On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend over 100 First Unitarian congregants met to continue the discussion of white supremacy culture in our church and our denomination. I co-led the gathering with Rev. Bill Sinkford and was invited to report back on the discussion as a guest blogger.
Our gathering was two days after the tragic racial incident on the Portland MAX train, when an avowed white supremacist killed two men and badly injured a third. The three men had intervened to protect two young women of color as the attacker assaulted them with bigoted, racist, Islamophobic threats. None of us could imagine ever perpetrating the hateful, life-destroying acts that were committed on the MAX, as we Unitarian Universalists abhor and condemn such hate-based violence. We recognize this extreme action as none other than a distorted proclamation of the supremacy of white people backed by violence.
What is much harder to see for white people is the fear and trauma of race-based assaults on persons of color every day, whether at the hands of extremists, by armed officers, through the relentless racial microaggressions by neighbors, friends and colleagues, or through policies of exclusion, criminalization and marginalization of Black, Brown and Indigenous people that characterize our nation. We are taught to ignore and deny the link between individual acts of racism and our culture that reinforces the dominance of whiteness every day, throughout our institutions, and in every corner of this country. Certainly the current administration has emboldened those who feed off overtly violent expressions of mysogeny, racism, Islamophobia, ableism, xenophobia, heterosexism, cis-genderism, etc. But until we can see and understand how the broader culture into which we are socialized upholds white supremacy and patriarchy, we will continue to reproduce the underlying conditions that maintain oppression.
It is heartening that a large number of our congregation chooses to examine how we, as a liberal faith, participate in the broader culture of white supremacy. Our Unitarian Universalist principles can help guide us to actively learn about, challenge and transform our culture toward real equity and justice. We are energized by the eagerness and willingness of many to face what is difficult and painful.
Rev. Bill Sinkford opened the May 28th discussion with a reminder that white supremacy culture is the water we swim in. He gave examples from the UUA of how “well intentioned” social justice actions done without connection to, consultation with and the guidance of the affected community of color or indigenous community reinforce the culture of white supremacy. Transformation means having constant awareness of who has identified the problem to address, who is consulted in the process, who will be affected by the decision and who sits at the decision-making table. Bill shared that though this is a painful time locally and nationally, we have an opportunity to see what we are taught to ignore and deny. By facing and learning from what is painful, we can choose new habits of listening, healing and collaborating. Having real discussions about racism and white supremacy is an essential step in our transformation.
After the introduction, we split into racial identity caucuses, each group with 5-8 members and a volunteer facilitator from the congregation. In the white caucus groups, participants answered three questions:
1. How has the UU Teach In on White Supremacy been sitting with you, your spirit, your emotions?
2. Are you seeing things differently? If so, what are you noticing?
3. What are the most important questions you think we should pay attention to as we move forward as a congregation and a denomination?
The small group facilitators recorded responses to the third question and shared back to the large group. Overall, groups expressed eagerness to dig into this topic. Folks are encouraged that their faith community is taking real steps to look at our own patterns and socialization that perpetuate racism and a culture dominated by whiteness. Though there is overlap, responses fell into three general categories. These are some of the guiding questions that emerged.
Continuing our learning about internalized white supremacy and racism.
• How can we become more aware of how we have been aiding and abetting White Supremacy Culture without burdening People of Color in the process of our learning?
• How do we leverage our privilege for racial justice while not “taking over”?
• How can we learn about being allies or accomplices? What does this mean for our actions?
• How do we listen and back the leadership of Persons of Color and not assume we know better?
• How do we engage with other white people who have resistance to the terms white supremacy and racism?
• How do we break through our discomfort, denial and resistance to talk about race?
• How do we work with our own shame and guilt about racism?
• How can we raise awareness about the harm that “colorblindness” does in perpetuating racism and white supremacy?
• As we learn about history of Portland, Oregon and the US, whose voices are we hearing? Whose voices are left out?
Building relationships with communities of color.
• We need to listen to the stories of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities and take our guidance from them. How can we build relationships of trust to learn about their experiences and priorities?
• What are the priorities for social justice action of communities targeted by racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia? How will we take direction from these communities?
• What do reparations look like? How can we direct our funds to communities of color toward their priorities?
• Where can we be of service without “taking over”? How do we practice humility?
• What would a truth and reconciliation process look like for Portland? What in our history do we need to acknowledge and repair?
Actions for First Unitarian Church of Portland.
• What would our church look like, be like, if we were successful in addressing white supremacy culture?
o How would our services look and feel different?
o How would our social justice programs reflect a change in culture?
o How would our music program be different? What resources are required to support the Music Director to purchase music that is culturally appropriate, not cultural appropriation?
o How is racial and social justice brought in to Religious Education? How are we talking with our children about race, power and privilege?
o How might we change the surrounding art and decorations?
• What reparations does First Church have to make with Native peoples, African-American, Chinese-American, Japanese-American and other communities of color in Portland?
• Are we truly welcoming to all people who walk through our doors? As we challenge attitudes and behaviors of white supremacy, would our congregation begin to reflect more of the diversity present in Portland?
• What are the social justice priorities of communities of color in Portland that we can and should back? What actions are already in progress to which we can lend our energy and amplify?
• How might trainers and facilitators of color work with the congregation as we embrace racial equity?
• Can we develop relationships/partnerships with churches or other faith communities of color in Portland? What can we learn from other UU churches and their partners who have developed strong relationships?
Our afternoon discussion was brought to a close with the summary from the Persons of Color caucus. We were reminded that this process is ongoing and the need for change is ever-present. It is hopeful so many people are willing to step into this uncomfortable self-examination for a stronger faith community built on principles of justice.
Many thanks to all who attended, to the twelve volunteer small group facilitators, to our ministerial team for getting us organized, and to the sextons who made sure we had all that we needed. First Church’s participation in the denomination-wide call by Black Lives UU to learn about and challenge white supremacy continues. In the Fall we’ll have more programming and church-wide examination of how we can resist and transform the patterns of white supremacy. If you have questions you’d like to add for consideration as we move into the next year, please share them with our ministry.
Dana Buhl, First Church Member