“But I didn’t mean to exclude!”

Shortly after I was married, I discovered quite unexpectedly just what some members of my new husband’s family thought of me. At the kitchen table of his paternal grandparent’s house, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, and I sat as his grandmother lamented about a cousin’s husband. He was not being all that he should be as a husband. He was drinking too much and inconsistent with his job. He yelled hurtful words, including cursing and blasphemy. “Well,” she said, “You know how those Eye-talians are,” then smoothly swung around to face me and said, “But not you.” No, I was not one of those drunken, lazy, loud, blasphemous Eye-talians. I was one of the good ones.

This was not racism, friends. I did not endure racism any more that our dear Tammy endured racism when insensitive classmates made fun of her because of family origins.

Yes, in both of our stories, other people, friends and enemies, took something important to our identities and twisted it so that it became a source of pain and denigration. Now, imagine that twisting of positive aspects of self into something ugly and hurtful, imagine that happening not just between family members and school mates, but between your very body and every social structure and institution shaping your life experience. Where your mental ability is challenged, where access to personal and business loans is pre-judged and too easily rejected, in the health care system, in the criminal justice system, in the workplace, in the play places (can black people really play hockey?). In violent and casual attacks, in hate crimes, in generational poverty. Our Unitarian Universalist 8 th Principle calls us to affirm and promote “Individual and communal action that accountably dismantles racism and systemic barriers to full inclusion in ourselves and our institutions.” We are called, then, to examine ourselves, to assume that we hold biases about which we are unaware and which harm others. How can we explore and change ourselves in ways healing, healthy, and productive?

No, Tammy and I did not and do not endure racism. But such moments of exclusion, of stereotyping, of negative judgment about the factors that make up some aspects of our identity, these might just be the experiences that enable white people to understand what their neighbors—beloved neighbors and those unknown—endure, and much worse, on a daily, on a life-long basis. In her book, The Darkness Divine: A Loving Challenge to My Faith, the Rev. Kristen L. Harper describes her painful and faithful journey as a life-long Unitarian Universalist who also accepted the call to professional ministry. A journey painful because, as she writes, her “faith tradition struggles with the idea of the inherent worthy and dignity of Black, brown, and other marginalized people.” Even while we Unitarian Universalists try, like many faith communities, to tackle all the negating “-isms” of our time—sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism—we find ourselves hung up in white supremacy. I know some of us really hate those words, “white supremacy,” both because they have become the Pandora’s Box of all that infects our thriving of our human relations. And also because they seem such a wide and negative brush, and none of wants to think that we have internalized these mindsets, or that we manifest them. Now before I lose you completely, let’s sit for a minute and breath together through any discomfort that might arise as I bring on this topic. Let us allow our brains and our hearts and our hands to unclench, opening to explore a harsh and enduring reality. Just breath in this place of comfort and beauty, together with loving companions. We will unclench and struggle bravely together. [. . .].

We are saturated in white supremacy culture, though we are not white supremacists. I say that with all confidence.

White supremacy is the idea that “white, straight, and cisgender” is the absolute norm and superior to any other forms of being and identity. And this idea is not just held in some of our heads; it is encoded into our social and cultural systems. It is the very root of injustice and oppression. And if we are to struggle against espousing the sea of supremacy in which we all swim, if we are to avoid becoming unwitting supremacists, those who overtly espouse and advocate white supremacy, we need to examine our own minds and listen to those who know better than we.

Now, Rev. Kristen undertakes her book for two main reasons: because she loves Unitarian Universalism and the promise it holds for inclusion, for the love and justice it espouses. And because the language that permeates our faith, and so all of us who inhabit that faith side by side with her, is rife with “racism, the negative imagery of darkness, which impacts negatively the lives of Black and brown people.” She writes because the faith is not living up to its promise, but it can and it should. “White people,” Rev. Kristen says, “often fail to see beyond skin color.” Not because of anything a person of color has done, but because of the stereotypes we white people hold in our minds, affecting our hearts, our capacity for relationship. And just what are the consequences? Rev. Kristen’s experience gives us a hint: having to deal with the embarrassment and perhaps shame or guilt of the white person and so a reluctance to engage even when invited, even when invited in a kind and loving way, to engage in learning and perhaps deepening relationship.

What Rev. Kristen and other Black people, brown and indigenous people, have to deal with, this is an ongoing reality and leads to her own frustration, where apologies were sometimes offered but so was annoyance or irritation.

And even in places where she should feel most safe, like a church, confusing one Black minister for another leads to laughter—definitely some embarrassment in that laughter, hopefully some mortification, but also an excuse, a letting oneself off the hook. But the impact on the person of color: “This inappropriate laughter, to divert attention from the harm that was done, or to diminish the feelings of the person of color who has just been dismissed, is part of the language of racism.” One grows weary of that. Apologies start not to matter. “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” No one wants to feel less, no matter accomplishments, education, status. No one wants to feel less, especially in one’s own religious community.

If we could wear each other’s sneakers, truly see from each other’s perspectives, we might discover those human similarities that ought to draw us into relationship. Oh, if we could recognize the microaggressions in our speech and our language before they were expressed. To see the roots of our common humanity without erasing the specificity of our lived experiences. What stops us from doing this? In Tammy’s words: “We don’t all have an Uncle Earnest to help us learn what racism is and what it isn’t. But we can educate ourselves.” We can turn to friends of color, if we are lucky to have them, and ask them how much time and energy they have for us to be partners in our learning. “The biggest lesson he taught me was, if I need to start a statement with the words, ‘I was just’; it’s probably a sentence that doesn’t need to be shared. Either I’m trying to explain away my bad behaviour and not actually listen to why what I’m doing is harming someone else or tell him I’m going to the bathroom. He doesn’t want to hear either. I guess I shared that story to say, I know I’m not perfect, and there is probably more work I will need to do. But I’m committed to being an ally and trying to hold up the voices of those around me.” In other words, we have to listen.

Here I bring us back to a metaphor to help our productive listening. I introduced it last week, and I will refer to it often going forward, because I find it just so powerful, wise, and compassionate. “The Window,” used by a Spanish Roman Catholic priest Raimon Panikkar as he advocated for interreligious dialogue. And it is useful for understanding racism as well. Here is what he says. We all see the world through our point of view, through a window and not directly. Now the cleaner the window, the less I see the window and more I see outside and I fall in love with the world I see. I can’t help it; it is what I see. And I turn to my neighbor, and I say “Look out my window and see this beautiful vision. See what I see.” But I notice, “Oh, you also have a window.” I begin to understand that others see in different ways, because of the differences in their life experiences. I am a white person who can never have the experience of a Black person in certain regards. I accept this, and so then I can invite us to compare notes about the same landscape.

But here’s the thing. I can’t help but see what I see and say what I see. I can’t see through the window of my neighbor.

But if I love him, if I respect them, if I trust her, I will have to hear the description of what my neighbor sees. I don’t see it, but I hear and I am told something else, something outside my own experience, something I will never experience, and I accept the truth of what they tell me.

And I discover two things: my neighbor does not see the same world that I see and I don’t see the whole world. Unless my neighbor is a fool and I am a fanatic, I have to hear my neighbor telling me something about the world that I can’t see. “Well,” I think, “the world is much different than I thought. I wasn’t seeing it all its complexity.” And this is the challenge. Here is all we can do: you say what you see, you say what you believe, you say what you experience. And, and this is crucial: you are also ready to hear other narratives, beliefs, and experiences. And then we talk—we share, we exchange, we honor the truths of each other, even when they are not our own.

And this is what Rev. Kristen hopes for us. This is the way she begins her book: “For the community of Unitarian Universalists, may you find the commitment to make manifest your highest principle: that your life is inextricably linked with all life, not better, not worse, not superior, not inferior—Glorious! Inherently worthy!”

As we draw near to that quiet, thoughtful, essential side of ourselves, may we open enough to consider the sacred choices we make each minute, each hour, each day that add up to a lifetime.

Here, in this place, let us begin again with love, to forgive ourselves and each other, to pray for well-being and joy for all in this beloved community. Now, at this time, let us go down to the well of hope, to be lifted from worry and burden into peace and abundance, to restore our faith that together we all be blessed with riches of the spirit, with peace and serenity in the midst of the necessary change and turmoil that brings justice and liberation to those most in need of and to all of us in turn.

Let us not be afraid, let us be fearless in awaking to the realities we carry within us. Let us come to our work together, with our tears and our humor, freely accepting where we might do better, embracing the work with the laughter of humility, helping each other on our way to transformation. This work is too important to leave to a later time, too difficult for any of us to do alone. Let us all come, with open minds and loving hearts and willing hands, all and together ready to welcome the change within. When we can see ourselves with compassion and clarity, we can create the internal changes that will make for a more welcoming congregation and a more just world. May it ever be so.


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