The Problem of White Supremacy

The Problem of White Supremacy
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
April 30, 2017

We are trying to turn the world around, and it’s a messy business this.  You may wonder about the title uuwhitesupremacyteachin and what this worship service is about.  Well, it’s about white supremacy – and the effect of that culture – that culture which dominates American culture, in which all of us are steeped in – regardless of race – that is damaging to lives, our lives, all lives, but especially black lives and indigenous lives.  There has been an ongoing discussion within our association – the Unitarian Universalist Association – about how we engage anti-racist, multicultural, anti-oppression and inclusion work.  How we create discrimination awareness and become aware of undeserved advantages that come with light skin color or whiteness.  And how we consciously and unconsciously perpetuate an unjust system. 

There was a recent hiring controversy in the UUA that led to the resignation of the president of the association (who is latino) and then two more high level staff members (who are white males), and the white male clergy person who had been offered the job in question decided he couldn’t accept it.  We now have in place three people sharing the office of the presidency until elections take place end of June during General Assembly.  They are called Interim Co-Presidents.  Rev. Sofia Benancourt, Rev. William Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer.  All highly respected leaders in our movement and all African American.  Rev. Sinkford served a full term as UUA president already from 2001-2009.  In their first report to the Board of Trustees of the UUA – well, let me read you some of what they wrote us:

“We have heard clearly that trust in UUA leadership has been severely compromised. We understand that beginning to repair this broken trust is part of our leadership challenge. But we also firmly believe that this situation should be viewed as an opportunity, not just a set of problems to be solved. We have an opportunity to reaffirm the hope that is at the center of our faith. As we set about the task of institutional change, we commit as well to a process of healing that leads to spiritual renewal.”
And I have to say, as uncomfortable as all of this has been – and believe me, I’ve not been in the thick of it – much of these conversations have happened online on social media which I engage in a limited fashion, for my own spiritual health.  And even with my limited connectivity, I know the debates and accusations and apologies and hurts have been painful to so very many. 

Painful as this discussion is, it has the potential to transform us the way Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors transformed us by responding to the murder of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of George Zimmerman with a hashtag.  It’s not like black lives weren’t already being killed in a systematic and predictable way.  But for whatever reason this time, business as usual was stopped, we took notice, and are changing.  We are changing.

The problem is, it is really, really hard to change a culture.  This culture of violence and oppression of dehumanization and the pitting of one people against another is very hard to change.  We perpetuate it in so many unconscious ways.  We must become conscious.  Holding a service this morning on this topic along with more than 500 Unitarian Universalist congregations in this country and in Mumbai, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada, is one way of disrupting business and becoming conscious of those below-the-surface-patterns which harm us all.

But if you’re expecting me to blame or shame anyone this morning, you are in for a disappointment.  Because this work is hard and we need our full conscious selves to step up.  Blaming and shaming is a part of that white supremacy culture, and I will not take part.

Here’s a poem I wrote in my twenties – I couldn’t find it, but I remember it enough - it stuck with me over the years, and offer my memory of it, and in advance my apologies to my transgendered siblings – and I just claim ignorance for the line you’ll notice but it went something like this:

I was white in a black world
I bet it’s nothing like being black in a white world
I am a woman in a man’s world
I don’t know of a woman’s world where I could be a man, which I can’t
So I’ll remain white and a woman
And simply have to change the world.

It was powerful to live in a Black Carib village in Honduras in 1987 and 88 while serving in the Peace Corps. 

I had never lived among only people of African descent.  Even the only other Peace Corps volunteer in the village, my friend, Teresa, is black – her family from Jamaica, though she grew up in New York City.   Now to us, we were of clearly different races, but to the village people of Travesía, we were both Northamerican and the same.  The kids kept asking us if we were sisters or if she was my mother.  They knew we must be related – these two single women living together so far away from home.  Well, I’ll show you a slide.  This is a photo that she shared on Facebook.  I’m the skinny little white girl on the left.  Glenn Bayron another volunteer is behind us.  He is from New York City like Teresa, of Puerto Rican descent.  He lived and volunteered in Tegucigalpa. And Teresa, on the right.  Here’s a photo of the literacy class I organized.  The photos aren’t great, but I had to decide whether or not to work on this sermon or go back through ancient photos.  The writing won out.  Besides my mental images are so much stronger than the few actual photos I took.  But this visual gives you an idea of why I felt I was white in a black world.  After a time there in the village, my dreams were not only in Spanish – a little Garífuna – Black Carib language, but mostly Spanish, and all the people in my dreams looked black and I became black in my dreams.  I forgot that my skin was white because everyone I encountered every day was black. As one of only 2 Peace Corps volunteers in a Black Carib village, everyone knew me and would greet me.  The greeting on the street was “okay” – and even if I was in the larger town of Puerto Cortés – a mostly ladino community where Black Caribs were in the minority – Black Caribs that I didn’t even recognize would wave to me and say OK.  When I returned to graduate school after Peace Corps, I caught myself yelling ‘ok’ to poor African American students on campus in mostly rural white Pullman, Washington – and I’m sure they thought I was crazy.  I only had to do that once or twice before I embarrassed myself into submission.  Submission being an interesting word, isn’t it, in this context? 

White supremacy culture keeps us estranged from one another.

So, I worked with people of different backgrounds than my own my early teaching career – in the Peace Corps and then when I returned in public schools, working with children of Mexican and Central American migrant workers in Washington state.  When I decided to go into the ministry it was, in part, because I was ready to work with “my people” – whatever that means.  I began to feel a little like a colonizer – always being the teacher to people of color and thought I should try to be with people whose culture and language I understood better.

But there’s a danger, of course, working around people who are “quote” like me.  The assumptions don’t get challenged and the norms get reinforced and we make the dangerous mistake of thinking that we actually know what we’re doing, rather than continuing to learn and grow and stretch.

And I’ve felt that in these last couple of years with you.  Particularly as this congregation was considering moving from its location in East Lansing where the non-white population is mostly related to the university.  to Lansing, where there are more people, including more varied income levels and refugee status and people of different races and cultures and nationalities.  As people talked about the move and hopefully suggested we’d attract more people of color in our new neighborhood…. Without understanding the deep and entrenched ways we maintain a white culture in this place – we talk a good talk, but there are ways in which we maintain the status quo and don’t let new people change us as much as we want them to change in order to be with us.

We engaged Beloved Conversations – meditations about race and ethnicity as we prepared for this move, and some groups went deep and some groups struggled with the material.  I have been going at this diversity thing, or discrimination awareness, or inclusion from different angles for more than a decade, and I wasn’t really sure what we needed to do.  I did know we needed to pause – that there was an unhealthy sense of urgency about us, but I couldn’t get the big system that is a congregation to stop.  Understandably, people want to do their business, they want to get back to it.  People felt we were moving too slowly and not operational soon enough. 

And knowing that the only person I can change is myself, I decided that I must stop and re-evaluate.  So, I asked some people to join me on what I called “a diversity team” – I chose people I know and who had identities that were different than my own white, northamerican, English speaking self.  That how this group that wrote the covenant Kari read came to be.  We have been meeting regularly this year to explore this goal of beloved community and the gap that exists between our dreams and our reality.  We, along with the much of the world, had to grieve and check our reality in the wake of the national presidential election and the triumph of that great symbol of white supremacy – the rich white man who seeks power and publicly ridicules others.  So it seems like our work together has only begun. 

I think we’ve articulated well the work that needs doing, despite the fact that our covenant together starts with a negative statement .  It’s a practical covenant, not as aspirational as it could be – but we begin on the ground.  I believe we always begin on the ground.  Where we are.
So, where are we?  Steeped in white supremacy culture, like it or not.  I don’t think we like it, but we don’t always see it.  And we can’t change what we don’t notice.

So, while it is important to take action out in the world – to build coalitions to end mass incarceration, to help immigrants and refugees, to pass legislation to end gun violence and protect reproductive rights – all these things are very important.  And not until we turn that mirror back on ourselves, will real change ever happen.  We must do what member Katusha Galitzine preached about recently.  She said:

“I believe we need to address racism with the holistic perseverance a person needs to quit smoking. I’ve been studying racism, it’s history and its current incarnations. I have made my arguments with myself, I have committed, been discouraged, re-committed, and I am throwing my cap over the wall. I am now in the process of examining my habits, my communities, my media consumption, my interpersonal choices, and scrubbing the poisonous tar of the racism we all breathe from all of those things. It will take longer than I want it to. I will find bias and resistance in my pockets for years, beliefs and habits I carried with me and relied on and I will attempt to leave them behind. Everywhere I look, there is something that I encounter and find newly offensive, now that I can smell it. This part of the transformation is alienating and difficult, but it is necessary if we hope for lasting change. I am not suggesting that we stop talking about a free and equal United States, or celebrating our decision to bring it into being - but I am hoping that we recognize now that we can not simply speak it into being. We must commit to the work it requires. We must look honestly at our dangerous habits, and throw our caps over the wall.”

And if that seems too abstract to you – what racism in here, you ask?  (We know about racism out there)   Focus on the cultural habits we’ve inherited from and unconsciously perpetuate in this white supremacy culture we’re steeped in… perfectionism, defensiveness, individualism, sense of urgency.   There’s a great article by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones (and many others) that a member of the diversity team shared with us that outlines characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our lives and our organizations, including the national Unitarian Universalist Association and our churches including this one.

The habit that caught my eye this time – and believe me, there are many cultural habits that I recognize in my life – but this time I noticed the one about “sense of urgency.”  I don’t know if you watched that very popular upstairs/downstairs drama, Downton Abbey – but there is a character in there that I always think of as the Unitarian.  (and I think of her as Unitarian, not Unitarian Universalist)  Isabel Crawley.  She is the middle class cousin, Matthew’s mother, who is always trying to fix. Things. now.  She has that beautiful sense of urgency which can become a problem when we are always out in the world trying to fix others’ situations and not present to our own cultural assumptions and habits.  She is always doing, doing, doing, while the ruling class relations are having others do everything for them – including getting dressed a lot.  The more free time you had, the more status – that’s why we call them “the idol rich.”   This is still true in most cultures around the world, according to social science correspondent Shakar Vedantam, but in America the status symbol of time works backwards.  In this white supremacy culture in which we find ourselves, a lack of time indicates higher social status.  Especially if you lack time because of the choices you’ve made.  But even among those in poverty in America, people with less time are perceived – says this social science research – as more important, or having a higher social status, than people with free time.

According to Tema Okun, a continued sense of urgency makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long term, to consider consequences. A sense of urgency frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing the interest of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community).  I want to repeat that one and remind you of the difficulties encountered in the planning phase of the Women’s March, January 21st.  A sense of urgency frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing the interest of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community).

The antidotes for this sense of urgency is realistic work plans, leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects – there was a conversation I heard about at the congregational meeting about how long to have an interim minister that comes to mind.  The antidotes for this sense of urgency is to discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time, learn from past experience how long things take, be clear about how you make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency, realize that rushing decisions takes more time in the long run.  I have felt that sense of urgency in this place. I have embodied that sense of urgency along with you, don’t get me wrong.  And that’s just one place where we could start.

Wow.  This topic is huge.  And I haven’t even begun to scrape the surface.  I’ve read articles about white fragility, white innocence, all kinds of qualities ascribed to whiteness and white supremacy culture.  And it actually makes me hopeful.  Hopeful, because when we can name it, we can change it.  It’s not easy.  This is very hard work.  And I believe we can do it.  The good news is, we don’t have to do it alone.  To touch on one of those other characteristics of white supremacy culture – individualism and the belief that in order to do it right, I must be the one to do it, that I can’t rely on others.  Hogwash.  We must do it, and we must do it together.  We cannot do it alone.  And for that, I am grateful.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.

Selected sources:

Website for Black Lives Matter: The Movement for Black Lives