If racism were a problem that could be solved by the will of individuals, it would already be solved. We must be able to acknowledge both individual and communal responsibility at the very same time. We can do that.
Where we start the story matters. Eventually, we will arrive at discussion of the racist book that was distributed at UUA General Assembly 2019. But, in the same way that racism doesn’t have an individual solution, it doesn’t only have an individual perpetration.
The punchline is going to be that systemic failures of anti-racism positioned this kind of poisonous dissent as reasonable. It’s dissent, after all.
(Here we pause to be explicit: the author of the racist book is definitely responsible for his actions. And there is more to the story.)
Before General Assembly, Unitarian Universalist ministers were considering changes to the UUMA (Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association) Guidelines. These changes focused on accountability and harm, addressing ministerial misconduct.
And then, there was a response — an open letter signed by a variety of folks expressing reservations about the proposed changes. There are many reservations in the response that relate to how congregations fit in to a structure of accountability for ministers. There are many ways the response goes on to say that the exercise of the authority of the UUMA was too vigorous or misplaced.
The response led to questions such as:
- If I am required to participate in accountability processes, can they be authentic?
- If colleagues can hold me accountable, won’t that chill my relationships with colleagues?
A note here: on the other side of significant conflict and harm, I can say that leveling up in clarity, attention and outcomes with the UUMA guidelines is not at all misplaced when it is a membership organization, such as it is.
3. From the response, a friendly amendment was drafted.
Please do notice that the name, “friendly” is about how the presentation of the material happens procedurally and not so much about the content itself.
It’s worth stopping here to say that a friendly amendment can be used to disempower whatever is originally proposed. While this friendly amendment couldn’t establish that completely, it was able to shift the focus to an extremely explicit affirmation of assent and dissent in the study process. There are a few things to notice about that:
We are Unitarian Universalists. Assenting and dissenting have always been part of our shared and beautiful heresy. The effect of lifting it up in this moment in this way was to make the ability to disagree as important as the work itself. Maybe sometimes that’s true, but it still leads to asking why you have to disagree with anti-racism and anti-oppression work and structures of accountability. What’s the actual disagreement there? The writers of the response did not take responsibility for the way that this emphasis and these priorities would undermine the work.
4. The amendment was adjusted by its proponents in partnership with UUMA leadership and presented as a friendly amendment.
5. The business meeting was conducted under suspension of ordinary Roberts Rules and committee of the whole instead. Committee of the whole is meant to relax the the rules around discussion to allow for more free-flowing exchange. At that meeting it was combined with really strict rules about how the time would be used, meaning that the main effect it had was to eliminate conversation about how the friendly amendment had been incorporated and whether that was desirable.
Which brings us to the racist book. It is full of hate, including transphobia, ableism, and sexism.
Responses to the hate were clear, swift, and certain. DRUUMM (Unitarian Universalists of color), white ministers, and the newly formed People of Color and Indigenous Chapter of the UUMA all offered public statements denouncing the hate.
6. Then, I saw something that we need to discuss. Several folks who signed the response detracting from the original proposed changes signed the letter from white ministers denouncing the book.
Fezzik: You just shook your head. Doesn’t that make you happy?
Westley: My brains, his steel, and your strength against sixty men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy?
I am glad they don’t love the book and want to share it with all their friends. At the same time, the author of the racist book was set up by their assist. The set up was that explicit prioritization of dissent.
When confronted about the content, the author merely reasserted that it was a different perspective.
When asked to recovenant, he declined.
These are the things that the response to the guidelines proposal normalized. The system holding the guidelines would rather err on the side of giving people license when it focuses on what’s at stake being whether we have to do something rather than whether it’s possible to abate harm and begin to act reliably in anti-racist ways.
If you signed that response, you sowed the wind. Now we, and especially your colleagues and kin who are people of color and Indigenous are reaping the whirlwind.
The UUMA is a membership organization. Having expectations and consequences for who can be a member and under what agreements is leading toward decency. Liberation looks like a different way of working all together. I am deeply disappointed and left with broken trust in colleagues who could have done more, could have done better, but when offered the chance, declined.