Friday, December 1, 2006

How Much More Profound Indeed: Creating Authentic Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Community

[Given by Petra as a Keynote Address at the 2006 Fall Conference of UU Allies for Racial Equity]

Good evening.  I'm delighted to be here with you tonight, and I thank you for your warm welcome. It helps me deal with the 35° on that thermometer outside.

I also thank you for the commitment you have made to our faith by coming here tonight. Your presence tells me that no matter where you are in your learning about the problem of racism in Unitarian Universalism, you are committed to addressing it, and committed to creating a Unitarian Universalist faith that is truly welcoming and sustaining for people of all identities. You may be familiar with many of the issues that I will be addressing tonight, but I hope you will excuse any redundancy on my part by your understanding of the difficulty of preaching to the choir. 

Working for social justice has been a fundamental part of my life for as long as I can remember. Even as a child, I remember looking for ways to contribute to justice making.  I remember clear and profound feelings that something was fundamentally wrong with the world. Listening to the conversations of the adults around me, I remember feeling that they were frequently communicating far more than they are actually saying.  I felt that everyone around me was talking in a secret language about a problem that I was aware of but could not identify. 

I now know that the problem was racism.  I can even name some of the particular aspects of racism that bothered me as a child.  For example, I couldn’t make sense of the contradiction between the landscape of my all-white town and the colorblind rhetoric of its inhabitants.  The question I wanted to ask but could not articulate was, if race doesn't matter, why are we all white? Why are the only black kids in my school bussed in every day from Boston? If anybody can be anything regardless of race, why are all my doctor's white?  Why are all teachers white, and everybody I see at my church?  

As an adult, I've come to realize that a lot of what drew me to church activities like community service and social justice was my search for a language to articulate my awareness of racism. The people around me who were planning the Oxfam dinners and the trick-or-treat for Unicef program and the monthly community service days seemed to be working to fix the world, and I was drawn to them because I figured they must know what this problem was.

I continued trying to understand throughout my youth. My search eventually led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in American Studies with a concentration in Race and Ethnicity.  My undergraduate experience encompassed a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from history to literature to psychology to sociology, all with an explicit focus on race. I started this journey because I couldn't understand the power dynamics and contradictions in the world around me.  At this point, I know I will probably never understand them entirely, and yet this issue of race continues to draw me with a twisted fascination. Race impacts all of our lives in innumerable ways every single day.  I could no more stop trying to understand race and combat racism and I could stop breathing, or stop being white.

After college, I spent two years working in the Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry at the UUA headquarters in Boston. A significant focus of my work at the UUA was to support the anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts of young adults in our denomination.  Through conferences, trainings, workshops, and committee work, I had invaluable opportunities to engage in anti-racism with Unitarian Universalists throughout the US and Canada. My UU young adult peers continue to impress me enormously with their commitment to our movement and their passion for our faith.  I was also able to work on collaborative projects with members of the UUA youth office, and plan events and programs geared jointly for youth and young adults. Despite the challenges of multigenerational anti-oppression work, these projects were among the best and most rewarding.  I encourage you to seek out current staff of the UUA youth and young adult offices, to learn more about the exciting work they continue to do.

I've been truly blessed with so many opportunities to support Unitarian Universalist justice-making. Regardless of whether or not I am working in a Unitarian Universalist context, however, my work for anti-oppression, anti-racism, and social justice is grounded in my UU principles and my UU theology.  In my opinion, our seven principles communicate an explicit message that the work of social justice is spiritual and religious work.  I know that this is also true for many if you, but in the bustle of secular life it is easy to get spiritually lazy.  One of the mixed blessings of our flexible faith is that it will only challenge us as much as we let it.

Unitarian Universalism has a reputation for being an easy religion.  After all, we don't have a dogma or creed. You don't have to perform special ceremonies in special clothes on special days. You don't even have to go to church!  And even if you do something wrong, most of us don't believe in hell so you're probably all set. At first glance, it seems as though you can believe whatever you want. All you really have to do is agree in a general way to go along with the seven principles that our congregations adopted when they were figuring out how to best work together.

It sounds so simple.  After all, there are only seven principles. I’m sure you’ve all discovered, however, that as with many seemingly simple things in life, our principles turn out to be much more complicated the more we think about them.   The more we challenge ourselves as individuals to live out in our daily lives the covenant our congregations made with each other, the more we realize the authentic spiritual challenge they present.

Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Too truly respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person is not a passive project.  It doesn't just happen because you read the first principle and decide it’s a good idea. It takes work and energy and effort. It takes care and attention and the ability to listen humbly.  It takes accountability, and the ability to hear criticism without getting defensive. It takes the ability to realize when we are wrong, to sincerely and meaningfully apologize, and to truly forgive. It takes the confidence to speak and work for justice even when such work is unpopular, and the courage to let our thoughts be known even when we don't know whether or not we’re right or wrong

For me, respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is really hard.  Every person.  Every day. Right now in my home state of Massachusetts, there’s a group of citizens trying to amend our constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage.  It's easy to respect the inherent worth and dignity of the legislators, activists, and religious leaders who put themselves at the heart of this debate and work to ensure that that marriages like the one I share with my wife remain safe and legal. Not so easy to respect the inherent worth and dignity of the guys who swore at us and told us we would burn in hell when we walked across Boston Common together the other day. 

My father works for Boston City Hall in an office that provides free advice and legal services to new immigrants to the Boston area.  It's easy to respect to his inherent worth and dignity as he and his colleagues work to provide vital services and support to some of my city's most disenfranchised residents.  Not so easy to respect the inherent worth and dignity of the activists and politicians in our state who work to make immigration process even more restrictive and difficult than it already is.

My Unitarian Universalism challenges me not just in the secular world but in my religious community as well.  Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person means being able to look critically at our own congregations, and coming to the painful realization that the culture we find in them does not, in fact, respect everyone.

Our principles call us to recognize oppression and work to eliminate it. For me, the most fundamental part of this process is the work of building respectful, healthy, and accountable relationships with each other. Accountable relationships are central part of my UU theology because they are natural outcome of respect and trust.  We build all kinds of relationships in our lives.  As individuals we build friendships, working relationships, and partnerships.  As people of faith we build relationships with the divine.  The organizations we create build relationships with each other.  Our congregations formed a covenant with each other around the seven principles, and as this organization - ARE - is continually building and rebuilding an accountable relationship with DRUUMM. Creating and maintaining respectful and accountable relationships is challenging spiritual work.  My Unitarian Universalist theology tells me that only when our relationships are healthy, accountable, and just are our religious communities spiritually whole. 

Engaging in Social Justice is so fundamental to my religious beliefs that I am frequently surprised to discover that the fundamental cause-and-effect connection between them is not obvious to everyone. Our faith being what it is, not everyone agrees with my interpretation of our tenants and principles. For me, one of the most frustrating parts of doing anti-racism and anti-oppression work in Unitarian Universalism is trying to explain why this work is so vitally important for our religion.

As I discussed, I have had many opportunities to work with amazing and motivated Unitarian Universalists working for justice and anti-racism in our faith community. I've also had many opportunities to work with many frustrating and obstinate Unitarian Universalists intent on maintaining the culture in their UU community exactly as it is because, for them, it is perfect.  I distinctly remember a particularly trying conversation I had with one of the participants at a young adult spirituality development conference.  He had attended my workshop on cultural misappropriation. In my opinion, his nose was out of joint because I had effectively told him that his identity as a wealthy white man meant that it really wasn't okay for him to build a sweat lodge and tattoo himself with henna.  Somewhat typically, however, he displaced the actual source of his discomfort and came to me to talk about why our modern understandings of intellectual property rights meant that ephemeral pieces of culture like songs and stories cannot, in fact, belong to groups of people but only to individuals.  If we take a moment to consider the implications of his argument, I think you’ll see that it leads to some disturbing and oppressive consequences. If we maintain that cultural products cannot belong to groups of people, we disregard the importance and value of cultural heritage. But he really didn’t like the idea that the need to respect the integrity of people’s cultural heritages could stand in the way of what he saw as his religious freedom.

I will freely admit that I had a difficult time respecting his inherent worth and dignity during this conversation. On other occasions I have found him to be thoughtful, kind, and intelligent, but not just then.  I won't tell you how long I spent talking to him because the length of time is rather embarrassing, but later, among supportive friends and allies, I distinctly remember exclaiming, “Oh, for heaven's sake! I know he’s allowed to disagree with me, but  . . . I'm . . . just . . . right!”

I'm sure that many of you can relate to these kinds of frustrations. I'm sure we all can think of a number of strategies to use in situations like the one I just described.  There are many ways to engage in anti-racism work.  Frustrating encounters like the one I just described have helped me come to a clearer understanding of the distinction between what I see as two parts of anti-racism work: building knowledge and fostering skills.

The knowledge part of anti-racism work involves knowing our history: understanding the events and decisions that brought us to the oppressive society in which we now live.   Knowing and understanding the definitions of words like white privilege and institutional racism. Learning to analyze a piece of information and understand the different implications it has for different people based on our identities. Finding our heroes in historic and contemporary movements for Social Justice, and learning about the justice struggles happening in our own communities today. Learning to recognize the cultural biases in the world around us and identify their sources and contexts.  In our own UU congregations, we need to understand how some parts of our history have kept us from making more progress toward anti-racist transformation.  These realizations about ourselves and our faith are painful, but building our awareness of our own shortcomings allows us to recognize our authentic strengths. We need to know ourselves and our communities in order to transform them.

Knowledge often gets credit for being the most important part of anti-racism work, but it isn't enough on its own. Education alone does not an anti-oppressive person make.  We also need to develop the essential interpersonal skills of anti-racism work: listening, communicating, building and maintaining relationships, thinking critically, and introspecting. Learning about history does not teach you how to effectively talk to people who don't have the same knowledge that you do, and it certainly doesn't teach you how to effectively listen to people. To be effectively anti-oppressive we need to develop the skill of listening to people deeply enough to understand where they're coming from, and the equally difficult skill of communicating fundamental concepts of anti-racism and anti-oppression in a way that is easy to understand and connect with.  Knowledge is absolutely invaluable and essential to the struggle for justice, but these communication skills are often even more useful in the everyday work of creating a healthy multicultural community.  During my conversation with Mr. Intellectual Property Rights, I found myself using all of my anti-oppressive communication skills to their fullest extent.         

One of the first barriers that we liberal white people usually encounter in our struggles to become anti-racist is our own disinclination to see ourselves as white.  Whiteness is supposed to be invisible.  Whiteness is not supposed the important. Whiteness is not supposed to mean anything. It's not even supposed to be anything.  The only thing it’s supposed to be is “not of color.” But of course, as you all know, since you're here, whiteness is important, visible, and it means an awful lot.  One is the first steps in our anti-racist transformation is learning to define ourselves as white.

This disinclination to attach meeting and definition to whiteness reminds me of the way that so many Unitarian Universalists feel similarly disinclined to define Unitarian Universalism. Too often we Unitarian Universalists define ourselves only by what we are not.  We are not dogmatic and we are not restrictive. We do not make rules about what we have to do or have to believe.  We do not put limits on people’s spirituality.

Limits. Let’s think about limits for a minute. I have frequently worked as a childcare provider for a number of children between ages two and four.  Through this work I've learned a few things about the value of limits. Limits are important and reassuring for the kids that I work with. Limits mean that I am paying attention to them, that I care about them, and that I'm looking out for them. It means that if something happens that makes them unhappy, they have a structure to fall back on. If I don't put limits on their behavior, they start limiting each other’s behavior through disrespect, bullying, and childhood power plays.

Without implying that the psychological needs of a typical four-year-old map out identically on to the landscape of our faith community, I maintain that there is a lesson to be learned here.  If we as a collective of Unitarian Universalists do not define and put limits on what is and is not part of our faith, then as individual Unitarian Universalists we will put limits on each other.  We will limit each other through apathy and ignorance, we will limit each other by unintentionally playing out the prejudices we internalize, and sometimes we will limit each other through explicit disrespect and oppression.

Simply saying that we are infinitely open and accepting of all individuals does not actually make us a welcoming, sustaining, and inclusive faith.  Instead, it takes away from our ability to hold each other accountable to the authentic spiritual relationships we hope to create in our communities.  With a lack of limits comes a lack of expectations for appropriate, healthy, and justice-seeking behavior. If we do not limit what is and is not ethically and essentially part of Unitarian Universalism, we cannot hold each other accountable our faith. We will limit not only each other but our entire faith. Without effective, meaningful, accountable, and well constructed limits, we will prevent our faith from achieving the anti-racist transformation we say we want and make hypocrites of us all.  We must be able to articulate a clear understanding of who we are and how we live our religious values, or we will have no sure guides for creating accountable, welcoming and sustaining Unitarian Universalist religious communities. 

This question of limits is fundamentally connected to the confusion about race that I experienced as a child. My Unitarian Universalist religious education taught me that my faith was one of freedom and exploration in which all people were welcomed with open arms.  I looked around my church, and I didn’t see much evidence that our invitation was being accepted. If Unitarian Universalism is truly so inclusive, I asked myself, why are we all the same?  My faith seemed vague and indefinite. I was looking something concrete, challenging, and inspiring to guide my spiritual life.

Working with children has also taught me thing or two about the effective use of the word “no.” Limits by themselves are not enough.  We also have to offer an alternative.  It's all very well to tell my three-year-old charge not to eat the crayons, but if I don't hand him some crackers or applesauce, he'll turn right around and start eating paint. Similarly, it's not enough to say, don't be oppressive. We also have to be able to say, here’s a healthy, respectful way to do worship. Here is an accountable and authentically just way to do religious freedom.  Here is a right way to do faith. Here is a Unitarian Universalist way to do religion.

Thinking about some of the challenges I commonly encounter as I work to combat racism and oppression within our Unitarian Universalist community reminded me of a related frustration I had while at college.  One of the best classes I took at school was a survey of United States history entitled "Ethnic Minorities in America." Structured chronologically, the course systematically covered the experiences of different groups of People of Color in the United States. The course provided an invaluable foundation for my entire undergraduate experience and for my life outside of school. It gave me the background and context for the justice struggles I saw happening in the world around me and a vocabulary to explain the paradoxes of my white and liberal middle-class upbringing.  I know I wasn't alone in finding this course so affecting.

Multicultural education was a heated topic at my school.  I was part of a large and vocal community of students and professors who called for the school to put greater emphasis on the study of race relations, imperialism, and of the histories and struggles of People of Color. Although many of these kinds of classes were available, they were only available in particular departments: sociology, history, African-American studies -- the usual collection of humanities and social sciences classes.  Whether through conscious intention or simple apathy, most students of science, mathematics and languages avoided those classes. I felt that an understanding of oppression was essential for all students at our school, regardless of academic discipline, and that no one should be able to get out of it by avoiding the history, literature, and social science departments. 

I decided to see what it would take to adjust the graduation requirements so that everyone would need to take a class about the history of oppression in America. Surely if I could just make the entire school take my amazing “Ethnic Minorities in America,” class, things would improve dramatically.  How could my fellow students fail to have the same profound experience that I had had?

I was talking about this issue with one of my professors after class one day. His name is Professor Floyd Cheung. He is a Professor of English and Asian Pacific Islanders Studies and a first-generation Chinese-American.  He is also one of the most thoughtful and insightful people I know.  I told Professor Cheung about my scheme. Instead of immediately agreeing and offering to help me write the proposal, which is what I had kind of expected, he fell silent, frowning thoughtfully.

You know Petra, he said after a moment, history is not everyone's cup of tea.  I'm concerned that if all students were required to take a particular class, or a particular type of class, about the history of oppression, then that class would lose its meeting and its power.  Aside from simple overcrowding in the classroom and aside from the unfair amount of work that that would put on the few professors who are qualified to teach such a class, I'm sure that the students would find ways to “beat the system.” People’s experiences in the classroom are much more rewarding when they are authentically passionate about the subject they are studying and the skills they are learning. I would encourage you to try and think more broadly and more deeply.  Instead of requiring science majors to take a class in multicultural history, how much more profound would it be to require that science be taught from a multicultural perspective?

I started to think to think about that.  How much more profound would that be, and what would it even mean? How do you teach science and math from a multicultural perspective?  What is multicultural biology?  What does anti-oppressive organic chemistry look like?  What is revolutionary calculus? What does an anti-imperialist approach to the study of the French language entail?  Anti-racist psychology?  Anti-sexist engineering? How much more profound indeed. 

How much more profound to require that no French class be taught without equal inclusion of writers from the French imperial colonies in Africa, in Southeast Asia, and in South America.  How much more profound to require that no psychology class be taught without addressing the way the cultural biases and expectations of psychologists influence the outcomes of their research. I recently heard an anecdote from a very dear friend about his Intro to Chemistry class at Cornell. As part of his course, his Professor assigned readings from the memoirs of Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levy, who was interned in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  Through their discussions and essays, my friend and his fellow students learned not only chemistry but history and religious tolerance. Simultaneously.  How profound indeed. As Professor Cheung told me, people are more passionate about the subjects they choose for themselves.  How much more profound to require people to teach and learn about their passions in a way that is anti-oppressive, and to understand how their chosen discipline –whatever it may be-  is intricately connected to the struggle for liberation and justice that we all share.

Like academia segmenting into various disciplines, we Unitarian Universalists tend to segment our religion into bits and pieces as well.  The community piece.  The spirituality piece.  The social justice piece. The religious education piece.  The pastoral care piece, the music piece, the worship piece, the decorations and refreshments committee piece. The leadership and governance piece. The anti-oppression piece.  People choose to participate in the pieces that are most meaningful and interesting to them.  For many Unitarian Universalist, it is this exact freedom that defines us.

In so much of the anti-oppression work we try to do to transform our denomination, the fundamental goal is to inspire all UU’s to participate in the anti-oppression piece of our faith (usually, workshops). But in the same way that not everyone is a history person, not everyone is a workshop person either. The gentleman that I talked about earlier -- the one concerned about intellectual property rights -- was exceptional among his crowd in that he actually came to the anti-oppression programming we offered at that conference.  A lot of our participants exercised their religious freedom by opting out of the anti-racism track.  The more I think about this, the more I wonder how much more profound would be for our faith to require that all the various pieces of Unitarian Universalism be done in a way that is anti-oppressive and anti-racist.

For many Unitarian Universalists, it is our freedom that defines us. The problem with defining ourselves in terms of our freedoms, however, is that we end up unwilling to pin ourselves down to anything. Remember what I said earlier about the fundamental importance of well constructed limits? Freedom from dogma is wonderful.  Freedom from everything is empty.   

Defining ourselves by our limitless freedom becomes even more troublesome when we think critically about the origin and source of the freedom we claim. Who set Unitarian Universalist free?  We set ourselves free. Why was our predominantly white, predominantly wealthy, predominantly well-educated denomination able to do that? Because of the privileges of class and race. We proclaim ourselves free to explore and discover, but you know what? So did Christopher Columbus. Large groups of privileged white people who talk only of their freedoms and will not accept limits are not trustworthy. As a Queer person, I am used to hearing the words "God is Love," and understanding that not all of the people speaking think that God actually loves me. Without presuming to speak definitively from a perspective and identity not my own, I would imagine that most People of Color are used to hearing the words "we're all free here," and knowing that the words don't necessarily apply to them. We have to be able to define ourselves in a way that is trustworthy and accountable to the people we hope to be allies to and the people we hope to include.

Instead of defining ourselves by our lack of limits and our freedom to do as we please, what if we were to build our faith in such a way that we could define it by our welcoming, sustaining, just, and spiritual communities?  What if being anti-racist and anti-oppressive truly was an essential, integrated, and fundamental part of Unitarian Universalism? How much more profound indeed.

If all aspects of our faith were built on a foundation of authentic respect for all people, our churches would overflow.  If all of our work for social justice were truly grounded in and driven by an authentically Unitarian Universalist theology of just relationship, we could truly change the world. The foundation is laid and the tools are in our hands.  We need only start to build.

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