For the month of December, 14 members of UUCE participated in a 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, with tasks to complete every day. They met once a week to discuss and reflect on what they’d learned, and today for Martin Luther King, Jr Day, they will be sharing the most impactful aspects of their experience with the rest of the congregation.
The participants today were all participants of the 21-Day Challenge. The prompt we chose for these reflections was:
We have musical interludes after every two or three speakers. We also have photographs interspersed throughout. I must caution you that a few of the images are gruesome. To not include them would be minimizing the white terror that black folk endured for generations.
First to speak this morning is Elizabeth Olson.
Shocking for all of us was the realization that being called a “racist” (though many among us had already done much to avoid that offensive label) was not unjustified. No Americans save those recently arrived in our country could hope to avoid being tainted by America’s legacy of exploiting the less powerful among us. Americans who could, did exploit Black bodies, indigenous bodies, Asian bodies, Latinx bodies, and so on. One of the most indelible marks on our collective 21-Day Challenge expereince was the impact of learning history we had not known before. It would be impossible to overstate the size of the gap and the distortions of the minimal learning provided in public school education. We are now aware of being starved for this knowledge. All we can do is learn and expand our understanding until someday, possibly, we can know that “We the people” actually means all of us together.
An a-ha moment for me came while watching the TED Talk with Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative, entitled “We Need to Talk About Injustice.” He talks about how our identity has meaning and power, and by ignoring who we’ve really been as a society, our identity and very humanity are at risk. The good things we do don’t exist in a vacuum; they are overshadowed by the injustices we have allowed to happen and continue to allow. We can’t just go about our lives every day being disconnected from this history – it hurts us in ways we may not even realize.
He helped me understand that as a society we can’t move forward unless we confront our history regarding Black people in this country, with one very important example the lynchings and other terrorism that followed reconstruction. I believe every American needs to know this history, and we need to face it and memorialize it as Germany, South Africa, and Rwanda have faced their history. One way to learn more about this history might be to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The Memorial leads visitors on a journey from slavery, through lynching and racial terror, with text, narrative, and monuments to the lynching victims in America.
Members of the group are planning on taking our youth to visit this memorial once it is safe to do so. On the website for the Equal Justice Initiative, you can visit the Memorial virtually and also read about their Community Remembrance Project, where they collaborate with communities to memorialize documented victims of racial violence.
We were all aware that not only did we not wish to be labelled as “racists,” we also had to struggle with the presumption that we are all “white supremacists” because we are the pale-skinned descendants of a society that banished Native Americans from their own land and embraced slavery as a “necessary evil” considered essential to expand our country’s economic well-being.
We each live in our own world. Some of us have the perception that people like us are “normal” and everyone that doesn’t fit that profile is “other.” Author Robin DiAngelo coined the term “White Fragility” to describe the defensiveness white people feel when talking about racism. Our discussions definitely tackled that phenomenon. It can be quite fatiguing to dwell in a world that is that unfamiliar. Worse still, a world that asserts that we White folks are responsible for so much that is wrong with this unfamiliar world. What is the true nature of The Problem?
By the third week, I felt that the challenge was getting more difficult. It seemed that the tasks were getting repetitive and it was hard to keep thinking about this stuff every day. It occurred to me that if I was having difficulty contemplating this every day, imagine how difficult it must be for those who must live with it every day.
I’m sure like many of us, I subconsciously think that I know how the world works. Even more than that, I have believed that the way the world works for me is how it works for everyone. I work hard and that is the primary force in me getting ahead. I speak “proper” English because my mother prioritized it as part of my upbringing. My individual effort has been richly rewarded. The world is a friendly place – I am greeted and helped by people wherever I go. People smile back at me when I smile.
The primary thing that I realized in my 21-Day journey into anti-racism is that the world I participate in, the world I described above, is not everyone’s world. A lot of things that I take for granted are granted me, at least in part, because of my skin color. Being white gives me advantages that I didn’t even know I had, and it has happened in such a way as to be invisible to me.
My teachers, doctors, bosses, and government leaders generally look like me. I never fear for my life when being pulled over by the police. I have never been called unprofessional because of how I speak or how I wear my hair. None of my immediate family has been arrested and none of my extended family has ever been in prison. I can trace my family back generations and no one in my family tree was every property of another person. I have never been accused of a crime just because I was in the vicinity of a crime being committed. And on and on and on.
I’m the beneficiary of a system that grants me these privileges based on the color of my skin. My world is set up for me to succeed in large part because I am white.
I believe that the first step in solving a problem is naming the problem. And the first step in naming a problem is first seeing a problem. What I have described here, dear friends, is a problem. White people have fashioned this country into one where they are given every advantage while denying that any inequity exists. I believe that this disparity is one that we are called as Unitarian Universalists to not only see, but to take bold and courageous action upon. Racism is a white problem and it’s all around us.
So you may know of three theories about so-called African Americans. First, there’s “anti-racism,” which is likely most familiar to our church members who claim to be socially liberal. This perspective asserts that all people are of one race, the human race, and any inequality justified in terms of race is not valid.
Then there are those who believe that people who think of themselves as white are the “norm,” even the “chosen,” and innately superior to all other races. They would likely be called “segregationists.”
Then there are those who believe that there is nothing biologically inferior about Black people, but that their natural and social environment has made them inferior. They just need to be given time to learn from the dominant White culture. This perspective promotes the theory of “assimilation.”
You could say that assimilationists would have it both ways. Blacks are inferior and Whites are superior, but if Blacks work hard enough to learn from and assimilate into the dominant White culture, they can rise above their current inferior position.
In 1944, Swedish Nobel Laureate economist Gunnar Myrdahl wrote a study of race relations in America that promoted this perspective, and his book was very influential at the time. In fact, he is considered by some to have ushered in the modern era of civil rights. Myrdhal wrote:
He also claimed in An American Dilemma that “in practically all its divergences, American negro culture is … a distorted development, or pathological condition, of the general American culture.”
I used to hate rap and hip-hop. I would cringe when I heard it. I don’t like violence and there’s plenty of it in rap and hip-hop. Over the years, I was unable to avoid listening to this music when my kids (and now my grandson) were listening to it. Sometimes I could appreciate the beat and occasionally I could even appreciate the lyrics, but mostly I had a really powerful negative reaction.
During the 21-Day Anti-Racism Challenge, I tuned into a TedX Talk by Dr. Bettina Love called “Hip Hop, Grit, and Academic Success.” Dr. Love explains how students who identify with Hip Hop culture have been ignored or deemed deficient in schools because of mainstream (read: white) misconceptions associated with Hip Hop culture. Dr. Love argues that ignoring students’ culture in the classroom is more than an oversight; it’s discriminatory and injustice that plays out in our culture in very dangerous ways.
That TED Talk was interesting and enlightening and surprising (a common theme for many of us during the 21-Day Challenge; we really learned a lot about ourselves). I appreciated it… and then I went down the rabbit hole (another very common experience for many of us). I spent days reading and watching and listening to all sorts of voices talking about rap and hip-hop.
I realized pretty quickly I didn’t “get” Rap and Hip-Hop largely because it’s not the voice of my culture. It’s the voice of marginalized people; people our society has cast aside. When I listened again, I didn’t just hear language that was harsh to my sensitive ears, I heard powerful stories of exclusion, invalidation, and disenfranchisement, as well as celebrations of success, of people who overcame the odds, who were unable to exceed the low expectations of our society.
When I read a quote from Detroit rapper and activist Royce da 5’9″, I had an a-ha moment. He said:
And I realized that yes, the power in Rap and Hip Hop scares me. It scares a lot of people. For a long time, America has been terrified at the though of Black Americans having power. That’s what’s behind Jim Crow laws, voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration, and police brutality against Black Americans. And this fear is a big part of what’s behind society’s vilification of Rap and Hip Hop.
Do I love listening to Rap and Hip Hop? Not always, but now I appreciate it in a way I was unable to before.
According to Gunner Myrdahl and others who embraced “assimilation,” people of color who are educated, accomplished professionals with the income that often comes with it will take their place in society and can be assured that they will benefit from all that this country has to offer. Kathie Wachholder’s a-ha moment came when she read about a Black couple who believed they were moving into the perfect community to reap the benefits they had worked so hard to enjoy, a place where they could belong, keep their two young sons safe, and not have to be self-conscious about “being Black” all the time.
I read recently that unfortunately, being well-educated and affluent but Black provided no protection from racism for a couple who moved to Montclair, NJ. Stephen Colbert lives there.
As descried in a December article in New York magazine, the Black couple chose to live in Montclair partly because it prides itself on being 24% Black. Nevertheless, they were still subjected to a series of seemingly racist attacks by a White neighbor.
The last attack became public when the neighbor, after confronting them in their front yard about a patio they were building, called the police. When the police arrived, she inexplicably reported that she had been pushed by the Black husband. Other passers-by, attracted by the commotion of this front yard dispute had stopped to await the outcome. They all immediately and loudly refuted her accusation and the police left.
What followed, however, in the wake of the publicity were many and varied attempts by other well-meaning White Montclair residents to prove that neither they, nor the community in general, were racist. They staged marches, they dropped off cupcakes. The couple found all this attention to be “mostly positive, but sort of uncomfortable.”
Norinda, the wife, expressed her feelings about the ordeal with this Toni Morrison quote:
The couple and their children have stayed in Montclair, but have been left feeling that they were overly optimistic in hoping to be aware of the reality of being Black in America without having to confront it over and over in their daily life.
Later, I found myself talking to my son and daughter-in-law about this article. I complained about how tiring even reading about it was since the aftermath just went on and on. “I just wanted to stop reading and be done with it,” I said. Then my daughter-in-law said, “And lucky for you, you could.”
Rev. Leland Bond-Upson
My a-ha moment was actually a series of moments: remembering my readings in high school and college, attending a George Wallace speech, reading about racial and religious discrimination, and my encounters with Black people, in the Civil Rights movement and also in anti-war activism, in support of Gay Liberation, and in Social Work, all begun in the 1960s.
Also, I did an inventory and found that although I know lots of people of color, I have deep friendships with only two dear Black friends, a blessing that seems both paltry and a richness.