Aretha Franklin got it so right. “All I want is a little respect.” And then, just in case we didn’t get the point, she sang out that yearning and that demand over and over…”give it to me, give it to me, give it to me…a little respect, just a little bit.”
I was called to Boston, last spring, to help provide leadership through a crisis prompted by charges of racism within our faith community. Could it be that this progressive religious community operates out of and as part of a culture of white supremacy? Some of us, including most UU’s of color, said: “Of course.”
Many others needed to understand, for the first time or once again, the difference between individual prejudice and institutional practices that work to guarantee that persons of color remain on the bottom rungs of the ladder. The culture of white supremacy is about outcomes.
What would it look like if we deconstructed that culture of white supremacy? How might our religious life together be different? I have been asked that question so many times.
During my first days in Boston, the UUA Board of Trustees met. They had come to the decision to appoint three Interim Co-Presidents, following the resignation of Peter Morales. THREE. That decision was urged by, among others, the three persons of color on the Board.
As a former UUA President and the first person of color to serve as UUA President, I had history with almost all the current Board members. One of the person of color leaders on the Board had been disappointed with parts of my leadership years ago. She asked to talk during the meeting. She described her disappointment and I was able to thank her for coming to me, and able to apologize for ways I had let her down. It was a powerful and important conversation for me.
But what she brought to the open board conversation was respect for me and for the other “elders.” That honoring of elders is part of the tradition in many person of color communities. It is a different cultural starting place than Roberts Rules of Order. It is a place that acknowledges first that “we drink from wells we did not dig” before we explore the newest technology for well-digging.
Efficiency and effectiveness are values we can embrace too wholeheartedly. Tempering those values with respect for elders, for persons of color, for younger people, for all those on the margins can cost some efficiency but can help result in a community in which more of us feel at home.
What does respect look like here at First Unitarian? How do we embody it? How do some of our habits make it harder to find? I wonder how much the congregations’ often stated wish to welcome more people of color and more younger people masks a truth that respect may be harder for those folks to find among us than we would wish.
The culture of white supremacy does not exact a cost on people of color alone. It is a culture which compromises and limits all of us.
The word respect appears in only the 7th of our Principles (Respect for the interdependent web). But if we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which is our first principle, aren’t we called to respect one another.
Shouldn’t respect for each of us, as well as for our world, be part of our aspiration. Respect for each of us as we are and respect for our differences. That is a goal that fits the pluralism we know will characterize the Beloved Community which we hope to help create.
We began some good work on these issues of our culture last spring. We will be continuing that work as we move through the year. Cultures are not created in a day and they are not changed in a day either.