We ain’t gonna stop until the people are free

The chorus of “Neighbor,” by the band “Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost,” which formed after the Ferguson Uprising, goes like this:

“I can hear my neighbor crying, saying ‘I can’t breathe.”
And now I’m in the struggle, saying, “I can’t leave.”
We’re calling out the violence of the racist police.
And we ain’t gonna stop until the people are free.”

When I first heard the words, I choked on the third line. I thought to myself, “Are they saying that all police are racist? Isn’t that a bit radical? I don’t know if I can sign on for this.”

White fragility is a term coined by Robin De Angelo to name the conditioned response to shut down any authentic conversations about race. Whites have been programmed to be deeply uncomfortable when confronted with the reality of white supremacy. They are taught to see the discomfort as something to be avoided and that comfort is our right. So when we hear uncomfortable things about race, we shut it down, either by literally leaving the conversation or by trying to stop those who make us uncomfortable, often through the use of shame. In my case, I was uncomfortable with the lyrics of the song and saw my discomfort as a sign that something was wrong with the song, something was wrong with the black voices singing it, not that something was wrong with me or that something was really wrong with the system in which policing happens. Given that I’m pretty shy, if I had given in to my white fragility I probably wouldn’t have literally challenged them. I probably would have just gone home, withdrawing my support, my time, and my heart from the work at hand. That’s what white fragility looks like.

On October 15 the #ReviveLove Tour came to St. Louis. Sponsored by Standing on the Side of Love UUA and Black Lives of Unitarian Universalists, the intent of the tour is to offer love back to Unitarian Universalist activists who have been the heart of the Unitarian Universalist response, engagement and commitment to Black Lives Matter.

Leslie and Drew MacFayden, two Unitarian Universalist activists, offered a challenging workshop focused on the many manifestations of white supremacy, how to recognize when we are looking through its life-denying lens, and how to combat the fear and shame that sustain it.

They encouraged us to stay present to the truth that all of us have been indoctrinated into the cult of white supremacy, a cult that shames, shuns and kills those who disagree with its tenets. All of us, regardless of the race we are assigned, are indoctrinated into this cult. It is reinforced by anti-blackness, which identifies white as the norm and anything else as other, less than human, even less than animal. Among liberals, it is reinforced by simplistic understandings of racism – racism looks like the KKK and the confederate flag, not like us. Leslie and Drew asked us to see the gradations of racism so that we could see it in our own hearts. They encouraged us to resist the white fragility that blinds us to our place in the system. They invited us to treat white supremacy like a cult from which one must be deprogrammed. It begins by learning the basic rules of anti-racism, deepens into a respect for otherness, and culminates into a lived understanding that we are part of a larger liberation.

They offered some basic rules to help us start:

1. If you are in a privileged group, do not engage in intracommunity dialogue when you are not a member. You are there to listen and to support.
2. If you are in a privileged group, do not question the tactics oppressed people use to get free.
3. If you are in an oppressed group, realize that you too have internalized the very beliefs and systems that oppress you.
4. If you are faced with your own racism, resist the urge to become defensive. Listen, consider what you are hearing, and integrate what you have learned in your thoughts and actions.
5. Know that we will all make mistakes. Be aware that when you experience discomfort and want to run, that is fragility interpreting discomfort as bad. Stay with the discomfort. It is the path to liberation.

We spent time exploring how the expression of our 21st century Unitarian Universalist theology with its devotion to diversity has often reinforced white supremacy rather than dismantle it. We have misused the first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to justify ideas which are harmful, seeing them as personal expressions of freedom. With a power and privilege analysis, we instead condition our first principle with the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. A commitment to diversity does not mean that all ideas are equally true. When a person of color speaks of racism, this carries more weight than a white person speaking of racism. When we give all perspectives the same value, a white person speaking of racism could contribute to the silencing of the person of color’s experience of racism, thus reinforcing white supremacy and anti-blackness. This often indicates that white fragility is shutting down the conversation.

So I’m not going to run from the words of those at the heart of the resistance:

“I can hear my neighbor crying, saying ‘I can’t breathe.”
And now I’m in the struggle, saying, “I can’t leave.”
We’re calling out the violence of the racist police.
And we ain’t gonna stop until the people are free.”

Will you join us? When the killings stop, when white supremacy is unwound from its core of hatred, fear and shame, we will be free.


About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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