Let’s Move Beyond Fear of the words “White Supremacy”, and say Yes to Racial Justice!”
a love letter to white Unitarian Universalists on white supremacy and the #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn
This past Sunday, April 30th, hundreds of UU congregations held White Supremacy Teach-Ins and hundreds more will do so this Sunday, May 7th. All together over 600 Unitarian Universalist Congregations have joined the call to host teach-ins on white supremacy as called for and led by UUs of color and indigenous UUs. This is part of the denomination wide protest and conversation, sparked by racist hiring practices, for racial justice values inside the UU association, inside UU congregations, as the UU faith works for racial justice throughout society.
While this is an incredible time of possibility, of change on the move, of leadership of POCI (people of color and indigenous) UUs and white anti-racists rising, of the UU faith evolving with the historic needs of these years of Black Lives Matter movement, of a right wing extremist presidency and congress and of people’s movement’s rising for immigrant rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and there are also many white UUs who are deeply uncomfortable, scared, and alienated by the calls to challenge white supremacy within the UU faith.
I remember the first time an organization and community I was part, that I loved, was challenged by members of color who both experienced racism within the organization and community, and also spoke out against ways the racism of the community either pushed people of color away or made the community irrelevant to the lives of people of color.
I was devastated and heartbroken. I was confused and scared as the world I thought I knew, was falling apart around me. I listened, but struggled to fully hear and believe what friends of color and members of color I didn’t know, shared their experiences, shared their pain and hurt and outrage, taking turns in a group speak out to the larger community. It all began with an incident that didn’t seem like that big of deal, to me and to a lot of the white people.
It was a conversation in which a longtime white member of the organization said a few things that made a recently hired woman of color feel like she didn’t belong, and when that experience was shared in a people of color caucus, every other member of color shared their own experiences of being made to feel on the outside, to feel marginalized, to feel undermined in their work and leadership by subtle and not so subtle racism.
As members of color spoke out about their own experiences, many connected this to the larger issue of “whose experiences, whose norms, whose needs, whose issues” are central to the culture of the organization and who is unconsidered, unserved, unresourced, unsupported, and ultimately whose lives are valued versus whose lives are undermined by the culture of the organization.
And given this, how can the organization effectively be the diverse and inclusive community it says it wants to be, how can the organization be effective in the struggle against white supremacy in society, be effective in creating multiracial democracy, be a healthy organization living the truth of it’s values, when its white members and culture is alienating and pushing out people of color.
I was part of the white caucus that meet afterwards and just like today with white UUs, there was a wide range of responses from white people.
Some were shocked and couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Some felt like they were under attack and felt like the community they loved was being trashed, like they were being judged and condemned personally. Some felt scared that the talk of centering the lives and experiences of people of color, meant that they as white people would have to leave, or that their lives and needs no longer mattered. Some felt tremendous guilt and shame and began questioning whether white people could do anything other than create harm, and focused on tearing other white people down.
And some said we should breathe, ground ourselves in our values, commitments and relationships, and have an honest conversation about what we heard people of color say, and try to understand what they were sharing with us. They reminded the group that what we are facing isn’t just a set of individual experiences, but that we’re facing structural white supremacy and how it shows up in our organization and culture. They reminded us that people all over the country are having similar conversations, that this isn’t a distraction from the real work we’re supposed to be doing. Rather this is at the heart of how structural inequality is working to pull us apart, maintain supremacy culture and norms, and destroy our efforts, our relationships, and our potential.
I had to open myself up to the grief, the pain, the anger of people of color in our community, and let go of my defensiveness, my list of but, but, but. I had to struggle against the socialization of white supremacy which has subtly and systematically shared the geography of my consciousness and subconscious. This socialization led me to marginalize the lives of people of color; to hear people of color’s critique of racism as exaggeration, as manipulation, as personal attack; and to experience people of color’s demands for dignity and racial justice as diminishing my dignity, my rights, my future.
I felt like all that I believed, all that I loved was being called a lie. I felt like I was losing my place in this community that meant so much to me. I felt like I had no idea what to do. I wanted to run away, or hide. And in that moment, a mentor said to me, “The most important thing you can do right now is keep showing up. Keep listening. Keep open as much as you can.” She added, “What you are experiencing may feel deeply personal, but all of this, the pain, the confusion, the grief, the sense of loss, of hopelessness, this is the world that supremacy systems have created. What you are feeling is hard, but if you stay open, stay present, draw strength from your deepest values, then you will move towards a world of liberation values and away from the hold supremacy systems have on you.”
Reflecting on what I was hearing from people of color, I lost myself in tears, and in an outpouring of suppressed pain, the pain of the violence and horror of the injustices of supremacy systems that I’ve witnessed, that I’ve heard and read about, the histories I’ve studied, and so much of this pain suppressed and held in my body. As a white man, who experienced fists hitting my body for expressing vulnerability, I often feared that letting myself go into the depths of hurt and pain within myself, of letting myself hear and have empathy for the hurt and pain of others, would shatter me. And shatter me, it did. It shattered the sense of scarcity that supremacy systems raised me with, the scarcity of compassion, of democracy, of redemption.
Today, as I think about tens of thousands of white UUs participating in white supremacy teach ins across the continent. I think about the fear, the grief and the pain. The scarcity myth of supremacy systems convinces us to believe that if people of color want this faith to center them too, then I’m losing something”. As I think about my beautiful, messy, complicated, full of shortcomings (just like me) white UUs, I think, “yes, you are losing something.”
Yes, you are losing something, but you have the choice about what it is you are losing. You could think that people of color and indigenous UUs asserting their dignity and humanity and protesting for racial justice means you are losing your place in this community you love. Or you could choose to see how supremacy systems insidiously suffocate our liberatory imagination. You could lose the hold those systems have on you. You can lose that hold enough to stay present, to stay open, to stay on the journey. You choose to stay committed to our deepest values and hold them up and say:
“White supremacy, you cannot have me. You cannot have my family; you cannot have my faith; you cannot have my congregation. I will not bow to the weight of the fear you put on me. For today, I choose to rise — to rise for racial justice, to rise and show up for my siblings of color and indigenous siblings. They have courageously led us into confrontation with the death culture. They have courageously led us into a fight to make ourselves the faith that these times call us to be: the faith of salvation from the death culture, the faith of rituals, of ceremonies, of theology, and sacred actions that nourish and grow beloved community.”
“I might be scared. I might be out of my comfort zone. I might not know what I’m supposed to do. I might even think I disagree with aspects of what’s going on. Yet, I’m going to show up. I’m going to show up with my community, with my faith, with over 600 congregations in my faith and say ‘yes’ to racial justice, ‘yes’ to being on the journey, ‘yes’ to building a new way, ‘yes’ to shattering that which does not serve this goal. I’m going to find sources of strength, hope and courage I didn’t even realize existed. Today I say ‘yes’ to getting free from supremacy systems and ‘yes’ to a Unitarian Universalist faith that is alive for racial justice, on a path to be a spiritual home for more and more people hungry for beloved community working for collective liberation.”
To my white UU siblings, I’m scared too. Scared of not being effective enough in these times. Scared of making mistakes. Scared of letting down UUs of color and indigenous UUs, of letting down white UUs. Sacred of… And then I mediate on the words of the Lorde, Audre Lorde, who reminds us: “When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
We can acknowledge our fears, our discomfort, and show up to listen and take action. I am with you and I believe in our capacity to move through fear and say “Yes”.
May it be so.
Thank you to Atena Oyadi Danner, Aisha Hauser, and Carrie Stewart for feedback on an earlier draft. Thank you to Jolinda Stephens for copy edits.
Resources for moving forward:
UU White Supremacy Teach-in Resources compiled by the three Religious Educators who are leading this international teach-in, Kenny Wiley, Aisha Hauser and Christina Rivera:
And Black Lives of UU, which is bringing tremendous leadership to the UU denomination recently hosted this “Multi-Faith Panel on Confronting White Supremacy in Faith Institutions”:
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