White Supremacy within Unitarian Universalism
Jolena James-Szanton, Director of Religious Education
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love. Meditated. Check. Bluetooth speaker connected. Check. Tap “Play” on my iPhone. Optimistic by Sounds of Blackness on – loud. Set to repeat. Check and check.
Time to sit down and lean into discomfort.
So, we held our second White Supremacy Teach In on June 18th [at the University Gathering].
This is work. It is hard work. It takes time. It needs time to take.
I would like to dance around and celebrate the success of the second Teach-in, but, honestly, success would mean that there were a lot of mixed feelings and thoughts about the Teach In. There were. Although many shared how much they valued the work we did that day, some shared that they did value it, or, worse, they did not share anything at all. I will not dance to the sound of others’ discomfort.
So, I’ll start with the basics: some people of color and whites privately shared their stories of how they experienced the normalization of whiteness in our church walls and how the unintentional politically and socially-biased benefits of that concept impacted one or more experiences they had had at our church (Lean into this. Really chew on this. Check your feelings. Use “I” statements to capture them); these stories were woven into scenarios that illustrated the influence of white supremacy in relation to the dynamics at our church; a team of 7 committed planners and 7 facilitators (not mutually exclusive group membership) came together to make the Teach-in happen; over 60 people attended; participants were presented with four of the scenarios created; small groups of 4-5 members each selected one of the scenarios, discussed their understanding of how white supremacy was being played out in the scenario, and decided how they would interrupt the influence of white supremacy – hypothetically; sets of small groups then came together into clusters and shared their solutions with 4-5 other small groups; the entire service was almost two hours; people leaned in, people sat back, people listened, people pushed their thinking, people pushed other people’s thinking, people sought understanding, people eventually turned to the candy in their team’s baskets, most people stayed.
While I was expecting the conversation to be difficult for some, I thought teams would be struggling to understand how white supremacy was influencing the scenario, not building arguments for how it was not. Wait, that’s not true. The planning team had tested the scenarios and knew that people would want to give a non-white supremacy lens to them. Because we knew that groups would not have a lot of time, we asked teams to assume white supremacy was at play and to use their energy to understand how.
Two problems with our hopes: One, we forgot we were working with UUs and we UUs pride ourselves in questioning everything – especially things we oppose at our gut level. Two, white supremacy is no joke! It has no plans to be taken down without a serious fight. It demands its existence to be proven before those that benefit from it will question it. It depends on a jury of its peers to judge it guilty or not. It was designed to have “reasonable doubt” be its best line of defense. It no longer has to hire lawyers. It has American people working pro bono for it.
I want to be clear that some participants uncovered the unintentional bias founded in white supremacy and said that it gave them an awareness they did not have prior to Teach In. Others shared, however, that the did not agree that white supremacy had anything to do with reason for the behaviors in the scenario.
The teacher in me believes that if learning does not happen, then the teacher did not teach it well. As our planning and facilitating team began informal debriefings, two team members called out what they wondered might have been a problem with the Teach In: “We didn’t explain white supremacy well enough (if at all) from the outset.” As we move forward with this work, we will learn about some ways to think about that expectation. For now, we need to step back (forwards? sideways? turnaround? stand still?) and explain the architecture of the house the white supremacy built. We are looking at offering Adult Religious (Spiritual) Education sessions on this.
For me, this work is a test of our faith. Am I allowed to say that? It’s a test to how hard we are willing to work to stand up for what we say we represent. This is work. It is hard work. It takes time. It needs time to take.