As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life more than doubled.
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typical white middle class, to try and avoid the comments.
She often experienced being spoken to as if she were child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.
Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.
I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.
After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.
But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.
This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.
It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.
What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color. Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.
What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.