The Ineradicable Stain of Whiteness

This may be my last post on the troubles that have bubbled up in the Unitarian Universalist church. It’s getting boring, and it’s not as if my glorious opinions are going to change anybody’s mind. Positions on both sides seem to be well entrenched. For whatever it’s worth, though, here are a few parting reflections.

First, let’s acknowledge that welcoming people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and personal attributes into the UU community is a terrific thing to do! I doubt whether a single UU person thinks that’s a bad idea. My own congregation is overwhelmingly white, and my vague memories of a couple of other UU churches in the area suggest that this is not an anomaly. Whatever our feelings are about being white, we trust that lots of people from other cultures have important things to say about the world. We can learn from them. Also, if we feel that what happens in our own church has any value, we would like to share it with everybody.

Even a cursory look at the history of North America in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries will prove beyond doubt that most of the pain and suffering has been caused by white people. Historically, the white people have been brutal oppressors — and it’s not just history. We would like to pretend that things are different today, but they’re a lot less different than we open-minded white people would like to think. The criminal justice system in the U.S. is heavily weighted against people of color — and that’s just one example. I could make a long list.

A UU friend of mine says she is learning to “listen harder” to the people in marginalized, traumatized communities, and that’s important. We (meaning “we white people”) need to know what their lives are like. And as we listen, we need to bear in mind that people have different styles of expressing themselves. They may be perceiving something that’s true, but they may not be able to articulate it clearly in the way a white person will understand.

But that’s only part of the story. My friend doesn’t want to read Todd Eklof’s book The Gadfly Papers. She says she trusts the hundreds of UU ministers who have denounced the book. When I commented that I’ve had some supportive comments on my blog from people who agree with me (about, if nothing else, the danger in attempting to suppress a book), my friend said, “Were all the comments from white men?”

Quite evidently, she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to “listen harder” to white men. She seems to have pre-judged that the views of white men are not to be trusted, or are of less value, or something like that. Possibly she is aware that the dialog on issues of inclusion and diversity (or on anything else) has been heavily dominated by white men. Given that everybody’s attention span is limited, it’s understandable that she might feel she has already heard what white men have to say, and is now going to devote herself to listening to other voices.

Yes, white men’s voices have dominated far too many conversations on these topics. But that’s a statement about a statistical average. Statistics don’t apply to individuals! The fact that white men’s opinions have historically been (and are still) given more weight than other people’s opinions does NOT invalidate the views of any individual white man. Any individual white man may be off on a completely different tangent from the statistically significant group of other white men. We won’t know what his views are until we listen to him.

While listening to white men, we need to be careful not to accept their views at face value. We need to be analytical. We need to look for hidden bias.

But of course the same thing must be said about any other listening we do. If we’re listening to a trans black woman or a deaf gay Hispanic man, we need to be careful not to accept their views at face value. We need to be analytical. We need to look for hidden bias.

In a nutshell, we need to treat white men exactly the way we treat anybody else.

Even talking about valid and not-valid uses of statistics strikes some people as a white tactic — a way of de-legitimizing other people’s views. Historically, that’s a reasonable accusation. Seemingly solid pseudo-science has been (and is still today) used by racists, as my friend pointed out. Here’s the thing, though: Science, logic, and math are color-blind. If you’re going to refuse to engage in a logical discussion because white people like to use logic, what you’re actually accomplishing is, you’re giving those white people a jolly good reason to ignore you.

Is that your goal? Wouldn’t it be more effective to learn to argue logically, so that you can outflank them and prove to everybody’s satisfaction that you’re right and they’re wrong?

My friend also feels that the term “white supremacy culture” is appropriate as a description of the whiteness of the UU community. I object strenuously to this term. I pointed out to my friend that “white supremacy” refers to organizations like the KKK, which are explicitly racist. She replied by pointing out that words are often adapted or re-purposed. She mentioned that “queer” was at one time a slur, but that gay people have reclaimed the word as a sort of badge of pride. The same thing could be said about the word “nigger.” White people can’t use the word, but I’m pretty sure African-Americans use it when talking to one another. I think it’s a term of affection.

But those are bad examples. Reclaiming a word and using it in a positive sense is not what’s going on when people talk about “white supremacy” within the UU community. They’re using the term as an insult — as a slur. The term is used as an attempt to de-legitimize the feelings, observations, and concerns of white people.

Yes, we live in a dominant white culture. White people don’t even notice how privileged we are, and we need to become aware of that. The fact that I can drive down the street without worrying that I’ll be shot dead by a cop in a routine traffic stop — that’s white privilege. I can certainly understand how people of color are angry about that, and angry as well that so many white people don’t see how different the day-to-day experience of African-Americans and Hispanics is.

I get that. Or at least, I hope I get it. But still, I’m left puzzled. Is it really helpful to insult white UUs by telling us we’re no better than the KKK? Is that a smart, effective tactic? Does it open up the possibility of a healthy dialog? Or are you just tossing a verbal hand grenade because you’re angry?

If a significant number of white people are saying, “Uh, excuse me — we’re not the KKK,” might it be a good idea to listen harder to them?

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4 Responses to The Ineradicable Stain of Whiteness

  1. mfidelman says:

    For what it’s worth, (black, female) Rev. Thendaka presented a paper at GA, way back in 1999 entitled “Why anti-racism won’t work” (google it) – condemning the tactics promoted by BLUU, et. al. And, in some recent discussions on reddit, I’ve found that at least a few black UUs think the current approaches are bullshit.

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the tip. That’s an interesting and relevant essay. (It’s Thandeka, by the way, not Thendaka.)

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

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