Tag Archives: racism

“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


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.

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

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 4

7. This year, for the first time, I feel as though Unitarian Universalism has made some real progress towards figuring out how to be a religion that’s not totally dominated by white folks. (Notice how I’ve qualified that statement: the progress we’re making is towards figuring out how to be less white.)

What progress have we made?

First of all, we’ve begun talking as though racism within Unitarian Universalism means more than just the white folks dominating the few black folks. After a couple of years of having a president of the denomination who is Latino, we’ve finally figured out that there are Unitarian Universalist Latinos, too. We have gotten to a point where we finally seem to understand that our efforts at eradicating racism have to go beyond the binary white/black racial divide.

Secondly, our collective anxiety seems to have gone down somewhat. It used to be that as soon as you started talking about race within a group of Unitarian Universalists, everyone would get so anxious that everyone would freeze up, and the conversation would either end or devolve into ideology and blame games. But this year, I’ve been at several public meeting where white Unitarian Universalists could talk openly about race and racism. (I credit Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed for much of this progress: he has an amazing pastoral ability to get people to talk openly and genuinely about race and racism without freezing up or getting strident.)

Those two things may not seem like much, but they represent some progress. And that’s both amazing, and worth celebrating.

REA Conference, part six

“Diversity and Neuroscience” was the title of the fifth plenary session of the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA). Moderator Harold Horell introduced the panel discussion with two questions:

— What are the implications of neuroscience for the field of religious education? — and
— How did the presentations and conversations address the racially and ethnically diverse constituencies of the Religious Education Association?

Claire Smith of Saint Paul School of Theology was the first panelist to speak. “I found in this conference an awareness of the issues of diversity,” she said, “and a concern to include all.” She gave several specific examples, e.g., the recognition of native peoples in the opening ritual.

While there was a general awareness of diversity issues within the REA, Smith offered two cautions.

First, much of the brain research we have is provisional, and “we should not treat it as gospel.” In spite of this caution, Smith said that there is much that comes out of this research that are important for our work as religious educators. Continue reading

Another experience of race

In her book Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, sociologist Monica McDermott offers an interesting perspective on the intersection of race and class, based on her field work in Atlanta and Boston. She writes:

The experience of whiteness in the Crescent [her Atlanta field work site] provides an intriguing example of the ways in which racial cues are bound up with class and the local context. “White” is typically conceived in terms of economic and social advantage and residence in predominantly white, affluent areas. What, then, becomes of the white racial identity of those whites who are poor or working class and live in an area with a substantial black, working-class population?

The results are not the standard ways in which whiteness typically functions in the United States — as invisible privilege, even for economically disadvantaged whites. Whiteness in this context does not simply function like “blackness” when the usual constellation of class and racial cues is reversed. Instead, whiteness becomes a badge of inferiority — one that is contingent upon a global view of whites as more deserving of nice neighborhoods and good jobs than blacks. It is also bound up with expectations about racial segregation and the characteristics of those who live in racially integrated areas.

Being a white person in this type of neighborhood is distinctly different from being a white person in a predominantly white area. The underlying assumption in the Crescent and Greenfield [the Boston field work site], held by both blacks and whites of various class backgrounds, was that the whites who lived and worked there were somehow defective; that the least capable whites were most likely to live among large numbers of poor and working-class blacks. As one of the working-class men studied by Lamont (1999) asserts, there “is no real reason for a white guy to be a failure.”

While McDermott is quite clear that her study is limited in scope because of her methodology, nevertheless it occurs to me that that class location probably always influences experiences of race.

Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.