and in the various expressions of every denomination. The UUs are inclusive of former RCs and mainline Protestants, secular Jews and Muslims, as well as Wiccans and Pagans. You don't even need to believe in God to be a member of the UUA. Indeed, the former Minister of my local UUA church was an atheist. One of the most ethically and morally upright men and skilled pastors I have ever met.

The UUAs define "inclusive and welcoming". At least, they really work at it. Are they perfect? Obviously not. They are, after all, human. I really admire that, when they had this serious issue at the national level, they all got on the same page and discussed the issue. When was the last time you saw our beloved church do that (Save a few resoluteions three years later at General Convention which "encouraged" people to discuss the issue?)?

So, judge them if you must but know that no UU would judge you for judging them. They would just walk away, letting you know where you can find them when and if you're ever ready to drop the framework of supremacy from your expectation of religion in order to work with others toward the "commonwealth" of the community.

susankay said...

I had always held Quakers to be on a level with UUs on issues of inclusivity and love. Just had a tour of a Friends retirement home formed by and largely still run by the "other" Quakers. They might welcome people of color but not GLBTQ humans and while the associated college RECENTLY allowed dancing, all forms of alcohol are still forbidden as is apparently support of a woman's right to choose. Not wise, I was just reminded, to make blanket assumptions about positions and spirituality. (we won't move there -- plus it seems to always rain)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Point well made and well taken.

Marthe said...

Denominational biases aside, the question is, am I a candidate for some version of the KKK? No, for sure not, even though I am so white I practically glow in the dark (Swedes and Norwegians and white Russians dominate my DNA), but that fact is a choice of an educated, experienced mind making a choice to see all human beings as inherently of equal value. I also understand that human beings tend to favor beings quite like themselves, ones who resemble their own particular group, and to sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously view all other beings with some level of suspicion and/or fear. "We" do not like to admit that we fear the unknown "other" -- it's much easier to ignore, dismiss, demean and marginalize people we don't know or understand, easier to say, "they are not my problem and I'm way too busy with my own life to take the time to get to know and address others' issues no matter how legitimate those issues may be." Most of the good, but inherently biased, people I know will tell you they just don't have time to deal with all those social issues that "don't really affect me." They aren't actively racist. They don't go out of their way to hurt others. They just don't think about anything but their own work, family, interests and refuse to acknowledge that ignoring the rest of the world does have a negative effect on their own existence (which becomes painfully clear when war or crime or riots break out in their own backyards).
It is possible that all of us are suspicious of other groups in one way or another, that we all generalize negatively about others, that unfortunate anecdotal evidence becomes our basis for dealing with others more often than we care to admit. I can't possibly be a white supremacist because it is a patriarchal system that presumes that I am less valuable than every single male in the system and women, like me, are merely "helpmeets" to those entitled to rule by God's design. I do not take that interpretation of God's intent to be even a tiny bit true, no matter what the color of the male claiming to "know" God. No, I do not think all men are any "ist", but to be honest, I have to think it through whenever I encounter a male showing signs of being a presumptuous, rude, entitled "ist" of some kind - I have to remind myself that I'm dealing with one individual, not a whole almost half of the species. It takes time and thought and effort to treat others well, especially when they do not seem the least bit inclined to reciprocate. Any congregation that takes the time to think about all those issues is, at least, trying, and that has to count as a good thing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well said, Martha. It's a very difficult issue. It really does come down to individual examination and community awareness. That's the "skinny of the skinny". Bravo/a to the UUAs for taking this on as a denomination.

Matthew said...

It does not surprise me. Every UU church I have been to is very white. A black friend once went to one and also said it was so white. There is no black soul there. She would prefer any "black church" to that. But why can't there be a black UU church (like Trinity UCC in Chicago, a largely white denomination)? Well there could be but for reasons of history, there largely aren't. So it does not surprise me that white privilege is afoot. Yes, look at the water around you. I was shocked when I lived in Utah at how ignorant and wrong headed peoples views of Jews were. They had no exposure. Later when I left the state the amount of anti Mormon bigotry I encountered was astounding. As for me, I know I have tons of white privilege, had racist family members and am quite certain I periodically fall into white supremacy. It's a constant strugggle. I still get the "shakes" and get emotional when I have to speak out because I was taught not to. All that crap from childhood and society still causes a knee jerk sometimes after all these years. So, yeah I can admit to white supremacy. I cannot repent of it if I cannot admit to it. And, Desmond Tutu even fell into white supremacy due to the same reasons. I love this quote:

ARCHBISHOP TUTU: I think, I mean, that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made — I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this.
And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?” And of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged somewhere in me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I love that quote from Bishop Tutu. Only his amazing honesty from his heart of truth could jar that kind of response how the damage of internalized racism.

I don't have a lot of experience in UUA churches so I can't confirm this but it is my experience that they are about as White as most Episcopal churches. Which makes me wonder if we ought not be immediately suspicious of a religious movement with the "brand" of being "welcoming and affirming of diversity". I mean, I'm automatically put on notice that I am "different".

It's most likely not an original thought but I've also been fascinated with the near-hysteria about "opioid addiction" and how we've got to "get these people help". Ever notice how most of "those people" are white? And, we are looking at legislation to allocate money for prevention and treatment. Then, look at who fills our prison cells and why most of them are locked up. I read recently that there is a higher percentage of incarcerated Black Americans than there were incarcerated Black South Africans during the height of Apartheid.

We've got a lot of work to do, folks.

Anonymous said...

As I watched the news and a shot of Trump with all his older white male appointments I thought "Make America great again for us" That age group still longs for the days when it was clear where you stood and who was in charge. In their minds a simpler time. It was simple for them because they were in charge and dismissed anyone that stood in their way. Money is power and pays for a lot of hype to be fed to the masses.

Luckily time marches on and no one lives forever. Change is inevitable and we are still moving forward. I think the UU is filled with intellectuals the kind of people that have enough school to question all religious teachings. Higher education cost money and includes mostly men for that generation. Our UU is for thinkers with less feelings an not for those looking for the love of Christ or God. You have to be autonomous to attend there and survive.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for stepping outside the water and looking around. I appreciate your comments. The guidelines here ask that you not post anonymously. I'll make an exception for these honest comments. Next time, please leave your name. Thanks.