Unpacking whiteness

Unpacking whiteness

More than half of all Unitarian Universalist congregations took part this spring in a teach-in about white supremacy culture

At the start of the teach-in at Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 7, the Rev. Deryck Tines offers personal reflections on living with racism and oppression.

At the start of the teach-in at Allegheny UU Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 7, the Rev. Deryck Tines offers personal reflections on living with racism and oppression (© Greg Blackman).

© Greg Blackman


In the largest joint effort among Unitarian Universalist congregations in recent memory, 706 congregations—68 percent of the total 1,038 congregations—participated in a White Supremacy Teach-In in April and May to examine how a culture of white supremacy plays out in UU spaces, including within congregations.

The teach-in was proposed and created in a matter of weeks by three religious educators—Aisha Hauser, Christina Rivera (who is also a Unitarian Universalist Association trustee), and Kenny Wiley (who is also a UU Worldsenior editor)—in response to the hiring practices controversy that erupted in March at the UUA. Hauser, Rivera, and other critics said the UUA favors white people, especially white male ministers, for senior positions; President Peter Morales and two other senior staff resigned, and the interim co-presidents appointed by the Board of Trustees introduced new hiring practices aimed at achieving 40 percent people of color in professional and managerial positions. At the suggestion of the teach-in organizers, more than 500 congregations reconfigured their April 30 or May 7 Sunday services to hold teach-ins; another 200 held theirs on another date, as did the UUA staff.


Resources for a second White Supremacy Teach-in, October 15 or 22.


“‘White supremacy’ is a provocative phrase, as it conjures up images of hoods and mobs,” the organizers wrote. “Yet in 2017, actual ‘white supremacists’ are not required in order to uphold white supremacist culture. Building a faith full of people who understand that key distinction is essential as we work toward a more just society in difficult political times.”

UU World will periodically check in with several congregations that took part in the teach-in to explore how they are creating and experiencing cultural change.

At Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Florida, the Rev. Patrice Curtis, a black minister in a predominantly white congregation and area, said she set a “deeply pastoral perspective” for their May 7 teach-in. “I said that what we were engaged in that morning was incredibly vulnerable work,” said Curtis.

In lieu of a sermon, three white congregants who are members of the recently formed Black Lives Matter Committee shared personal stories on why racial justice is important to them. “We each had very different life stories that we hoped people could connect with,” said Susan Allen. A gathering at the church immediately afterwards drew about twenty people who were eager to talk about what they’d heard and share their own experiences, she said.

At the April 30 teach-in at the UU Church of Boulder, Colorado, the Rev. Kelly Dignan, who is white, shared a handout describing characteristics of white supremacy culture—such as defensiveness, perfectionism, and fear of open conflict—and antidotes to them. “I invited us into personal assessment and understanding of how these characteristics show up when planning events, making decisions, hiring, choosing leaders,” said Dignan, who added that she struggles with some of those herself.

Will Kropp, chair of the People of Color Ministry in Boulder, who identifies as multiracial, read a passage by Takiyah Nur Amin, a member of the Black Lives of UU collective, describing her sense that no matter how long she’s been a UU, she’s never been able to feel totally at home like white members do. “That really resonated with me,” Kropp said.

For its April 30 teach-in, First Parish UU in Needham, Massachusetts, welcomed artist Pamela Chatterton-Purdy and the Rev. David Purdy, whose “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement” exhibition was on display in the congregation that weekend. The guest speakers described their experience as white parents with transracially adopted children. Some religious education classes used materials created for the teach-in by Hauser and her colleagues. In her sermon, the Rev. Catie Scudera, who is white, introduced examples of racism in Unitarian and Universalist institutions going back to the 1800s. She pointed out that the Needham church’s program staff is entirely white but its facilities management staff is entirely people of color, and then described the hiring crisis at the UUA.

“I wanted the congregation to know what was happening at the UUA, why there was controversy, why the president resigned, and I wanted to continue our conversation and deepen our understanding of racism and white supremacy broadly,” Scudera said.

The hiring crisis at the national level “made me realize that a lot has been simmering, and this one incident really triggered a huge reaction,” said Marianne McGowan, co-coordinator of the Needham congregation’s Racial Justice Task Force, who is white. “For me, I think it’s a little humbling that we have racism in our past also; we’re not above it all, we don’t get a free pass here,” said McGowan.

In Needham, Scudera said some congregants did not like the term “white supremacy” being applied to the congregation or to the denomination, “but not to the extent they threatened to pull out,” she said.

Kropp, in Boulder, said he initially found himself resistant to the term, which he associated with the alt-right, but changed his mind after it was defined. “I had to educate myself, as we were educating each other,” he said.

All three congregations, in slightly different ways, have been addressing racial justice with increasing focus over the past year, so there was a foundation for the teach-in. Ten to twenty white congregants in Clearwater have been attending classes about white privilege and racial justice, and it is showing results, said Eliseo Santana Jr., who is Puerto Rican. “I like the atmosphere that I’m seeing in our congregation, and I’d like to see that grow and expand,” he said. The white people in the congregation “did not really know how offensive they were, or how exclusive they were, and I think they do now and they want to change—and they are changing. It’s revolutionary.”

In all three congregations, response to the teach-ins was overwhelmingly positive. “Someone said, ‘When I came today I thought, I’m not a white supremacist, this isn’t going to apply to me, but when you showed that list of characteristics of white supremacy culture I was shocked at how many of those things I actually do,’” Dignan recalled.

The Boulder teach-in did not directly address the hiring crisis at the UUA. “I wish we had talked specifically and identified that,” said Kaitlin Abbitt, chair of Racial Justice Ministry, who is white and is married to a man who identifies as half-black, half-Asian. But in her sermon Dignan did emphasize that the congregation will be examining its own hiring practices to dismantle white supremacy.

The “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement” exhibit at the Needham church did not include Malcolm X, which William Rico sees as a glaring omission. “While I was moved by the art and stories of the icons, I found the exhibit in some ways contradictory to the day’s sermon, in which Rev. Scudera quoted the Rev. Clinton Lee Scott in saying, ‘Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision,’” said Rico, whose father’s family is from Latin America and mother’s family is from Germany, and who believes that race is a false construct.

Keeping the momentum

While it’s heartening that so many UU congregations took part, the ongoing work to dismantle white supremacy won’t be easy, many said. “I think our history and the environment we live in is built around this white supremacy culture, and I think even those who want to challenge and dismantle it still fall into it,” said Abbitt. Among steps to keep the momentum, the Boulder congregation will be participating in post-teach-in learning circles organized by the Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kūpono Kwong and the Rev. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh of the UUA’s Pacific Western Region staff. Going forward, “I hope we disrupt white supremacy culture within our congregation and then take that into Boulder, and also be able to help support that at the UUA level,” Dignan said.

In the winter the Clearwater congregation hopes to hold its first classes in “Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity,” an eight-week curriculum on racism and ethnicity developed by Meadville Lombard Theological School Professor Mark A. Hicks, “to extend the work on unpacking whiteness by now beginning to hear voices of people of color,” Curtis said.

Curtis also wants the congregation to build authentic relationships with others in the community who are doing work around racial justice. For example, she hopes they’ll begin participation in reconciliation work—but only as part of a covenantal process with other people and groups—around the 1914 lynching of a black man in St. Petersburg, Florida.

In Needham, a major challenge is that the congregation and town have been mostly white for generations. “Our work going forward is to get outside our own segregated boxes and see this church in a new light without requiring our members of color to do that work for us,” said Scudera.

Rico agrees. “The teach-in helped keep the issue of white supremacy top of mind,” he said, “and my hope is that we are more willing to take risks to fight the system of white supremacy as a result.” The congregation is considering becoming a sanctuary congregation or sanctuary-supporting congregation, he said, “and the moral imperative for such action is greater, in my view, if we consider how white supremacy drives the need for sanctuaries.”

And the UUA as an organization, and Unitarian Universalism as a whole, face significant challenges in dismantling white supremacy, these people note.

“The UUA was founded by and for white people, that’s just the reality,” said Santana. He believes “fundamental change” is needed at the leadership level, although he isn’t sure how to make that happen. “I’m hoping collectively, as the UU movement, we come into some kind of agreement, knowledge, self-study—much like is happening in my congregation. I’m hoping the same thing happens on the national scale.”

Dignan believes defensiveness about the issue of racism stymies many white Unitarian Universalists, and Scudera agrees. “There can be in myself and other white UUs a high level of defensiveness that really shuts down conversation,” Scudera said. “I worry about our ability as a denomination to be compassionate listeners with open hearts and minds to one another.” Added Dignan, “I think the biggest challenge facing the UUA is to love each other through all of it, and stay in relationship.”

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