The Ivory Chalice

Sunday Service: The Ivory Chalice

May 7th, 2017 - 10:30 AM                  Rev. Fiona Heath

My name is Fiona Heath and I have had the privilege of serving this congregation as minister for the past 3 years.  This Sunday actually marks 3 years since the vote to call me as your settled minister.

It’s been a wonderful time and gone by too quickly.  I look forward to many more years of meaning making with you.

As you have gotten to know me, you are probably aware of a few things.  
I’m an introvert, I like science fiction, and I drink tea.

 

You may have also noticed that I am white.
Very white actually.

I was born in Canada to parents who emigrated from England in the early sixties.

I am white and british all the way back.

My ancestors were farmhands and shopkeepers in one small part of England.  We stayed put.

My mother had her DNA tested and it looks like the last time the family emigrated was 60,000 years ago from Africa.

But my ancestors have been british for at least 250 years.
No wonder I love tea and toast.

Even my name tells you I am white.
Fiona arises from the gaelic and means white or fair.
Heath is a middle English word meaning one who lives near uncultivated open land – a meadow.

My parents might as well have just named me Whitey McWhite.

And my middle name is Jane.

Whitey White McWhite.

As Whitey McWhite, I grew up here in Mississauga, which in the seventies and eighties was the go to place for middle class immigrants to raise families.  

My parents were part of the European wave of immigration and my friends had parents from Norway, Germany, Poland, Italy and so on.

By the time I was in school, the next generation of immigrants had arrived, my friends included people from Jamaica, Nigeria, and India.

I can remember being envious of the other immigrant kids.  
They always had interesting things to do on a Saturday – like polish folk dancing or german school or Ramadan celebrations.

How come I don’t have special cultural activities, said Whitey White McWhite as she watched British sitcoms on Global TV, shopped at Marks & Spencers at Square One and spoke her native language at home and school.  And celebrated Victoria Day.

Where is my culture?

It’s hard to see culture when it’s the dominant one.   When it is the sea we swim in.

And the identity of a white middle class Canadian of british origin is the default identity in Canada.  It’s a powerful identity to have.

I’m so white I can claim that being british and white is the most white of all.

That’s the power of privilege.

I can take my privilege for granted every single day.  I never have to think about the ease of which I can go about my day.

No one looks at me suspiciously when I go for a walk.
I don’t get stopped for driving while white.
Security guards don’t hover over me in stores.
I don’t have to worry about my white son travelling to the U.S.

I can turn on the tv any time of day and see white people.
I can go to the movies, read books, open a magazine and see white people.

They are all prettier and skinnier and better dressed than me, but they are still like me.

All of this adds up to a sense of comfort, acceptance, and ease, that is so much a part of my life, it’s like the air I breathe.

I don’t notice that it is there.  Our society is a white society, and that means our education system, our government, all the institutions are geared towards white people.  

This isn’t overt, in your face racism, but systems designed by white people are going to work best for white people.

Indigenous people have been pointing this out since Jacques Cartier started hanging out here.  

The fur trade, the treaties, the newly created country of Canada all worked out to the advantage of the French and the British.  Mostly the British.

White skin has been an advantage for the past 150 years.  

We live in a society that privileges white people and white experience over all other ethnic and racial identities.

I’m not saying this to feel guilty, or to be ashamed of being white.
I love tea and toast.

But we can’t change society until we see it clearly.
As Unitarian Universalists, we try to see life steadily and see it whole.

This takes time.
And with our work of reconciliation this year, with the recent issues in the Unitarian Universalist Association, it’s time to look steadily at white culture and white privilege.

Not to deny it or be defensive.
Not to feel guilt or shame, or point to blame.

But to listen with compassion.  To open our hearts and acknowledge the problem.

For the rest of 2017,  we will continue to explore reconciliation with indigenous people; as well as learning more about first nations issues, as well as building a relationship with the Mississaugas of the New Credit, we will be developing more awareness of white culture and privilege.

&

Seeing white privilege is hard for white people.  It’s like asking a fish to describe water.
We are so immersed in it, so used to it, it’s tricky to notice.

Our social identity is composed of many factors – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, ancestry, social class, age, education, health.

The more our social identity corresponds to the dominant social identity, the more power and privilege we have.  And our power and privilege will change in different contexts.

All of us have ways in which we are in a minority or marginalized.

Even me, Whitey White McWhite, have had experiences of being “the other”.

As a woman, I’ve had my share of sexist experiences with mansplaining, being interrupted, and having men take credit for my ideas.
And as a middle aged woman I am developing the super power of invisibility.
 
I want to invite you into a very brief exercise about identity.  If you are part of the group I name, please stand up or put up your hand.

If you are not comfortable sharing, you don’t have to participate.

If your first language is English, please stand up.  Thanks, sit down.
If you identify as male, please stand up.
If you or your parents had a post secondary education, please stand up.
If you identify as white, please stand up.
If you are under forty, please stand up.
If you identify as a Unitarian Universalist, please stand up.

In this room right now, the dominant identity is a well educated English speaking white middle aged female UU.   

That`s me.

It`s a lot harder to belong if you are in the minority.  A different orientation or a different skin colour, it`s harder to be comfortable here.  
The sense of comfort just isn`t the same.

It is no surprise that we are a white denomination. Our theologies emerged from the Protestant Reformation and most of our history has been in England, Canada, and the United States.
 
But we forget that the dominant culture has all sorts of assumed norms and behaviours that don’t necessarily feel so welcoming to people of other cultures and colours. These norms exert a powerful influence.

The chalice is ivory.

Kenny Wiley is a well known UU religious educator and one of the founders of Black Lives UU.  He is one of the leaders of this teach-in Sunday.

 He says, “Unitarian Universalism is changing. It’s changing because it needs to.
It’s changing because a whole host of folks of color are tired of feeling like outsiders, of being made to feel like guests in a faith that we helped build.”

Talking about race and privilege is a hard for Unitarian Universalists because we want to believe we’ve done the work.

We are welcoming.  We support diversity and inclusivity.  
We want to be a safe space where all belong.

I know I want each and every person here to feel like they belong, I want each of you to leave the service feeling better and more hopeful then when you arrived.

We try.  And we mess up.

We don’t see that our good intentions may have a negative impact on someone from a minority group.
We don’t see how we subtly – or not - treat people of colour as different, as other.

I know I tend to choose readings and music from white people.
We want the Asian person who visits to meet the other Asian person in the room.
We touch black people`s hair without permission.

We mean well, but we will do better when we are conscious of our own identity and privilege.

Kenny Wiley notes that “so many UUs of color carry … stories of unwanted spotlight, or being ignored, or being told (with words or with actions) we’re not the right fit, far beyond the last few weeks.”  

The conversation about race and racism in the Unitarian Universalist Association is not new.  It has been around for decades.

But I do think that this may be the beginning of the moment when people of colour are heard in a way that creates lasting change for people of the chalice.

Sadly, I think this is possible, not because we are at the head of the curve when it comes to race and racism, but because it is finally becoming a national conversation in the United States.  

When American sitcoms deal with issues of race, you know that it has become a thing.  Just this week Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the popular police precinct sitcom, dealt with racism when the off duty black sergeant Terry is stopped by a white cop outside of his own house. He wasn’t released until the white cop realized Terry was a fellow officer.

If sit-coms are dealing directly with white privilege and racism, it is past time that we as people of the chalice learn to speak honestly about these difficult and complex subjects.

It will take effort and intention, but if we live by our principles, stay in relationship, and treat one another with compassion, we will all be better for it.

&

Last year our national denomination affirmed a new vision – as Canadian UUs we seek a future in which our interdependence calls us to love and justice.

To guide us towards that vision, five aspirations were also created, to help shape the journey.

One of the aspirations is to be radically inclusive, to strive to create hospitable, diverse, multi- generational communities.

If we wish to be radically inclusive, we have to do the work.

My white colleague, the Rev. Karen Quinlan notes that Quaker activist and songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, sings  ‘Come on and look inside you--it’s the best place to start. The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’

We want to be a radically inclusive community, we want to live in a society that honours the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

We can help shape a more just society through advocacy and action, and speak out against racial profiling and hate crimes.

But as my colleague says, “more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to ourselves.”

When we become present to our whole selves, our individual identity, our social identity, our own bias and prejudice and our history of pain and love, we can upgrade our understanding.

This work is both intellectual and emotional, and the emotional work is tough to do.

It is hard to face our own internal bias, our own internal pain.  It`s easier to protect ourselves with denial or defensiveness.

It is easy to see how indigenous people have been marginalized in our society, a lot harder to deal my romantic views of first nations people as one with nature and just see them as ordinary people with a different culture.

It means learning how to separate Islam from terrorism.
Or black man from “dangerous”.

These unconscious associations take time to uncover and shift.  We will all mess up in the process.
 
“True change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard.”

Compassion is required.
We need compassion for ourselves as we deal with defensiveness, denial, shame, guilt, all those fun emotions.
And compassion for others who, after a lifetime of prejudices large and small, express anger and rage.

It’s hard to stay in relationship when we are uncomfortable with the conversation, when we are faced with conflict.

Compassion helps us meet pain with kindness.
It’s a way of being in the world that keeps our hearts open to ourselves and to others.  
It`s remembering that ``It is not my work to fix you; it is my work to nurture you.” Ken Collier

If we can take our time and do the internal work, we will be working towards radical inclusivity.

Immediately after the service today, Marlene Blake Seale will host a sharing circle for people of colour and parents of children of colour to reflect on this service.

I will be up in Founders Hall until 12noon, so we won`t miss lunch, for anyone else who needs to process this service or wants more information.  
I will have some hand outs on white privilege, and will post links on our facebook page.

Developing an awareness of white culture and privilege will help us in our reconciliation work this year.  
And over time, my hope is that it will help shift the culture of this chalice community.

Kenny Wiley says “When I think of the best I’ve seen of Unitarian Universalism, I think of courage, of joy in ‘POC’ spaces despite it all, and I think of people just showing up for one another.
I think of the courage to stay at the table, to sit with discomfort instead of rushing through it.

Unitarian Universalism is changing. We’re being more honest about our selves and our stories. Yet I have more faith in us than ever. Let’s “take courage” and keep on working.”

May we remember true change happens when we have the hard conversations.
May we be kind to ourselves and one another.
Let`s take courage and keep on working.

So Say We All.

 


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