Sermon – On Being White

The Reverend Harris Riordan – September 13, 2015

The Rabbis teach that God created humankind from Adam and Eve so that none may say my lineage is greater than yours. The New Testament says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(Galatians 3:28) Our first principle is Respect for the Inherent Worth and Dignity of every person.

Scientists say that our early ancestors Homo Erectus first appeared in Africa 1 to 2 million years ago. Although there are currently two theories as to how we spread out and evolved into modern humans, evolution and genetics have debunked the 19th century classification of race. The long view of history, the microscopic view of our DNA, say there is but one human race.

Science says these are the facts. Religion says this is truth with a capitol T. And it is not the truth we live. Our social lives are constructed by race. The color line, its tension, pain, and confusion are ever-present. America’s history is a long story of inequality, injustice, and violence. America changes, we change, and the color line changes too. It just doesn’t go away. This problem that won’t be fixed is enough to make you wonder, does it go deep into our DNA?

It’s one of those thoughts I think and refuse to believe. It’s too fatalistic. Calls into question too much of what I love about America. We are a great experiment, holding noble aspirations, we can’t be pre-destined to failure. We are a promise making, promise breaking, promise keeping people. Every day there’s new reasons for hope.

Right now feels – to me at least – that in terms of race it may be the best of times and the worst of times. America elected President Obama and we have watched Ferguson and Baltimore. Something, something deep is going on. Is it crisis or opportunity? Where do we stand in all of this? Where should we stand?

For me this is, at root, a spiritual question. One I have been pondering since our 3 rd Community Conversation on Race last spring. This monthly gathering, open to all with two hours to give, is something we UU’s are uniquely suited for. This sanctuary was built to nurture the best of the people in it. It can be a sanctuary for the community. A place where strangers can meet and find reasons to trust each other. Where trust can grow sturdy enough for people to speak and listen to each other deeply, honestly. When human beings hear each other into speech, something worthy, something right, something lasting appears. The world transforms. All are blessed. If this were 100 years ago, they’d call it the hand of God. This is the path to salvation we’ve been offering for the last 4 centuries.

Folks came. Folks came back. For a few hours of volunteer time, a few hours of electricity, we were creating a way to live out our faith and do our part to move our corner of the world towards justice and peace. And then one night, standing in the circle waiting for folks to settle in their seats, it hit me. I haven’t a clue what the bleep I am doing. I’ve got point on this one. I am the congregations face to the community and I don’t know how to do this well. There’s no training for this. There are no good models. Which is a bit of a problem, since I am stubborn, and believe it is better to try and make mistakes than not to try at all. This Tuesday night we are on again.

I spent the summer pondering, reading, meditating, and fretting over it. I needed to come back knowing who I was, where I stood in all this. Something big is coming and when it’s done, when this time is history, will I be able to look back and feel that I stood where it was right to have stood?

Sometimes when I have soul work to do, my body wants in. I need to do something, to make something. I didn’t fold paper into a 1000 cranes, this time it was needle and thread. I am making a badge, that when it is done, I will wear on my robe. It’s the beginning of an answer. A work in progress. Like Penelope at her loom, I have taken out more thread than I have put in. But I have gotten this far. I want to be a White Ally in the struggle for Racial Justice. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know how I will need to become different than I already am. I just know this is the path I am on. This is part of my covenant, with Life, with myself.

This work is mine and mine alone. I am not taking the pulpit today to tell you it should be yours. When my badge is done, and sewed onto my robe, it’s only a sign of who I am, who I would become, and a reminder that I need help staying on the path. I do not know what your covenant will be. I want only to persuade you to think it through, to encourage you, to strengthen you, to embolden you. It matters where you stand. The more clarity you come to, the more clarity all will gain. The sound-bite take away from this morning is just this. The minister says, that this would be a very good time for you to do this piece of spiritual work.

I know there are some who wonder if the Healing Justice Group and the minister have some sort of well thought out scheme. That we are in cahoots, leading you on, nipping at your heels till you land on your own at some pre-determined place they or I or we thought you ought to be. That’s not it. There are those concerned that the conversation about Black Lives Matter is really some kind of party line coming down from the UUA, that UUFBR is expected to follow. I don’t think that’s it either.

This sermon has nothing to do with the banner Healing Justice bought or #Black Lives Matter or our town meeting on Sept 27th . This is the beginning of my 18th year here. I think one of the reasons I have lasted this long is that somewhere around year 7 I saw how over-functioning ministers nurture under-functioning congregation. A minister who shows up for everything risks communicating that members can’t make a move without clergy approval. It’s a quick way to make any group of talented, intelligent adults unhappy and unmotivated. Except for Board and staff meetings, I don’t go unless I am invited. I wasn’t part of Healing Justice’s process, just like they weren’t part of mine.

One more thing before I get back to the spiritual work. You need to know that I don’t care one way or the other what is decided about that banner. I care deeply about how we have this conversation. As long as we have it faithfully, with respect, with honesty and thoughtfulness, I know the final outcome will be the best, for us here and now.

The conversation we are about to have is about more than a banner. Something more important than our opinions of other peoples decisions and strategies is at stake. The buzz around this issue is an invitation for each of us to articulate a deeper response. The place you choose to stand, will be informed by your own experiences. It can only feel true if it honors, if it’s loyal to the best you have always known. This is an opportunity to look back with new eyes.

I grew up UU. As a kid, I watched the adults in my congregation go off to Selma, go down to the March On Washington and come back changed. By the time I was in 8th grade Sunday School didn’t meet at the church and didn’t meet on Sundays. We tutored at a Vista Center in Bed-Sty.

Those were the years that, Don McKinney, my minister, preached on Institutional Racism. Sometimes a little too much from my parents point of view. One of those sermons which Don remembers as “defending the need for and indeed praising the work of Black Muslims,” was covered in the New York Times. It caused a bit of a stir. It also produced what Donald later called “an unsolicited interview” with [Malcom X] }. “ I was blindfolded and driven many circuitous miles to his abode, where I met with him and only one of his bodyguards for at most 15 minutes.. . . I remember very little of that meeting. Not much was said. I’m sure Malcom just wanted to see what kind of critter I was. What I saw in him, and especially in his eyes, confirmed my mere academic belief that there was truth, there was righteousness, and also hope in him and his message.”

As I entered high school, I watched the adults in my congregation grow so passionate, it felt as if things might fall apart. The UUA was grappling with how to correct its own institutionalized racism, how to create new models of action, new forms of relationship. UU’s fell into 2 camps, who organized themselves into 2 groups, called BAC (Black Affairs Council) and BAWA (Black and White Alternative). Leaders, staunch supporters of both groups were members of First Brooklyn. Although the energy was so intense that it seemed the folks who had been sitting in the same pews for years would scatter to the 4 winds and never find their way back. They didn’t. The decibel level rose, but the roof didn’t fly off. They stayed in conversation. They stayed a congregation.

I came from that. I am proud to hold their legacy. Know a little bit about them, and you know a great deal about me.

Another digression. Recently, I’ve had a couple of people tell me they felt the fellowship and the movement were growing too political, were losing sight of our spiritual core. They pointed to certain sermons and worship services as evidence. . I gave my best answer. UUFBR is large enough to hold so many diverse needs, that it’s impossible for any one person to get what they want and only what they want every week. The best I can do, as minister, is to ensure a balance, so that over time everyone gets some of what they need. In writing this sermon, I realized something else. Coming up as I did, its not easy for me to imagine a faith that isn’t always responding to the world outside its walls. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, just that I probably wouldn’t recognize it if I tripped over it. I am guessing that I came off as tone deaf to what they were saying. I think that’s likely true. I want to say to the folks who feel that way, Don’t give up. Even tone deaf people are teachable.

My past shapes this covenant, so too does my future. Where you stand is interwoven with the future you long for. My daughter is half black and half white. I wish she could grow up in a world where she can be her whole self. This isn’t that world. She has been negotiating that color line, in her church, in her school, wherever she goes, all her life. As her mom all I can do is give her resources to face this reality with wisdom not anger. It doesn’t feel like enough. For her, for the grandkids I may or may not live long enough to meet, I need to do more.

I may not know what it will look and feel like to become a White Ally, I do have a sense of what is blocking me today. We have a binary grammar of race. It is an either/or pattern of thinking, a poverty of metaphor that traps us all. Undermining this, stepping out of its influence is a change to start on now.

When it comes to white folks this binary grammar plays out like this. There are the bad ones; racists, and white supremacists like Bull Connors, The KKK, The Council of Conservative Citizens. Many of us look at them, see how they seem to send out disrespect and hate with every breath, and are repelled. That is what we never want to be. And so to be a good white person is to be the opposite of that, to be the ones who don’t have a prejudice bone in their bodies, who don’t see the world in terms of us and them, but take people as the unique individuals they are. Good white folks found in Dr. King a leader who named their hopes and dreams that one day this will be a nation where no one will be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That’s the path and good whites are the one keeping on it.

This room is filled with good white folks like that. Folks who have and always will take responsibility for their words, their thoughts, their attitudes, who when they find prejudice, bias, discrimination inside themselves, will do all they can to rip it out by the roots, because it is wrong, repugnant. I believe that the majority of Euro-Americans mean to be white folks like that. They, we get disheartened because it seems like the work is never ending. No matter how many spiritual weeds we pul, it’s never enough to rout out the poisoned plant. We stay at it as best we can, because we don’t know what else to do.

Good white folks are confused. We feel ineffective. If only somebody would tell us how to do better, we would. If there’s no Dr. King in our future, we hope that our friends, our co-workers who don’t look like us, will tell us what to do. We don’t always ask if they want to be our teachers, if they want the responsibility for our growth.

I think we need to step up to the fact that we keep ourselves stuck. Our tendency to understand racism in individual terms is a block we help hold in place. Racism is more complicated, more complex than that. Like sexism, racism is structured, systemic. To understand it, we have to learn to think in systems. Systems are impersonal and trans-personal. Individuality is never a system’s highest value. From a systems point of view, the position you hold is more important than the person you are. That position grants you both particular powers and particular constraints. It shapes you. It holds you in place. You can be pinned down in the one up position, just as surely as you can be held down for life. In neither position is one of freedom. Lots of white folks don’t fully get this. People of color do, and that difference can make us more frustrating and exhausting than we know.

Learning to see this, can be excruciatingly difficult work, especially for UU’s. We who treasure and champion individuality recoil at anything that suggests that we are nothing but a cog in a machine. We have to get over our own righteous indignation, live through our own discomfort and grow curious. What can I learn if I see life from this point of view? But that learning can pay off. To change a system, you have to know how it works. You need to explore the power and limits of the position you hold. And then, when you consciously bring in the values you hold most dear, you can become a force for change, making the system shift.

At diversity trainings one of the standard questions is When did you first become aware of race? Often people are paired up and given time to tell their stories. White folks have a story to tell. Doesn’t matter when the awakening came, we can point to a moment, marking a before and after. Exploring that moment can bring powerful and rich insights. Ask a person of color and the answer is along the lines of Like there ever was a time.

We are neighbors, citizens of one country and we live in different worlds. Not all of us know more than one geography. What if we changed that? What if, the white folks here became explorers of other terrains. What if we started by wondering what kept us from seeing, knowing for the years we were unaware? Were we wearing blinders? Are we sure we have taken them off? Or are there things we still do not see?

Systemic, structural racism is one of America’s realities. It has been and still is a system holding white supremacy in place. Being white doesn’t make you a racist. It takes a great deal more than genes. Being a good person isn’t enough to heal racism. It will take more than individual ethics to be dismantled. I can’t see into the future. I do not know how it will be done. I just know it must. It can if we learn to think and feel and see in a grammar more nuanced than the one we are used to.

That’s why I will keep working on my badge. When I am done the words Respect for the Inherent Worth and Dignity of all, our first principle, will encircle the design, because this process is about faith, about integrity, about living true to what I say I believe. The W is for white. It’s in the background because an Ally is one who joins with, who is willing to follow. The A, for Ally, black and as many shades of brown and red and yellow as I could fit, is for the people I would work with, the geographies I would come to learn. The red is very intentional. Hawthorne too was a Unitarian, and Hester Pryne’s path in the Scarlet Letter gives me hope. Following her feelings she is led to love, passion and a child born out of wedlock. Stepping out of her position in Puritan society earned her swift punishment. She is pushed to the margins, forced to wear a sign of her sin. But Hester made that A beautiful. She turned their mark of shame into a badge of pride. Living at the edge of town, she comes to a place of clarity and freedom. By the end of the book, that A stands not for adultery but for Ability. That story traces the arch of one person, discovering the power to live with integrity despite hypocrisy and cruelty. One person so true to self, that a new position, a new place to stand comes into being. Because one person stands there, a door is opened that the f uture can walk through.

I am looking for a place to stand as powerful as that. I could use some help finding it. Will you join me?