Not thinking about being human

At the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University, writes about what it’s like to be a black professor.

Back in December, 2015, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Yancy titled “Dear White America,” a thoughtful essay that asked white Americans to reflect on their position as white persons in a social system that provides structural benefits for white people. From my perspective as a former student of philosophy, this op-ed piece was primarily philosophical: it was written in the spirit of dialogue and openness, and designed to evoke serious reflection on an insistent social situation.

Rather than evoking reflection, Yancy reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education that he received “hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol.” Yancy offers quotations from perhaps a dozen of the communications he received. Sadly I was not astonished by the level of vitriol; it was about what I expected. I was mildly astonished at how badly written these communications were, and how thoughtless — I mean “thoughtless” not in the sense of a lack of civility (though they did lack civility), but thoughtless in the sense that the writers had not actually thought about what they wrote.

Since Yancy’s essay was structured to provoke thoughtfulness about the topic of race, how is it that hundreds of people responded thoughtlessly? Part of the problem may be the American cultural tendency towards “evasion of philosophy” — the phrase used by American pragmatist philosopher Cornel West to name the American propensity of avoiding systematic thinking. Another part of the problem is American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon which includes those ostensibly well-educated Americans who value entrepreneurship and “business” over the life of the mind.

But I think the major problem here is the inability of most white Americans to think seriously about race and racism in America — to think, to think seriously. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo has identified the problem of “white fragility,” but there is more to Yancy’s experience than white fragility. Yancy was attacked for asking white Americans to think, reflect, be introspective. The refusal to think can only be called intellectual fearfulness.

Another way of saying this is that white Americans are fearful of thinking seriously and deeply about what it means to be human. This fearfulness on the part of white Americans is, I suspect, amplified by the general American anti-intellectualism which is in large part a fear of thinking outside the narrow boundaries of technical achievement or outside the even narrower boundaries of American white Protestant evangelical theology. Thinking about virtual reality and artificial intelligence and other technical matters is acceptable. Thinking about, and either accepting or rejecting, the Protestant evangelical conception of God is acceptable. Thinking about what it means to be human as a white American is not acceptable, and evokes fearfulness rather than serious reflection and introspection. I find that very troubling.

What’s killing Sunday school

A follow up to this post.

If Sunday school is going to die, what’s going to kill it? Let’s look at four social and economic factors that are leading to declines in U.S. Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools — and when I talk about decline, I’m talking about decline in enrollment, decline in attendance (which differs from enrollment), decline in interest among children and teens, and decline in interest among adults.

(1) The biggest single demographic factor affecting Sunday school enrollment has to be increasing diversity in the U.S. population. The majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations remain racially and ethnically segregated. That segregation may result from one or more of several causes: (a) Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are located in racially homogenous municipalities, typically upper middle class white towns that have the political power to keep people of color out. (b) Power structures in many Unitarian Universalist congregations are dominated by older white people who remain uncomfortable with the increasing racial diversity of the world around them, and enforce the whiteness of their congregations through a variety of means, including so-called microaggressions, blindness towards their congregation’s biases, talk about how “those people” wouldn’t want to be Unitarian Universalists because they’re all Catholics, or all Buddhists, or what have you; and still other means beyond these. (c) The way Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to imagine diversity primarily in terms of a white congregation adding a few black members, thus ignoring the stunning racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity of much of the country, including the incredible diversity of people who are lumped together as “Hispanic” and “Asian,” and also including the way that some racial or ethnic groups get obscured by overly broad categorizations (such as Lusophones who are lumped in with Hispanics, or the treatment of “blacks” as a monolithic ethnic group).

For many people, our workplaces, schools, and community groups all have some racial and ethnic diversity. Thus, a parent who walks into a Unitarian Universalist congregation that is overwhelmingly white — and this includes a white parent — is going to feel that this is a strange place, and maybe a place they don’t want their children to be part of.

How can we address this demographic factor? Continue reading “What’s killing Sunday school”

“White supremacy” as a strategy for racial justice

“White supremacy” has become a new catch-phrase among those who are trying to fight racial injustice, replacing “white privilege” as the catch-phrase du jour. I think it’s worth asking: will the phrase “white supremacy” help us succeed in combating structural racism, where “white privilege” seems to have failed us? Here are three reasons why I suspect “white supremacy” will fail to make much of an impact:

1. Robin DiAngelo, a professor of social work at the University of Washington (and a white woman herself) wrote an influential paper in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy in which she defines a phenomenon which is relevant here: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.”

DiAngelo goes on to propose a pedagogical approach to help white people understand whiteness and racism: “It is useful to start at the micro level of analysis, and move to the macro, from the individual out to the interpersonal, societal and institutional.” This approach, claims DiAngelo, “allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.” DiAngelo advocates for an “ongoing process” rather than an event. By contrast, I believe anti-racism catch-phrases tend to trigger “white fragility,” which has the unintended effect of shutting down an ongoing process of antiracism.

2. Most of the white people I’ve heard using the phrase “white supremacy” are college-educated professionals; that is, they are upper middle class whites. And all too often, they manage to use the phrase “white supremacy” so that it sounds like they are directing it at others; I mean, if I’m enlightened enough to use the phrase “white supremacy,” then I must be halfway to embodying righteous racial justice in myself, right?

As someone who spent the first dozen years of his work life working in a lumberyard and then as a carpenter, I know I got tired of being condescended to by self-assured upper middle class college-educated professionals who seemed always to assume that they knew more than I did about everything, simply by virtue of the fact that they were professionals and I was working what they considered to be a crappy job. When I hear white college-educated professionals making public statements about white privilege, I hear the same tone of voice I heard when the same class of people condescended to me in the lumberyard. In short, I don’t think the phrase “white supremacy” carries well across the class divide between college-educated professionals and everyone else; nor does it carry well across the many gradations of class that exist within the ranks of college-educated professionals. None of us likes to be condescended to.

3. Finally, it has been my experience that systems change does not happen in a linear fashion. I was first introduced to systems theory by Jay Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics. Forrester was the first one to model systems change as a non-linear mathematical function, and I remember going through the FORTRAN code he printed in the back of that book and realizing that he was modelling systems as interconnected feedback loops represented by GO TO commends. Forrester’s mathematical model provides a couple of useful insights: ordinary cause-and-effect causality does not work with systems; and because of their interconnected feedback loops, systems tend to return to a stable state, except if they suddenly make a leap into a new stable state. Since then, I have found that non-linear models work very well in describing and effecting change in systems like family systems and congregational systems; and I am pretty confident that larger-scale human systems also are best modeled as non-linear.

That being the case, I am skeptical of the efficacy of “white privilege” as a useful tool for systems change in the area of racial justice, as if the simple linear act of naming the problem with linearly effect positive change. Based on past experience with attempts to use linear models to effect change in non-linear systems, I would expect the initial use of the phrase “white supremacy” to provoke strong reactions which effect short-term change, followed by a backlash, and an eventual return to the previous equilibrium. (And this is pretty much what I’ve seen happen with the old catch-phrase “white privilege.”)

How, then, can we effect positive change in the non-linear system of structural racism?

Well, if I could answer that question, I’d already be working on implementing positive change. But I think Robin DiAngelo is onto something when she argues for beginning with the individual. When I look at the astonishingly effective playbook of the same-sex marriage movement, this turns out to be one of their most effective strategies, what Freedom To Marry calls “values-based conversations”: “In California in 2008 and 2009, volunteer-collected data shows that values-based [face-to-face] conversations were moving 25% of all undecided and opposed voters to be more supportive of [same sex] marriage, with half these moving towards undecided and the others moving to be new supporters.” Obviously, the political battle for same-sex marriage differs significantly from structural racism that is cultural and social as well as political (and we can’t ignore the racial make-up of the same-sex marriage movement). But perhaps one thing we we can discover in the success of the same-sex marriage movement is the importance of direct one-on-one conversations between individuals; if us white people can start talking as individuals to one another, perhaps without relying on the current catch-phrases, we might find that we are making some non-linear progress towards out goal.

Not that I believe that values-based conversations will be sufficient to end structural racism. But I do think that some kind of individualized, non-condescending, non-linear approach is about the only kind of approach that will effect permanent and positive change.

The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism

What a wild ride we Unitarian Universalists had in 2017.

The wildest part of the year happened last spring, when Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), resigned from office, with only a few months left in his term. The events that led up to his resignation were somewhat bizarre. Two of the finalists for a senior staff position at the UUA were both members of the UUA Board, which should make us wonder just how incestuous UUA hiring is (I mean, seriously, can’t you find viable candidates outside your volunteer board? — don’t you know how bad that looks?). Then when the white male gets hired in preference to the Latina woman, social media erupts in accusations of “Racism!”

Shouting “Racism!” was not a bad response, but hardly anyone mentioned the sexism involved. Now it’s not sexism every time the man gets hired over the woman. Nor is it always sexism when the man who gets hired is an ordained minister and the woman is a layperson (for while anyone who has done feminist power analysis knows that sexism often hides behind choosing the person with the most professional credentials, on the other hand sometimes the person with more professional credentials is in fact more qualified). And it’s not always sexism when the woman has a background in “women’s work” (which was true in this case; the woman in this case is a religious educator, and works with children, in a profession that is underpaid compared to parish ministry). But it most definitely was sexism when Peter Morales said in an interview that he could not hire religious educators for senior staff positions because they were not capable of that kind of high level work.

I was astonished at the rage I felt after reading that Peter Morales thought I was incapable of working for him in a high level staff position, simply because I am a religious educator, someone who does “women’s work,” in a profession where more than 90% of my colleagues are women, many of whom are poorly-paid part-time workers. Had I been British, I would have given Peter Morales the two-finger salute; but since I’m a New Englander, that would be cultural misappropriation, so instead I looked in his general direction with withering scorn. Continue reading “The Year in Review: Unitarian Universalism”

Saving Universalist theology

(Be forewarned: this is a blog post about theology. Some of us enjoy theology, but if you don’t, this will not be fun for you.)

Mark Morrison-Reed, in his lecture “The Black Hole in the White Psyche” (online here, and in the fall, 2017 issue of UU World magazine), asserts that Unitarianism appealed to members of the African American intellectual elite through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, citing the Unitarian affiliations of people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Whitney Young. Universalist theology, on the other hand, did not appeal to African Americans:

“Universalism … was difficult for African Americans to embrace. A loving God who saves all is, for most African Americans, a theological non sequitur. Why? In an article entitled ‘In the Shadow of Charleston,’ Reggie Williams writes about a young black Christian who said, during a prayer group following the murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, ‘that if he were to also acknowledge the historical impact of race on his potential to live a safe and productive life in America, he would be forced to wrestle with the veracity of the existence of a just and loving God who has made him black in America.’ This is the question of theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of evil? In the context of Charleston, the context of Jim Crow, the context of slavery, what is the meaning of black suffering? Why has such calamity been directed at African Americans? If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving.”

What Mark says is clearly true. Yet there were a tiny handful of African American Universalists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What drew them to Universalism? Continue reading “Saving Universalist theology”


I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]

A comment from 1933

“…In large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

— James Weldon Johnson in his autobiography Along This Way, 1933. Although Johnson was discussing his work at the NAACP fighting lynching, in large part this observation still holds true today (and, by the way, provides a self-interested reason for some of us white people to be involved in anti-racism work).

Needles to Grants

Vivid dreams occupied me all night, though I didn’t remember any of them when I awakened in the morning. Perhaps they were anxiety dreams, or dreams of overwork; with Peace Camp and the youth service trip and my ordinary tasks, I worked pretty much seven days a week in the three weeks leading up to vacation.

We got up late, and after I ate breakfast we walked over to the Needles Point Pharmacy. I needed razors, and Carol needed a needle to sew up a shirt.


Above: Needles, Calif.

The store was pretty big on the inside. I found the razor blades I wanted, and then Carol and I wandered around looking at everything they had. They seemed to have everything. In addition to the usual drugstore merchandise, they had in stock: jigsaw puzzles, Hummel figurines, 3.5 inch diskettes for your computer, writing tablets with air mail paper, a bright red Mickey Mouse travel alarm clock in yellowed plastic packaging, and brand new Clairol blow dryers dating from the 1980s. On a whim, I bought some air mail paper from the very pleasant woman behind the counter.

When we finally started driving, the thermometer outside the motel office read 110 degrees.

Carol drove for most of the day, while I dozed, and read aloud to her from Agatha Christie’s Murder at Hazelmoor. It seemed odd to be reading about a murder in country house in England in the middle of a dark snowy winter, when we were driving through the wide open, sun-filled southwest.

We stopped for some caffeine at a gas station in Navajo, Arizona. While I was in the gas station, Carol wandered over to where a man was selling jewelry that he had made. When i got there, Carol was trying to decide if she liked one of his necklaces. I got to talking with him. He had been born in the area, half Navajo and half Hopi, and he spoke both languages as birth tongues. Then he had been relocated to a Mormon couple in Utah; enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam; went to college in Provo on the G.I. Bill; and then had lived in Greece, the Bay area, and several other places I have now forgotten.

He was a big supporter of Barack Obama. “He’s the only president who has done anything for Native Americans,” he said. We agreed that, regardless of his merits, that some of the criticism of Obama was due solely to the fact that he wasn’t white. “White people really like to be right,” he said, and I gave a snort of laughter at the truth of that statement. That got us into a discussion of race and racism, during which I insisted that the Boston area, where I grew up, was the most racist place I have ever lived. “Even the white people hate each other in Boston,” I said, thinking of the Yankees, Irish, Italians, and French Canadians. He agreed with me, though I wasn’t convinced he knew anything about Boston.


Above: Navajo, Ariz.

The author of Mark Tidd

When we were kids, my sister Jean and I discovered the Mark Tidd books, written by Clarence Budington Kelland, while we were staying at our grandmother’s house in Staten Island, New York. I remember one of the books was inscribed “To Bobby” — that was my father’s name when he was a boy — from his mother.

Jean and I loved Mark Tidd. He was smart. Even though he looked funny (he was fat, and he stuttered), he always got the better of potential bullies. He and his three buddies got into all sorts of interesting adventures — in one book they took over a failing newspaper, in another book they ran a store, in another book they rented an entire broken-down deserted resort hotel — and they were always saved from looming disasters by Mark Tidd’s brains.

I tracked down some of the Mark Tidd books a few years ago, to see if I would like them now as much as I liked them when I was a kid. The plots and characters were pretty good, as juvenile series books go — the plots and characters obviously look to Tom Sawyer as a model (Tom Sawyer is explicitly mentioned in the opening pages of the first book; see also “Michigan Authors and Their Books,” Michigan Library Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, Sept-Oct. 1925 [Lansing, Michigan], pp. 22-24) — but as an adult I picked up on some undercurrents that made me uncomfortable. In the first book, Mark Tidd and his three friends form a secret society, which they model on the Ku Klux Klan; even though there’s no overt racism in the book (everyone in the story is white), even mentioning the Ku Klux Klan positively made it hard for me to like the book. (The later books don’t mention the KKK.) In the rest of the books, Kelland extols the virtues of hard work , honesty, and financial know-how — these are values I can affirm — but he doesn’t seem to recognize that a key ingredient to Mark Tidd’s success in his various enterprises is the backing of his father’s immense capital.

Recently I tried to find a biography of Kelland. Continue reading “The author of Mark Tidd”