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,


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