What’s Going On?: Message for the White Supremacy Teach In (sermon)

May 14, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Time For All Ages story:



An uncomfortable journey. We have been asked to take one: talking and listening about something that is abhorrent, something that lingers, something that has attached its immoral residue to basically all that we know, sometimes visibly, but mostly not: white supremacy.

You can see the visible and the not so visible on the inside of one of the inserts in your order of service. It’s “the white supremacy pyramid.” Toward the top, above the line, there are unacceptable forms of white supremacy, the kinds we associate with Breibart and the KKK, Storm Front and the American Renaissance. With John Spencer and Steve Bannon. And our current president sees fit to invite these elements inside the White House, they become more socially acceptable.

They are not us and we are not them.

Yet there are other elements of white supremacy, below that line, that are more socially acceptable. That we can see, if we are willing to face them, in our own daily lives. That we can see even here, in Unitarian Universalism.

Here is the definition we are using. “White supremacy is a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.” (Kenny Wiley) If we think of white supremacy in this way, we can see throughout our faith movement and throughout our society how patterns exist and persist that “tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.”

It is easier for a white minister – for me — to be called to serve a UU congregation than it is for a minister of color. There is a pattern of ministers of color getting numerous requests to pre-candidate but then end up not being called, as if congregations are willing to go so far, but no further. Like the issue that sparked our paying closer attention to racist hiring patterns at the UUA, there is a pattern of congregations relying on notions of “right fit” that allow the comfort of the familiar, which means re-entrenching patterns of white supremacy, patterns whose fundamental structure centers white-ness, that makes white-ness so central that it becomes invisible.

This is not easy stuff to consider, especially with such a jarring term. White supremacy. It’s not even the term, “white privilege,” which can be hard enough for some of us to accept. But here’s this incendiary phrase. It’s easy to feel justified in shutting down. Or to focus solely on the phrase, rather than what it points to.

I’m asking you to stay with me on this. I know it’s hard to hear. It is not all that long ago that I hear my own voice declining to use it, finding it too evocative of hoods and burning crosses.

Even if those white supremacists are not us and we are not them, the difference between us and them does not give us permission to turn away from some of the very elements we share. We must choose to face how we swim in the same waters and breathe the same air. That we have in common elements they proudly choose to amplify and advocate while we, when we are our best selves, try to actively counter or extricate.

Sometimes, though, infuriatingly, we spend too much of our time denying elements of white supremacy. Instead of making it untrue, our denial feeds the very thing we loathe.

You might be wondering, what are examples of this more socially acceptable form of white supremacy?

How about: knowing the names of the countries in Europe but struggling to know the names of those in Africa.

How about: familiarity with Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows – books I loved growing up – without even noticing how many books we assign our children that are about white boys with dogs. That the titles of those books that Marley Dias collected as part of her #1000blackgirlbooks campaign are likely less familiar or unfamiliar to most of us.

It’s hard to see acts of centering whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. Like when we give a form of European ethnic music the title, “classical music,” thereby centering it and raising it above all others, making invisible the ethnic nature of it (for all music has ethnic roots, even as some music is so powerful, it can expand beyond them).

Frankly, it is painful to not do this [go la-la-la with my hands over my ears]. But when I hear my UU colleagues and friends of color telling me over and over how hard it is to be both UU and a person of color; when I hear of stories of raising UU kids of color and the stories UU youth of color bring home of how they are encountered by the wider UU movement as outsiders, as objects of suspicion; when I see our faith movement repeating devastating mistakes of the past, along cultural and social fault lines of race, I have to remove my hands from my ears. I have to confront not only the possibility of white supremacy in our midst, but also unconsciously in choices I make, in patterns I take part in and from which I, as a white person and a white minister, benefit.

The quote at the top of your order of service is one we have used before. It comes from the brilliant James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So today we are trying something different than denial or invisibility. We are trying, along with nearly 700 other UU congregations and covenantal communities, to acknowledge and confront. We are raising our awareness and in current parlance, becoming, “woke.” We are doing this because we have been asked by leading UUs of color to do so. We are doing this because when harm is done, this is one of the few ways to create possible transformation and redemption, rather than let calcify a growing residue of racism for the next generation.

This is by no means the first time UUs have confronted racism in our midst. Twenty years ago – back at the 1997 General Assembly, delegates voted for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to “commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution.”

Thirty years before that, in the late 1960s, there was the so-called “Black Empowerment Controversy.” The wider faith movement imploded with lasting injury to our denomination, with the loss of a significant number of UUs of color, especially, but not only, Black UUs, folks who left with a sense of deep betrayal. Though Unitarian Universalism has always been a historically segregated religion (as so many Christian denominations were and are), there was a time when we were not as white as we currently are.

It’s true too of this congregation. The late Margaret Maurer wrote in a 1980 TUS history that I referenced in my April 2 sermon. It documents social justice efforts over the first three and a half decades of this congregation including during the time of this national controversy, and how we, too, experienced betrayal and loss. The report states, “With great regret, we lost some of our Black members at this time who felt we were giving inadequate support…”.   The Society did not engage any further major efforts in racial justice for seven years after this loss.

This is our history. It impacts who is here and what is now. It need not dictate our future. That is a thing we co-create with choices going forward, choosing to face what might be changed. In 2010, Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt, asked of Unitarian Universalism,

How do we—all of us—convert our ignorance into wisdom, manage both our shame and our earnestness, both our resistance and our desire to know?

If the answer was in my pocket, I would gift it to you. If the answer already existed somewhere out there, I would invite you to join me in seeking it out. Instead, we must look here [point to heart] and here [point to head] and here [point to congregation] and there [point beyond the doors]. By our very willingness to face these challenges, we create the chance that we might actually be the liberating faith movement we aspire to be.