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.

Keeping the Dream Alive

“Keeping The Dream Alive”  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 17 January 2010 © Rev. Fred L Hammond

 “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!” (Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream)

These words of Martin Luther King, Jr. resounded loud across the mall from the Lincoln Memorial and they still echo today, I have a dream. I would love to be able to stand before you some forty plus years after King’s words were shouted from the roof tops of injustice and tell you that the dream has been fulfilled. But fulfilling the dream is not simply declaring through legislation that all people are created equal or by having little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls. Nor is it in electing the nation’s first African American as President. Nor is it by marching tomorrow in the annual Unity March that honors the life of this great man, a prophet for our times.

No, these are only the symbolic and surface acts that either mirror what is within our hearts or act as a deflector away from what is in our hearts. We have learned the hard way that racism is more complicated and more insidious than the behaviors that are displayed publicly.

Towards the final days of King’s life, he too was beginning to realize that racism in America is more than just black and white relations. He was beginning to talk about racism as it is tied into economic justice and war. King in his famous speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” stated “it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” I want to tell you today that even this realization of King’s is too simplified regarding racism in America.

Over the last forty years our denomination has also learned that racism is more than just the symbolic act of marching. We learned that the hard way. Our History in relation to the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s is a proud one. We joined King in the fight for voting rights, for desegregation, for employment opportunities. We marched with him in Selma and we even lost lives there. We thought we understood racism fairly well.

But after the marching was done, after the civil rights act was signed, riots broke out across this land, and we as a denomination sought to respond to this crisis and found ourselves to be complicit in racism. The consequent Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960’s and 70’s became a painful moment in our history that few want to revisit. To define the Empowerment Controversy with all its complexities and nuances simplistically, the question being asked was, were African American UU’s on an equal and level playing field with white UU’s for projects to address the justice issues in the Black communities? Whites, privileged with power and in control of the money sought to define what power, what self-differentiation African American UU’s could or should have within the denomination. Dr. Norma Poinsett, a former member of the Black Concerns Working Committee, a group that was formed in the 1980’s said at the 2001 General Assembly, “…We argued that black people should take charge of affairs affecting black people. We argued that only we could determine what our values should be and what was good for our communities. We were experts on our chaotic condition, we contended, because we faced racism daily both north and south.” (P12 The Arc of the Universe is Long [TAUL]) The answer that appeared to arise resulted in disaster. We are talking painful, gut wrenching disaster that nearly ended our faith. The UUA backed away from its commitments, African Americans left the denomination en mass. It was a painful time in our history. A moment in our history that made us realize that as a faith group we had our work cut out for ourselves.

After many years of licking our wounds, we started again to address the issue of diversity and race within our congregations. We began to revisit the issues with an Institutional Race Audit in 1980-81. This audit gave 31 recommendations to the UUA. Included in the audit was a cultural phenomenon they called the Liberal Syndrome. An example noted “while talking about racism, many UU’s assumed the liberal church to be enlightened and therefore, not needing to do anymore in the way of action.” (p 20 TAUL) The UUA board adopted to implement 25 of the audit’s recommendations yet the UUA was slow to act.

In 1983, the Commission on Appraisal released its report, Empowerment: One Denomination’s quest for Racial Justice 1967-1982. It took a hard look at the controversy that nearly destroyed the denomination. The result of this appraisal was a task force on racism. The task force recommended the establishment of the Black Concerns Working Group with the charge “to eliminate racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association” and gave the working group a budget of $5,000 to do so. This was a high expectation and scant resources to meet it. It seemed as if the true expectation to be put in place was failure.

The work that this group began would continue over the ensuing years to evolve and morph into other models and groups for dialog. The work would suffer push back. The work would engender anger within the denomination. The work to change the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations into an anti-racist multi-cultural institution has proved to be long and hard. We made mistakes. We learned some things as well along the way.

One of the lessons learned was the mistake of taking on an anti-racist program steeped in Lutheran Christian theology and applying carte blanche to UU’s. The program in its first incarnation known as Journey Towards Wholeness contained in its theology an approach of guilt. Jacqui James, religious educator stated that the message was, “You’re guilty, you’re racist… the whole approach of guilt. We didn’t spend much time helping people think about their identity and that’s important. Racism affects all people of color but our histories are different and it took us a while to understand that.” (p 379 TAUL )

The current programs and trainings on anti-racism focus more on listening where people are at, sitting with them attentively as they discuss how racism impacted their lives growing up. We have all been impacted by racism because our societal structures were created with one group of people in power over and above all others. Whether we are viewed by others as being a member of a certain race or we identify as being a member of a certain race, we are all impacted by racism. Therefore the current programs on anti-racism include learning how to recognize and let go of the behaviors that are unconsciously ingrained into our repertoire.

We learned that racism is not just a black / white issue, it was also a Latino/a, a Pacific Islander, a Native American issue. And each area and region of the country had slightly different concerns that impacted on how racism was experienced.

For Latino/as culture and language come into play. Rev. Patricia Jimenez writes about how this might affect a congregation. She says, “from my own culture [what] informs my ideas of an ideal religious community … include: a respect for elders; a profound sense of the importance of family and community; the inclusion of children in all activities; and of the need for celebration which includes the joys of both culture and language.” (p 290 TAUL)

Becoming an anti-racist institution requires listening from the heart. And it requires a re-introduction of anti-racist multi-cultural concepts every time the group changes dynamics. Gini Coulter, moderator of the UUA, discovered this when she first served on the board of the UUA, that just when the board agreed to be an anti-racist board—the new people would come to serve new terms. A whole new dynamic with new stories and histories being consciously and unconsciously presented at the table meant starting over again to agree to be an anti-racist board.

And so it is in most congregations where the turnover rate is about 10-15% per year. New people come in who may not be as savvy on internalized racism or homophobia. The work needs to be refreshed and people welcomed in.

What is being learned as the association slowly continues this work to root out racism from the denomination is that we need to learn new skills to live in a pluralist society. And if our congregations are going to mirror that pluralist society, then we have to learn these new skills here as well.

One of these skills I believe is a skill in comfortability. It is a word I coined a few years back at an anti-racist audit for Meadville Lombard Theological School. Comfortability is the skill in being able to sit in our discomfort when topics such as racism begin to hit too close to home. Discussion of racism inevitably if we are honest with ourselves, regardless of our racial identity, will cause a bit of discomfort. It will stir up memories of experiences that we have had that may still be raw in our emotional psyches and may have nothing to do with what the person or persons are discussing specifically. It is hard to look at how our behavior, even those committed unconsciously, affects another person of a different perspective or different ethnicity. If we are not able to tolerate that discomfort then we tend to shut down, tend to stop listening, and tend to become angry. We may even lash out at the speaker without meaning to cause harm because of our unresolved experience or memory. Developing the skill of comfortability allows for us to stay at the table even if what we are hearing is painfully true about our own behavior or painful in the memories it stirs up or simply painful to hear in general.

The work towards racial equity and justice is not easy work. It is not something we can symbolically do once a year and expect to suddenly be inclusive of all people. It is not a check off on a list of things to do in life like passing 4th grade and exclaiming now that is done, I never have to revisit the 4th grade again. This work is relational.

This work is one on one relational and it is also relational in a group setting because we each bring to the table our own histories, our own woundedness, our own successes and regrets. And each group is different from the last because the make up of the group changes the dynamics each time it comes together.

So let’s bring this home for us today. Tomorrow we will be walking with the Unity March to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is important that we are there because our faith ancestors marched with King in Selma and in other communities for racial equality. It is important that we honor this history that our faith ancestors had a part in creating with their sweat, tears and with their lives.

But what will we do come Tuesday? Will we say to ourselves that is another check off on our list of things to accomplish in 2010? If it is then we will be fooling no one but ourselves.

I don’t know if any of you saw the paper on Friday where there was a story about an event celebrating King’s birthday at the Hargrove Memorial United Methodist Church. The minister there said the event was aimed at promoting racial reconciliation. I am sorry that I didn’t know about it in advance as I would have enjoyed being there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to sit down at a potluck with members of his congregation and talk about racial reconciliation?

We have already been successful in sitting down with our friends at University Presbyterian Church. To my knowledge nobody died from that experience. We have done some joint programs with UPC and some new joint programs are coming up in the near future.

What if we reached out to Hargrove Methodist Church to get to know them, enter in a dialog to learn from them their experiences of living in Alabama in the 21st century? Share a meal together. And then who knows what might happen. Perhaps there are social justice issues that we can collaborate on with them. Perhaps we already are and don’t even know it.

Imagine what could occur from such a meeting? Imagine the friendships that we could develop. Imagine the difference we could make in Tuscaloosa if our two congregations were able to have this happen.

I imagine that members of this church may be marching tomorrow. I would like to challenge you to begin conversations with the people we meet tomorrow. And if any of you meet people from this church I would like you to ask them if they were at the event their church held on Friday night. Ask them to tell you about it. And just listen to their story and allow things to unfold. Then later, talk to each other about your experiences at this march. The people you met and their stories and more importantly share your experiences in marching. Listen to one another attentively as we tell our stories of the day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. It is a dream that is unfolding if we keep it alive in our own hearts as each day passes with each person we meet. Blessed Be.

Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 5:08 pm  Comments Off on Keeping the Dream Alive  
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