Friday, April 21, 2017

A Toxic Cesspool By Any Other Name ...

For my non-Unitarian Universalist friends (whom I still love anyway!), the faith tradition I serve is currently embroiled in what I'm calling a struggle for the soul of our faith.  I don't think that that's hyperbole.  I think at question is no less that whether we are truly the people we say we are (or, perhaps more accurately, whether we truly want to try to become the people we say we are trying to become). I've also said, elsewhere, that what is at stake is the question of whether the institution of the Unitarian Universalist Association is able to be the right "container" for the Unitarian Universalist faith.

As with all controversies, there are many layers to the one we're wrestling with.  They all stem from the charge by Unitarian Universalists of color (and some white UUs as well) to look closely at the ways our Association is part of, participates in, and even perpetuates (consciously or unconsciously) in the prevailing culture of White Supremacy in the US.  The use of the term "white supremacy" has become the focal point for part of this struggle.  (I could cynically say that it is so much easier to argue over what word to use rather than to look at the underlying condition the words are attempting to describe.)  Although there is for many, if not most, people who identify as white an immediate association of the term "white supremacy" with the ideology espoused by white supremacists, the term itself has for many years now been used by people doing anti-racism, anti-racism work to describe the dominant culture in our country which, I think unarguably, holds white lives, experience, perspectives, and norms as "supreme" (e.g., "highest quality, degree, character, importance, etc.).

There are those, though, who say that it is a mistake to describe the UUA as "a white supremacy institution" -- we're the good guys!  And to use that term for us will dilute its power when it's used (appropriately) to describe, for instance, the KKK.  It might also turn off people -- both inside and outside of UUism -- people who might otherwise join with us in the very real anti-racism, anti-oppression, multicultural work we are committed to.  Plus, it's insulting!  And there is a whole lot of injustice in the world out there, and for all of this brouhaha to come up now really distracts us from the real work.

I think all of these are really understandable reactions.  I admit to having them myself.  I also recognize, though, that one of the benefits of white privilege is that I, and people who look more or less like me, have gotten used to being able to frame the debate in ways that make sense to me, using language that "works" for me, and that don't cause too much discomfort for me and the kind of good-hearted, well-meaning folk I tend to hang around with.  But I've learned -- I've been taught -- that my insistence on these expectations of mine is, itself, a way of perpetuating the culture of white supremacy I denounce and claim to want to change. 

It's been said that no one can solve a problem with the perspective that created it.  I have been taught -- I am learning -- that when it comes to the task of truly dismantling the systems and structures of racism, I need to listen to the experiences and perspectives of people of color, who are, after all, far more intimately in touch with the problem and who will therefore see more clearly its needed remedy.  So, when people of color say that the term "white supremacy" is the most accurate term to use -- in part, no doubt, because it makes me and people who look more or less like me extremely uncomfortable -- then I know that I need to listen.  And I need to not listen to the voices of my expectations to be able to do and say what I want.

All of this I write as a preamble to something I wrote a little earlier today:

A Parable

There once was a man who considered himself in pretty good shape. He began to feel a little unwell, so he went to his doctor. 
"I'm sorry to tell you," she said. "You have cancer."

"Cancer? I can't have cancer! I eat healthy foods. I don't drink or smoke. I take more than the recommended 10,000 steps a day. I can't have cancer -- maybe indigestion, but not cancer!"
"That's all true," the doctor replied. "Even so, you have cancer."

"But if I go around saying that I have cancer, the people I've been trying to convince to live a healthier lifestyle will say, 'See? He got cancer. Why should we do anything different if Mr. Healthy over there got cancer?'."

"That might happen," the doctor agreed. "But think of much less influence you'd have if you ignored your own cancer and let it kill you."

"But cancer's such a scary diagnosis. I don't want to have cancer! Can't we just say I have indigestion?"

"Of course you can," the doctor said, "but if you refuse to acknowledge your cancer you won't be able to treat it effectively."

Nothing she said could change the man's mind, so he left his doctor's office in great anger, seeking someone who'd diagnosis him with indigestion.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What's Needed is Transformation (and not just change)

This is the text of my newsletter column -- "Words of Wikstrom" -- from the April edition of the monthly bulletin of the congregation I serve.

This month’s theme is “transformation,” and as I sat to write I found myself curious about the difference between change and transformation.  The word change means, “to make or become different,” and it comes from the Old French changier, which means essentially the same thing.  Transformation is defined as, “a thorough or dramatic change,” and comes from the Latin word transformare, which refers to changing the form or shape of something.  An illustration of the difference might be that a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly; it doesn’t change into a better caterpillar.  Leadership experts sometimes say that “Changes fix the past.  Transformations create the future.”

As many of you know, the Unitarian Universalist Association is being forced to take a look at some difficult truths about itself.  Long committed to the work of racial justice, UUA staff is nonetheless overwhelmingly, and disturbingly, white (and cis-male ordained folk, but let’s save that for another time).  The Association breakers down its workforce into six categories, from Executives to Service Workers.  84% of Service Workers – the “lowest rung,” if you will – are people of color, as compared with only 17% who are white.  In none of the other five categories do people of color make up more than 11%, while in no other category do whites make up less than 75%.

Such a glaring disparity is not a coincidence, any more than the predominance of cis-males in positions of authority in our culture is a coincidence. Both reflect the working of systems of domination and oppression.  That’s the way such systems work.  That’s why systemic racism often is called “white supremacy” now, because it makes brutally clear that the intent of racism is to keep whites “supreme,” as in, “superior to all others, strongest, most important, or most powerful.” 

There is a difference between saying that an institution is infected by and perpetuating white supremacy, and saying that it is a “white supremacist” institution.  This distinction often gets lost on whites when an institution they are involved with is called out for its embodiment of white supremacy.  “What do you mean?” these good-hearted, well-meaning people will say.  “It’s not like we’re the KKK or anything.”  And that’s true.  Yet it can also be true – and usually is – that the institution is nonetheless complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  In our culture, an individual or an organization can barely help it – racism is the air we breath, it has seeped into our DNA, and it blinds us to its presence at every turn.

I began with differentiating between change and transformation, because nearly all attempts to “undo racism” really are efforts at changing things.  Some sensitivity trainings and workshops on cultural competency are offered, perhaps even mandated.  Statements of commitment are made.  If that commitment is real, there might be a change or two made to, for instance, hiring practices, but ultimately what results is a better caterpillar instead of the needed butterfly.  Another metaphor that makes the point is “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

At the cluster event we hosted last month, “Showing Up: a racial justice conference,” I was introduced to a new (to me) term – prefigurative politics.  The idea is that an organization that’s working for change should be organized to reflect the desired change.  (In other words, “be the change you want to see.”)  The UUA is not organized – in philosophy or practicalities – like the anti-racist, multi-cultural, anti-oppression world we want to see.  And the sad truth is that as long as it is organized the way it is, the best we can hope for is change.  True transformation will elude us, and nothing short of transformation is what we need.

So here’s what a scientist might call a thought experiment: What would our Association look like if the experiences, perspectives, learnings, and expertise of people of color were at the center of things, rather than on the periphery?  What would the UUA be like if it were disbanded, and then recreated by, and primarily for, people of color?  I believe we’d see the caterpillar of white supremacy transformed into the butterfly of mutual liberation.

Pax tecum,


PS – TJMC is an institution as well.  Just sayin’

This "White Supremacy Triangle" has been useful in helping people to visualize the breadth and depth of the term white supremacy.  Think of it as an iceberg.  Above the waterline are examples of overt white supremacist behavior, groups, etc.  Below the waterline are examples of behaviors which serve to reinforce and perpetuate systems and structures that maintain a "supreme" position for people who identify as, or are identified as, white.  Because of the dominant culture in which we live, whites "live and move and have their being," as it were, as part of a culture of white supremacy, whether or not they, themselves, are white supremacists.