When the veil dropped for white people, a recap.

In the days leading up to the resignation of Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales, white leaders in our movement were challenged to speak up.  I answered the call and developed a series of Facebook posts.  Because things fade on Facebook so quickly, I’ve gathered them here for those who have been wanting to access them.

March 30, 2017

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 almost 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 typically white middle class, to try and avoid the comments and be able to do her job.
She often experienced being spoken to as if she were a 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.

March 31, 2017

This is where I have come to regarding the abrupt resignation of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA, following sustained criticism regarding racial bias in hiring decisions and his problematic response.

I wish he had not resigned but rather offered an apology and committed to the institutional work and his own personal growth as a model of leadership. But he didn’t. I am going to take him at his word that stepping aside was the right thing to do and would help clear the way for the work to be done. Our spiritual task is to accept his choice and to use the vacuum remaining to continue the work of dismantling the white supremacy culture that is alive in our beloved faith.

We have three presidential candidates, one of whom will take office in less than three months. How we engage with them and the UUA will set the tone for how we move forward. And move forward we must. Peter’s resignation should not be an excuse to stop. It should not become a distraction.

Thank you for your leadership Peter. I respect your decision. Like any minister who leaves a position under less than ideal circumstances, and many of us have, may you find peace, healing, and new life. In the years to come may you deepen through the hard lessons offered in this ministry.

April 15, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk about safety in our congregations, with some white Unitarian Universalists saying they no longer feel safe in their congregations because they don’t feel comfortable stating contrary opinions regarding race and racism.
Right now many people of color in our association are holding white people accountable for the state of our faith. They are holding our systems accountable. They are holding up the disconnect between what we say and do as a movement. A lot of white UUs are using their privilege to intentionally amplify the voices of UUs of color. All of this is making a lot of white Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Some of those whites are saying they no longer feel safe.

The cry for safety from so many whites is the cry of those who have experienced the centrality of whiteness as normal. As white experience ever so slightly moves away from the center, white discomfort is interpreted as no longer being safe. It really means that we are no longer being protected from our internalized racism and we are finding it harder to ignore the many ways that our white perspective is at the center of Unitarian Universalism.

As more voices of color attempt to come into that center, whites are likely to feel unsafe. The reality is that we are detoxing from the withdrawal of privilege. The cry for safety is really a power grab. It’s an attempt to return whiteness to the center.
For whites in our movement who want to move into this significant moment, we can’t let our guard down. If we misinterpret our discomfort as losing our safety, we will not only do harm to ourselves, we will do more harm to people of color who are taking huge risks right now. They are in a lot more danger than we are.

April 20, 2017

Let’s just get clear about something. The “crisis” we are in now isn’t because the white centering of Unitarian Universalist institutions has been unearthed. People of color, once again, spoke truth to power, for once enough whites listened and amplified their message, and that’s got a lot of other whites acting out. We are in a white entitlement controversy here. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a breaking through. And breaking throughs are messy. #faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

I get why there is so much pushback about using the term “white supremacy” to describe the culture in Unitarian Universalist institutions. We have been trained to see white supremacy as an overt expression of racism, replete with burning crosses, white hoods, confederate flags, lynchings and angry white people in black and white footage shouting racist epithets at black children trying to enter white schools. This allows liberal whites to distance themselves from racism and believe that we aren’t part of it. At least we aren’t calling people names, threatening their lives, or muttering under our breath.
I admit my stomach turned when I first heard the term “white supremacy” used to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism and our institutions. But I’ve reconsidered that response.
White supremacy is way bigger than the way we’ve been trained to understand it. White supremacy is a way of thinking that devalues the experiences, insights and lived reality of people of color. The consequences of this thinking goes beyond an abstract state of mind and has the real life impact of denying people of color a real voice with real power. Rarely is this culture explicit or even conscious in liberal white communities. It is implicit and unconscious. This is why I totally believe that those responsible for the latest hires are fully convinced they did nothing wrong and were not acting out of racial bias. However they were unconsciously acting out of racial bias.
Naming this as an act of white supremacy is pretty scary but it is the right thing to do. It sure has shocked a lot of whites into paying attention. Calling what happened “implicit bias” gives it a pass. It makes it softer than what it actually is, the devaluing of people of color and the denial of authority and power to people of color.
We are being very brave to call it what it is. In fact, it sets us apart from most liberal institutions which are in complete denial about the power of racism to shape their decisions and their processes. There is not one institution in this country that is not shaped by white supremacy, and that includes institutions run by people of color. We have all been indoctrinated into white supremacy thinking. Therefore there is no reason to feel shame or fear. It is not your fault. You are not stained. We are not irredeemable. Our Universalist heritage says that no one is left behind. Let’s anchor in that promise. I implore you to resist your urge to run away or to distance yourself from the term. Stay with us. Bend into the task at hand. Dare to be vulnerable.
Are there people who will stop giving financially because we are going down this path? You better believe it. They already are. Accept their decision and move on. Are there white people who will leave our churches over this? You bet. Accept their choice and trust that they will be held somewhere else. Are there people who will choose not to visit UU churches because of this difficult road we are walking? You bet. Not everyone is up to the task at hand. Unitarian Universalism was never for the faint of heart and that is as true today as it has been throughout our history.
But if you want to journey into wholeness, if you want to live into the transformative pain and possibility of this one incredible life you are living, if you want to experience a community that doesn’t shy away from calling truth to power, then Unitarian Universalism is for you and I welcome you into this time, this place, and this faith. This is an incredible opportunity we have and I want people like you sitting at the table of compassion and justice. #faithoverfear

June 22, 2017

I’m reflecting on the difference between saying your sorry and asking for forgiveness. Just saying you’re sorry means you get to keep your power. You decide when you’re going to do it and what you’re going to say.

Asking for forgiveness means being vulnerable and taking the risk that the person from whom you’ve asked forgiveness isn’t ready to give it. It means being ready for an answer that you may not have expected, an answer that may continue to ask something from you in addition to what you’ve offered and asked for.
We have multiple people in our association who expressed apologies on their way out the door. The apology is appreciated and I’m going to trust that the apology is sincere. But there is a next part, and that is asking for forgiveness.  It means staying at the table, even if your place at the table has shifted, and taking the risk of staying vulnerable and open to the ones you have harmed and the unpredictability of their response. It means giving away your power.
Asking for forgiveness is way risker than saying you’re sorry.  This is what it means to anchor in a brave space, rather than a safe space.


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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