If this is the way it’s going to be: Unitarian Universalism and White Fragility


Introduction: Why Isaac and Rivka [Rebecca]

The promise of God fulfilled in generations of family and faithfulness is the story of Rivka and Isaac. We could start there and talk about the archetypes in the story, and we will, but given the complexity of Unitarian Universalism I will address that teaching from a story of the Hebrew Scriptures presents its own barrier to folks who would rather not discuss God or these folks, Rivka [Rebecca] and Isaac. I can have compassion for that.

Some other time, I could tell it some other way. From Harry Potter, let’s say, or Ellen and William Craft and their friend, the Rev. Theodore Parker. I am going to begin, though, by saying that developing faith and ethics with multiple vocabularies isn’t too much to ask. Trusting one another as we build communities means that I can tell a story that matters to me without being dismissed because someone else doesn’t favor it. Making space for multiple stories means doing that, not expecting someone else to make space for a story you love, but leaving theirs behind. Maybe you’ve heard that before. I am trusting readers to flex into the story.

Rivka’s challenge

Rivka met Isaac because she was the answer to a faithful person’s prayers. She ran to be of service and her life was changed because of it. In fact, one way to read the text is that when Rivka saw Isaac, met her destiny, she fell off her camel. They fell in love, got married, had children, but it all started when she saw him and promptly fell off her camel.

The text doesn’t indicate that she was hurt from falling. It doesn’t indicate there was so much of a problem (it could be prostration for honor). She just crashed into who she would become, and began dealing right away with her future. Eventually, Rivka became pregnant with twins. The twins kicked and tumbled inside her so hard, that she despaired.

“If this is the way it’s going to be, why go on living?”

There was an answer. The answer is that these two babies, butting heads before birth were meant to be great leaders.

Have you fallen off your camel lately, either from a broken heart or from encountering the starkness of your destiny?

The world is changing so quickly and in such difficult ways that I wouldn’t be surprised if you said yes. Sometimes it has been grief that has knocked me off my camel (which camel I am imagining to represent an every day kind of journey.) Remember when the babies were put in cages? The babies are still not free. Remember when the administration targeted trans and gender expansive folks? They are still not safe. There is more, and all of it could legitimately disturb your sense of ordinary days.

Have you found yourself wondering along with Rivka, so, if this is how it is, why am I trying so hard? For what?

Complexities

There is some complexifying (which I am using to mean digging in to lots of angles and not taking what we mean for granted, since it is really easy for folks to use the same words but mean different things.) Think about the last time you tried to describe business casual dress to someone. It was detailed because such a description is dependent on context. Let me tell you a story.

Recently, I was in a progressive religious environment designated as Unitarian Universalist. As sometimes is the case, I was the only person of color there. Thus, when we started a conversation about why to use the words, “white” and “supremacy” together, right away with seasoned UUs, I immediately had different things at stake than the folks leading the conversation, or even the people participating with the conversation.

It has been a couple of years since Unitarian Universalism had a public reckoning with the way white supremacy is entwined and also taken for granted in all of our systems, from worship to employment of staff, to ministry and how it is held as a calling and as a system.

Pro-tip: Folks and friends, don’t call it, The Unpleasantness, or some other euphemistic thing. Healing for all of us can happen only when we are honest about the wound. Remember this because it is going to come up later. Call it Unitarian Universalism’s confronting white supremacy or something similar.

Are you still confused about whether white supremacy is an actual element in Unitarian Universalism?
Do you still feel an urgent need to distinguish your kind of white supremacy from the Klu Klux Klan or Proud Boys?

Some days it baffles me that this is confusing. It is obvious to me most of the time that the orientation of Unitarian Universalism is white. In UU majority contexts, the fact that I am a person of color or a minister of color is still an afterthought, still a surprise, even though people of color were invented a long time ago.

White supremacy is an orientation, a bias. It is a bias that can be held by good people with liberal views. Those people are part of a system. As they act in the system oriented to prefer and advance the interests of white people (as a default and a habit), folks we know and love are complicit with the aims of the bias in the system. It is a white supremacist bias. It exists in our congregations, yes, but also, in our Unitarian Universalist Association and the systems within which our congregations are held. That is, white supremacy is a problem. It is the same problem groups like the Klu Klux Klan and Proud Boys have. The differences lie in the expression of that problem. That you do not do worse behaviors is all right, but it must become clear to you, from your own beliefs and ethics, that you must do better.

In the context I was in, I was hopeful that we could advance from the conversation about whether white supremacy is a problem. I wanted us to be able to shift slightly from whether it is a problem, to a different question.

Given that white supremacy is a problem, how should we respond?

I’m going to skip to the end and tell you what happened: we didn’t shift the conversation forward. It stayed stuck because people felt uncertain and defensive.

I had hoped that the entire group could commit to interrupting harm as it occurred, rather than waiting for the harm to happen and then instituting a formal process of exchanging apologies, more like fencing or dueling than making sure that people are protected and supported and the harms they endure considered soberly and with a commitment to doing better in the future.

We couldn’t shift the conversation because people were more concerned that interrupting would be rude, especially since the person probably meant well and maybe just needed to learn more.

I want to be very clear with you. Though a few people understood the larger possibility and impact of interrupting harm. the group was stalled and even divided by the idea that we could do better by interrupting harm, not because the people present weren’t interested in having less racism. Probably, if you asked them, they would have said they did want less racism. At the same time, these folks and friends were unable to decide that potentially appearing rude (among friendly folk and with limits) was better than doing harm by being racist or classist, sexist or ableist.

Prioritizing politeness over preventing harm was a contraction back to making sure that white folks could remain comfortable at all times, even if they made a mistake or actually caused harm.
Don’t judge these folks harder than you want to be judged, though. I am certain you can think of a time that being defensive and staying confused was easier than staying open-hearted and embracing change.

This is the way Unitarian Universalism keeps itself small and weak. The Universe knows I love weak things. I am a weak thing, only made of meat, knowing with certainty only the Universe in my own soul. When I describe Unitarian Universalism as weak, it isn’t because our aspirations are tender. It’s not because we only do the convenient things. The strength we lack is strength to take medicine that tastes bad, to tell the truth about the ways that Unitarian Universalism, both in history, and in its conflicted present doesn’t affirm the humanity of each person in the same way.

My favorite way of thinking of a story that is calling me is to imagine that I am each character. I am the faithful person searching for Isaac’s wife. I am Isaac. I am Rivka, falling off my camel, despairing at the tumbling, kicking babies. I am the fighting babies. I am the voice of the sacred saying that there is a reason for the struggle.

Unitarian Universalism had a time almost two years ago, when seeing that it had embraced a bias for white supremacy in culture, methods, and practices, began to tell the truth about itself. In that way, it is (I am) the twins, or two distinct possibilities — one for changing the bias toward which Unitarian Universalism leans and the other for keeping the bias of white supremacy the same, no matter who or what is lost or who or what is harmed. For a while, Unitarian Universalism could both acknowledge the struggle and tell the truth about its hopes, fears, and dreams.

Have we stopped?

Are we back to worrying more about politeness than racism? Is Unitarian Universalism back on its nonsense?

Don’t tell me it’s not. Show me.

Don’t tell me you mean well. Do better.

Don’t tell me you are a good person. Act measurably better.

Don’t complain about perfection. Be decent. Be decent all the time.

Don’t tell me you’re different. Collect your white folk. Teach them to be willing to be interrupted rather than harm the Beloved Community.

Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.
— Nelson Mandela