Showing Up for Racial Justice

I Am Not a Racist

A Sermon by David Shontz

 

I am not a racist.  But let’s say I did or said something that made you wonder about that.  What could I tell you that would convince you that it was a slip, a youthful mistake, certainly not what I intended?

I vote Democrat

I give money to Democratic party candidates

I asked my Black friends, and they said it wasn’t racist

I donate to causes supporting racial equality

I work for racial justice—I’m there at all the events

Whites were a minority at my high school

I have mentored and taught Black youth

Did I mention I vote Democrat?

All of these things are true of someone.  Some of these things are true of me. None of them make any difference.

We’ve been hearing about racial bias in the UUA organization for some time now.  At length. Perhaps too much length. We excuse ourselves from this conversation in many ways, but today I will remove the excuse that you don’t have time.  We will end at the appointed time, or near enough.

Inheriting the Problem

America, along with all other countries whose heritage is predominantly white, suffers from a pervasive history of oppression based on race.  Everyone here acknowledges this, but the mainstream liberal view of it has been that it’s an issue that we can “fix” by correcting specific injustices.  And we’ve tried in many ways, but the “fixes” tend to come undone almost as soon as they are applied. Emancipation from slavery gives way to sharecropping.  The civil rights movement gives way to mass incarceration. Affirmative action ends up mostly benefitting White women. The Great Society gives way to a new Gilded Age that falls highly unequally on people of color.  We’re not getting to the bottom of the issue.

So what responsibility do we bear for these sins of the past?  We didn’t enslave or lynch anyone. We may have voted for some of the folks that worked to undo Civil Rights progress, but neither we nor they intended that outcome.  Why do we have to do something? Let’s look at this by way of the idea of inheritance.

We’ll start with Barron Trump.  He will inherit free and clear, not being responsible for his father’s shifty deals.  He did not do any of them. But does he bear some responsibility? We might say that he did not commit any of those misdeeds, but he will eventually profit from them and should therefore accept some responsible.

Let’s turn then to an inheritance we all share: The ground on which we stand.   Our ancestors, and not distant ones, pushed the Native Americans off this land, then mixed their labor with it.  All we have mined, built, and despoiled is interest earned from the land we got for free. If your family immigrated later, after the Indian Wars were over, you don’t get off the hook.  You and your family have accepted the results of this redistribution.

Similarly, with slavery—the South got many billions of dollars’ worth of labor for no wages and minimal maintenance, committing an injustice worthy of major damages before we try to figure out what it is worth.  The North benefitted greatly from trade and commerce with the South, even while decrying slavery.

All we own is not just tainted by, but based on, these fundamental injustices.  We walk on stolen land and participate in racism by accepting the benefits of stolen labor.

Personal Issues

So intellectually we can understand and possibly accept that there is a fundamental injustice that must be confronted.  And we did not personally cause this injustice but have responsibility to correct it. But so far it’s not personal. So let’s get personal.

We gain tremendous advantages, that translate into money in our pockets, by how we carry ourselves as White people.  Some have called this a superpower. It is not a superpower, and I find the metaphor pernicious. The exact metaphor is royalty.  We carry ourselves as one born to the privilege we have.

“Microaggressions” (known by those who commit them as “misunderstandings” or “jokes”) coming from royalty have the effect of putting oppressed people in their place.  Think you don’t do that? Think again. Consider halitosis. What if you have powerfully bad breath? You are unlikely to find out. Friends and colleagues avoid you or get used to it.  No one tells you. It will most likely be someone you don’t like who says, “It’s like you shit your pants and put them on your head”.

Rude?  Absolutely.  But you just got feedback.  

Do we have racial halitosis, here at Northwoods?  Oh, yes we do. As an example: I’m aware of multiple instances of Black people here, usually women, having their hair touched and petted without their consent.  It seems we’re quite fascinated with curly hair. That’s a very intimate gesture, and you’d think we would be better about personal space but we’re not. Of course YOU didn’t do it.  But don’t go feeling superior to someone who did. I assure you that you have done something as specifically racially offensive without either knowing it or knowing that it was offensive.  

The word “racism”

So let’s talk about the term “racism”.  Most news sources, including our favorites, use the term “racist” to mean someone who is intentionally hostile to people of color.  By this definition, there are not that many people who would describe themselves as racists, and we tend to refer to them as “far-right” or “White supremacists”.  But we also refer to specific statements as “racist”. This leads us to spend a lot of time trying to infer that people we disagree with are intentionally hostile racists because of the things they say, while either defending or in some cases sacrificing people we agree with because they have said or done some of the same things.

Our friends at Black Lives in Unitarian Universalism, prominent columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and other scholars in race relations want to reframe the discussion of racism in America.  Racism is a cultural phenomenon—we live in a White supremacy culture, and we as White people participate in that racism by accepting the benefits that it confers. This is made visible by our personal wealth and well-being, and the extent to which we behave as though we earned those things solely through our own efforts and merit.

This helps us to understand what is meant when in a discussion of race someone says, “all White people are racists”.  Our tendency is to put on our logic hats and say “Well, it can’t be the case that ALL White people are racists. There must be some White people that are not”.  The problem with this is that if we allow any modifier—“almost all White people are racists”—the White people in the audience immediately exempt themselves. “Oh no, we are the woke ones.  Not like those other people.” The point being made here is that all of us who are White were raised in a White supremacy culture, and encouraged to believe that the things we have are ours because we “make better choices” and earned them by our merit (or by the grace of God, which is pretty much the same thing).  We DO work—as everyone does—but it’s just not possible to separate our work from the unearned benefits that we get from being White in a White supremacy culture.  

Which means the title of this sermon is truly a lie that I have loved.  I am a racist. I accept the benefit of being a White man in a white supremacy culture and carry myself with the assurance that I was both born to it and merit it.  That assurance means that I can give offense by my behavior without intending to do so, each and every day.

What not to do

At this point a typical reaction is some variation on “Well, you just can’t say anything anymore”, “You Social Justice Warriors just want White people to feel bad about being White”, or some such.  There’s a technical term for this, and it’s called White Fragility. We become personally offended at the idea that anything we have said or done could be perceived as racist. Facebook trolls are more direct, using the term “snowflake”, recasting concerns about racially divisive and threatening rhetoric as simply not being able to handle “free expression”.  Berkeley Breathed does it more subtly in Bloom County when he trivializes those concerns as “offensensibility” and worries over the racist history of certain shades of blue.

This completely misses the point, which is NOT about White people walking on eggshells.  We do that already, and it comes out as a veneer of politeness over deep fear and anger. We have *already* made the mistakes, and we continue to do so every day.  What is desired is for us to be open to learning and making real change.

What to do

This is the hard part.  Things that don’t work so well…

Trying to see yourself in others:  Once you are aware of this as a pervasive issue, it becomes easy to recognize.  In everyone else that is. It’s still impossible to recognize in yourself. I recognize a lot of behaviors that come off as racist now but withhold judgment because I’m looking in a mirror.

Exposure: Without other changes even developing genuine relationships doesn’t help.  Bigots can have respectful relationships with people of color—I know because I have seen it.  Not so hard to understand—they each know where they stand. As more moderate people, we can have cordial relationships, but true closeness is difficult because our friends of color would *like* to believe they know where we stand—but they aren’t sure, and when the chips are down, we’re not sure ourselves.  At best, we hold the same opinions and carry ourselves the same way and make exceptions for those people of color we know. And worse, we tend to hold them up as examples of the group they represent.

What can work is accountability.  Developing personal friendships that get to the level where we can be told we have halitosis and handle it will probably take a lot longer than we really have to fix the mess we are in now.  But it can be done more formally, with reciprocal relationships between groups. Getting feedback in this way can also be less personal, so we can spend less time getting over the hurt feelings and more on making amends and being better.

There is hope

When people in oppressed groups reach out to those that are more advantaged, we speak of it as making “allies”.  People who will use their power and privilege to help overcome the situation they are facing. We think of ourselves as allies in the struggle against racism, and by that we usually mean voting.  Voting Democratic. And that’s important. But it doesn’t require much of us personally.

What oppressed people are looking for is more than allies—they are looking for accomplices.  People with resources who value their relationship enough to put those resources at risk. James Reeb was an accomplice to Martin Luther King, helping him defy the laws and culture of this country to try to bring about change.  So were those UUs who marched with King and *didn’t* die. They put themselves on the line for what they believed.

We took a step in this direction when we voted to become a sanctuary church.  Last week we announced to the world that we are willing to take someone who, according to our government, has no right to be here, and use the wealth that we have and the sanctity of our space to protect them.  That is being an accomplice. We have a true and deep concern for the suffering of the migrants at our border, and we show it.

On the other hand, I really thought about putting a trigger warning in before the children’s story.  I did not have faith that those of you with young children would have introduced this topic already or been ready to have that conversation after the story.  Or that those of you who don’t have young children would not take offense on their behalf. I would love to be proven wrong about this.

[But the border is far away, the migrants in shelters in our own area are out of sight, and the person we take in will not be one of our members.  To me it does not feel personal yet. We will have taken a bigger step when we can acknowledge that the culture we live in and help create—our work culture, and our own church culture—will need to change in order to welcome those who we have oppressed.]

Conclusion

I don’t know that it’s possible for me to aspire to having the title of this sermon be true.  But I do want to suggest that the difference between those of us here in this room who are White and those other White folks who we oppose is not in what we say or do.  We do and say racist things, just as open bigots do. We start down the path of being truly different if we want to learn and are open to that learning in whatever form it reaches us.  It’s the more difficult path, but you’ll know you are on it when you fully understand that you have not already arrived.

Closing Words

When we walk the road to racial justice, where we arrive depends entirely on choosing a road that leads to the desired destination.  We have walked with good intent down roads that lead us back to where we started. Let’s choose a new road together.

 

Opening Words

Let us wake up.

Not just from the Sunday morning exhaustion, from the wish for a few more drowsy minutes in bed.

Let us wake up to this world we live in: to its beauty and wonder, and also to its tragedy and pain.

We must wake up to this reality: that not all in our world have what we do, however much or little that is.

We must wake up to the idea that our wholeness, our lives, are only as complete as the lives of those around us, of those we are inextricably tied to in a great web of mutuality, of which all of us are part.

We must #staywoke, in the words of our friends and colleagues involved in Black Lives Matter, working every day for racial justice in our country.

Let us wake up, let us stay awake, let us #staywoke.

 

And now, in this time and place, let us worship together.