White Light

Racial and cultural divisions are often a tangle and a tragedy. This is true around the world, but perhaps especially in the United States, owing to our history of colonialism and, frankly, genocide by the white invaders. The forces that drive racism seem to be deeply buried in the human psyche. Eliminating those forces may not even be possible, but we owe it to ourselves and to one another to try.

In order to be effective in this effort, we need to understand what we’re dealing with. If you make a wrong assumption at the start, and then take action based on your wrong assumption, good results are not likely. So it’s worthwhile to sit back and ponder the situation as dispassionately as we can.

I got to thinking about this after writing yesterday’s post (“Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough!”). I think I was being a little hard on the Unitarian Universalist ministers. Their response to Rev. Eklof’s book was surely inappropriate, but they’re trying hard to wrestle with an intractable problem. Possibly Eklof needs to wrestle harder with it too.

I’m going to ramble a bit. I don’t have a coherent thesis to present, just a collection of reflections.

Terminology

I’m a writer. I use words professionally, and I understand that the choice of what word to use can make a big difference. Words carry baggage.

A big part of my negative reaction to the current effort to stamp out the residual racism within the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community is due to the out-stampers’ use of the term “white supremacy.” This term has clear connotations in modern culture. It refers to conscious racism on the part of groups like the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood.

The differences between the KKK and a UU congregation could not possibly be more stark. To use the term “white supremacy culture” to refer to anything in UU culture is flatly preposterous. I can understand why the term is being used, however: Its shock value is undeniable. It’s a verbal hand grenade.

Nonetheless, it’s a mistake. Using the term — flinging it freely without attempting to define what you mean by it — is going to alienate a lot of sensible people. People you would like to have on your side. People like me.

I would suggest that the term be replaced, and promptly, by a term that has a similar denotative meaning but that isn’t laden with the same baggage. I would earnestly recommend using the term “dominant white culture.” It means much the same thing. Nobody doubts that the dominant culture in the United States was founded and continues to be dominated by people whose ancestry is European — that is, by white people. Ours is a dominant white culture. I have no complaint about this term, and I doubt anybody else would.

The Wider View

Sadly, it’s human nature for a dominant group in a society to impose its customs on smaller, more marginalized groups, and to disparage members of those other groups for their differentness. White North Americans may be especially energetic and intransigent about it, but we’re far from unique.

The Japanese, from what I’ve read, have always looked down on the Ainu. Right now the Chinese are trying to stamp out Tibetan culture. If a white American moved to Saudi Arabia today and tried to practice his usual culture, he would quite possibly be arrested and perhaps even beheaded. And sometimes it’s white-on-white: In the 19th century, Irish and Italians were routinely discriminated against in the U.S.

Those in dominant cultures routinely discriminate against minorities. This is normal. That doesn’t make it right — please, nobody get confused about what I’m saying here. All I’m saying is, it appears to be part of human nature. It’s probably due to the activation of an instinctual apparatus. This doesn’t excuse it; we can all learn to push back against our instincts! But we do need to understand what we’re dealing with.

Discomfort

The instinct operates in both directions; it’s not just directed by dominant groups against minorities. When any of us is in a social setting where most of the people are clearly part of a different cultural or ethnic group, we’re likely to feel some discomfort. If I, as a committed atheist, were to venture into a Catholic Church, I would feel very, very uncomfortable! Catholics scare me. I don’t understand them. There’s something wrong with them.

Not that there’s actually anything wrong with them, you understand. Or if there is, that’s a topic for another time. I’m strictly talking about my own emotions. In a Catholic Church, I would be a minority.

I’m sure many straight men would feel much the same way in a gay bar. A straight man would be uncomfortable not because he’s secretly gay and is suppressing an urge to nuzzle another man’s neck, but simply because he is suddenly a minority. He doesn’t understand the social signaling that’s going on — the rich mix of nonverbal communication. He doesn’t know where to sit or how to use his hands, for fear he might signal something without knowing it. He could easily be embarrassed, or give offense.

The Unitarian Church has historically been pretty darn white. In many communities, it’s still pretty darn white. Here in my local church, during the three years I’ve been a member, we’ve had four African-Americans, but one died, two are moving away, and another just stopped coming, I don’t know why. We have, to my knowledge, one man whose ancestry appears to be Sikh, an Indian woman, and a couple of very Anglicized Hispanics. And that’s it.

Well, okay, I know we have a few Jews and a few gays, but you can’t tell by looking at them, so I can’t do a head count. And of course I shouldn’t have to, and wouldn’t if that weren’t the topic under discussion.

Here’s the point: When people of other races or ethnic groups venture into our church to give it a try, I certainly hope and expect that they will be made welcome! We’re not the freakin’ KKK! Nonetheless, I can see why they might feel some discomfort when they see the sea of white faces. “Are these really my people? Do I belong here?”

Circling Back

I’m trying to relate these thoughts to the identity crisis that has gripped Unitarian Universalism. I don’t have any easy answers. Yes, UUism is steeped in the dominant white culture. How could it not be? And yes, we would all like to see minorities of all sorts (black, Latinx, gay, trans, disabled) join the UU family and play a bigger role. But how do we nurture that change?

I would suggest that we need to start by being clear about one or two things.

We need to be clear about the difference between discomfort and discrimination. The fact that you’re feeling discomfort, or that you’ve misinterpreted some nonverbal social signaling and gotten into an awkward situation, is not an indication that you’re being discriminated against. If you’re a person of color and you feel uncomfortable in an overwhelmingly white UU church, it’s not because UU’s are racists, and it’s not because of any built-in structural racism that can be extirpated from the UU organization or culture.

We need to listen carefully and respectfully to the experiences of marginalized groups within the UU community — not just people of color but also gay, trans, disabled, and other people. But it would be a mistake to assume that anybody’s view of the situation (and how to fix it) is automatically correct or automatically wrong. Just because I’m a white person doesn’t mean that I don’t or can’t understand. I may understand, or I may not, but we will both learn whether I’m right or wrong by talking it through! It’s also the case that the view of a marginalized person is not necessarily correct, just because they’ve seen the situation from a different angle. That person may be right, or they may be wrong. We won’t know until we sit down and talk about it.

And it’s essential that when we have the conversation, we need to begin by acknowledging that either of us may be right — or wrong. “You can’t possibly understand because you’re white/black/straight/cis/whatever” is the anguished cry of emotion and frustration. It’s not an analysis of anything. Taking it as an analysis is guaranteed to be a mistake.

If we don’t begin by understanding that we are all capable of understanding (and of misunderstanding), how will we ever make things better?

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2 Responses to White Light

  1. Pingback: Shut Up! You’re Not Liberal Enough! | Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

  2. Marian Hennings says:

    Some people say it is not the intent of the speaker but that of the hearer that is important. In other words, they believe that the harm is the same so the guilt is the same regardless of the speaker’s intentions. That makes no sense legally or practically. If people have to be constantly second-guessing themselves when they deal with people in a different “identity group,” their natural tendency will be to avoid those persons whenever possible. This will increase intergroup estrangement, not understanding and acceptance. I agree with you that races other than the white race have persecuted minorities. It is ironic that the very people who promote universality in a global sense are so restrictive when it comes to discussing racism. To some of them, only whites can be racist because whites are the dominant culture in the US. I can think of many aspects of American culture that are not dominated by white persons, so that idea is already open to serious question. I think of sports, popular music, and literature when I say this. The worst racial discrimination today is in privately rented housing and private employment, which in turn has an impact on our schools. That needs to be addressed, as do efforts to deprive people of voting rights that have been seen recently, especially since the Shelby decision. I do not see where arguments about white fragility/privilege/supremacy culture are going to help solve this problem.

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