Privilege, Supremacy, and Power


Bill: “If we cannot bring justice into the small circle of our individual lives…” or the small circle of this liberal faith that we love…none of us will survive.

I have been in Boston, serving as one of three Interim Co-Presidents of the UUA, following the resignation of President Peter Morales and controversy over the hiring of a regional staff leader for the southeast.

Charges of racism were leveled about that hiring…by one of the candidates who was not chosen…a person of color.

Peter offered a defense of the hire that was experienced as dismissive and out-of-touch. I am using much more measured language than you will find on Facebook. Social media exploded.

Peter resigned. Other resignations of senior staff followed. Unitarian Universalism made the national news again… not in a good way.

And I got a call just over three weeks ago. Would I be willing to step in? On an Interim basis? Just through June when a new President will be elected?

With the agreement, indeed with the urging of our Board of Trustees, I said yes.

How did we get here? How could our faith be accused of racism in its hiring? Could that be true? Really?

The answer is yes…but not KKK racism, not individual hateful prejudice backed by institutional power.

What occurred was racism as an expression of a culture of white supremacy. That language was introduced by our guest preacher last week. I know it is troubling for some of you.

Let me try to explain.

The UUA had strong non-discrimination policies in place and the person who did the hiring, one of the persons who resigned, followed all the requirements of that policy. People of color were encouraged to apply and did, qualified candidates. But when the choice was made, a white man was selected.

There were 5 new regional leadership jobs. This was the fifth one to be filled. And the fifth white person to be hired.

And until the “whistle-blower” complaint by that person of color, no one saw anything wrong with that hire.

No one saw anything wrong.

It is in that statement that the meaning of white supremacy culture can be found.

Last Sunday I was on Long Island at the Shelter Rock congregation with Mary Katherine Morn, the UUA’s VP for Development. She talked about her “ah-ha” moment, when she suddenly could see white supremacy culture.

She was at the Leadership Council table at the UUA when the hire was announced. And, looking back, she realized that no one around that table raised the question about an all white leadership group for the UUA’s field staff.

White supremacy culture is not about individual prejudice…

White supremacy culture is about the pattern and practice of our faith…the ruts, as I often call them, of outcomes that we accept as normal and natural.

DeReau, in his testimony, called this the power to “not notice.”

Accepting an all white leadership group in our faith is an outcome that every UU leader, who is committed to an anti-racist and multi-cultural future for our faith, should raise questions about and resist. But you need to notice first.

The opportunity and the challenge at this time of sadness…and the events that led to this challenge are so very sad…

The opportunity is for more of us to begin to notice…to pay attention…and to ask questions that the culture of white privilege and white supremacy would never have us ask.

To notice.

I am one of three Interim Co-Presidents of the UUA…for a few more weeks. How many of you noticed that all three of us are people of color?

Don’t raise your hands. It would be so easy to move into a kind of political correctness here where shaming and blaming crowd out reflection and growth. Don’t raise your hands.

If you noticed that all three of us are African American, what questions did that raise in your mind? What assumptions did you make about our ability? What limitations of our focus did you imagine? Just about race…right? Because we are all people of color?

And…would you have had the same questions if all three co-presidents had been white?

To notice.

The selection of our new permanent Music Director was a major event in the life of this congregation. The Advisory Search Committee worked so hard to conduct a full national search. They communicated often with you all. Solicited your opinions and feedback. They did a wonderful and faithful job. And their recommendation of DeReau was unanimous

How many of you believed or believe today that the selection of DeReau was a done deal from the day he set foot here…because I would make the final decision. How many of you believed or believe that an African American would of course preference another African American. Brother to brother…

How many of you, sitting here in this sanctuary, have thought to yourself…he’s picked another reading by a person of color. He’s talking about race again…

How many of you have thought to yourself…he’s picked another reading by a white person?

How many of you have thought…”Man, that BLM banner has been up a long time…”

To notice, I believe, is the first challenge for most of us who identity as white.

But that is not the challenge for those of us who identity as persons of color.

In the past weeks I have spoken with so many UU’s…white and POC. Although white UU’s have raised all kinds of questions about the language of white supremacy…every person of color understands it. There are some…a few…UU persons of color who would rather we not use the phrase. They object to it on strategic grounds…but we all understand it. We know white supremacy…we have been swimming upstream against it all of our lives.

Another challenge and a real opportunity of this time of crisis, is to bring the voices and presence of persons of color in from the margins…toward the center of our faith.

That will change the conversation and challenge some of our comfortable theological and sociological assumptions. Because bringing voices of persons of color into the center will require a conversation about white supremacy culture…not out there…but in here.

And I should say that engaging with those in younger age cohorts will require it as well. And engaging with most activist communities will require it too.

Engaging with and working to change white supremacy culture will inevitably call other communities who have been on the margins in toward the center as well. This is called the “intersectionality” of oppressions. That is a long, 50 cent word to describe how all of our identities are in relationship, and all must be “known” for wholeness to break through.

There is so much more that I would say to you. But I want to leave space for Dana Buhl who has been leading our work on white privilege here at First Unitarian.

I hope you remember that I will be in the Chapel at 1PM today for the first of a series of regular quarterly Q&A’s. Perhaps some of you will bring questions prompted by worship this morning, as well as other topics of importance to our community.

And on May 28th, after worship, there will be a gathering to follow up specifically on this sermon.

This is a time of opportunity for us, a time when we can redeem some of our history and chart a course forward. We can do this if we stay present…if we stay honest…if we begin to notice and if we stay together.

Dana: I’m glad to be with you this morning as a member of our church, and as a part of the national call by Black Lives UU for this Teach In.

I want to share with you why I believe white supremacy will stay in place unless and until those of us who are white resist it too.

This church is home to people of many ethnic, racial identities.  What I’m sharing is filtered through my racial experience as a white person and it will be most relevant to those of you who are also white.

You know who you are [smiling].

Our UU Principles support these words from our reading:

Nothing that we do is more important

than making justice real — here, where we are.

Where we are, here in this sanctuary, is on native land. Portland sets atop the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Chinook, Tualatin-Kalapuya, and Molalla.

My schooling taught me that indigenous people have mostly disappeared, the few remaining living on reservations. And yet, Portland is home to descendants from over 380 tribes — the ninth largest Native population in the U.S. It’s just that we ask for the blessing and permission to be here from the ancestors and descendants of this land.

Here in this sanctuary, I also honor the founding mothers and fathers of this church who worked courageously to build a new religious community. It was radical for that place and time. AND, the theology of their new community was rooted in the conviction that it was their duty to “civilize” the new lands to which they came. Civilizing means dominating.

As a white person, I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism.

What I’ve learned about the impact of racism on bodies, minds and souls is spoken by the voices of Black, Brown and Indigenous people. These are the voices of students and teachers, friends and mentors, activists and artists who have resisted from colonial times until today.

And I say it again. As a white person, I will never experience the relentless trauma of racism. No matter how many workshops I attend, books I read, conversations I have, or movies I see, I simply don’t know what it feels like to be treated as lesser or suspect because of my skin color, every day.

I do know that as white person, fighting for racial justice means learning from many viewpoints about the history that impacts us today.

It also means pushing through patterns of denial, numbness and defensiveness, and my fears of making mistakes.  Fighting white supremacy is more important than my fears of public speaking or making people uncomfortable. In fact, it requires being uncomfortable.

So what brought me here?

When I was 4, in 1970, my parents moved to Cleveland Heights, Ohio, a racially-integrated, middle-class suburb. My folks chose to live there because of the strong reputation of the schools.

I now see what a rare experience it was as a white child to have attended a school that was integrated because brave African-American families in the ‘60s busted through housing segregation practices.  They did so in order to send their kids to these same excellent schools.

Having black classmates, friends and teachers had a profound influence on me.  Through those relationships I knew there was no difference in intelligence or humor, creativity or athleticism, bookishness or silliness, based on skin color. But still, I heard comments about black people, including from my grandmother, the message being they were different from me.

I was unaware that at the same time I was swimming in a culture that reflected people that looked like me at every turn.  On television, in our history lessons, in greeting cards, magazines and my childhood books, I was absorbing that being white was normal and that I belonged.

In fifth grade, when Black History Month became official, we watched Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  It reminded us of the power of a person’s character.  We were taught that to be “colorblind” was to be egalitarian.

But the colorblind narrative didn’t explain why there was racial tension throughout Cleveland and across the country.  Or why only black people lived in the poor and underserved neighborhood just next to our middle class suburb.

We learned that talking about race was rude, it might make folks feel bad. We were learning what NOT to say, so we wouldn’t be seen as racist.

I was privileged to go to college and I wanted to understand more about the water in which we swam.  Suspecting it had something to do with racism I took Introduction to Race. That class exposed the secret that was hidden through all of my previous schooling and socialization.

This is it:

The concept of race is a social construction. That means the idea that we can predict someone’s innate intelligence, talents and abilities based on skin color or facial features is made up. This false concept about human difference based on skin color was created by European people to justify kidnapping and enslaving African people, the mass murder and displacement of Indigenous people, and the occupation of their lands.

Race is about power, land, stolen labor and wealth. Race is about the stories told in school, at church, at dinner tables and in the news. Stories meant to prove why it is morally right for one group of people who define themselves “white,” to dominate all other groups of people.

Though the narrative of race washed on to these shores in colonial times, its waters have not receded.  We continue to swim in the lies of race.

The myths of better and lesser are not lost on anyone. There’s a heart-breaking demonstration of this called “the Doll Test” you can watch on YouTube.  It shows that children as young as 3 and 4, of all ethnic backgrounds, think that having light skin means you are prettier, smarter, and more trust worthy.

As a white person I’ve learned that I must be doing something right to have what I have. From that misguided viewpoint, the answer to fixing racism is simply to teach people of color how to behave and live the “right way” which is code for the “white way.”

This is a trap that maintains racism and white supremacy.

You may be asking, “So what do I do?”

A good place to start is to ask every day, “How is white supremacy functioning here? Are the feelings, ideas, and needs of white people, including me, the priority?  As we work to uproot racism, what specific outcomes are we working toward?  Who is involved in the decisions and who will be impacted? How will we know when we’ve reached our goals?”

I’m learning that it is not about proving whether or not I’m good or bad, racist or not racist. Doing so prioritizes my feelings over black and brown lives.

Rather, as Dr. King advocated we must become “mal-adjusted” to our current circumstances.  We must never adjust to circumstances

  • where Indigenous water protectors are hosed down in sub-zero temperatures, on their native land;
  • where another black teen in Portland, Quanice Hayes, is killed by a police officer who will never face a jury;
  • where undocumented workers who harvest our food and are detained in Oregon resort to a hunger strike in order to get decent food, and humane living conditions in the prison;
  • and where a qualified white person is hired over a qualified person of color because they are seen as “a better fit.”

It’s about seeing the trauma of racism, and being so uncomfortable that we’re moved to act and to refute stories meant to explain these injustices.

Challenging white supremacy means recognizing that it’s not about me personally.  It means having the humility and curiosity to listen to and believe people targeted by racism.

It means a willingness to make mistakes AND to hear when my actions have caused harm.

It means resisting the idea that I know how to fix it for people of color AND having the courage to stand behind people of color who are leading the fight against racism.

Most importantly, uprooting white supremacy means knowing that we are in this together. And that requires taking risks and learning together in our community, where we commit to holding ourselves, and each other, accountable to our principles of faith.

It means supporting each other to be courageous, with curiosity and humility, and to recognize that our liberation is bound together, here, where we are.