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