From Color Blind to Color Brave – Reflections (3.10.2019)

Removing Rose-Colored Glasses/ Al Nathan and Charles Alexander

Charles – Hello all.My name is Charles, and this is my brother from a lighter mother, Al Nathan. In January, Al, Catherine, and I had the chance to attend the New Day Rising Conference held at the Unitarian Church of Fairfax.  New Day Rising was born out of the need to help your UU congregations assess and respond to the struggle against white supremacy culture. It was a day of new learning that culminated with several congregations, including ours, sending representatives to speak about the racial justice journeys their churches are on. Al and I had the opportunity to represent UUCSS and share out racial justice journey over the past few years.

Al – Last week, Catherine Boyle spoke about the birth of UUCSS. The founders of our church saw a need in Silver Spring to create a UU space “that would link the then country side, where the traditions of the past met with this neighborhood building for the future.” This church was founded with the idea that there was a great future for UUism in Silver Spring. We believe this to be as true today as it was in the past. We are at a crossroads, and if the mission of the past is to ring true today, if we are truly a church that sees a great future for UUism in Silver Spring we must be able to create a space that is welcome to every person of every race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, differing ability and the hearing and Deaf alike. We share the words we shared at the New Day Rising Conference to celebrate our successes, reflect upon our struggles, and set the stage for our church to move into the future.

Charles – The Color Blind Phase: Back around 2007, our minister, Liz Lerner was troubled by the lack of racial and cultural diversity at UUCSS. She formed the Diversity Team, which was comprised of people of color who would essentially serve as an advisory committee for Rev. Liz. Overtime, the members of color pulled back to make room for White people to join in the work. It was Rev. Liz’s leadership that started us on the path toward Equity and Racial Justice. The team met monthly, planned services, donated to social justice organizations, and helped usher in more inclusive worship practices.

In those early days, we focused on cultural celebrations that were fun and uplifting. Discussion of White Supremacy always focused on what we saw in the world and how White UUs might be more supportive and appreciative of differences. We were energized by exciting new content and programs. Hey, We were “feelin’” ourselves. Our sense of self-righteousness was actualized when we called Rev. Leon Dunkley to serve as our associate minister. Rev. Leon brought a unique voice and perspective this church needed, and Rev. Leon also became a shining symbol for who we thought ourselves to be. We thought the calling of Rev. Leon, our own Barack Obama, was ushering a post racial era at UUCSS.

Unfortunately we were too focused on the aesthetics of diversity. As we evolved, we evolved in a way that served Whiteness. We ignored or did not think to address the underlying practices and structures that maintain White supremacy. As we evolved, serval members of color felt the sting of microaggressions, implicit biases, and stereotypes. As we evolved, we needed to find a way to ensure that minoritized voices were heard.

Al- We were about to embark upon the next phase of our journey where we’d have to face the spiritual crisis of white supremacy and racism within our church. The Diversity Team ran the Building the World We Dream About curriculum in an effort to raise awareness among congregants of racial identity issues and racism.  Most of the participants were white.  Congregants of color that participated tried to talk about facing microaggressions within the church.  Those moments brought a tense and heavy silence followed by sudden changes of topic.  They were moments of mini-crisis.  The veil was being lifted.

In the wake of Ferguson we formed the Racial Justice Task Force.  The initial turn out of fifty or so congregants and members of the community was hopeful.  We thought we were ready to head to the streets in protest as a unified church.  We brought the formation of our task force to the annual meeting for community approval.  There was discord and division over whether we should stand behind “Black Lives Matter”.  What about “Trans Lives Matter”, or “All Lives Matter”.  People were hurt, offended, and some congregants left the church.

The RJTF tried to push on.  We organized discussion groups, and went to vigils and marches.  We tried to enlist the congregation to participate but didn’t get the large turn out we desired.  We began to imagine ourselves better white allies than our peers.

We were standing at the precipice of crisis with our ministers giving conflicting messages.  One cautioning not to push people where they aren’t ready to go.  The other encouraging us to enter the crisis, to face our vulnerabilities and walk courageously into it.  As a church we wanted to be the antiracist, multicultural beloved community, at the same time we were just coming aware of how we were fighting against the internal changes that goal required.

The crisis came like a tsunami when we Rev Leon left.  It was white fight – white congregants divided, one side accused of being racists, the other side calling those folks trouble makers.  POC let the congregation know they felt they weren’t being heard.  We had to face that we weren’t the church we thought we were.

Charles – UUCSS, like many UU churches, by nature challenges the status quo. Social action is a part of our tradition. UUism is also a very White religious denomination, and as such is prone to White supremacy, even as we work to dismantle it through racial justice action. For this reason, we must root White supremacy out, wherever it exists, including with in our own walls. Truthfully, there is no one within our walls who consciously ascribes to White supremacy. Rather, it’s woven into the air we breath, light we see, and the very structure of how UU’s go about their business. It’s so pervasive we are blind to it.

We have come to the realization that any racial justice work we do must start with our looking inward, engaging in dialogue with each other, elevating minoritized voices, and facing what we have been conditioned to ignore. Instead of seeking comfort, we need to embrace the uncomfortable.  Instead of having fear, we must show courage. We have come to realize that the impact of our racial justice work is lessened because we have not successfully dealt with our own racist tendencies. We will continue our work to address White Supremacy in our community. We will continue to address White Supremacy with our vote. We will continue to march and profess, “Black Lives Matter.” But we will also encourage our members to look inward and engage in Color Brave Conversations. As we look outward to change the world, we look inward and engage in personal work to make sure that our work serves the greater good of every ethnicity, and we will avoid going about our work in a way that perpetuates the supremacy of Whiteness. Color Blind to Color Brave Conversations about Race (formerly known as Study Circles) is the start of our internal work.

Al – Find the joy in this work, find each other in that interconnected web. The first step is looking inward, to our vulnerability.  It requires humbling ourselves.  Giving ourselves over to something higher however we conceive and imagine it.  Our worry about losing face melts away in this love that holds us all together.  Our worry about the responsibility to do something eases when we feel each other bearing that responsibility together.  Our fears of losing the familiar gives way to the joy of renewal and possibility as we learn how to learn from each other and change together.
So whether we are doing film and discussion, marching in the streets, praying or reflecting or doing the work of holding together and running this church, we are doing it from this space of spiritual grounding.  That’s how we build the world we dream about and become color brave.  And that is how we’ll march toward embracing and living through the 8th principle.

We have shared our reflection about where we have been and how we plan to weave the interconnected web, and we invite Robin and Rob to share their reflections about their experiences participating in Color Blind to Color Brave Conversations.

Personal Reflection/ Robin Moore-LaskyRobin

1. Charles asked me to speak about my journey, and how his workshop, Color Blind to Color Brave, made a difference to me.
2. It might be easier to describe how it felt, than to try to explain it rationally. I’m going to go all white lady on you — and quote 13th Century Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi:
Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.
We are too dull-eyed to see that beauty. If we say we can, we’re lying.
If we say No, we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.
So let us rather not be sure of anything, Beside ourselves, and only that, so Miraculous beings come running to help. Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty, We shall be a mighty kindness.

 3. This is the way it happened to me. Rumi says,
We are too dull-eyed to see this beauty. If we say we can, we’re lying.
I hear this as, “rationality fails us.” My critical thinking skills, my brain, certainly was failing me. I couldn’t figure out where to enter. I like to be right. I work from my brain a lot. I have been burned talking about race. I thought I grew up post-racial. I am a New Yorker, for God’s sake. I don’t do protest marches, I can’t handle them, I get overwhelmed and sick. It’s too much. I am heartbroken and yearning for my friends to be safe but I don’t know what to do.
If we say we can, we’re lying.
If we say No, we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.
4. I didn’t join you — or you — at protests and marches.
I didn’t even wear a BLM button.
I didn’t even fight with people on Facebook! Well, barely.
5. But you learn things in church. You learn things from familiar faces. At a service about a year ago Charles sang a Jill Scott song. It was a love song, a physical, confusing song, about yearning and rejection and heartbreak and confusion. You think it’s about a lover but then — Oh Say Can You See.
6. And I couldn’t stop crying. I’d been broken open. Helpless, like the poet asks me to be. It was about that man, over there, but it was also about everyone, in a situation of heartbreak.

 Maybe I didn’t understand. What’s to understand? Everyone understands a love song.
7. Here’s what happened: it wasn’t about me anymore. About knowing. What. To do.
Some people call this “DeCentering Yourself.”
The fight wasn’t centered on me any more, but I was the only thing I could change.
I needed to fight for my friends, my country, my communities. I started wearing my button.
I started speaking up.
8. Now I understand the poet said:
Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.
You are allowed to not know. You can give in. You’re collapsed! And someone else comes to pick you up, a stretcher — such a weird image — why not an Uber?
9. My stretcher was Charles’ Color Blind to Color Brave workshop. Have you ever done that trust exercise, where you have to fall into the arms of the guy who could promote you? OK so, not like in that exercise, this one broke down barriers in a meaningful way.
10. In the workshop, we spent two half-days together, in conversations. We had to talk about hard things. It wasn’t only race. We were real with each other. We weren’t pressed, except from within ourselves. We heard each other’s points of view, and some tough reflections from people of color about this place, our time together. It’s not easy to hear.

 But we could see that we are all bound up together. My freedom as a woman with yours as a person of color, and with someone else’s freedom as a shy person or someone who didn’t finish college or someone who feels left out or misunderstood in all kinds of other ways.
11. Rumi says,
Miraculous beings come running to help.
In workshop, I looked around and saw all the different ways we could all be allies. Different voices, different skills. And all the diversities of this community would be assets and part of our allied work. And I heard the folks around me, all at different stages and with different gifts, all of us working — uncomfortably, with good intentions — together.
All these people trusted each other. All of us were flawed. In workshop, I let go of the insane idea that any of us have to do it perfectly. Mistakes are made in trust! Which is beautiful.
Rumi says,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty, We shall be a mighty kindness.
beauty has to be, only, the true world, even in all its ugliness.
Twice, Rumi refers to “this beauty” — What is — this beauty? The
14. And we have to ​surrender​ to it. I have to surrender to the truth that America has broken Charles’ heart, over and over again, and I have been part of it.

I can only be a small helper in this big ugly picture. But how can I not do that?
15. Rumi says, we shall be a mighty kindness – what kind of hippy dippy….?
If I don’t have to be in charge — if this fight is real — then a mighty kindness is a ferocious fight for the justice I want so much to love.
And I don’t have to do it alone, or right.
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.

Personal Reflection/ Rob Dahlstrom

Before I retired, I worked as an Electronics Engineer. That field was a natural for me because, even as a child, I was always curious, asking questions about how things worked, wanting to understand. I would take things apart just to see how they worked and, usually, I could put them back together again. Now, after 70 years of working as an engineer and living that way, I expect to be able to understand things.

I didn’t understand. At a congregational meeting, we discussed a motion to support Black Lives Matter. Some people preferred that we say All Lives Matter instead of Black Lives Matter. After a long discussion, we chose Black Lives Matter. A person left the church. Was it because we were already supposed to know why it should be Black Lives Matter? Isn’t open discussion the way we learn? Or was it because the reasons for using Black Lives Matter that came up in our discussion weren’t good enough?

I didn’t understand. Rev. Leon Dunkley, a black man who was then our associate minister, was asked to resign as a result of a conflict between him and the senior minister. Not surprisingly, many people were upset at losing someone that they felt close to and who had been an important source of ministry for them. Our senior minister stayed. That seemed right and proper to me though I was saddened by the loss of someone who had been truly inspiring and supportive. Many people were upset that they had no say in the decision that was made. Still others saw the decision as being influenced by race or, maybe, should have been different because of race. I had not expected that.

I didn’t understand. Other times, clearly things were going on that were upsetting but I didn’t understand enough to even be able to talk about them here.

I didn’t understand. Why do we talk about white supremacy? Aren’t the white supremacists the ones that go around marching with weird torches and costumes? That’s not us. What I didn’t realize was how effective white culture has been in perpetuating elements of slavery in all but name as much as it could in the systems of white culture that dominate our country.

I wanted to understand. When people leave the church it is a loss for the church and it is also a personal loss for me. Not understanding why people would leave left me saddened and helpless to do anything about it.

Friendships are important to me. I enjoy being in racially diverse groups of people and find friendships with people from different backgrounds to be enriching.

After I retired many years ago, I started riding my bicycle with a group that rode 35 miles every Friday. That group was not diverse at that time. It was mostly made up of white retired people who could ride on weekdays with a couple of others that had flexible work schedules. Over the years, that group has changed in many ways. It went to two rides a week, Tuesdays and Fridays. I became a co-leader of the ride.

As new people joined, it became more diverse in age, background, ability, and, more relevant here, race. I don’t know why that happened. We didn’t do anything intentionally except try to keep our group welcoming to slower riders. It was probably just due to the new people joining us being younger but the diversity made for a much richer experience for me. However, when it comes to race I am not always comfortable and I experienced that here as well. I found myself being careful to avoid offending people due to my lack of understanding and not knowing what would be inappropriate. That did get in the way of my relationships and that was painful to me.

When I heard of Study Circles, now Color Blind to Color Brave Conversation (CBCBC?), it sounded like a place to get my answers so I signed up.

I have avoided these kinds of programs in the past because I didn’t see myself as a part of the problem. I had heard that they were designed to make attendees uncomfortable and label them as racist. I liked to think of myself as colorblind because I would be unaware of seeing color in those that I had been friends with for a long time. It was similar to the way my awareness of other characteristics would fade over time. But an awareness of race is always there in meeting someone for the first time and it does make a difference. I do benefit by being among the dominant culture. Every time I benefit, I’m part of the problem. Do I want to give up these benefits? No. But do I want those who haven’t had them to have them now? Yes. There is abundance. There is enough to go around. Whether it is material goods or fair and proper treatment and respect.

I found Study Circles to be a place that gives permission to practice talking about racial issues with an understanding of where I was coming from and an appreciation of what it was like for others. The point wasn’t about making me feel guilty. It was about learning to be more comfortable with those whose experience is very different. It was about how we come together as a community.

Now do I understand? Do I have all the answers? No; a few but not all by any means. But I now have permission to talk about my lack of understanding and some skills in doing that. Isn’t that what is really important? To be in a continuing process of learning to be more sensitive to the experiences that others have lived.  Particularly for those who have been and are continuing to be the target of deliberate efforts to withhold the rights that those in the dominant white culture take for granted.

I encourage you to participate in this program for your own benefit and also for the benefit of this church community. As more and more people among us do this work, we can’t help but be better able to welcome the diversity within our congregation that we seek.