This summer our theme has been Storytelling. We have heard about stories being told through TV shows, movies, music, and spirituality among others. I think it is important for us to not only tell our stories but also to understand how such stories, myths, and knowledge passed down from ancestors helped shape us as human beings. As well how our experiences in the world help shape us.
August of 2019 is the 400th anniversary of when the first Africans taken against their will from their homeland were delivered to Jamestown Virginia. This past June was the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in NYC, which is seen as the start of the LGBQT Advocacy Movement. As a country, a community and as a congregation we are called to understand how the story of our lives is impacted by race and the history of race and marginalized individuals in our country. How stories get told and especially by whom they are told, make a big difference in how we are shaped. And when we hear a story that does not resonate with our understanding of the world, we will have a choice. We can deny it. Or we can choose to be curious about it. We can choose to be open to learning a different perspective and integrate it with our own story and move forward the wiser.
Changing the narrative of history doesn’t happen all at once, it takes time and intentionality. I remember in high school I had assigned readings among others of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and a Peoples History of the United States by Howard Zinn. These readings widened the lens of my understanding. Books and Teachers in my life have had a great impact upon me . Reading has allowed me not only to gain more information about the world, but it always sparks my imagination in unexpected ways. Reading allowed me to see and imagine a world beyond the environment I lived in. I imagine living in beloved community which I have seen defined as “people of diverse racial, ethnic, educational, class, gender, sexual orientation identities who come together in an interdependent relationship of love, mutual respect, and care” to create the beloved community we are going to have to hear some different stories and different narratives.
Sometimes changing the narrative doesn’t need to happen over a long time. I remember the first time I saw Michelle Alexander speak about The New Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration, it was like a veil being lifted up and I could suddenly see the world more clearly. And once I saw it I could not look away. Like a car accident. You see the damage done, preventable damage. Marginalized people have been damaged by 400 years of slavery, jim crow, lynchings, mass incarceration, shootings of innocent people by police, alienation, discrimination, even deportation. And we are going to have to do more then stare in silence if anything is going to change. We must listen and we must learn, and we must act. And so as a start I invite you to read books by people with marginalized identities about their lives and their history and their hopes to allow you to widen your lens and widen your heart and widen your life.
For me it is personal, when I came to understand how systemic racism harmed my non white children and now my grandchildren. I had a visceral feeling of someone from the dominant culture and I tried to use all of my power and privilege to protect them in whatever way I could. I think that is natural for any of us to want that for our children. I was trained from a very young age, that I should expect to be able to wield the levers of power to achieve what I wanted. It doesn’t always work that way, but that is my expectation. People of color never can have that expectation. Talking to a African American colleague last week he tells me when white people call the police on a Black person or even if a black person calls the police for help, the black person’s life is always in danger. When he said that it made me think of Trayvon martin who was shot not far from where I lived in Florida, for being black in a predominantly white neighborhood. People conditioned to fear him for the color of his skin.
Once my eyes were opened to how the system is so stacked against marginalized people I could not turn away and I ask you not to turn away. I ask you to be intentional about learning about it. I have dedicated my life to use whatever power and privilege is at my disposal to dismantle systems of oppression. I see my role as a minister to always stand at the side of the most vulnerable in any given situation. I admit there are times I fail. Times when I opt for expediency. But in my best moments this is who I am called to be.
This is my spiritual practice, and a spiritual necessity to be accountable to my children, accountable to friends and acquaintances who died of AIDS because our Government would not fund research because it predominantly a disease affecting Gay men, and accountable to all my marginalized friends who have suffered at the hands of the dominant culture. Just as my family was before me, and I was once vulnerable in my own ways, I am here because people showed up and helped, and because the systems favors me. Not that I didn’t suffer and work hard, but I had less hurdles and more doors open for me because I am white. But the truth is no one can do it alone. And now it is my time, it is all our time to show up for others. One small way we show up for each other is by sharing our collection each month. This month we are sharing our collection with the pastoral care team so that we may help fellow congregants with emergency needs. Please be as generous as you can and after you have had the opportunity to donate I invite you to come down to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your life.
A few weeks ago the Board read a statement at service which was published in the newsletter. Part of it said:
“we as a congregation will have….conversations on topics including white fragility, cultural competency, and communication among groups and individual members in our congregation.”
Now it is interesting. I actually had a couple of people write me asking why we didn’t include communications? Even though it was right there in the statement. I think a lot of people just stopped reading after the phrase White Fragility. Some of you talked to me sharing your uneasiness with the phrase, others came to me with just a curiosity having never heard the phrase before and others thanked me for taking on such an important topic. Thank you. All of you who responded. I appreciate that.
I think it is ok to be uneasy and curious. I encourage you to embrace that. It is only with uneasiness and curiosity that personal growth can happen. Its easy to be a holy person alone on top of a mountain. (an conversely like Bruce Springsteen wrote, its hard to be a saint in the city) I first heard the phrase White Fragility in a speech by Robin Diangelo that later became a book entitled “White Fragility” We will be doing a book study this fall, and there are 10 copies outside in the hallway for anyone to take. If we run out, I will buy more.
Its not really about be fragile per se. as in brittle. White fragility is defined “discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice”. Now I think part of the uncomfortableness is that white people do not identity themselves racially. Last year we had a multi-week adult religious education program entitled Race the Power of an Illusion which explored how Race is a social construct. However when we think about race, we tend to discuss how we constructed non white races as reasons to justify our unequal treatment of people despite our declaration of independence indicating that all people are created equal and deserve the right to pursue life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When we talk about the social construct of Race we tend not to explore what is the social construct of the White Race.
UU Theologian Thandeka in her book Learning to be white tells of asking white colleagues to play the race game – “to go around using he ascripitive term white whenever they mentioned the name of one of their euro American cohort. Such as my white husband phil, my white friend Jane, my lovely white child Jackie.” Her goal was to help them become conscious of the racialization process to which their own euro American community had subjected them. This failed miserably, as people could not bring themselves to do it. and so instead she asked them and then others what their earliest memories of incidents that helped shape their white racial identities. I invite you to think about that and what messages you received from others about your race and others. People of color have to face their racial identity every day, wondering how white people are going to react to them. For 400 years people of color have been subject to subjugation, violence, arrest, and fear at the hands of white people.
Whites are able to easily racialize other races. But often not ourselves. If you are white, when you are meeting someone and trying to describe yourself, do you tell people you are white? Now of course today we just look on their facebook profile to find out what they look like before we meet them, but generally whites tend not to think of themselves that way. (Describe myself – beard, short, older,) In the history of our country, White has just been considered the norm. Whether in tv or the movies, or in board rooms and politics, on police forces, it has and in most cases today still is, predominantly cisgender white men who control the levers of power in our society. From Robin Diangelo’s Book, a list composed in 2017
“Ten richest Americans: 100 percent white
US Congress: 90 percent white" (although this year only 78%, so change can happen)
"US governors: 96 percent white •
Top military advisers: 100 percent white •
President and vice president: white •
Current US presidential cabinet: 91 percent white •
People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white •
People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white •
People who decide which news is covered: 85 percent white •
People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white •
People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95 percent white • Teachers: 82 percent white •
Full-time college professors: 84 percent white • “
(Facebook post asking when was the first teacher you had that was of a different race then you – for me it was not until seminary)
So it is hard for me with this evidence of an overwhelmingly white power structure to understand white complaints of reverse racism whenever a person of color gets ahead or demands to be heard. And often they have to demand to be heard in order to be heard. We can not just say we are colorblind and we will treat people equally when white people hold all the levers of power and fight every way they can to maintain that power. We have to be actively anti-racist and anti-oppression. And we have seen over the last six years as exemplified this last weekend. Domestic Terror attacks are perpetrated primarily by white males. The recent shooter wrote about a fear of being replaced. It was two years ago this weekend, in Charlottsville VA white supremacists publicly walked the streets and shouted Jews will not replace us. Despite still having overwhelming power white people fear allowing people of color to have any power. Perhaps it is a deep seated guilt knowing how whites have treated people of color in this country
For much of our country’s history being white meant you could be a citizen and own land. The Naturalization act of 1790 limited naturalization to immigrants who were "free White persons of good character" So then the question became who was a free white person. In 1922 Armenians brought a case to the supreme court and were granted the right to classified as white based on "scientific" evidence. Takao d Ozawa a Japanese American lost a supreme court case because he was "scientifically" a mongoloid. Ozawa had become completely culturally white. In his dress, in his language. He moved to a white neighborhood and made his children only play with white children. He had erased his entire culture in order to try to become white. Still it was not enough. (comment about erasure of our cultures). A year later an Asian Indian man brought a suit to the Supreme court using the same scientific evidence that showed he was descended from Aryans and classified as Caucasian, and the supreme court denied this saying
“What we now hold is that the words "free white persons" are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word "Caucasian" only as that word is popularly understood. Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white.”
So by law white became defined in a cultural way, not only via skin pigmentation. So basically it was whoever the powerful decided they wanted to have power they dolled out power to.
And this is part of the river that we swim in.
Who can have power and who cannot.
Who can get what jobs and who cannot.
Who can get good housing and who cannot.
Who can get quality healthcare and who cannot. Who gets to speak and who cannot.
And more often then not that breaks down by racial lines.
It is the people who hold the levers of power that determine that and when marginalized people speak up for themselves, the people who have power tend to get defensive and angry and push back, so they can maintain their equilibrium that reminds them they have certain social power.
In every interaction we should look at who has more social power. So invite you when you receive some feedback, to graciously receive it, to reflect upon it, and consider why you are receiving such feedback. In fact I would say such feedback from a marginalized person is a sign that they trust you. Similar to my colleague who fears calling the police, marginalized people know they are at risk of retribution when they speak up to people in power.
But here, in this our sacred place, our sacred community let us live up to that trust by building a capacity for discomfort. Let us live into our mission where everyone can have a sense of belonging. You know I have had a number of people and especially recently who have said to me Jay, why do you have to preach on social justice. For me the answer is easy. It is the values that the principles of Unitarian Universalism instill within me. The inherent worth and dignity of each person. Justice equity and compassion in human relations. If we believe in this, if this is our touchstone, then we cannot turn away. Secondly I preach on social justice because you called me to do so. The Congregational mission calls us to be welcoming and diverse. That cant just be welcoming and diverse only with people we like or who are like us, who fit into our cultural norm. And the congregational vision includes specifically that we Support social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the community. This is who you say you want to be. You will have to decide if this is who you truly want to be.
And to make it happen will require changes that can be uncomfortable. And change can feel like loss. And change involves grieving for who we once were as a congregation. Or grieving for having the ability to do and say whatever we want without feedback. Grieving giving up power to others. Like with any grief, we can choose to face it or let it consume us. We may be in a valley but there is a mountaintop up ahead if we can find the will and the love and the openness we can get there. I believe it. But we can only get there together. No one makes it alone
This has been a particularly challenging topic and I imagine it will continue to be. But nothing can be accomplished if it is not faced. And I reminded myself about why I went into ministry. Not to play it safe. But to transform lives and transform the world. I don’t always know the way forward. But to do nothing is to be paralyzed. To feel guilty or fearful is unhelpful. Diangelo writes “The antidote for guilt and fear is action.” So I walk forward boldly with integrity and authenticity with faith as to where the journey leads. I am asking all of you to walk together on this journey. Not a sprint. But a marathon. One step at a time. With love in our hearts and compassion for each other, a curiosity to listen and learn and a willingness to do the hard work with humbleness to reach our mission of truly being welcoming and diverse May it be so.