I open my remarks with this excerpt from a great sermon by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. titled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on the 31st of March 1968:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle--the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly--to get rid of the disease of racism.
The hour has come for everybody, for all institutions of the public sector and the private sector to work to get rid of racism. And now, if we are to do it, we must honestly admit certain things and get rid of certain myths that have constantly been disseminated all over our nation.
Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn't move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.
Those of you who have good memories and attendance will remember I concluded my anti-racism sermon two years ago with these words. The hour Dr. King spoke of that has come in 1968, is still here, as needed today as it was then. Racism looks different today but is as present now as it was then, particularly here in Albany. An African American young man from New York City who I've worked with in ARISE put it to me this way: I wasn't acutely aware of the color of my skin until I moved up here to Albany.
Discussing racism with a predominantly white, liberally minded audience usually generates feelings of defensiveness and guilt. I need to name this right away because it happens to me too and is not my purpose. I used to dislike going to these kinds of services because the minister would stand in the pulpit and spin out some idealistic dream of what the world ought to be and not acknowledge my reality. I don't use the N word. I don't burn crosses on people's lawn. I try to treat African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pakistanis, Laplanders, Tibetans, equally with everyone else. I don't feel like or behave like a stereotypical racist.
Overt, aggressive racism with police dogs and clubs is not the racism most of us need to confront. Even covert dislike is not operating for most of us in our personal lives. The kind of racism we need to face is systemic and institutionalized racism we participate in because we don't even recognize it as such. We believe we are behaving "normally" the way anyone else would. We just don't see it.
I recently heard on the radio a simple example of this kind of myopia (I apologize I can't remember the source): A professor was presenting a lecture on the holocaust, describing how Jews had been called "Christ killers" for many generations in Europe by Christians. An attractive young woman raised her hand. She looked a little defensive as she asked, "What is all this about Christians calling Jews Christ killers? I've never heard that term." Surprised, the professor decided to investigate. First, he asked the woman about her educational and family background. She had grown up in a middle class neighborhood and attended Catholic schools. Then he asked the whole class who were Catholic or Protestant if they had heard the term used. No one raised a hand. Then he asked for a show of hands among the Jewish students. Every one of them raised their hand.
Another example is closer to home for women. How many women here are aware of the automatically conferred privileges men enjoy in this society women have to earn or demand? Are men typically aware of or troubled by this status they enjoy? Archie Bunker was a humorous stereotype of this sense of entitlement we men enjoy. As far as women have come since then (and it's interesting to watch reruns of that show today) there still remain significant barriers to them in the corporate boardrooms and legislative halls. The old boy network endures and power remains centralized with them at the highest levels, particularly in the Whitehouse right now.
Christian ignorance of anti-Semitism and male cluelessness about sexism parallel our lack of awareness about racism and the ways we can participate in it unconsciously. There are privileges European Americans enjoy that those with a darker skin color or foreign accent do not enjoy. The advantage partly comes from normalizing European American culture, values, status and comfort.
Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, in 1988, wrote a working paper titled "White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women's Studies." It's an excellent introduction to this subject. I encountered the article when it was passed out at my study circle on Racism. Along with everything else I was doing this fall, I participated in a Tackling Racism in Albany County study circle that met for five weeks at the Times Union building. These circles are made up of African Americans and European Americans balanced in proportion. The design of the meetings encourage personal sharing of experiences, insights and feelings that help raise awareness and build bridges of mutual understanding. I encourage you to sign up for them when they are next offered.
McIntosh, in her paper, made a list of some of the unearned privileges she enjoys as a European American woman:
There are many more examples she cites in the paper but this is enough, I hope, to stimulate empathy for people who might not be considered the normalized majority in these situations. Just hearing the list is an experiment in self-discovery. It can evoke strong feelings as each line is read or heard. None of these individual examples proves discrimination. Taken as an aggregate, they create a persuasive case for a culture of discrimination against non-Caucasians.
Being President of ARISE, A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment, has made me acutely attentive to watching for my normalization of racism. Trying to lead an organization like this often feels like Mission Impossible. We have religious differences we are trying to accommodate. We have regional distrust to counter as our organization covers four counties. We have geographic barriers like the Hudson River that could just as well be a ocean the way it separates us. Add to that racial concerns and I'm always watching out for toes I might be stepping on.
One of the big areas of concern is power. Who sits at the table and who makes the decisions. I'm used to a more relaxed decision making style that our UU committees use during our meetings. Generally, we can discuss an issue and find a solution that is supported unanimously. Only the most contentious issues are settled by a vote.
This consensus approach didn't work for me in ARISE with our 20 person Executive Committee meetings because we ended up having lengthy meetings trying to accommodate and work out all our seemingly endless differences. In part, I used this style of running our meetings because I was trying to accommodate one of our African American Executive Committee members who felt everyone should have their say. My attempts to be sure everyone had their say meant we had freewheeling and fractious discussions that didn't come to conclusion. The loudest voice had too much influence over the more reserved members. Another African American on the Executive Committee who comes from a more conservative Christian tradition took me aside very distressed by my lassie-faire style of leading the meeting and demanded I take control. Now, we're being more formal, and a great deal more just, by using Roberts Rules of Order for our meetings. I'm much more appreciative of the way these rules create democracy and fairness while respecting the minority.
One of the ways I discovered myself operating from white privilege is assuming that the great ideas that appear in my head are indeed great ideas for ARISE. This assumption becomes problematic when one is President of an organization and one has power. The leader's ideas automatically carry more weight and can overwhelm competing ideas not by merit but rather by the status and the privilege of the person holding them.
I was confronted on this by an African American Executive Committee member around how to proceed with the evaluation of our paid organizer. I had been advocating one particular approach without first consulting any minority members on our committee to hear what they thought should be done, effectively ignoring them. It was a very uncomfortable moment when he confronted me because I realized I was normalizing my approach as the right way to proceed.
The process of normalizing my point of view is potentially very harmful and exclusionary - but hardly unusual. Everyone does it, even African Americans. But when one is in a position of power, as I am in ARISE, there is a much greater danger what I normalize may be cooperating with systemic racist patterns engrained in society. What I must do to make racism abnormal is question my assumptions and my attitudes AND check them out with people who are different from me. I need to bring minorities to the table where the decisions are made rather than persuading them of my plan after I've made up my mind. Whether or not my idea is a good one is not the point. The point is how do the plurality of ideas get considered and decided fairly.
I've hidden the details and the personalities involved as much as possible to share with you my real world experience and communicate what I'm learning as I fight racism in myself and others. The actual details of all this have a great deal more emotional intensity, let me assure you. Make no mistake about it, this is hard, taxing work. It is, at times, very painful to strive for the empowerment of poor and minority communities in the Capital Region and find oneself inadvertently subverting the organization's goals. And I know I'm not the only one who has experienced this problem. I see both European and African Americans in our organization doing the very same thing. Racism is a social disease that affects all of us.
The question is, do we want to be part of the solution or part of the problem. There is no room to stand on the sidelines. This subtle racism is normal in our society and almost all of us collude with it unknowingly. It can only become abnormal if we work at dismantling it. Either way, there is no escape from suffering. Racism hurts everyone by creating a climate of distrust, anger and fear. Yes, it hurts to face my inner normalization of racist habits and patterns, but so does remaining oblivious to them. Only one path holds the promise of making room for more love in the world. Engagement is really the only alternative that is consistent with choosing to live the values of Unitarian Universalism.
One way to further this anti-racist work is to get involved in anti-racist organizations like ARISE or TRAC. Another way is right here. Our congregation is a great place to practice that same kind of engagement. Our religious tradition, as we understand it today, is about learning how to accept diversity and see its value. We do not have a creedal understanding of divinity. We do not even require a belief in God. Too often in the past this has meant some have merely tolerated those around them who do not believe as they do. I believe our values encourage us to go beyond tolerance and move toward acceptance and appreciation.
I strongly encourage us to learn to practice the kind of acceptance we might offer racial minorities by accepting the religious minorities within our congregation, be they Christian, or theist, or Pagan, or Buddhist, or Humanist, or Atheist. All these belief systems are consistent with the values and the purposes and principles we cherish. Learning to make racism abnormal is parallel to learning in our congregation not to normalize our personal belief system as the belief system of this congregation or Unitarian Universalism.
When Unitarian Universalist values are practiced, we grow because we grow in appreciation for the diverse paths toward and expressions of truth, beauty, goodness and peace. My contact and struggle, my shared appreciation and celebration with African Americans through ARISE is helping me grow as a person. Every time I feel the presence of the Holy through my contact with someone who I perceive as different, my heart grows a little bigger and the world grows a little more hospitable to the continuing of the human race.
The quote from Martin Luther King with which I began my remarks, continued with these words with which I will conclude:
And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.
We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And so, however dark it is, however deep the angry feelings are, and however violent [the] explosions are, I can still sing "We Shall Overcome."
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
You have heard these words before, I'm sure, famous words from Martin Luther King spoken at the Great March on Detroit in June of 1963. Hear them again as a call to a vision of a world we can build together:
I have a dream this afternoon, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.
Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and "justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I have a dream this afternoon.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.
Let his dream be our dream as well.
Copyright © 2002 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.