I Begin to Understand:
Personal Race Reflections
World home page
|Last November, while planning this issue of the World, we put out a
call on the World website and via e-mail lists read by UU ministers,
activists, and others for essays on race and related topics, including
the UUA antiracism program. The six pieces that follow were all submitted,
if not written, in response to our call. While hardly exhaustive, they
represent a range of Unitarian Universalist views. We also asked artists
to submit their interpretations of the struggle against racism.
The Racism Embedded in Our System
I started volunteering as an antiracism organizer in UU congregations in August 1997, after attending a three-and-a-half day antiracism analysis and team-building workshop led by Crossroads Ministries of Chicago, the primary consultant to the UUA’s national antiracism initiative, the Journey toward Wholeness. Crossroads, an interfaith antiracist collective, helps religious denominations (beginning usually and sensibly with denominational leaders) transform themselves into antiracist, multicultural institutions.
Before the workshop I knew very little about antiracism transformation teams and certainly had no plans to join one. I’d been invited to the workshop not as a prospective team member but as a UUA staff member. But by the end of the workshop, I couldn’t imagine not joining the team. The workshop had transformed me.
How was I transformed? First, I began to understand some of the institutional obstacles that keep liberal religious people like me from becoming effective agents of justice in the post-civil-rights era. Second, I learned to see the world with an antiracist vision that helped me think strategically about how to overcome these obstacles. All in all, I felt empowered. I left the workshop believing I could and should work for antiracist change in my own institutions.
People who know me well inform me that I’m politically naive. I sure
felt naive a few months into my volunteering with the Mass Bay District’s
Antiracism Transformation Team when I began to hear that the Crossroads
workshops were coming under heavy criticism from a variety of UU sources.
At the joint Meadville/Lombard-Starr King Consultation on Race and Theology
in January 1998, I heard white ministers claiming that Crossroads was dogmatic,
that its approach to fighting racism was essentially creeping Calvinism.
Back in Boston I heard people say that Crossroads’ focus on white privilege—how
racism benefits white people—was too heavy-handed, that it made people
feel bad about themselves and therefore wasn’t a good workshop for UUs.
I also heard questions about why we need to always focus on race: “Isn’t
class the root of the problem?” Well, I hadn’t thought any of these questions
through. Had I just unthinkingly accepted a dogma?
These propositions did sound potentially dogmatic, not to mention alienating. After all, in the UU congregation where I was raised, I’d learned I couldn’t be a racist, that racism was something the KKK did, not something I was connected to. In fact, being nonracist was a major part of the way I saw myself—until the Crossroads workshop showed me a different perspective. In the workshop context, the two propositions I mentioned above don’t pretend to imply that all white people secretly harbor racist intentions or that all people of color are helpless victims. Rather, they refer to the racism embedded in the system we live in, a system that, on the whole, offers social, economic, and cultural advantages to white people and disadvantages to people of color. You might say we find ourselves in a racist social situation. For example, my wife and I recently needed to move on short notice. A potential landlord told us he only rented to “good” people. We took his apartment without giving this declaration much thought. It was the only apartment we could find that was convenient to both our jobs. Only later, after seeing that everyone in our complex was white, did we realize that his term “good” was code for “white.” All we had done was rent an apartment, and yet we’d helped perpetuate racism.
From this perspective, I don’t mind exploring the term “racist” in relation to myself. In fact, I find it helpful. It keeps me focused on what I as a white person must strive to change. Claiming my racism doesn’t mean that I’ve come to believe I’m inherently bad. Recognizing my unintentional complicity in a racist system has nothing to do with my inherent worth and dignity as a white person. There’s no creeping Calvinism here. This is not about who I am; it’s about how I’ve been shaped—how we’ve all been shaped—by a system we didn’t create. It is also about what I choose to do. That is, now that I understand how I benefit from racism, I don’t wallow in white guilt and self-loathing, but instead I choose to struggle against racism, first by changing the institutions where I have the power to bring change. One such institution is my church. Therefore I will work for antiracist change in my church and my beloved UUA.
I commend Crossroads for challenging Unitarian Universalists to look at the depths of racism in our congregations. Examples include the ongoing difficulties we as a movement have in finding secure settlements for some ministers of color; our unexamined European American cultural norms; the way we often try to hide those cultural norms by appropriating the traditions of people of color; the way we tell our own history, often leaving out our forebears’ relationship to the extermination of Native Americans in New England or to the slave trade; and the way we often expect the few people of color among us to speak on behalf of “their people.”
When we can accept the overwhelming, crushing power racism has over all of our lives, when we can grasp just how deep our inability to form relationships across lines of race results from the racism in our midst, then and only then can we begin to know our personal and communal responsibility in relation to the problem, and then and only then can we begin to act, not with long-distance, Band-Aid responses but with transgressive, transformative solutions.
Let’s stop resisting the change that must happen. If you reject my analysis because it’s calling you to change in ways that don’t feel good, I implore you please to stay with it. Racism doesn’t feel good, either. So don’t panic. Don’t run away. Take a breath. Check your step. And notice that you’re on the journey.
The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek is minister of the UU Church of Norwich, Connecticut, and a program associate in the UUA’s Faith in Action Department.
I’m white. In 1950, as I was about to enter kindergarten, my mother said, “There may be Negro children at school. Other children may call them ‘niggers.’ Don’t ever say that. It hurts people’s feelings!”
I was puzzled. Why would some children want to hurt other children’s feelings?
“Because,” my mother explained, “some people don’t think Negroes are as good as other people.”
Thus I learned about racism. The lesson continued through the 1950s and 1960s, as the civil rights movement unfolded on tv. I saw the firehoses and the dogs. And I felt: Racists are slimeballs. Even when I learned about more subtle forms of racism, that feeling never left me.
I therefore find it hard to keep listening to some in the UUA leadership when they solemnly assure me that, as a white, I can’t help but be some kind of racist. The term “racist,” no matter how prefixed with modifiers (like “institutional”), still feels like an insult. It’s as if they’re telling me, “Richard, we have a more advanced understanding of what it means to be a slimeball, and we’ve concluded that, in this more advanced sense, you, Richard, are a slimeball.”
But there was more to that conversation with my parents back in 1950. If there might be Negroes in school, I asked, where did they live? Why had I never seen any? My father said, “They stick with their own kind.” That meant, of course, that we whites were also a kind, and that we stuck with our kind, too—though that was never said. (One of the rules of being white is that you never talk about it, except by indirection.) My father was teaching me about racial boundaries, and that it was important to respect them. I was being racialized.
My racialization has handicapped me all my life. Fifty years later,
it still affects me. Whenever I’m getting to know a person of another race,
for instance, I notice an extra awkwardness. I feel a conflict within me—between
what I learned at age four (racial categories are important) and what I
believe now (racial categories are meaningless).
Racialization is the more fundamental evil, in that it makes racism possible. Eliminate racialization, and racism, in all its forms, will evaporate.
The Rev. Richard Trudeau is minister of the UU Church of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Since 1970 he has taught mathematics and the history of astronomy at Stonehill College.
Moses and the UUA
As a child, I heard the story of Moses’ ascent to the holy mountain, the place where he stood in the presence of God. I was surprised to learn that meanwhile his people were so impatient that they began to worship golden calves. Golden calves! What kind of people worship golden calves? This story did not increase my esteem for grown-ups.
Now an adult, I begin to understand. I, too, have grown impatient.Too often I’ve been willing to cast idols in metal.
I’m heartened that our denomination confronts the reality of racism at a time when many are fatigued by an issue that just doesn’t seem to go away. But I’m also grateful that our tradition doesn’t make an idol of any one particular way of thinking about this problem but remains ever open to new understandings. One of the strengths of liberal religion is our willingness to challenge our own priorities and programs. I interpreted in this spirit Thandeka’s 1999 General Assembly workshop titled Why Antiracism Will Fail, which critiqued the UUA antiracism program.
Moses wanted to share what he had encountered in his 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai, but his words just weren’t adequate. The best he could come up with was two tablets on which he described a life of gratitude and justice. That summary, largely negative in tone, didn’t really get at what he had experienced. Later prophets who sat on other mountaintops offered words that broadened and deepened Moses’ description, but those words, too, fell short. What matters most in life resists being clearly framed in anyone’s words, anyone’s model, anyone’s institution.
Race is still an issue decades after civil rights legislation. No, the playing field has not been leveled. An ethical issue that was once painfully clear has become more nuanced, more complex, touching on a broader spectrum of ethnic identities, confused with class and economic issues, reaching beyond equality under the law. Addressing race requires the free and unfettered speech of all who care about justice—and the critical dialogue that will push each of us beyond our own narrow vision. Unless we understand the depth and breadth of the problem, our fixes will be partial, and the fix—action—is what it’s all about. Like Moses, who reached beyond understanding to confront the pharaoh and to lead his people to the promised land, we must act and reflect, act and reflect: acting from partial understanding, reflecting on our action, adjusting our action to our broader understanding, then reflecting again. To act without ongoing reflection or to reflect and diagnose without committing ourselves to the work of justice is not living in good faith.
Like Moses, Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the mountaintop. Like Moses, he knew he might not get to the Promised Land with us but that we as a people will get there. We will not get there as a people who seek guidance for every step in the revelations of the past but as a people open to ongoing revelation.
The affirmation of ongoing revelation, revelation to which each voice
contributes, is why I signed on to liberal religion. And working for an
end to racism, classism, economic injustice is far too important to leave
to any single understanding. It requires everyone’s wisdom, everyone’s
commitment, everyone’s love.
The Rev. Frank Rivas is parish minister of First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, which has a long tradition of social justice ministry in the Twin Cities.
Dos Caras de la Misma Moneda
Cuando los zapatistas dieron su primer golpe de rebelión en Chiapas, el 1o. de enero de 1994, no me sorprendí en lo más mínimo. Yo había sido testigo del maltrato que los indígenas recibían a manos de los mestizos y blancos. Yo era un niño de 9 años cuando mi padre fué asignado como ministro presbiteriano a la Villa de las Margaritas, en la parte norte de Chiapas. En ese pueblito, todas las personas se saludaban amablemente en la calle y se decían adiós aunque no se conocieran. Yo ví a muchas de esas mismas personas amables cambiarse de acera para no tener que saludar a un indio o ignorar a los indios cuando pasaban frente a ellos. Los indígenas de esa región, en su mayoría tojolabales, llegaban al pueblo en coloridas peregrinaciones religiosas con tambores, flautas y danzas una o dos veces al año. Llegaban también a vender sus productos agrícolas o a comprar en las tiendas. Eran tratados con desprecio por casi todos, cada vez que venían.
Yo supe de los indios poco antes de llegar al estado. Cuando mi padre era estudiante seminarista escribió su disertación teológica acerca del impacto del evangelio cristiano en los pueblos indígenas de Chiapas. Esto lo llevó a viajar hacia las montañas de Chiapas donde viven los indígenas tzeltales y choles. Cuando volvió de esos viajes trajo consigo muchas fotos y muy gratos recuerdos de su convivencia con los indígenas. Me enseñó que los indígenas eran inteligentes, limpios, trabajadores y sobre todo muy cariñosos y dignos de respeto. Sin embargo, en Chiapas todo lo que yo veía a mi alrededor contradecía completamente ese concepto de respeto hacia los indígenas. De manera más generalizada, en México hasta el día de hoy la palabra “indio” se usa como una gran ofensa entre los mestizos y los blancos. El racismo institucionalizado es descarado y atraviesa todas las capas sociales y económicas, la religión, la política y los medios de comunicación. Basta con mirar la tv mexicana para darse cuenta sobre cuál es el concepto dominante de la belleza en México, a pesar de que el 95 por ciento somos mestizos y llevamos sangre indígena.Un amigo canadiense me dice que las telenovelas mexicanas le recuerdan la tv de Escandinavia. Yo, como mestizo de piel clara, era de los ganadores, disfrutando de muchos privilegios sociales que yo daba por hecho y creía que me los merecía. Cuando podía, hacía uso de ellos y al igual que muchos hacía mofa de los indígenas.
Cuando vine a vivir a los Estados Unidos, mi mundo de privilegio se derribó, porque aquí yo soy el mexicano emigrado, que habla con acento extranjero. Pertenezco a un submundo, en donde la gente hace comentarios acerca de mis hermanos “espaldas mojadas” como si yo no estuviera presente, al submundo en donde otros latinoamericanos se ofenden cuando les preguntan si son mexicanos. No soy automáticamente bienvenido. En realidad, yo represento a la persona non grata. Tengo que luchar para demostrar que no pertenezco al estereotipo del mexicano: flojo, ignorante y borracho, sentado debajo de un maguey, con un sombrero que le tapa la cara y la vergüenza.
Y no es el hecho del acento en sí, porque a mis amigos franceses o austriacos les va mucho mejor que a mí en cuanto a privilegios sociales, a pesar de su acento pesado. Es la sangre indígena en mí, de la cual estoy ahora orgulloso. Cuando yo llegué a los Estados Unidos no podía comprender porqué muchos mexico-americanos preferían no hablar español, o porqué ya lo habían olvidado, aún cuando sus padres o abuelos hablaban solamente español en casa. Ahora lo tengo muy claro: la cultura dominante les ha arrancado su orgullo cultural étnico.
Ervin Barrios, traductor de español e inglés, es coordinador de eventos de LUUNA (Latina/o Unitarian Universalist Networking Association), miembro del comité de planeación de la Asamblea General, y miembro de la Primera Iglesia Unitaria de San José, California. Tambien es productor de la serie Proyecto 2000, tv en español.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
When the Zapatista rebels first struck in Chiapas, on January 1, 1994,
I was not surprised at all, for I had witnessed how badly the Indians there
were treated by the mestizos and whites. I was a 9-year-old boy when my
father was called to be the Presbyterian minister in Villa de las Margaritas,
in the northern region of Chiapas. In that little village, people greeted
all passersby politely, even strangers—that is, if the passersby were white
or mestizo. I saw many of those friendly people crossing to the other side
of the street in order to avoid greeting an Indian. The region’s Indians,
mostly Tojolabal, came to town once or twice a year on colorful religious
pilgrimages, dancing and playing flutes and drums. They also came to town
to sell their agricultural products or to buy at the stores. Each time,
they were treated with disdain by almost everyone whose path they crossed.
Then I came to live in the United States. My world of privilege collapsed. Here, I am the Mexican immigrant who speaks with a foreign accent and belongs to a sub-world where people make comments about my “wetback” brothers and sisters as if I am not there. A sub-world where other Latin American immigrants get offended when asked if they’re Mexican. I no longer feel I’m automatically welcome; in fact, I represent the persona non grata.I have to struggle to prove that I don’t fit the stereotype of the Mexican: lazy, ignorant, and drunk, sitting under a cactus, wearing a hat that covers his face—and his shame.
This is not because of the accent per se, because my French and Austrian friends have it a lot easier socially in spite of their heavy accents. It is the Indian blood in me, of which I now am proud.
When I first arrived in the United States, I couldn’t understand why so many Mexican Americans preferred not to speak Spanish, or why they had forgotten how to speak it, even though their parents and grandparents speak only Spanish at home. Now I have figured it out: the dominant culture has stripped them of their ethnic cultural pride.
Ervin Barrios, a Spanish-English translator, is events coordinator for the Latina/o Unitarian Universalist Networking Association (LUUNA) and a member of the GA Planning Committee and First Unitarian Church of San Jose, California. He is also the producer of the Proyecto 2000 Spanish-language television series.
Race or Class? Race and Class?
Race? In a word, white. Scots Irish and a bit of German and English—to be as precise as I can. My ancestors, farmers and laborers, settled in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Like hundreds of other Scots Irish—Scottish settlers in Northern Ireland—they had had their land stolen and came here in hopes of rebuilding their lives.
Class? No one-word answer here. My mother was born on a farm in Amherst County, Virginia, to a family of tobacco sharecroppers. In the early 1940s, my maternal grandmother left her husband (an older man with children her age) and, with her three teenage children, came to the “city” (actually small town) of Lynchburg, Virginia, to make a better life. She got work as a dining room supervisor at a women’s college.
My father grew up in a part of Lynchburg that was also home to many African American families, the all-black high school, and the Phillis Wheatley YWCA. His first job after the army was in a horse-rendering plant—for one day! After work as a lineman for the local power company, he got a civil service job working on a mail train. My mother stayed home after I was born, never returning to her secretarial job. When mail trains were discontinued, my father worked night shift at a post office and then had a rural mail route. By the time I was in third grade, we had a brand new house in a brand new suburb with its own elementary school, and I got to pick the color of the paint for my bedroom.
Poor to working class to middle class in two generations. And white. And I wonder, from time to time, just how the hell I got here. How did a woman just one generation out of the tobacco fields of central Virginia get to be a UU and a minister, to preach from pulpits where the likes of William Ellery Channing once preached?
After 30 years as a Unitarian Universalist, I still struggle with that question and, from time to time, with feeling like a fraud, like someone who doesn’t really belong. Having learned the ways of the middle and upper-middle classes, I can, with some skill, engage in “class-passing.”
When my parents visit churches I have served, they adopt the formal behavior that comes with feeling out of place. They speak to folks in the congregation who greet them in the language of smiles, and “ma’am” and “sir.”
Meanwhile, I call this place, in which they will always be visitors, home. I’m a true measure of their success. The Protestant work ethic fulfilled. Anyone can make it. You can be whatever you want to be. Study hard. Get good grades. Win scholarships. Be one of those in whom teachers see “something,” one of those to whom they offer extra encouragement. Never give up. My parents’ hard work gave me access to this good life that I critique. As I write I have this knot in my stomach. Should they read this, would they feel they have failed me?
We Unitarian Universalists speak about our collective class identity
as middle/upper-middle class. While the data we have about ourselves indicate
that collectively the label fits, I cannot help but wonder how many of
us are, like me, middle or upper-middle class by one generation? How many
are one paycheck away from falling out of the middle class? How much of
our UU class identity is about history and heritage—who we were—and how
much about who we have become? I wonder how complicated the “class identity”
of our faith community is these days?
I have only been a white woman for a decade or so. Before that, I was a simply a woman, and one for whom gender was the defining category of oppression. Then I started trying to figure out what it means to be white and what I am called to do when my hard-won, yet incomplete, justice as a woman comes face to face with another’s experience of injustice. What am I to do at the intersection of gender and race? Or race and class? The relationship between race and class is as complicated as the race and gender one, albeit with a different texture and pain.
I worry over the tender, sore places in our religious community where personal commitments to overcoming oppression are so identified with one of its defining categories, or when by resistance to or denial of other categories, we can’t seem to find a way to move toward justice. I worry we will get stuck arguing over where to start, what comes first, which is more important. I worry that useless hierarchies and false choices will divert us. I worry that the interlocked oppressions of racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism, and the rest will simply carry on while we disagree, deny, and those of us who are white defend our precious privileges.
As Audre Lorde once wrote, the fight for justice takes all of our selves working together, and the struggle against any form of injustice generates energies useful in our struggles against other forms.
The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris belongs to Arlington Street Church in Boston, where she preached the sermon from which this article was developed. A minister of religious education, she has served on the UUA staff since 1995.
The Cultures of Religion
The congregations lining West St. Clair Avenue in affluent Forest Hill—the imposing Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, Deer Park United, Holy Rosary, and even First Unitarian of Toronto—all represent mainline Canada. But when I travel south or west from Christie and Davenport, the corner nearest my house, the neighborhood looks different. Heading west from home, I see the Metropolitan Korean Presbyterian Church, then the domed spire of St. Nektarioc Greek Orthodox Church, and further along, St. Paul’s Slovak Evangelical Lutheran. Going south, I pass a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall with Portuguese language services, then East Toronto Presbyterian Korean Church, and two blocks later, Korean Beacon Church.
Institutional religion is always a marriage of religion with culture. Take the Transylvanian Unitarian congregations in Romania. They don’t care to embrace diversity, endeavoring instead to preserve the Hungarian culture within a Romanian-dominated society. Or take the Metropolitan Community Church, an adaptation of Christianity to gay culture.
We like to think otherwise about ourselves, but our UU faith communities are also as much a product of our culture as of our religious perspective. UU norms—our style of worship, principles, attitudes, and social concerns—are shaped by our upper-middle-class, North American values. We don’t see how strongly these influence us because we live inside that particular cultural box.
This points to a problem. In continental surveys, many UUs express a desire to embrace diversity and are frustrated by the slow pace of diversification. But is it really diversity we desire? And do we want it even if it means cultural upheaval? Or do we actually want to attract people of diverse ethnicity only if they fit into our culture—a culture we don’t even recognize as one?
The temptation is to lie to ourselves. In 1967 the UUA Report of the Committee on Goals found that in regard to “Negro” ministers 27 percent of UUs agreed that such a person’s “race might hamper his effectiveness,” while 47 percent said the same thing of women ministers and their gender. What then transpired calls our survey results into question. The number of women in our ministry grew from a handful in that year to 199 in 1987, and 431 out of the 853 in active ministry today. Meanwhile, the number of ministers of color, which in 1967 was nearly identical to the number of women, increased to 17 in 1987. It currently stands at 45, at least seven of whom are not in active ministry or haven’t been involved in the UUA in a decade or more. Now compare the number of ministers of color to the number of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ministers, which stands at approximately 5 percent. Similar, but take note: the first openly gay minister was granted fellowship less that 25 years ago. The first minister of color, the Rev. Joseph Jordan, was licensed by the Universalists in 1888 and ordained in 1889.
We’ve chosen a path, and these numbers tell us which. Culture has prevailed. Diversity advances more quickly when the primary barrier to inclusivity is not culture but gender or sexual orientation. The people of color who have become UUs are those who already operate within our cultural norms. Examine the résumés of UU ministers, and it’s often hard to tell who is of color and who not.
There are good reasons for us to become more inclusive—the survival and revitalization of Unitarian Universalism being foremost. But let’s not fool ourselves about what such a change entails, for to misjudge what is possible is to set ourselves up for frustration and failure.
The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed is cominister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, Ontario.
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