In the months of April and May, more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregation have risen to the challenge offered by Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists to explore how white supremacy culture has shaped our faith. This is what we did on Sunday, May 7 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. You may use any of my words, with full attribution.
White Supremacy Teach-In, May 7, 2017
The Unitarian Church of Quincy IL
Rev. Krista Taves
We are here to face the truth, about ourselves, about this faith we love, and the ways it presently serves others and the world, as well as to open ourselves to ways it can better, and more joyfully, reflect our potential and core values.
We want to know the ways we are bond to one another, as well as to the larger religious movements normally beyond our sight and vision.
We say we are open and diverse , yet it is too easy to feel stuck in old paths and stubborn habits reflecting not so much tradition as our comfort.
We want to answer the call to service, to a world that needs our message, our hope, our revived energy.
We are gathered to learn, to unlearn, to hear, and to move forward.
No Longer Business as Usual
Reflection 1 – White Supremacy in Liberal Institutions? How could that be? –
Rev. Krista Taves
Unitarian Universalism is an aspirational faith. We lean into the vision of beloved community that is yet to be. If you look at our seven principles (they are in the front of the grey hymnal), they are a statement of who we are called to become and the world we believe should be. Our deep awareness of the gap between who we are now and who we wish to become, that gap provides the motivating compassion-filled energy of our collective spiritual journey.
Another defining feature of Unitarian Universalism is that we proclaim the transformative potential of humanity, that we, together, have the capability to transform the hells of this world into heaven on earth. This is what we proclaim, so we are an optimistic hopeful religion.
What this means is that we are called to a high level of integrity to look into that gap without blinders, because the gap was created by us. The truth is that we humans do unimaginable harm. We are the authors of the hells on this earth. It is sobering, the cruelty we can heap upon each other and the earth.
But to be honest, historically, this shadow side of humanity is something that Unitarian Universalism really struggles with. We have easily held up our goodness and stopped there, often shying away from looking at the ways we contribute to evil. We have a profoundly inadequate theology of sin. We don’t even like the word. And there’s a good reason why this has come to be.
Many Unitarian Universalists come from shame-based religious traditions that traumatized us. Even if we were born Unitarian Universalist, we were often immersed in a larger culture that was dominated by shame-based religious traditions. We don’t want to hear about sin. We don’t want to hear about how we’ve fallen short because it so easily brings back those feelings of shame and guilt. This is understandable, in the short run. But in the long run, we end up running from our call to be people of integrity. By running away to protect ourselves from feeling shame, we project sin as somewhere out there and not possibly in us. When we do this, our faith becomes irrelevant and cheap and we are unable to rise to the task of looking into the gaps we have created.
If we are going to be true to our aspirational Unitarian Universalist faith, we have to have the courage to approach the totality of our human condition, and that includes both how each one of us is precious and good, and how we cause incredible harm. We do this by anchoring ourselves in our 7th principle, which is that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence. The interdependent web holds the things that are beautiful and destructive. We can’t ever approach the beloved community until we are willing to engage in a full reckoning with our part in systems of evil that keep wounding all of life.
And that brings us to the subject of today, which is the power of white supremacy culture in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. We are joining more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregations across America who will dedicate a service this spring to this very challenging and important discussion.
This may seem like a far-fetched suggestion, that white supremacy could possibly live in our liberal religious tradition. Aren’t Unitarian Universalists the good guys? Many of our religious ancestors were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and 2/3rds of our ministers marched in Selma. In the 1960s, members of this congregation became go-betweens, buying homes in white areas of Quincy and selling to black families to try and end housing segregation. Today this congregation has a strong partnership with Teen Reach, which provides free after school programming for children in poverty. Most of their students are black. When state funds dried up because of the budget impasse, we stepped in and have provided financial and volunteer support to Teen Reach. We have a long and proud tradition of being on the right side of history. So white supremacy couldn’t possibly apply to us, right? The thought is horrifying!
And… seems to pull us back into that shame and guilt so many of us escaped in our churches of origin.
And yet, Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists, our people, are imploring us to consider that white supremacy is much more than confederate flags and white hoods. When we confine white supremacy culture to its most offensive and overt manifestation, we can point to the problem as being over there. Not also here. And that means we are blind to the ways that we continue the oppression of people of color right in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our church.
There’s a different definition of white supremacy that places it along a continuum. There is a diagram included in your order of service, the one with the triangle. (See the link at the bottom of this post). At the top of the triangle is overt organized white supremacy, and at the bottom the denial of the presence of racism, with most white supremacist culture being in the bottom part of the triangle, often implicit, subtle, and unconscious. In America, it is the air that we breathe and it lives here, it lives in our city, it lives in every institution in America.
This morning, we are asking ourselves to consider that white supremacy culture lives in each of our hearts and in our congregation. The goal is not to make anyone feel guilty. The goal is not to shame anyone by saying, “This is what you are doing wrong!” There is no room in Unitarian Universalism for shame and guilt. They are the tools of oppression and are used to keep us from looking into the gap. But as Americans and immigrants, we are called to understand that white supremacy culture has been done to us. It is a form of violence that we have been taught. This means we are no lesser humans, not tainted, not dirty, not damned because it lives in us. It is a form of violation that has been done to us.
Two years ago at our General Assembly in Portland, Cornel West, an African American scholar and theologian, spoke to us about white supremacy and the work we have to do. This is a short clip from his lecture:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iAHrgirE7I , 20:03 – 22:55
If Cornel West, a renowned black scholar and theologian who has been preaching and teaching for decades, can admit before 1000s of Unitarian Universalists that white supremacy culture lives in him, we have permission to approach our own white supremacy thinking without shame, without judgment, without feeling like we are guilty or tainted. White supremacy culture was imposed on us from the time we were born. It was a violation of us.
And, as anyone who is a victim of violence knows, while you are not responsible for what happened to you, you are responsible for your own healing. If you don’t take that responsibility, the likelihood that you will then turn and do violence to yourself or to another human being rises exponentially. If we don’t take responsibility for the wounding that has been done to us by white supremacy culture, we then become the bearers of white supremacy culture and we continue to build hell on earth and frustrate our yearning for the beloved community.
So, this morning, holding tight onto the truth of our preciousness and the tragedy of the many ways we fall short, let us prepare for this journey with a moment of silence and reflection:
Kenny Wiley is a Black Unitarian Universalist religious educator. He has been active at the national level in our association for many years and has emerged as one of the most thoughtful and prophetic black leaders in Unitarian Universalism.
“Who are my people?” by Kenny Wiley
I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
I am also black.
I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.
During college I joined a UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.
In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked with Coretta Scott King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. …We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”
Night after night I read that passage. Night after night I wept.
I cried because I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.
I teared up because I’ve often wished I could leave Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.
Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.
I [have figured] out how to navigate a mostly white society that [accepts] me quite warmly, so long as I [do] little to rock the boat. … Talking about race with many white Unitarian Universalists too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.
The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.
I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?
These questions keep me up at night.
Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. We can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do.
(adapted from the original: https://kennywiley.com/2014/10/15/who-are-my-people-a-black-unitarian-universalist-on-selma-and-ferguson/
1) What was it like for you to hear the experience of one of our people, a Black Unitarian Universalist?
2) What needs to change in our congregation so that people of color can truly become part of the us, and claim this faith and this congregation as white Unitarian Universalists do?
3) What can you offer to make this so? What would you need to relinquish?
Let us enter into a time of silence.
Musical Interlude – “I Need You To Survive” – The anthem of Black Unitarian Universalists, video clip from General Assembly 2016.
Reflection 2 – No Longer Business as Usual. How we build the courage to see white supremacy thinking in ourselves, in Unitarian Universalism, and in our Congregation. Rev. Krista Taves
What was it like for you to hear the story of one of our people? Did you know that it is very common for black and brown Unitarian Universalists to have ongoing, painful, shame-inducing engagements with white Unitarian Universalists? There are even support groups for Unitarian Universalist people of color so that they can survive in our faith. It became even more difficult for Black Unitarian Universalists after Ferguson because so many white Unitarian Universalists were in denial about the reality of police brutality which shapes black lives on a daily basis. Black UUs desperately wanted their White UU people to say, “We are with you and will go to the streets for you,” and the response was far too often to question and criticize and doubt their stories.
And again, I want to say, none of this is to create shame and guilt. Nor is it to damn us or Unitarian Universalism. White supremacy lives in every institution in America. Its presence is not the damning factor, but rather a refusal to be truthful about it. We don’t need shame and denial. We need courage and conviction.
Part of the Beloved Conversations Curriculum that we’ve just finished was to help us uncover own white supremacist assumptions so we can experience ourselves, our congregation, and our community in a new light. This is how Mike Flanagan came to uncover a different meaning in the Heritage window, one that does not center whiteness, but rather blackness and brownness. That window was intended to connect this congregation to the founding of America. And yet it sends a message to those who have experienced America as a conqueror. Maybe we need to have a plaque that offers an indigenous perspective on that picture.
Then there is the stained glass window behind the pulpit of the Indian Burial Mound, which is in Quincy. The intent of the window, and a noble intent it was, was to indicate respect for the Native peoples who lived here. It is also true that whites came to Quincy after forced Native resettlement created the room for westward expansion. Perhaps we need to ask if this window, much less one depicting a burial ground which is all that remains of centuries of Native life here, is enough to indicate our respect? We are a faith of covenant and right relationship. Are we in relationship with Native people? What about reparations? Native Americans have the highest poverty, suicide, and unemployment rates of any racial group in America and this is a direct result of centuries of violence to make way for white settlement. This peaceful picture, despite its very noble intentions, erases the cruelty that paved the way for this church to be established in Quincy.
The answer isn’t to hang our heads in shame. That’s actually too easy because then we get to be paralyzed and do nothing. Even worse we might lash back in rejection and do more harm. The answer is to own this history, not run from it or deny it, because engaging the truth of our white supremacy indoctrination with authenticity and an open heart and mind is how we will dismantle it. When we own this history, there is one less barrier for UU people of color to embrace this as home. That is the only way for us to live with integrity.
Here are some other examples of how white supremacy culture lives in Unitarian Universalism. The fact that the first principle is the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the last is the interdependent web of all existence, is a manifestation of white supremacy culture. Whites are trained to see themselves as individuals first and part of a group second. Our privilege allows whites to experience themselves as unique and exceptional. People of color tend to experience themselves as part of a group first and as individuals second. By holding up the primacy of the individual as the first principle, people of color are being told which racial world view they have to accept to be part of us. Imagine how different the principles would feel if we reversed them and read every principle through the lens of the interdependent web. In fact, this could bring a great deal of healing as we try to respond to a nation that is being ripped apart by rabid consumerist individualism.
Another example is our grey hymnal. Every hymn of European origin is identified only by its author and name. Every hymn from a non-European composer identifies the culture or race. The grey hymnal also privileges traditional classically-based hymns that are European in origin. This sends the message that white is the norm that does not need to be identified and tells UU people of color that they’ll never quite be considered part of the “us.” Imagine how different it would feel for all of us if every white author was also identified by their race.
Again, this is not to create guilt or shame. It’s to help us develop a new perspective and to make new choices. I don’t know that the answer is to stop singing our white hymns or stop admiring our white pictures. It’s to recognize them as a product of our white supremacy culture. This is what it means to live with integrity and love.
Let’s also recognize that white supremacy doesn’t just hurt people of color. We are all violated by it. The cost to people of color is their dignity and far too often their lives. The cost to whites is that we live in fear and shame. I asked some of our Beloved Conversations participants, all of whom are white, what white supremacy culture costs them.
From D: Loss of peace of mind. A sense of separation. Never reaching full potential. Limited view of beauty, grace and intelligence. Intensified narcissism. Confinement.
From K: My world is smaller and I lose connection to people who could enrich my life because both of us aren’t our authentic selves.
From A: White supremacy culture costs me fear. I have been afraid of black people my entire life. They have so often been portrayed as ignorant, violent, and angry with white people. It is also understood in our culture that black men often prefer white women, especially blondes, which creates more tension (I have personal experience with this). So I have often felt vulnerable and afraid when interacting with black people; I’ve usually felt that I just can’t say or do the right thing. I also felt like a target for assault because as a white woman living alone, I was quite vulnerable.”
From T: White supremacy culture … costs me my awareness. As someone who is white, I don’t always think about how things operate around me. My awareness heightens when I see someone find it difficult to navigate in a setting or situation. The positive thing is that now I am getting better at recognizing and assisting if it is needed/wanted. Earlier in my life and experiences I would have noticed that someone was having difficulty and helped, but I wouldn’t have really thought or understood the ‘why’. It’s also made evident when I am in a setting that is outside the white culture and I have to watch and learn how to operate. However, I always know that when I’m uncomfortable that I can leave and go back to my comfort zone. That isn’t the case for someone of another culture.
What are we hearing here? Loss of relationships. Limited living. Loneliness. Fear. Vulnerability. Misunderstanding the world around us.
I imagine that we are all wondering what can we do to get out of this? How do we rise above this toxic air that we’re all breathing?
We’re going to end our time together with a homily offered by Leslie Mac, who is a leader in the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective. I think she has something important to offer us:
28:15 – 35:34
My friends, there is no quick fix. There is no lesson that will teach us how to no longer be hurtful. What we have is our values of integrity, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, persistence. We need to be patient but determined. Our primary value is Love. To use the words of Leslie Mac, “Love and self-love is what we should strive to practice in everything we do. Love must be the driver of our work and an indicator of its successes.” Love will give us the courage to live with integrity, the courage to stop hurting each other, the courage to move together towards that Beloved Community that we aspire to.
Amen and blessed be.
It rises from the heart of life here and now, beating with joy and sorrow.
It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace.
It acts to bless, to protest, to repair.
(John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, Adapted)
The White Supremacy Culture Diagram can be found here, about half way through the document: https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2017/04/21/white-supremacy/