Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Song in a Weary Throat

Pauli captioned this photo:  "The Imp!"
This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, June 18, 2017.

“I have never been able to accept what I believe to be an injustice. Perhaps it is because of this I am America’s problem child ...”

“America’s problem child.”  That’s the way – one of the ways – that the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray saw herself … and not without some reason.  Pauli was one of the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality, and she encouraged Betty Friedan to create what she called an “N.A.A.C.P. for women.”  (Pauli was one of the original 28 women who founded the National Organization for Women.)  She was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus when instructed to do so by the driver … 20 years before Rosa Parks in Montgomery.   She organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C. decades before the demonstrations at that Woolworth’s counter in Greensboror; and she anticipated the Freedom Summer of 1964 in urging her white classmates from law school to head south to fight for civil rights, wondering how to “attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.”  She was a problem child.

While a law school student – the only woman in her school – Pauli suggested that the way to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in Plessy v. Ferguson was not to attack the “equal” part, which had been the strategy for roughly the previous 50 years.  She proposed instead that you could attack the “separate” part, and in her final paper she laid out the arguments to do so.  Although her classmates and teachers laughed at her, Thurgood Marshall is known to have made use of that paper when he was preparing for Brown v. Board of Education.  Pauli also wrote a paper that Ruth Bader Ginsberg would later use to develop her argument that the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment should be recognized as extending to women, too. Pauli was a problem child for the American status quo.  Yet for years Pauli was relatively unknown.  In her article about Pauli for The New Yorker, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” Kathryn Schulz sums up her life by saying that it was Pauli’s fate “to be both ahead of the time and behind the scenes.” 

Pauli Murray lived an incredible life.  She wrote what Thurgood Marshall called “the Bible” for civil rights lawyers, States’ Laws on Race and Color, as well as a book of her poetry, Dark Testament (from which Arthur read an excerpt a moment ago.) She was the first African American to receive a J.S.D from Yale.  President Kennedy picked her to serve on his Commission on the Status of Women, and, while working as a senior lecturer at the Ghana School of Law, she was part of the team that drafted Ghana’s new Constitution.  (She put her own life in jeopardy while doing this because of her insistence that the Constitution included guarantees of freedom.) In 1947, Mademoiselle magazine declared her “Woman of the Year.”   

She knew Langston Hughes; had a decades long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt; worked with Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and hung out at the Harlem nightclub Jock’s Place with … my mother.  (That’s why I’ve been feeling comfortable calling her Pauli, she was always “Pauli” in our family.) Shortly after Pauli died my mom wrote in her journal:

I thought her one of the most extraordinary people I’d met in my life then; I feel the same about her now.

The freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams was the most wonderful thing about her.

She began as a poet who became a lawyer and then an Episcopal priest.  But, always she was a poet, who observed people with compassion and humor, who reacted to the world with passion.

Earthbound and pedantic in contrast, I thank God I had the imagination to establish and maintain a relationship with her, because it was a nourishing relationship.  One of the most important in my life.

But this isn’t a sermon about the wonderfully extraordinary life of Saint Pauli (yes, the Episcopal Church has named her a saint).  None of these successes did not come easy.

When Pauli – then Anna Pauline – was three years old her mother died in front of her from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Her father then sent her to live with her maternal Aunt, for whom she’d been named, Pauline Fitzgerald.  There were no other children in the house, only her Aunt Pauline, and her parents, Cornelia and Robert.  Cornelia, Pauli’s grandmother, had been born in slavery.  Cornelia’s mother – Pauli’s great-grandmother – was a part-Cherokee slave named Harriet, and Pauli’s great-grandfather was the son of Harriet’s owner, and Harriet’s frequent rapist.

When Pauli was about six, her father was committed to the Crownsville State Hospital for the Negro Insane, suffering from the effects of grief, anxiety, poverty, and illness.  Some years later, a racist guard dragged her father into the basement of the hospital, where he beat him to death with a baseball bat. Pauli was only 12.  She once said that “the most important fact about [her] childhood is that [she] was an orphan.”

Pauli described herself as a, “a thin, wiry, ravenous child.”  She taught herself to read by the age of five.  By the time she graduated high school -- at fifteen -- she was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the president of the literary society, class secretary, a member of the debate club, the top student … and a forward on the basketball team.

She could have easily gotten into the North Carolina College for Negroes, but she had already been resisting racist segregation from her earliest years. She’d walked wherever she could, because she refused to ride in the segregated streetcars, and she wouldn't go to the movies because she wouldn't be told that she had to sit in the Colored section in the balcony. She wasn't any more interested in being told that she had to go to a segregated college. Tired of the South’s blatant segregation, she decided that she wanted to head north, and declared that she was going to go to Columbia University in New York.

When she and Aunt Pauline went to visit the school, she discovered that race wasn't the only kind of segregation.  Columbia didn't accept women; Barnard did, but she couldn't afford the cost of tuition.  Gender and class would also be battlegrounds for this “problem child.”  She found out that she could go to Hunter College for free if she was a New York resident, which wouldn't be hard – she could live with a cousin in Queens.  But Hunter told her that her high school education had been incomplete, so she re-enrolled in high school, Richmond Hill High School … where she was the only African-American among four thousand students.

Some time later, she decided to return to North Carolina, applying to the University of North Carolina’s graduate program in sociology.  But, the University of North Carolina’s graduate program in sociology didn’t accept African Americans.  Pauli knew this, of course.  She also knew that two of her slave-owning relatives had attended the school, another had served on its board of trustees, and yet another had created a permanent scholarship for its students – all of this made her a legacy applicant.  U.N.C didn't see it that way, and her application was denied. 

She went to Howard Law School with, as she said, “the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow,” and where, as I’ve said, she was the only woman – student or faculty.  On her first day, one of her professors said that he couldn’t imagine why a woman would want to go to law school.  Not only did she find this humiliating – as it was intended – but it also fired her determination to become the top of her class.  Which she did. 

The usual “reward” for graduating from Howard in this position was a prestigious fellowship to further study at Harvard.  So, she applied, but was told, “You are not of the sex entitled to be admitted to Harvard Law School,” to which she responded, in perfect “problem child” fashion:

Gentlemen, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?

By this time Pauli had already established a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt – a story for another time – so her request for admission was supported by no one less than F.D.R. himself (who, besides being President of the United States was a Harvard alum), yet even that was apparently not enough to get the good “gentlemen” of Harvard to change their minds.  To her commitment to ending Jim Crow she now added a determination to bring to an end what she’d come to call, “Jane Crow.”
She applied for a teaching position at Cornell, and was turned down because the people she used as references were considered “too radical.”  (For the record, they were Phillip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, and Eleanor Roosevelt.)  It might seem as though Pauli was everywhere, involved in everything, but her story also includes a whole lot of places she was told she could not go.

Yet time and time again, Pauli was “the first” – the first African American, the first woman, the first African American woman – and she had to face all that went with that.  And nearly forty years before Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality,” Pauli insisted that her various identities could not be separated – she was of mixed race; she was a woman; she had known real poverty (and despite her many degrees and accomplishments, remained close to it throughout her life).  In recent years scholars have noted that this extremely private person was a lesbian, and sometimes called herself a “boy-girl,” who wondered if her attraction to women was because she was really a man in a woman’s body.  (She never used the word “transgender,” or, for that matter, “lesbian,” but she knew these identities and knew that the were as inseparable as any of her others.)  After helping to found the Congress of Racial Equality, she chided the civil rights movement for excluding women; after helping to found the National Organization for Women, she criticized it for being, “the N.A.A.C.P. for white women.”

Can you see why she might see hope as a “song in a weary throat?”  Why she’d see hope not as Dickinson’s bright and fluttery “thing with feathers,” but as, “a crushed stalk / Between clenched fingers / … a bird’s wing / Broken by a stone”?  Pauli had struggled, had had to struggle, and from the experiences of her grandmother and great-grandmother, her mother, her father, and her own near-constant battle to be who she was and who she was capable of being, Pauli knew firsthand how fragile hope can be.

In our own ways, many of us do, too.  In the last several months I have talked with two congregants who’ve told me that they really can’t see any reason for going on, and see no hope of finding any.  I’m sure there are others.  And when a loved one dies or is given a terminal diagnosis, when we come up against our own mortality, when we feel stuck in a job that’s killing us or a deadly relationship, when we have to choose between paying a bill or buying some food, when we feel that despite our best efforts the planet will become uninhabitable and that white supremacy will never be dismantled, when our depression makes everything seem bleak, when any of a thousand things like these are going on in our lives … we, too, might see hope as a bird with a broken wing.  So … what are we to do?
In the life of Pauli Murray I see a call to tenacity.  Hope might have been for her “a song in a weary throat,” a “tuneless ditty,” but she never stopped singing it, nonetheless.  That “freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams.” As I noted earlier, after a long and distinguished career, at the age of 62 she left the security of her position in academia (she was by then a professor at Brandeis University), and entered seminary to become an Episcopal priest.  This was 1973, and the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain women as priests.  A problem child once again.  While Pauli was not among the first group of women ordained by the Church, she was the first African American woman in Episcopal Church history to become a priest.  And even if, as some biographers have suggested, she was driven toward the priesthood in part because she’d been told she couldn’t go there, her call to ordained ministry was also a sign of deep and abiding commitment to hope.

I’m going to conclude with letting Pauli speak for herself about her ability to find hope even in the realities that crushed that stalk and broke that wing.  I am not suggesting that we all need to become Episcopal priests, as she did. I'm not even suggesting that we all need to believe in God, as clearly important as that was for her. I am saying that in Pauli Murray’s life we can see a model of how to look through the times of hopelessness to see the hope on the other side.  This is from the end of her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage [which has since been re-titled], where she describes how, at the end, “all the strands of [her] life had come together.”

“I traveled to North Carolina to celebrate my first Holy Communion – also the first Eucharist to be celebrated by a woman in that state – at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill. …

On Sunday, February 13, in the little chapel where my Grandmother Cornelia had been baptized more than a century earlier as one of ‘Five Servant Children Belonging to Miss Mary Ruffin Smith,’ I read the gospel from an ornate lectern engraved with the name of that slave-owning woman who had left part of her wealth to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.  A thoroughly integrated congregation crowded the chapel, and many more stood outside until they could enter to kneel at the altar rail and receive Communion.  There was a great irony in the fact that the first woman priest to preside at the altar of the church to which Marry Ruffin Smith had given her deepest devotion should be the granddaughter of the little girl she had sent to the balcony reserved for slaves.  But more than irony marked that moment.  Whatever future ministry I might has a priest, it was given to me that day to be a symbol of healing

All the strands of my life had come together.  Descendent of slave and slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend.  Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female – only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.

This is the entire text of my mother's journal entry on hearing of the death of her friend.

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray died Monday, July 1.

A friend for about 40 years.

I met her through Lou Jefferson at Jock’s Place in Harlem.

I thought her one of the most extraordinary people I’d met in my life then; I feel the same about her now.

The freedom of her spirit to dream daringly and then to accomplish those dreams was the most wonderful thing about her.

She began as a poet who became a lawyer and then an Episcopal priest.  But, always she was a poet who observed people with compassion and humor, who reacted to the world with passion.
Earthbound and pedantic in contrast I thank God I had the imagination to establish and maintain a relationship with her because it was nourishing relationship.  One of the most important in my life.
Se never saw Paul again after the Christening ceremony at the Broadway Tabernacle but her interest in him, and his brothers, was real and caring.

The shock of the Wikstroms that day was memorable.  The mischievous part of me treasures the moment, and I know that Pauli was amused, too.

Pauli, who classified people in ice cream flavors – strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. She refused to adopt the language of the feminists even though she was one of the NOW organizers.  And she would not adopt the berm “black,” preferring “Negro” as having authenticity ethnically and, therefore, greater dignity.  Oh how the leaders in the peer groups closest to her fought with her on these issues. 
When she was in Ghana as a law professor helping to write that country’s new constitution she put her life in danger by insisting upon inclusion of guarantees of freedom.  Her letters during that period were cautiously worded because she knew they wee being read by the authorities.  When she was scheduled for a Paris vacation friends advised she make the trip not planning to return cause there was a plot to kill her.

We named Paul after a most courageous person.  Someone who at 66 because one of the first women to be ordained by the Episcopal church.  [She was one of the first women, and was the first African American woman to be ordained.]
I am grateful for her friendship.

This is the text of a section of Pauli's epic poem, "Dark Testament."

Dark Testament, Verse 8
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty –
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to sing it

While doing research for the sermon I discovered that the raper RaShad cut an album earlier this year titled, A Conversation with Pauli Murray.  To be honest, it's a little uneven, in my humble opinion, yet here are two cuts from it -- the second one includes something of her story, the first actually includes her voice!

The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray  (November 20, 1910 -- July 1, 1985)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

To sing not enough ...

Yesterday morning I joined with a group of people in a park in downtown Charlottesville.  The park has been getting a lot of attention lately, both locally and in the national media, because of an effort to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee which stands so prominently in its center.

A couple of weeks back a rally was held in front of the statue.  Richard Spencer, the man who is credited with coining the term "alt-right," led a torch-bearing crowd in chanting, "We will not be replaced," and the Nazi-era slogan, "blood and soil."  The next night, a larger crowd gathered, bearing candles, to say that Charlottesville should be a place where all people are welcome, and that the stories, the experiences, the lives of People of Color will no longer be dismissed and ignored.

Word went out that there would be a "pro-Confederacy" rally yesterday morning at 10:00, so a group came together at 9:00 so as to be there to greet them.  Signs and banners were gathered, prayers were spoken, songs were sung ... we even hummed "Amazing Grace" over and over again as people read from the Bible, made stirring speeches, and prayed some more.

And I was there, with others from the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve, singing, and humming, and chanting with everyone else.  I even was moved to give voice to a prayer of my own. 
"Let us not be fooled into thinking that rallies are enough.  We can sing all we want to, but if lives aren't changed for the better, it will be in vain."
Earlier I had been walking around the periphery of the crowd -- trying to get a photo of the congregation's banner, truth be told -- when I was stopped by an African American man who wanted me to explain to him why I was there and why I was saying "Black Lives Matter" when, really, all lives should matter.  There was a small group around us -- some of whom I recognized from other pro-statue rallies -- but it was pretty much only the two of us talking.

A point he was trying to make was that from his perspective, People of Color in Charlottesville don't really care all that much about whether there's a statue of Lee in Lee Park.  They care about the gangs that have taken over the projects; they care about jobs, and housing, and unfair incarceration rates.  He said, essentially, "why don't all you white folks who're here singing get together in the projects and do something to actually make a difference in people's lives?  That's what will bring people together.  This stuff will just divide us further."

I have heard this same point made even closer to home.  The Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a frequent guest in our pulpit, and he has said this same thing about our congregation's decades-long wrestling over whether or not to change our congregation's name -- "people in the Black community," he has said, "don't really care whether this church is named after Thomas Jefferson or not.  We care about jobs, and drugs, and real problems that affect real people."  [An interesting coincidence -- the man I was speaking to in the park is a member of Ebenezer.]

Now ... while I do hear this, I also hear the voices of other People of Color, here and around the country, who talk with equal clarity about how the names and the statues do matter.  The mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, gave a powerful speech a week or so ago about why it was so important that the city had taken the step of removing four Confederate monuments.  If you haven't heard it, you should.  [Here's a transcript of the speech, but his delivery was incredible, so I encourage you to actually watch and listen to it.]

Anybody who's ever read even a little of what I've written knows that I am very much a both/and guy, and I recognize that there are a lot of perspectives on this country's history with regards to race, how to understand its present, and where (and how) we should go from here.  The people on one side of the issue have a lot of different motivations for holding the views that they do, as is true for those on the other side, and there is another whole group who, for a whole lot of different reasons, fall somewhere in between.  So I do see that this isn't just, excuse me, black and white.


At the same time that I recognize that there are a lot of different perspectives, I also recognize that some of those perspectives have been consciously, intentionally, and systematically denied or denigrated.  While I know that there are a number of different voices offering a number of different stories, each of which I believe has some core of validity, I also know that there are some voices which have been purposefully silenced.  This is one of the things I think Mayor Landrieu did so well in his speech -- he recognized the existence of a variety of perspectives, denying none of them, and he named the importance of now listening more attentively to those perspectives, to those people, who have been for two long pushed to the margins of U.S. society.

So I understand that names and statues don't matter for some, and I understand that for some they matter a lot, and I understand that for some they have been painful for a long, long time and that that pain has been ignored. I also know that for me, I will side with those whose voices have gone too long unheard; I will cast my lot who are asking that their too long unrecognized pain for finally seen and responded to; I will show up when I am asked to show up as a sign of solidarity with those who have been pushed to the periphery.

That's why I was there yesterday morning, singing, and humming, and holding a sign that says "Black Lives Matter," because there has never been a question in this country that white lives matter.  What has been said repeatedly, and in ways both subtle and overt, is that Black lives don't matter, and I will lend my voice, my time, my energy, my body to the growing number of people insisting that we, as a country, no longer pretend that there is a rot in the roots of the nation, and demanding that we do something about it.  Black lives do matter, all evidence to the contrary.  And until our reality reflects this rhetoric, I will keep showing up.

Yet there's one more both/and here, and that's that while I will keep showing up because I think it is important to gather to sing, I also recognize that singing is not enough.  If all we do is show up in the park on a Wednesday morning and sing, and hum, and speak strong words, but the gangs remain a presence in the projects, and African Americans are more likely than whites to have negative interactions with the police, and our legal system remains so obscenely imbalanced, and ... if these things don't change, none of the songs of solidarity will matter much at all.

What would happen if all of the people who identify as white who show up at rallies like this were to put as much energy and enthusiasm into making a real difference in the real lives of real people as we do in putting on a show?  (Note that I said, "we" there, because I should certainly be asking myself that question, no less than any other large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white person.)

A post from a Charlottesville man named Chris Newman (owner of the local Sylvanaqua Farms), responding to the candle-light follow-up to the torch-lit rally, recently went viral.  He begins:
A message to Charlottesville about Lee Park from your local Black farmer:
I know some folks are really feeling themselves about this whole Love Trumps Hate counter-rally to Richard Spencer's punch-worthy shenanigans in Lee Park.  I'd like to appreciate it, but frankly I just don't.
He goes on to describe Charlottesville as "the most aggressively segregated place" he has ever lived, and he describes some of the realities he faces as someone "farming while black."  He concludes.  
Truth is, as a Black dude, I'm far less bothered by the flag wavers [...] than this town's progressives assuming its race problem has nothing to do with them.  The former is a visual inconvenience.  The later could leave my daughters without a father.  
So please, put down the candles and instead ask yourself:  why is my city like this?  Why is life like this for Black people in my wonderful city?  The answer is a lot closer to home than Richard Spencer or Lee Park.
Singing is not enough.  It's never been enough -- important, even essential as it is, it's not enough.  We do need to ask those questions Mr. Newman encourages us all to ask, and then we really have to go out there and do something about it.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Too Fast

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation here in Charlottesville -- which I have the privilege of serving -- on Sunday, May 28, 2017.

For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began on this past Friday evening.  Ramadan is so central to Islam that it is considered one of the “five pillars” of the faith, and fasting is central to Ramadan.  With only a few exceptions (which I’ll get back to in a moment), every Muslim is expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, taking no food or water from sunrise to sunset.  (I’ve read that the actual timing is described as being from the moment when you are first able to discern the difference between a black hair and a white one, until the last moment that you can.  I don’t know why, but I love that.)

And while the prohibition against eating and drinking between those times is highlighted, that’s not the only aspect of the fast.  Wikipedia’s article about the Ramadan fast notes that:

During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam by refraining from violence, anger, envy, greed, lust, angry/sarcastic retorts, gossip, and are meant to try to get along with each other better than normal. All obscene and irreligious stimuli are to be avoided as purity of both thought and action is important.

This is important to keep in mind.  The Ramadan fast -- as is true of all religious fasting practices, actually – is about a whole lot more than not eating.  As the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "The one who does not give up false speech and evil actions, Allah does not need their refraining from food and drink."

Yet it is the “refraining from food and drink” that is the most obvious element of the Ramadan fast – and all religious fasting – so I think it’s worth looking at those exceptions I’d mentioned earlier.  Islam requires all Muslims to fast, except for those for whom it might be unsafe or unwise.  Specifically mentioned are pre-pubescent children; those with medical conditions such as diabetes; elderly people; pregnant or breastfeeding women; and those who are traveling or ill.  In other words, and these are my words, you’re expected to fast unless doing so would be harmful.

I find this especially important, because the last time I preached about fasting was during my first two or three years as a preacher.  It was, as I recall, a decent sermon, but what I remember most is that afterwards a member of the congregation called me, very upset, and asked if she and her daughter could come to meet with me.  When they did, the mother explained that her daughter struggled with an eating disorder, and that on the way home from that service the daughter had said, “You know mom, the minister just gave me permission not to eat.”  They provided me with a lot more information and insight about eating disorders than I’d had, and I’ve since tried to always be clear that when I’m talking about fasting, and particularly when I’m talking about fasting from eating, one should never fast if doing so would be harmful.

But why do it in the first place?  Why choose to give up something?  Why choose to do without something that we like, that we enjoy, maybe even that we need?  There are lots of reasons.  Some are purely health related – a cleansing fast would be an example, and I might do that because of all the junk I typically eat, or to try to reduce some of the stressors on my body from living in the toxic atmosphere of a 21st century city, or because I’m going to have one of those medical procedures for which you need to be “cleaned out” beforehand.  But I’m thinking about religious fasting, fasting as a spiritual practice, and there are many reasons for that, too.

I don’t think it’ll come as any kind of shocking surprise to anybody, but life can get pretty hectic.  Or, for many of us, life is pretty hectic, and it can get hectic-er.  There is so much going on, and the pace can be exhausting.  We have access to more stimulus of more kinds, from more directions, with more intensity, than perhaps at any other time in history.  And so much of it, really, is entirely unimportant, is just fluff, noise.  Someone has said that said the hardest thing to explain to a time traveling visitor from the 1950s would be that we have in our pockets devices that give us near immediate access to virtually all of the information we humans have ever encountered, and we use it to share pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.  And there are a lot of cat pictures, and a whole lot of people on the internet who are wrong.

Put simply, for so many of us our lives are often crammed to overflowing, with more and more being added all the time.  How many of us have found ourselves trying to find the time to add a meditation practice into our day so that we can experience a little peace and simplicity?   Trying to find the time to set a little time aside for nurture and self-care, yet we just can’t seem to find the time for it?  And making the time to do something to reduce our stress just adds ... a whole lot more stress.

This is one of the reasons for fasting – it takes something out.  And not just something, not just any old thing, but something that matters to us, something that is part of the fabric of our lives, something that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think all that much about it.  In the case of food we so often eat on autopilot, at our desks at work, or in the study carrel, or in the car on our way from one thing we need to do to another thing we need to do.  But fasting makes us stop; makes us think about it.  Fasting makes us stop, makes us get off autopilot.  This thing most of us in this society take for granted – eating – fasting make us take a look at it.  Ironically, it makes us look at it by making us not do it.  Where normally we might reach for a bag of chips, or an energy bar, without thinking, we now have to think about not doing so.

I am certainly aware that not everyone in our society – not even everyone in our congregation – is able to take food for granted like this.  Some people, some people here right now, many people, struggle hard to figure out how to get food on the table.  The numbers of people who make use of our first-Friday food pantry are testimony to this; the numbers of people who need the Thanksgiving baskets we work with the Ebenezer Baptist Church to make, or the Christmas food drive we do here; the numbers of people who come to my office, sometimes with some regularity, to ask if the ministers’ discretionary fund might help them afford to buy groceries for another week is proof that not everyone in our society, or in this community (however affluent it might seem), can take food for granted.  I want to be clear that I am clear that fasting from food – intentionally abstaining from eating – is something of a luxury we all can’t afford.   For some of us, it’s not an option, not a spiritual practice, it’s a near-daily reality.

So this is a good time to say again that fasting is really about more than not eating.  We can fast from anything that matters to us, that is part of the fabric of our lives, that is so integral to our days that we hardly ever even really think about it all that much.  It could be checking in each day with Rachel Maddow, or checking your twitter feed every 23 ½ seconds.  It could be stepping away from Facebook for a time.  Or it might be, as in the Muslim tradition, refraining from “angry/sarcastic retorts [or] gossip.”  (Which for some of us might be well-nigh impossible.)  You can fast from anything, really, that’s become a habit, that’s become such a habit that you don’t really notice it anymore.  Because so much of our lives are lived habitually, and that’s one of the gifts of a fast – it makes you notice.  Fasting can help us to notice the ways our living has become “habitulalized.” 

Many of us, most of us, fill up so much of our time with things that we don’t even ever really experience, because they’ve become a habit, so fasting opens up a space.  And then we get to ask ourselves – what shall we do with this open space in our lives?  In most religious traditions, the answer is that the time we would normally have been spending in unconsciously preparing – or driving up to a window and buying – food, and the time we would normally have spent eating it, can now be spent thinking about, and connecting with God.  As I said earlier, “during Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam,” and a Muslim can expend this extra effort precisely because they are not expending effort on all that goes into eating.  (And the same would be true, of course, of whatever kind of fast we might make.  The time we might spend on Facebook, the energy we might spend tweeting and retweeting, consciousness we spend on binge watching something on Netflix or Hulu – all of that time and energy is freed up to consider, if not God for you, then what your life is really all about, the choices you have made (or are in the process of making), the things about yourself that are worth loving, and the parts of you that are worth loving if you could let go of your old voices and tapes that tell you that they’re not.  Fasting – whether from food or anything else – is really, essentially (meaning, in its essence) not about what you’re not doing, but about the space that not-doing creates and what becomes possible in that space.

I’d like to lift up one more gift that fasting – that “intentionally giving up, consciously choosing to go without” – offers: faith.   Especially for those who have made fasting a regular part of their spiritual practice – like Muslims during Ramadan, or devout Christians during Lent – fasting reminds us of the truth “we can get through this.”  From all I’ve been told – and I admit that I’ve never done it myself, so I can’t say first-hand – refraining from eating and drinking for a day, thirty days in a row, is not easy.  But always there is iftar, the meal that breaks the fast each evening right after sunset.  I have done shorter fasts, and can say that that first piece of sweet pepper with which I return to eating is the sweetest thing I’ve ever eaten.  There is another side to this seeming deprivation, however difficult it is.  And this experience of renewal, this direct, first-hand experience of resurrection (if you will) can be generalized to other dimensions of our lives.

As with most spiritual practices, when honestly and deeply engaged, the practice of fasting leads to a greater sense of trust, of faith, in life.  So much of the busy-ness with which we fill our lives comes from fear – fear that we’ll be missing out on something good or important, fear that what we have won’t last, fear of scarcity, that we don’t have enough (of whatever we fear we don’t have enough of), fear that we are not enough and that we must constantly prove ourselves by all that we do and have.  These truths are among the things that people who regularly fast say that they discover in that space that is opened up by their fasting.  And their practice or fasting, over time, helps them to realize that these supposed truths are not really true at all.

So much of our lives are lived from a place of fear.  So many of our choices are made in response to our fear.  So much of who we are, and who we can be, is wasted by fear.  Perhaps this is the greatest gift fasting can offer us – the lived experience that enough is enough, that our lives, that we, don’t need to be always full, always stuffed, always moving, always doing ... that we are enough.  And when we know that we are enough, those fears fall away.  And as those fears fall away, courage emerges.  And when we live our lives with courage, all things are possible.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

But I'm not a ...

Yesterday I promised that I would return to one of the most frequent responses people who identify as white have to the use of the term "White Supremacy" as the way to describe the dominant culture in which we, to borrow a phrase, "live, and move, and have our being.'  For those outside the "bubble," the Unitarian Universalist Association, the denomination in which I serve, is being asked to examine how its hiring (and other practices) perpetuate a culture of white supremacy.  And there is, predictably, an uproar in response.  Primarily from people who identify as white, we are hearing things like:

  • How can you paint us with the same brush as the KKK?
  • We're committed to anti-oppression work.  How can we be "white supremacists"?
  • If we use the term "white supremacist" for us, what do we call people like David Duke and Richard Spencer?

Yesterday I addressed the "appropriateness" of using the term -- both because it is actually a more clear and accurate way of describing the systems and structures of racism, and because it is the term that a great many People of Color are asking that we use.  (Since People of Color are, after all, far more intimately effected by racism than are we white folk, they probably have a more clear understanding of what it is, how it works, and how it should be described.)

Yet even with all that said, there still is the issue of what it means to use the same term to describe we large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks that we use to describe Neo-Nazi, torch-carrying, alt-righters.  My answer may disappoint some of my friends and colleagues of color who, until now, have generally found my writing to be a fairly useful distillation of the things they have been saying for decades ... for generations.  (I believe that as a white person I can develop an intellectual understanding of the way racism infects the dominant culture and all that is touched by it, but I realize that I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it.*  That means that pretty much all I know and, therefore, all I can say, I have learned from People of Color who have given voice to their experiences and their learnings.)

With this post, though, I may well disappoint some, because I am going to say that for me the answer to the apparent dilemma is to say that I don't think we should use the same word to describe the average Unitarian Universalist -- or other well-meaning white person -- and the Grand Dragons of the world.  I would say that those folks are, without doubt or question, white supremacists.  I would not say that about folks like me and (hopefully) most of you.  I would say that we all participate in, and (even if unconsciously and unwittingly) we unavoidably perpetuate, the culture of white supremacy.  In other words, I make a distinction between white supremacy, and white supremacists.

Here I do break with some of the voices I have heard from People of Color who say that we should use that same, later, term -- white supremacist -- to refer to any person who identifies as white who, by virtue of that identity, perpetuate the systems and structures of the culture of white supremacy, even when we don't realize it, even when we try to actively work against it.  And I think I do understand their point.  I recoil from it, not surprisingly, but I think I do understand it.

Nonetheless, though, I do make this distinction.  It's possible, of course, that I make it because of my own discomfort -- I do, after all, have a lifetime of hearing and understanding those words in a very particular way, and I have spent my life trying to be the antithesis of what I've known those words to mean.  So I also recoil at the thought of them being used to describe me.  Yet I have learned that there are a millions of ways each day that I do and say things that reinforce the systems and structures that perpetuate the elevation of whiteness as "supreme."

I've redrawn the graphic that's often called the "White Supremacy Triangle" to hopefully more helpfully make it clear that it's also a "White Supremacy Iceberg."

Above the waterline there are things that are clearly and unambiguously part of what I've known as "white supremacy" -- the klu klux klan, neo-nazis, cross burnings, etc.  Yet as with any other iceberg, what's on top is supported by what's below.  So I know that there have been times that a Person of Color has described an experience and I've instinctively questioned whether their interpretation of events was right.  (Was it really a racist act, or did that cab driver really simply not see you?)  And I was definitely raised to think that a "colorblind" approach to combating racism is the way to go.  (Let's not see any difference but, instead, focus on our common humanity!)  And I absolutely have in my head all sorts of inaccurate information about, for instance, U.S. history, because I was exposed to a Euro-centric curricula that presumed white experiences were more important than those of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Indigenous People (and, for that matter, all other historically marginalized groups).

I know that I have -- unconsciously and unintentionally -- silenced People of Color by responding to their stories with my own as if they are the same.  I've insisted that the way I see things, and my analysis of a situation and how to respond to it -- including what words to use -- make the most sense, even when what I'm talking about truly is outside the realm of my experience.  I know that I have often -- and even still recently have -- responded to a situation with what I thought would be the most helpful thing, without even pausing to consider that maybe I should first ask the people I'm wanting to help what they think would be the most helpful way of responding.

And what has been hard for me to hear, and hard for me to really even understand, is that each of these things -- and so, so many unnoticed more -- serve to reinforce the culture of white supremacy.  So I understand that I am part of, participate in, and unwittingly perpetuate this white supremacist culture.  Yet I also do think that it is helpful to make a distinction between the David Dukes and the ... well ... me.  "Above-the-line White Supremacist" and "Below-the-line White Supremacist" makes clear our relative positions on the iceberg, but they are sort of a mouthful.  "Overt White Supremacist" and "Covert White Supremacist" is a little easier to say.  Yet I do understand the need to include the words "white supremacy" when talking about either the above-the-line or below-the-line kind.

For now, the best I can come up with is that the torch bearers are White Supremacists, while I participate in and perpetuate a culture of White Supremacy (or, a White Supremacist culture).  As I said, this may be because of my own discomfort, or the limits of my understanding, but it's the best I can do at this time.  And none of us -- we who identify as white -- will ever do this work "perfectly."  All we can do is keep trying our best, keep stretching ourselves, keep moving into places that feel uncomfortable and make us struggle, and keep learning to see the world through the voices of those who have lived in a world so very different than mine.

Pax tecum,


* -  It's been pointed out to me that saying, "I will never have the in-my-cells, present and generational, experience of it" could be used as an excuse not to do the hard work daily of increasingly making this a real part of my life.  As the person wrote on Facebook, this "gives permission to not try to get it into our cells by demanding of ourselves to see the every act of our lives as part of white supremacy and to learn to disrupt it."  In other words, it could be read in a kind of defeatist way:  I'll never get this, so why try?

That's actually the opposite of my intention.  I'm glad to learn that those words might confuse my message, so that I might attempt to be more clear.  I would stand by the statement that I will never have a "cellular" understanding of the way(s) white supremacy works in the world, and the way(s) it works in and through me.  Yet that doesn't suggest to me that I shouldn't try, but that I should try harder.  So much of the culture of white supremacy is invisible and inaudible to me because the experience of it, and its effects, are not already in my cells.  That means I must engage in a herculean and never-ending effort to learn to see it, and to listen to those voices to which I have been preciously deaf.

And recognizing that "I will never have the in-my-cells ... experience of it," also insists that I never fool myself into thinking that I've become some kind of "expert," that I can claim some kind of complete understanding.  I can't.  I can speak first-hand about what I am learning about how the culture of white supremacy effects me, as a white person, and the ways I am coming to see that it works in and through me.  And I can try to help other white people come to see this in their lives, too.  (Which is why I do so much writing and speaking primarily to white people.)  What I can't do, though, is fall into the trap of centering my own voice.  Because I will never have the "in-my-cells" experience of the way(s) the culture of white supremacy has effected People of Color, I must always make sure that I center their voices over mine, that I listen carefully and deeply to their analysis, their perspectives, and the stories of their lived experience.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Words, words, words ...

During the years I served the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, I regularly had lunch with a colleague from the United Church of Christ congregation across the street.  I don't remember what prompted this particular exchange, but Peter once made the observation that Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, were the most literal people he'd ever seen.  This struck him as ironic, since we often rail against those who, for instance, insist on the literal truth of the Bible, or the traditional creeds.  There's a joke that makes this same point Peter was making:  

Why are Unitarian Universalist congregations such bad singers?  Because everyone is reading ahead to see whether they agree with the lyrics!

Right now the Unitarian Universalist Association -- and the member congregations that comprise it -- are being charged to take an unflinchingly honest look at the way(s) the systems and structures of the dominant racist culture are embedded in, and perpetuate themselves thorough, our own institutions.  It doesn't surprise me overly much, then, that so many of us -- and by "us" I mean, predominately, those who identify as, or are identified as white -- are arguing, instead, about words.

White supremacy.  Those two words, for many, are the problem that must be addressed.  As is true in the wider discourse about racism today, the words being used to describe those "systems and structures of racism" are "the white supremacy culture."  In a recent column  I noted that the analysis today is that the term "white supremacy" is a more accurate term than simple "racism."  I wrote:
Racism is defined as, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."  Few would disagree with that.  Yet here's the problem with this definition, it doesn't specific which race is being considered "superior."  It speaks about this "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" in general, almost neutral terms. 
"White supremacy," on the other hand, is defined as "the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."  This is certainly a more harsh definition, yet it is also more particular and specific -- the scourge we face as a nation is not "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" against any old race, by any old race believing itself to be "superior."  What has infected our nation since before its inception is, specifically, a culture that promotes the notion of white superiority and which generates "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" toward People of Color.  Racism is not generic; it is specific.  The phrase "white supremacy" captures and reveals that specificity with greater clarity.
Greater clarity, and greater accuracy.  Those who do anti-racist work have long noted that while everyone can have racial prejudices, only whites can be racist, because "racism = prejudice + power," and the systems and structures of racism in the dominant culture of the U.S. have historically give more power (and privilege) to people who identify as, or are identified as, white relative to People of Color.  (I'm talking about systems here -- yes, an African American Senator, for instance, has "more power" than, say, an out-of-work coal miner in Appalachia who is white.  Yet just last year South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott spoke on the floor of the Senate about his own experiences of having been racially profiled, something that that coal miner doesn't have to worry about.)

Even so, many white UUs are saying that the words "white supremacy" are too harsh, too inflammatory, too confrontational, and are inaccurate given that they have long been understood to refer to white supremacists like members of the KKK, or the people who held a torch-lit rally in my own city of Charlottesville a few days ago.  "We are not the KKK," many UUs are saying, "and to use the same words to describe us as we use to describe them is unacceptable."  Some say that it creates a false equivalence; others that it "waters down" the words so as to render them essentially meaningless.  Either way, these -- overwhelmingly white -- people are saying that those are the wrong words to use ... and a battle over words ensues.

In a post from April I offered the parable of a man who didn't want the serious diagnosis his doctor was giving him, asking that she instead give him a less serious one.  "[C]ancer is such a scary diagnosis.  I don't want to have cancer!  Can't we just say I have indigestion?"  Today I want to offer two more ways of looking at this issue of which words to use.

Define Your Terms

When I was in my second year of college I had the great good fortune to take several philosophy courses with the Dean of the department.  He told us that it is customary for philosophers to being their papers by saying, essentially, "for the sake of this paper I'm going to define this word to mean, precisely, this."  The reason, he said, is that it's so easy to argue over the words being used, rather than the ideas those words are being intended to convey.  By defining your terms at the beginning, you at least greatly lessen the chance that someone will come back to argue about the words you're using.  (I have often explained this with the quite ridiculous example that I could say, "for the purpose of this article I'm using the word "table" to mean, "'a red thing with three legs that hovers four feet off the ground.'"  That's pretty obviously not what "table" means, but there can be so many interpretations of the word "table," so many different ways it can be understood, that I'm asking you to bear with me and assume, for the moment, that my definition is the way to use the word so that we can then look at what I'm going to say about red things with three legs that hover four feet off the ground.)

So, while it is true that in common usage, the words "white supremacy" are understood to refer to the beliefs and actions of those who profess the unquestionable superiority of whites and all things white, we could agree that, for the purposes of our current discussion as an Association, we will accept the assertion that "white supremacy" refers to the same things that the term "systemic and institutional racism" does.  If we were all to make this semantic agreement, we could stop arguing over words and focus, instead, on the things those words are trying to convey: the systems and structures inherent in the dominant culture -- and in our own institutions -- that perpetuate the supremacy of white experience, white perspective, white norms.  And that is the problem that we need to address, not what words we should use to describe it.

Who Gets to Define Them?
"Okay," I can imagine some (white) people saying, "if we're going to agree on a common term for the purpose of facilitating a more meaningful dialog, why not use the terms we're suggesting?  Who says that we should have to use the definitions that they want us to?"

Well, besides the hopefully obvious division of we/they, us/them inherent in those questions, I have two responses.  First, one of the ways that the systems and structures that perpetuate the culture of white supremacy works is to make central -- and to consider more important -- the thoughts of whites as opposed to People of Color.  For hundreds of years, it's been the words white people have wanted to use to describe reality that have been used to describe reality.  The words People of Color want to use have been ignored or denied.  For we who identify as white to once again insist that our choice of words must be the ones used is itself -- however unconscious and unintentionally -- a perpetuation of the culture of white supremacy.  More than a little ironic.  I find myself returning often to words attributed to Albert Einstein about the impossibility of changing anything using the mindset that created the thing in the first place.  For whites to insist on the words to use for describing the condition of white being able to call all the shots is, at the very least, incredibly ironic.  More than that, though, I would say that it is incredibly counter-productive -- a reinforcement of the thing all agree needs to be rejected.

My second response is in the form of an analogy.  In what is often called the "first wave" of feminism, women noted that much of the language in common usage was, in itself, an example of patriarchy and sexism.  However well-meaning, when a man asserted that the word "mankind" was generic, women insisted that they could say from their own lived experience that it was not, in fact, generic and did, in fact, exclude them.  There are countless other examples, but that one should suffice as a specific, and the more general notion here is that men were not the appropriate people to determine what language women should use to accurately describe their experience.  Women, whose voices had been so long silenced, demanded that they be the ones to define the terms of the discussion, because they were the ones who had to most intimate experience of the thing being discussed.

Many men, of course, resisted strenuously.  They said -- and some still do -- that the language women were demanding was "anti-male," and that the discourse of feminists amounted to man-hating.  And many well-meaning, large-hearted liberal men felt hurt that they were seemingly being lumped together by language to those who were seriously misogynist.  While by no means universally accepted even now, there is a large portion of men who recognize the ways the words they had been using limited and dis-empowered women, and that the words women had said more accurately expressed their experience are the words we should use.

I would suggest that there is a similar situation at play here.  People of Color, who have the most intimate experience with the way racism effects their lives, are saying that the phrase white supremacy more accurately describes the realities they experience than the "softer" word, racism.  As a cisgender, white man, I feel no more entitled to disagree with them than I am to disagree with the way(s) women describe their experiences.  I mean, of course, I do feel more entitled to disagree, because I am also swimming in the sea of white supremacy, but I have learned how that feeling is not the same thing as a fact.  I may feel more entitled -- consciously or not -- but I am not in fact more entitled.  Actually, I have come to recognize that no matter what I may feel is true, the truth is that I am less entitled to define the terms of the discussion because I am less directly effected by the thing we're discussing.

I've now used a lot of words to talk about words, so I will end here.  Yet there is another argument that is often made when the words white supremacy are being resisted or rejected.  "But I'm not a white supremacist!"  I'll try to address that in my next post.

Until then, one last thought.  While writing earlier about the way(s) that the definition of "racism" is too vague and generic, I was thinking about how this lack of specificity opens up the seeming importance of the concept of "reverse racism."  "Reverse Racism" appears to be a possibility within the definition of "racism," while no one would ever think of talking about "reverse white supremacy."  The comedian Aamer Rahman address the issue of "reverse racism" in a most brilliant monologue (while also giving an incredibly concise history of how the historic roots of racism have grown into what we live with today).

Pax tecum,


Sunday, May 14, 2017

From Torches to Whispers ...

According to my local paper, The Daily Progress, last night:

"Several dozen torch-wielding protesters gathered in Charlottesville’s Lee Park just after 9 p.m. Saturday, chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.”"  

Lee Park has been in our news a lot lately, since the City Council voted to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee after a hotly heated debate about whether or not to do so.  It was a high school student who got things started after she made a speech about how unwelcoming that gigantic statue made her, and other people of color she knows.  The community quickly divided into factions -- keep the statue (keep our heritage!), remove the statue (recognize that there is more than one heritage to honor!), and those who tried to find some kind of balance.

But let's not lose sight of the headline --  "Several dozen torch-wielding protesters gathered [...] chanting “You will not replace us,” “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil.”

While this blatant attempt to intimidate is infuriating on its own, I can help but also see it through the lens of the conversation going on within the denomination -- and congregation -- I serve.  The Unitarian Universtalist Association is embroiled in a heated conversation about participation in, and perpetuation of, systems and structures of racism within our own institutions.  The fact that our institutions are also infected by the cancer or racism that permeates every facet of the dominant culture -- "the water we swim in" -- is not, or should not be, surprising.  

Naturally, good-hearted, well-meaning liberal's as we UUs generally are don't want to think of our institutions as being caught up in the systems and structures that support racism.  Yet even many who recognize that this is simply an undeniable fact are reacting to the words being used to describe this:  white supremacy.  Those "systems and structures that support racism" are being called "systems and structures that support a white supremacist culture," and even many people who recognize the first are rejecting the second.  

"White supremacists," they say, "are folks who wear hoods, or go to the downtowns of quiet little cities like Charlottesville with torches in their hands."  It makes no sense, then, they say, to use those same words to describe something like the Unitarian Universalist Association which has been long dedicated to a vision of an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community.  To paint us with the same brush as members of the KKK is both to unfairly malign us, as well as to unhelpfully dilute the meaning of the term and its power when directed at its proper targets.  I imagine that the events of last night at Lee Park here in Charlottesville will only serve to bolster this argument.

I would actually suggest the opposite.  About a week or so ago I posted, "A Toxic Cesspool by Any Other Name ..." in which I tried to make the case that no matter what we -- especially we who identify as white -- feel about the words "white supremacy," we should not let our reaction to the words deter us from hearing the underlying diagnosis of our infection.  Last weekend we took part -- with well over 600 other Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities -- in an event known as the UU White Supremacy Teach-In.  (Here's a link to the service we did here -- "Listening Even When We Don't Want to Hear" -- in case you'd like to see it.)  And I've shared widely a graphic that's sometimes called the White Supremacy Triangle.  (It's at the bottom of this post.)

You can also think of this image as an iceberg, with the kinds of behaviors and groups that we'd usually think of when hearing the words "white supremacy" above the "water line."  These are overt, one might say explicit, behaviors ... like bringing torches to a park with a statue of a Confederate General and chanting, "blood and soil."  These are instantly recognizable, and I don't think there are any of my well-meaning, good-hearted, liberal, white kin who would disagree that those words -- white supremacy -- apply to those behaviors.

Yet the metaphor of an iceberg is instructive, because just as the "tip of the iceberg" is supported and sustained by the far-greater mass of ice beneath the water, so, too, white supremacy is supported and sustained by the far-greater mass of behaviors that are less visible, less overt, and less obviously troublesome (to many white folks, at least).

Before going further, let me engage in a moment of semantics.  Racism is defined as, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."  Few would disagree with that.  Yet here's the problem with this definition, it doesn't specific which race is being considered "superior."  It speaks about this "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" in general, almost neutral terms.  And yet it has also been accepted for decades is that "racism = prejudice + power."  And in the United States -- historically and presently -- it is white people who have the power.  

Lots of people talk about "reverse racism," yet the definition of racism as "prejudice + power" argues that there really is no such thing.  (Although the comedian Aamer Rahman has a brilliant routine in which he suggests that reverse racism could well be possible if ...)  People of color can be prejudiced, but they have no, nor do they have now, the institutional and structural power necessary to make that prejudice "racism."   Yet defining racism as "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior" is generic enough to blur this distinction.

"White supremacy," on the other hand, is defined as "the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."  This is certainly a more harsh definition, yet it is also more particular and specific -- the scourge we face as a nation is not "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" against any old race, by any old race believing its own race is "superior."  It is, specifically, a culture that promotes the notion of white superiority which generates "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" toward People of Color.  Racism is not generic; it is specific.  The phrase "white supremacy" captures and reveals that specificity with greater clarity.

"But I don't believe that 'white people are superior to those of all other races'!," some might say.  "My beloved UUA doesn't believe that white people should 'dominate society!"  That is no doubt true, and yet, simply put, the dominant culture in which we live -- "the water we swim in" -- does.  I could give a million examples of the ways in which the dominant culture of the United States prioritizes, and elevates as superior, white perceptions, which perspectives, and white experience, but here are three:

  • We need a "Black History Month" because the history that's been taught the other 11 months of the year is so white.
  • We seem to feel the need to identify a Person of Color as such in articles, let's say, yet can safely assume that if we don't identify race, the person is white.
  • As we read the previous two examples we assumed that the "we" refers to "everyone" when, in fact, it refers to primarily people who identify or are identified as white.  It is white people, by and large, who believe that when we say "we" we mean to include everyone; People of Color know all too well that they aren't.

So no, good-hearted, well-meaning liberal (white) folks are not engaging the same kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as those who bring torches to a "candlelight march."  And yet, that oh so obvious behavior is supported by all the ways -- overt and covert, above the water line and below it, visible and easily recognizable and not -- that we all -- truly all -- who swim in the water of the white supremacy culture participate in and perpetuate that culture.  It's not just the torches, but the whispers that have a role to play.  To fail to recognize and understand that is to make it virtually -- if not entirely -- impossible to cure what ails us.

Pax tecum,