Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Need for Change

There is a struggle going on right now for the heart and soul of the faith tradition I serve.  Actually, I believe that the "heart and soul" of the faith is safe and well, but the institutional expression of that faith, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Affiliated Congregations, is struggling with how to live in to our stated commitment of becoming a truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-cultural community. 

The Unitarian, Universalist, and modern Unitarian Universalist traditions have a long (although decidedly mixed) history regarding issues of racism.  This history has been powerfully covered in the writings of the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, and the nearly exhaustive book, The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalism, Anti-Racism, and the Journey from CalgaryYet many see the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960s, as the catalyst for all the successes, failures, and struggles which form the foundation of where we are today.  Over and over again, this majority-white religious tradition has been challenged to look at just what it means to be a majority-white institution committed to the dismantling of the white supremacist culture in which we all "live, move, and have our being." 

In recent years there has been a strong call by people in historically, and still, marginalized groups within our movement for us -- as individuals, as congregations, and as an Association -- to really, fully, deeply come to terms with the ways in which we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the white supremacist culture that is the dominant culture in the United States and which informs and "infects" every institution.  Especially those of us who identify or are identified as white are being challenged to recognize that we, ourselves, though good-hearted and well-meaning, are mired in the very muck we claim we are committed to cleaning up.

This is not to say that the commitment we claim is false.  When I first moved to Charlottesville, Virginia -- where I have been serving the UU congregation for the past 8 years -- I met with an African American pastor with whom my predecessors had established a relationship.  I'm paraphrasing him a bit here, but he said to me, "We know about you Unitarian Universalists.  We know how you've shown up over the years to support the African American community.  We know how you answered Dr. King's call to march in Selma.  We know about your commitment to racial justice."  And when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. came to Charlottesville to speak following the events of the summer of 2017, it was not by coincidence that he choose to speak from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist congregation.  Many UUs have spent a good deal of their lives, and a lot of their heart and soul, working for the cause of racial justice.  That's a fact that simply cannot be denied.

Yet that fact, that commitment, is not what's being challenged today.  What's at issue is not whether we UUs are committed to racial justice, but rather what that commitment calls on us to do -- again, especially those of us who identify or are identified as white.  In the years since the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and '60s the analysis of the many, and often insidious, ways racism works has evolved. 

One example is the growing insistence on using the phrase "white supremacy" where in the past one might have said, "white privilege" or, more simply, "racism."  For some whites the term is thought to be too provocative, too inflammatory, especially when it's being applied to us.  We might be willing recognize that there's a sense in which we are "racist," because of the inherent "racial bias" with which we've been inculcated from our earliest days, and we might even be comfortable acknowledging that we benefit from "white privilege," yet we draw the line at using the phrase "white supremacy," because we think that it should be reserved for those who march with tiki torches, while waving Confederate and Nazi flags.

Yet anti-racist scholars and activists note that the term "racism" is rather vague because it doesn't explicitly say anything about the power dynamics involved.  The bizarre notion of "reverse racism" can conceivably exist comfortably within the term "racism."  "White supremacy," however, clearly indicates that the issue is not just racial prejudice, but specifically all that follows on the idea that white history, culture, assumptions, norms, practices, perspectives, etc., are superior to those of people of color or, to put it another way, are "supreme."  So, while not every white person is a white supremacist, we all participate in, and benefit from, the culture of white supremacy.

What is being questioned today is whether or not we white UUs will evolve with this evolving understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy culture -- an understanding that comes directly out of the lived experience of people of color and those of intersecting oppression.  Another way of asking this is, will we who identify as white actually listen to and believe what we're told by our siblings of color about how we (even if unintentionally and unwittingly) participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the oppressions we are committed to ending?  Will we believe what we're told about what's needed to actually dismantle the culture of white supremacy, even if what we're told is different from, and maybe even contradicts, what we've always been told and what our own assumptions and "reason" tells us?

This is the challenge with which we are struggling today:  will those of us who identify as white within this predominantly and historically white tradition be willing to see ourselves and our institutions through the eyes of people of color, and will we be willing to change because of what we then see?  This is the direction a great many UUs desire to see the Association move, discomforting and disorienting though it will necessarily be.  We believe our faith calls us to nothing less than such a transformation. 

There is not universal agreement, however.  This disagreement gained public attention in Spokane, Washington this past week where our Association was having its annual General Assembly.  A member of our clergy distributed copies of his self-published book in which he decried what he sees as the Association's fall into "safetyism," "political correctness," and "identitarianism." 

The Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance responded with "An Open Letter From White UU Ministers," which was signed by over 300 ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers.  It is even more important to read the responses from DRUUMM -- Diverse  Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries -- and POCI -- the People of Color and Indigenous Chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association -- as these provide the perspective of the people of color who were most directly harmed.

Although I was not in Spokane, I asked to have my name added to the "Open Letter" because even without reading the book I have heard other UUs from historically, and still, marginalized groups describing the pain they felt and the harm the book's content caused.  I believe their testimony, and need no more "proof" than that to know that I must place myself in solidarity with them.

I will read the book, though, because as a person who identifies as white I think it is incumbent upon me to know what other white folks are saying, what "case" they're making to push back against the call to be transformed in and through the work of transforming our society.  In the little I've read so far I'm saddened, though not surprised, to see arguments that I've heard in the congregation I've been serving from people there who think that the way we were going about the work of racial justice was wrong.  The struggle that's going on in the larger Association is going on in local congregations as well.

I do not believe that I know everything about the work of our mutual liberation.  I know for certain that much of what I think and see has been conditioned by the very culture I am committed to changing.  I recognize that the truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community I am committed to working for will be entirely different than the world I know, undoubtedly unimaginably so.  And I know that getting there will require, will demand, that I undertake the painful work of transforming myself.  I do not like this.  I would rather not.  Yet if I truly am committed to dismantling the white supremacy culture I know that I have no choice but to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Pax tecum,


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Ann said...

Thank you, Wik. This is so clear and well-stated.
I stand with and support our fellow UU's of color.

Adam Gonnerman said...

It made for a painful final two days of General Assembly, particularly because people I previously had a very high opinion of turned out to be outspoken advocates of views presented in the book. As for myself, I created a separate blog just for the 7 essays I've written in response to this situation. https://www.igneousquill.net/p/contents.html

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Anonymous said...

I don't find it admirable to come to your conclusion and to publicly denigrate a UU minister before you've even heard what he has to say.

Paul Alan Thompson said...

I'm a UU who has read "The Gadfly Papers". UU ministers who signed the letter BEFORE reading the document need to ask themselves hard questions about their own thinking process. It's good you are going to read GP, but you should have done so BEFORE signing. That a large number of UU ministers also did this is a serious issue in the UU religion. We were, at one time, a religion where we had a principle about the "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Is that consistent with signing a letter about a book that you had not read?

Unknown said...

I am shocked at the number of ministers who signed an open letter calling Rev Eklofs essays the "manifesation of white supremacist culture" without ever reading them. This is both lazy and reckless group think.

Unknown said...

To those above who insist that one just read the book before signing, please reread RevWik’s words: even without reading the book I have heard other UUs from historically, and still, marginalized groups describing the pain they felt and the harm the book's content caused. I believe their testimony, and need no more "proof" than that to know that I must place myself in solidarity with them.
RevWik has listened to colleagues (as have many others, as have I as a white-female UU Music Director) and we trust other UUs. This is not going against the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We use our freedom to be responsible by being responsive to others, by listening to and believing them.

ou812 said...

And how do you decide who to believe? Whoever is most oppressed?