Does Saying I live in a White Supremacy Culture make me a White Supremacist?

The short answer is no.

But let’s put this into a much larger historical context.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to place Muslims and pagans into “perpetual slavery,”  thus beginning the slave trade from Africa.  In 1455, he wrote King Alfonso authorizing Catholic nations to claim dominion over any “discovered lands” allowing for seizure of the lands and placing the non-Christian native peoples into slavery.  Then in 1493, Pope Alexander VI stated that one Catholic nation did not have claim to lands previously claimed by other Catholic nations. These papal bulls created what is now known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine opened the door for imperialism and heavily influenced the formation of Manifest Destiny which stated that the US had the divine right to expand its lands across the Americas. Doing so meant subduing the indigenous people and stealing their lands.  The American people, those in power, were white Northern Europeans (Eastern and Southern Europeans were not considered white until the mid- 20th century).

The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny had in its core the belief that the white race was superior to any other culture or race. It is what justified the slave traders and the slave owners in the Americas. It is what justified the genocide during the forced removal of the indigenous people known as the Trail of Tears. Both of these policies reduced people of color and the indigenous people to objects, non-human status. This is White Supremacy Culture.

White Supremacy Culture was in the very backbone of the forming governments in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin wrote that only those of English descent were of the white race and specifically noted that Germans were of inferior stock. Jews were not considered white. Irish were not considered white. And as I mentioned earlier those of the Eastern and Southern European countries (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Hungary, etc.) were not considered white.

Our national history is one of white supremacy.  The obvious examples are the violent subjugation of Blacks into slavery and the violent, often genocidal, removal of the Indigenous people from their lands to reservations. Their cultures were considered savage, their religions dismissed, and their languages denied expression. This is an understatement.  It is still happening today.  The violation of sacred burial lands of the indigenous people at Standing Rock in order to build a pipeline that was moved because it was too close to a white community is a flagrant example of white supremacy.  The needs of White people trumps the needs of any other group.

Two Supreme Court cases regarding immigrants being white occurred.  In 1922, The Naturalization Act of 1906 stated that those eligible for citizenship included “free white persons.”  Takao Ozawa and Takuji Yamashita, two Japanese immigrants filed for naturalization claiming that Japanese had white skin.  The Supreme Court ruled that the designation of white was reserved for caucasians only.  In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh, being of Aryan descent in northern India and therefore caucasian applied for naturalization. The Supreme Court denied him because he did not fit the “common understanding” of what determined one to be caucasian.  Living in the United States means one is living in a White Supremacy Culture.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of the United States, does this mean I am a White Supremacist?

The Alabama State Constitution of 1901, still  in force today, was created specifically to establish a White Supremacist State. And while many of the worst aspects of the constitution were struck down by Supreme Court rulings in the 1950s and 60s, it is still a white supremacist document that ensures that people of color are oppressed. This is done through more subtle laws such as denial of home rule of municipalities. (One example is the recent law passed that nullified Birmingham’s minimum wage increase for its residents, harming its 74% majority Black community.) This is also done by gerrymandering districts to create white republican majorities. This is done through voter suppression laws in the state of Alabama. Shelby County v Holder removed the discrimination protection of voters in Alabama. Immediately after its removal, the very argument used to defeat it (Alabama learned its lesson over the last 50 years and will never suppress voters again), was shown to be false and voter suppression occurred. The State of Alabama is perhaps the clearest example of a white supremacy culture because the examples are so very stark and plain to see by any who examines even slightly what is beneath the surface of this constitution.

In 2011, then Senator Beason, was caught on wiretap as joking about the economic development of the residents of predominantly Black Greene County. He stated those running the Greenetrack Casino as being “aborigines.” Beason was looking to shut down this gambling site which was at the time the largest employer in Greene County. If you live in Alabama, you are living in a White Supremacy Culture. This is simply a fact codified in its constitution.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of Alabama, does this make me a White Supremacist?

There are active White Supremacy hate groups that advocate for the return of the Jim Crow era or worse.  In Alabama there is the League of the South, whose goal is to have Alabama and other southern states secede from the US, deport all people of color, and restore the south to its former White Supremacist glory to protect the purity of the white race. There are other hate groups as well like the KKK and neo-nazi nationalist groups who also advocate white supremacy. These individuals would indeed be supremacists because they sincerely believe their superiority over people of color and indigenous people. And they use violence against people of color to intimidate and to oppress.

However, there are also predominant white groups, organizations that may publicly disavow racism and yet have policies, both formal and informal, that inadvertently hold people of color back.  The recent hiring controversy that rocked the Unitarian Universalist Association, my faith, is an example of one such predominant white group. There has been pushback from white Unitarian Universalists regarding using the term White Supremacy Culture to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism.

Let’s unpack the culture of Unitarian Universalism. Neither our Unitarian or Universalist ancestors have a squeaky clean history when it comes to interactions with people of color. In fact, the American Unitarian Association acted in very white supremacist ways. Mark Morrison-Reed in his book, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination writes: “In 1907 when [Ethelred] Brown wrote to inquire about theological school and financial aid, denominational officials discouraged him.  Unitarians feared that their system of belief might be corrupted if embraced by the mass of common men and women, much less by blacks.” White supremacy culture combined with class structures hindered our ability to support those people of color who wanted entrance into the Unitarian faith. Universalists were not any better. Recent research done by Ministerial Intern, Monica Dobbins, found that a white Universalist minister who felt a calling to reach out to the Black community in Birmingham in the early part of the 20th century was told by his Universalist headquarters to end his ministry.

In an out of print (2009) book entitled The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary, we find the following history of White Supremacy Culture in Unitarian Universalism.

There was the Black Empowerment Controversy in 1969 following the successes of the civil rights movement involvement, Unitarian Universalism was unable to keep its commitments. Of this controversy, The Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force reported: “How could we have known at the time that the model of racial assimilation and integration for which we had fought so long was inadequate to address the newly felt needs for empowerment?” 

An institutional racism audit was conducted in 1980/81. This audit defined racism as “attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values reflected in institutional policies, practices and procedures which deny to members of racial minority groups access to goods, services, and resources on the basis of race.” 

The following imperative was adopted by the UUA board in 1981: “Recognizing the fact that institutional racism is still embedded in American society in 1981, the Unitarian Universalist Association shall seek to eliminate racism in all its institutional structures, policies, practices, and patterns of behavior so that it will become a racially equitable institution and can make an effective contribution toward achieving a similarly equitable society.” 

There were thirty-two recommendations of which the board decided to implement twenty-five.  The top recommendation was affirmative action in staffing. This was placed as the highest priority and should have been visibly addressed by the start of the 21st century.

Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyon wrote in 2006:  “.. Imagine then our dismay to hear that when the questions of people of color and the ministry were at one time put before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a response was characterized with the following words: Do ‘they’ fit the mold? Are ‘their’ backgrounds, and experience typical of our usual placement requirements? Will we have to lower the standards?” 

This history points to a white supremacy culture that is long and deep in our heritage. Placing the current hiring controversy in the context of our Unitarian Universalist history, it becomes very clear that eleven years after Rev. Santos-Lyon wrote these words nothing has effectively changed. Stories have surfaced from former UUA staff of the history of discriminatory hiring practices at the UUA. In the 1980s and 90s we called it institutional racism. The definition of racism used in 1980 could also be used to define White Supremacy Culture.

Our denomination’s people of color organizations, Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective (BLUU) have asked us to name these policies and procedures within the UUA as being part of “White Supremacy Culture” because the analysis of the history of the UUA and of congregations shows repeated shortcomings in the very areas that have been promised to be addressed, not just in recent years, but consistently promised over the 50 years since the civil rights movement. Our siblings of color continue to report the experiences of microaggressions and the informal and formal policies in our faith congregations and institutions as being on the continuum of White Supremacy Culture. They also are challenging us to reflect on how white privilege and racism has shaped our denomination and have kept us from living our principles as fully as we can.

In a position paper calling for an 8th principle; BLUU highlights the following:

  • If, as stated in the 1997 resolution, we are committed to “an ongoing process for the comprehensive institutionalization of anti-racism and multiculturalism” within our faith, where is the demonstrable commitment to explicitly dismantling white supremacist norms within our Association’s hiring practices? Within the culture of our member congregations? Within the hearts and minds of those who identify as Unitarian Universalists?
  • The 1997 resolution affirms that “all Unitarian Universalist leaders, including ministers, religious educators, leaders of associate and affiliate organizations, governing boards, Unitarian Universalist Association staff, theological schools, and future General Assemblies [are] to engage in ongoing anti-racism training, to examine basic assumptions, structures, and functions, and, in response to what is learned, develop action plans.” As such, where is the consistent and demonstrable effort on behalf of the Association to protect UUs of color especially from harm by moving beyond action plans into a demonstrable effort around dismantling white supremacy in the structure, culture and liturgy of our faith community?

When I talk with white Unitarian Universalists, they are quick to acknowledge that they have white privilege.  They state that they are sometimes blind to how white privilege operates in their lives because they recognize that it is insipid in our culture. I have been told by these same white Unitarian Universalists that using the term White Supremacy Culture is offensive and will turn people off. That the term White Supremacy Culture labels white liberal Unitarian Universalists as supremacists.  A term that is often used to refer to the hate groups I mentioned above.

Where is white privilege grounded?  How have we come to receive the privilege of being white in our culture?  If we can recognize the pervasiveness of white privilege in this culture, then why can’t we recognize that white privilege is grounded in White Supremacy Culture?  How is that we cannot make the connection that white privilege is the benefit conferred to white people in a white supremacy culture without somehow being personally offended?

Yes, this is uncomfortable work. Yes, It is challenging our perception of who we are. But to acknowledge that the culture we live in is White Supremacy Culture does not mean that simply by living in this culture makes one a white supremacist.  Living in the Deep South means that I live in a Christian Culture.  Yet, that does not automatically make me a Christian.  If I lived in a Muslim Culture, it would not automatically make me Muslim. So how does recognizing that I am living in a White Supremacist Culture automatically translates into being a White Supremacist?

It doesn’t.  But it does imply that there may be white supremacist norms of behavior going on.  White privilege being one.  Having Whiteness be the default in my thinking is another. It also does not give me a free pass from my responsibility to do the work to dismantle the white supremacy culture that I see impacting my siblings of color. If I do not actively and with humility challenge myself to see how policies, formal and informal, hold my siblings of color from being fully embraced by this faith that has saved me, then I am complicit to holding the white cultural norms that have been established by our spiritual ancestors of this faith.

Why wouldn’t I want to reduce the pain our Sibling UUs of Color have experienced in our faith?  Why wouldn’t I want to decenter whiteness to enable our Siblings of Color to grow in this faith with the same enthusiasm as I have experienced?  Why would I want to hold on to a culture that inflicts such pain others?  How does that negative attitude embody our beloved principles?

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; Rev. William Barber’s The Third Reconstruction; I see plainly how White Supremacy Culture has manifested itself in our country in the 21st century. How can I then deny this is where I live and breathe?

We, White UUs, can easily say, well, we are not a part of the society that causes these levels of racism/ supremacy; and that might be very true. But we are a part of this culture where these things are happening, and therefore can either be part of the antidote or part of the ongoing infection that is causing pain. Our Sibling UUs of Color are asking us to see the log in our own eyes before we can effectively address that which we see in society. Our Sibling UUs of Color are not calling us supremacists.  They are calling us complicit in supporting the culture we live in. There in is the difference.

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Craving Salt in a Saltless Society

Reading:

Mark: 9-49-50:  For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you restore its saltiness? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

 

This is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in the Christian Scriptures to understand.  Theologians for literally hundreds of years have tried to ascertain what exactly did Jesus mean by these words. Salted with fire?  Salted with salt? Restore saltiness? Salt in yourselves? Be at peace?

I am sure that my words today will not unravel the mysterious meanings that others before me could not unravel.  But there are some things that others have explored that I believe, are important for us as Unitarian Universalists to grasp an understanding.

To put this passage in context, In the Mid-1800s German Theologians and later Methodist Theologians[i] recognized that this passage begins with the disciples arguing who is the greatest among them. Jesus’ response to them was whoever wants to be first must be last and servant to all.  Jesus uses the example of welcoming the child as one welcoming Jesus.  In other words, one was to give equal attention and affection to those without power as they might to someone, in authority, whose actions could benefit their standing in the world.  The passage continues with disciples telling Jesus that they stopped a stranger from exorcising demons in Jesus name, because the stranger was not a follower of Jesus.  Jesus said, whoever is not against us is for us.  In other words, just because a person does not look like us, does not mean they do not share the same values we share.  Jesus then goes into an exhortation of things that would lead a person to burn in hell: placing stumbling blocks in the way of those without power; Hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble. Would be better to chop off or pluck them out and enter the realm of heaven; than to have both hands, feet, and eyes and be thrown into hell where the fire is never quenched.

All of this context is placed directly before Jesus says, For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost is saltiness, how can you restore it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

The passage comes full circle referring to the beginning when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest.

Most conservative Christians believe this salt passage refers to the fires of hell and damnation. Fire is all consuming, it destroys. Salt preserves, therefore will be a protective from the fires of hell.  If you do not have salt, ie belief, then you will perish in hell. The difficulty with this interpretation is the use of the word Everyone or literally in the Greek, All. Which may have a larger connotation than just people.

Some Roman Catholic theologians have believed this passage refers to the concept of purgatory because it says “everyone will be salted with fire.” Fire also is used as a means of purification. We have the phrase refining fire to refer to this process of purification. Fire is used to purify ore to extract the metal from it.  But this is also a difficult reading because if the person has lost their saltiness, how can they be purified?

The phrase every sacrifice will be salted with salt, refers directly to the Mosaic Law of salting the sacrifices before they are presented to God.  Salt was used as a preservative against decay and corruption. The salt of sacrifice refers to the covenant that was created between the people of Israel and God. The covenant between Israel and God was also considered “incorruptible, undecaying, indissoluble.”

When they sacrificed animals and birds, they would salt the carcass to draw out the blood before it was burned on the altar. This ritual made the sacrifice holy to God.  This salt of sacrifice declared the covenant holy, declared the people holy in relationship with their god, who is holy.  Be holy for I am holy. Salt symbolized this holiness with its character to preserve from decay and corruption. It also denoted the ability of salt to cleanse, to purify.   Salt has been used to cleanse wounds.  And today, sterile saline solution is used to irrigate wounds and kill infesting bacteria at the wound site[ii].

Salt, in the Middle East, has long been a symbol of friendship, harmony, and of covenant agreement. We also have the idiom of saying someone is the salt of the earth, which implies a person of integrity, of sound character.

A few years ago, while I was visiting family in Florida, we visited a restaurant that placed on the table a variety of different dishes of salt.  They were of different colors and each had a distinctively different salt taste. There was a Hawaiian sea salt which is red, and Himalayan salt which is pink, a grey sea salt and Portuguese sea salt which is a very fine grain white salt. There were others that I do not remember. We were told that certain salts would enhance the flavor of certain foods.

The last 70 days or so, our nation has seen some major saltless changes. Our president has created a cabinet that is majority white male. The executive orders he has signed has ended services for the poor, removed anti-discrimination protections for transgender youth in schools; LGBTQ in government employment; rounded up non-criminal immigrants; removed water protectors from Sioux lands; ended student loan forgiveness programs; removed funding at healthcare centers for women, and repealed anti-pollution regulations allowing for coal ash to once again defile our water supplies.

This was going to be the bulk of my sermon.  I was going to spend most of this sermon on how returning to 1930s invisibility of the broad diversity of people hurts our society. How our palate is better when we can taste the diversity of humanity and find ways to respect our individual and collective stories.

Then an announcement of a Unitarian Universalist Association Southern Regional Lead hire was made and they were not moving into the region. Then it surfaced that there was a qualified person of color within the region who was not hired.  There was talk about “best fit” which has been seen by people of color over the decades as code for “people who look like us.” Stories started to surface about the decades long pattern of favoring whites over people of color. Our denomination had made a commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist organization and here was evidence that this was not happening.  There was a letter from our President, Peter Morales, a person of color, who used language in the letter that called those who were making the claim, hysterical. Again, terms that are traditionally used in a white supremacist culture.  People responded poorly to this letter.  And then on Thursday, Peter Morales, resigned from his office with only three months left to serve in his term.  He apologized for his insensitivity and stated that he no longer saw himself as the leader who could lead us forward through this process of reviewing hiring practices. You can find his letter on our congregation’s group Facebook page, as well as several other letters.

Everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.

With all that is happening on the national scene what happens in Boston might not seem like it is worth attention.  But it is precisely because of what is happening on the national scene that makes what is happening in our denomination take on a far more urgent status.  It is far more urgent because this congregation is a microcosm of the larger whole.  As Captain Obvious would say, this congregation is predominantly white.

As we see more and more people who had gained visibility and protections in our nation begin to lose those protections, what happens within our congregations becomes vital as a form of resistance. This nation is less safe today for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people than they were last year. How our denomination and our individual congregations responds to the national storm that is brewing is urgent.

As a congregation are we a safe place for people of color? We have a few people of color in this congregation but does that mean we are a safe place? There are people of color in our denomination who despite their vast accomplishments, despite their degrees, despite their standing in the community, despite their years as a Unitarian Universalist, still find their voices dismissed within their congregations. Members should not have to work at justifying their being one of us and valued for who they are. Their accomplishments, their degrees, their standing in the community, or their years as Unitarian Universalists should not even matter to their value to the congregation. Would we welcome a shift in culture if this congregation began to mirror the nation’s population?   Would they know they have a voice within these halls? Would their voice carry power? Or would they be met with a white centered culture and find their voice silenced and dismissed?

As a congregation are we a safe place for those who are struggling to make ends meet?  If they lose their federal or state assistance, SNAP, TANF, VA benefits, medical coverage, would they know they have a voice within these halls?  Would their voice carry power? Would they be able to invoke cultural change here to ensure that this place is safe for them? Or would we simply shake our heads and minimalize their experiences, their concerns dismissed, or worse tell them to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison in response to Rev. Peter Morales letter wrote:  We must be constantly vigilant that our culture and practices are consistent with our core values and not overshadowed or coopted by other forces that have great cultural power. White supremacy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, and other forms of power-over are constantly disguising themselves. Our movement is rooted in BOTH the ideals of religious freedom and justice AND the culture of privilege and supremacy. To assert that there is an unassailable core that is immune from critique is just plain wrong and flirts with dogmatism. There is no more important work than the careful cycle of work and reflection … We must all be open and willing to reflect on our mistakes and the ways we have become complicit with injustice. If we do not do this, we risk all credibility when we tell others that our values call us to counter oppression and injustice[iii].

To be a congregation where everyone truly feels safe will mean that we will need to create an even more inclusive culture.  A culture where no one “cultural, ethnic, or racial group dominates the church’s style of ministry[iv]” in music, structure, or activities. It would mean that whiteness is not in the cultural center but off to the side to allow Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people to rise as equal and strong pillars of the congregation. It will mean that we will need to examine where our stumbling blocks are that would hold others back from being fully embraced in community.  It will require more listening to others and holding their words, their experiences in our hearts and not responding with white fragility.  That uncomfortable feeling that somehow hearing about another’s experience is a personal affront that needs defending.

It is craving salt in a saltless society; the salt that each person uniquely and collectively brings to the table.  A desire to affirm the diversity and plurality of our many paths collectively. It is a reaffirmation of our covenantal faith, that we[v] walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

The salt of sacrifice is our willingness to uphold our covenants with one another as a sacred trust.  It is our striving to be holy as life is holy.  It is to have salt in ourselves so we may be healing balms to cleanse our wounded-ness and short comings, as preservatives of all that is just and right, and creating a covenant of relationship so that we may be at peace with one another.  May it be so. Blessed Be.

[i] The Methodist Quarterly Review, Volume 32; G. Lane and P.P. Sanford, 1850

[ii] http://woundcaresociety.org/salt-water-make-wounds-heal-faster

[iii] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5XxfpPKfHEkaU5jdm1uQi04Nkk/view

[iv] http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_ejo_multicult_ch.cfm

[v] From UUCTuscaloosa’s Membership recognition service