It’s all about the words, isn’t it.
I guess it’s part of our heritage to delve into the meanings of words. To parse the definitions and make absolutely sure everyone understands the author’s exact intention. Words are how we communicate ideas to each other, so to make sure our ideas are not misinterpreted, we carefully pick the right words. We do this when by-laws are written and amended. We witness this every year at general assembly when AIW’s are created. We participate in this every time we create a covenant in a small group. Like Stephen Sondheim, we are really Into the Words.
Lately, there are two words going around the UUA that are causing a lot of trouble:
These two words are being used by BLUU regarding a teach in. After the recent issues regarding the hiring new leadership in the Southern Region, BLUU is calling for all UU congregations to discuss systems of White Supremacy on either April 30 or May 7. The goal is to bring awareness of how whiteness is valued over black or brown (or any other color) in our everyday lives. How we perpetuate that system without realizing or meaning to. This is a conversation that is extremely hard to have. It is hard for people of color because the oppression that is obvious to them is invisible to whites. It is a hard conversation for whites because the feelings of guilt that can arise may turn into defensiveness or depression. However, despite the discomfort this conversation brings, it needs to happen.
It’s a term that coujures up images of the Klu Klux Klan, lynchings, Jim Crow and Nazi Germany. It is used to describe people who are everything Unitarian Universalists are against. It is for many white people, the worst thing they can be called.
So we don’t want to use it. Especially when describing part of our own lives.
I had the honor of attending the Southern District Spring gathering in Charleston, SC. It was great to be among so many leaders of our faith, see the three candidates running for UUA president, attend a great workshop on social justice and enjoy the hospitality of the Charleston congregation. However, the moment that stood out for me was learning about a monument, prominently displayed on the church grounds. It was made from a slab of wall from the original church. Their senior minister Rev. Danny Reed told me that it is quite likely the bricks were made and laid by slaves, that slaves literally built the church. Inside of the current building, the names and pictures of many of the congregation’s historical figures are proudly displayed.
But the names of the people who sweat and toiled to create the buildings are forgotten.
The small and powerful memorial that sits outside of the Charleston church reminds us the church was created through an inhumane practice that is a very real part of our history. We love to talk about all of the good things in the past that made our denomination what it is today, but there are parts of our past that are not good. Just as we honor the parts of our past that moved us toward a better world for all, we must witness that part of that advancement was at the expense of lives of color. Until we come to terms with that, we will never be able to move forward on a multi-cultural path.
White Supremacy is part of our past. Our history is filled with land-owning white men who had the luxury of freedom that enabled them to work toward a free and responsible search for truth. White Supremacy is also part of our present. We see it in the disproportionate sentencing the black men receive over their white counterparts. We see it in the school districts, in voting regulations, and in hiring practices. There are plenty of highly visible examples.
But there are times where as white people, we don’t see it at all.
A friend of mine, who is a both a person of color and a UU told me of a time when she was visiting a UU church after moving to a new area. When she arrived she was greeted with, “What brings someone like you to visit our church today?” The tone was very friendly and genuine, but the underlying message was, “black people have their own church and aren’t UU’s.” I am willing to bet that the person who greeted my friend had no idea how his comment hurt her. That is the supreme part of White Supremacy. It is assumed as the default, the norm. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way it is.
And that is why we need to talk about it.
The inherent worth and dignity of all calls us to examine what is hurting others. If we don’t realize that the system we are a part of is hurting others, it is our duty to learn about the ugly underneath of our system and work to change it. Words are important, it’s how we communicate ideas to each other. So when a person of color is using their words to tell of us their pain, we need to honor their words and listen.