Racism is the White Man’s Burden

Description: “Inspired by the ‘Church in the Mirror‘ sermon delivered by congregant Charles Alexander, I reflect upon what I’ve learned about my internalized white identity and sense of superiority. With the help of beloved fellow travelers in the ongoing struggle to understand and overcome racism and white supremacy, I’ve discovered the damage whiteness has done to my spirit and to my capacity to live within the beloved community. I offer my vision of our church in this struggle including where we have been, where we are, and the possibilities for healing and liberation that stand before us.”

When I first met Ken I simply didn’t like him.  I thought he was an arrogant bigot.  I remember a dinner party at his house and how he complained about black people at his work place.  He said they used race as an excuse for laziness.  They didn’t want to work.  And you couldn’t criticize their work without offending them.  To be honest, I hated him.  He made me sick.  I thought he was a typical white rich snob.  What I didn’t realize is what I was thinking of myself in this context.  I didn’t articulate it to myself at the time but I certainly thought myself far superior to him.  Morally, intellectually, and in all ways an all-around better person.  Ironic to think myself superior in the context of my accusations about him thinking himself superior.  Here I am some ten plus years later and better able to see myself and my whiteness in the mirror.

Last year fellow congregant Charles Alexander gave us an inspiring and timely sermon entitled Church in the Mirror.  My sermon today is an effort to continue the spiritual work Charles so well named for us.  To quote from Charles, “When we think of the words, ‘White Supremacy’ we think of disgruntled, angry, white men draped in bed sheets terrorizing people of color.  But it is not Klan style White Supremacy that poses the greatest threat to Unitarian Universalism.  It is the moderate voice of White Supremacy that poses the greatest threat, the moderate voice of White Supremacy that is most damaging”.

What is this moderate white supremacy?  Whiteness is a consciousness.  It is a worldview, a hierarchical, rank order, status driven system; materialistic, outcome oriented, focused upon winning.  It by definition creates race and divides the world into factions and castes.  It is a worldview that situates white people as superior, at the top of the caste system.

Again to quote from Charles’ sermon “Moderate White Supremacy is systemic, invasive, and self-perpetuating, continually prioritizing White cultural values and interests above those of marginalized people of color.  It permeates and corrupts our practices, systems and institutions, even corrupting the reforms we institute to bring about equality”.

What does whiteness, moderate white supremacy do to white people?  To be sure, it is one of many layers of consciousness and identity we embody.  We are far more than white.  We may identify with our European heritage and we may value being American for the people we’ve known and loved and the communities we cherish.  We share our common UU faith.  We are caring, thoughtful, and invested in our spiritual growth.  And we might actually be quite adept at managing difficult emotion and interpersonal conflict when we are grounded within the identities and sense of community that cultivate that which is authentic within us.

It is in the context of race that we become white, that this white consciousness absorbs us.  We become anxious, fragile, preparing ourselves for that anticipated blow to our self-esteem when we are made to feel guilty about racism.  We become angry and self-righteous ready to point the finger at the white racist so that finger won’t be pointed at us.  When we are in that moderate white supremacy space we compete for status and rank, to be the best white ally, the most emotionally demonstrative, the one who knows the most about Black history or has attended the most racial justice actions or trainings.

I can speak from experience here.  I see it in myself.  Not just in those moments when I’m finding myself seeking the approval of black activists.  But when I’m interacting with other white people, like Ken.  I’ve come to think that racism is the white man’s burden in this way.  It is important to stand up for those that are vulnerable.  But when we make the fight against racism too much about good white people saving black people from bad white people we are perpetuating the hierarchical structure of white culture – white people still above black people even if in an intended benevolent way; and fighting against an enemy in the form of the bad white people.  We lose sight of the goal which is to eradicate the damage racism has done to our essential interconnectedness.  The massive harm that has taken place under the deluded spell of racism can only happen when there is failure to see each other’s humanity, when we have lost our grip upon our essential interconnectedness.  Racism cannot be healed by exclusion.

This dynamic is insidious and spreads as we see within white liberal communities the same divisions – the sort of divisions we witnessed in our church when the Racial Justice Task Force was formed.  You might recall the debate that unfolded at our annual meeting a few years ago.  “Black Lives Matter” on one side and “All Lives Matter on another side.  There were hurt feelings that day.  And there was anger and disappointment.  There was very little opportunity for dialogue.  Not much chance to ask “what makes you feel that way” or to express “here’s how I’m feeling about what you are saying”.

Consider that the absence of such dialogue might well have been influenced by the shape and structure of our meetings.  Often we set up microphones within the two aisles where a line of congregants wait to have their turn to voice their opinion.  Think about circles and the difference between circles and parallel lines – parallel lines never meet.  Geometrically speaking they define two sides that never come together.  A circle encloses, holds a space, and there is no escaping togetherness.  Perhaps the way we shape and organize such meetings arises out of the layers of white culture so embedded in our understanding of reality, we can’t see it or even think about it.  I believe we saw a similar phenomenon when we lost our beloved ministers.  We split into sides, parallel lines, and in many ways we lost sight of each other.  This community that thought itself united in liberal values became partisan, aligning with one minister or the other, for the board and against the board.  In a way this liberal community split into liberal and conservative factions, one side challenging authority and the other protecting authority.  And remember the context – race, the loss of our Black minister.  Many of us forgot that these same board members were also our fellow congregants.  And many of us couldn’t consider how we might be repeating something rising out of the shadows of the trauma of racism through the structures and roles embedded within the body and governance of our church.

As we’ve struggled through these challenges in our community I’ve also seen many circles form.  The healing circles where congregants met not to protest or investigate what happened, but to be together to recognize the loss.  We formed a Healing Task Force.  I think to the extent this Healing Task Force was helpful it was because we worked on healing ourselves first.  We told each other our personal stories of loss.  What we had in common was the deep, ever-lasting movement of our hearts and spirits.  For some of us our spirits were touched most authentically by Reverend Leon, for some by Reverend Liz, and still others in different ways by both ministers.  We recognized what was most important in the revelation of our personal stories, not which minister was better or who more wrong and blameworthy, but the honoring of the diverse ways each of our hearts were touched and our spirits were given ministry.  I think the greatest success of the Healing Task Force might have been what we did for each other.  I think we became a healing circle.

I believe through this experience of losing our ministers, we’re learning about our way of counting upon a beloved leader to make everything better.  We’re learning how to be a collective, to rely upon our interconnectedness with each other.  It is one of our UU principles that comes out of the essential worth and dignity of every human being.  It is our belief in our essential interconnectedness.  As Charles called it “our collective consciousness”.  And as he pointed out in his sermon “we are the church”.

I wonder about the impact of white culture upon our capacity to trust this space of interconnectedness.  Might the self-contained individualism of white culture at times blind us to the collective?  Perhaps more ominous, might the idea of white community be all too closely linked in the minds of white liberals to white supremacy in the form of white nationalism.

I’m going to quote from my own work here, an article entitled Reflections on the Trauma of Racism:

Racism is trauma.  It leaves vague and disturbing impressions within our minds and bodies.  It is more than the implicit bias implied when a White woman clutches her purse in the presence of Black teenagers.  It is the history of slavery, segregation, lynching, ghettoes, mass incarceration, and police violence.  Not just the historical and present day facts, but the lived experience of human cruelty.  And to really enter the space of this trauma that is both historical and ongoing feels dangerous.  It is painful.  It is brutal.  It is riddled with shame and despair.  Really to talk about racism is to face inhumanity.  It is to see the flesh and bone of cruelty, suffering, and unbearable grief.  It is this unprocessed layer of the trauma of racism that is like an abyss.

Consider the fragility and rage white people experience in the context of talking about racism.  I recall Rev. Leon saying at a Diversity Team meeting “the spiritual crime is unspeakable… we can’t even fathom it”.  In my professional life I work with the unspeakable traumas of childhood abuse and I’m learning to work with the trauma of racism.  One thing I’ve learned is that it is impossible to work effectively with trauma, to be in a healing process single handedly.  I carry my professional community with me into my work.  And I’ve come to carry you, my spiritual community as well.  I’m learning to let go of my self-centered desires to be the adored hero and to let myself be fed in the circles of our spiritual spaces.  I’ve learned to recognize that my white privilege is the same white privilege that Ken has.  In fact before casting aspersions upon the white working class, rural folks that voted for Trump, I’m remembering that my white privilege is far more substantial than for many poor white people.

I’ve been inspired by stories of people like Derek Black.  There is an article published in the Jewish journal, The Sun Sentinel that tells the story of the conversion of Derek Black, a former white nationalist:

When Derek enrolled in New College of Florida, a top-ranked liberal arts school in Sarasota, he kept his extremist views and KKK affiliation to himself, even while continuing to host his supremacist radio show. One night in 2011, a fellow student was Googling hate groups when he came across Derek’s picture. By the next semester, nobody would talk to Derek or even come near him and he avoided public places or events for fear of hostility.

One of Derek’s acquaintances started reading Stormfront and listening to Derek’s radio show to get insight into Derek’s thinking. Then he did something radical, unexpected and uncomfortable. He texted Derek, “What are you doing Friday night?” The classmate was Matthew Stevenson, the only Orthodox Jew at the school. Matthew hosted weekly Shabbos dinners in his campus apartment and decided to invite Derek, figuring if Derek was going to hate Jews, he might as well meet one and know more about them.

Matthew Stevenson heroically befriended Derek and gave him a space within his social circle.  And over time the strength of friendship and learning that challenged Derek’s belief systems, catalyzed a radical change.  Derek took classes in Judaism.  He denounced white supremacy and his white nationalist affiliations.  This was a painful transition for Derek.  For a long time his parents wouldn’t speak to him.  Derek had a close relationship with his father.  In many ways they were like any other father-son relationship.

If Matthew and Derek can enter this trauma space and come out transformed, think of the spiritual work we can do within our community.  Again I quote from my article Reflections on the Trauma of Racism:

There is a wider perspective where there is great relief and joy to be found in shattering the illusions of racism.  To enter the abyss and survive is to discover ways of shared knowing of the trauma.  It is to see and feel life pulsating within each other.  It is to join in that wellspring of creativity, love, and freedom that is there beyond the illusions.

Over the years things changed between Ken and I.  There was no defining moment, no single conversation in which we hashed out our viewpoints about race.  It was like a slow melting away of tensions as I got to know Ken.  I think because I knew he was an important person in my social circle, because there were people I loved that love him, I determined I better figure out how to get along with him.  I started to know how much Ken loved his children.  I could see his anxiety when his eldest chose a career in the arts.  How would he make a living?  And as I kept listening to Ken, witnessing the anxiety on his face when he talked about money I realized how frightened he was of falling into poverty.  He had family members that had serious financial troubles.  It worried Ken to no end.  He wanted so much to impress upon them the importance of financial responsibility, the idea that in this world you have to look out for yourself.

Now that I could see Ken as part of the human family just like me (imagine my arrogance to think otherwise) we started spending more time together.  He started to take an interest in the racial justice work I was doing.  He accompanied me to Carter Barron for a music event of African American local musicians.  We’ve talked about a conference I recently organized in my professional life that addresses the problems of white supremacy and racism within the mental health field.  He listened with respect.  Respect that I didn’t give him that some ten plus years ago.  Still I can see his anxious concern about money, making sure you put yourself first.  He says to me “so this conference… it will help you advance your career right… I mean it will get your name out there”.  Before I respond I have to remind myself that I indeed had my moments imagining an adoring reception from the audience in the run up to my conference.  I told him “you know it might help my career in that way… but the thing that matters most to me is that I’m doing something I love.  That’s a blessing isn’t it?  When your work is the thing you love”?

I have found that racism feels like a burden to me when I’m most absorbed in this moderate white supremacy consciousness.  When I manage to operate from within my spiritual center, from within our essential interconnectedness, racial justice work, all justice work becomes a responsibility I embrace with joy and humility.  Look in the mirror and in fact you might find we are each other’s mirror.  To know myself authentically, I need all of you, we need each other.


I want to leave you with a story of healing that includes a prayer for the healing of those that hurt us.  Thanks to my soon to be 10-year-old daughter Olivia I get to hear some of our best contemporary popular music.  I was particularly inspired by Kesha’s song Praying.  Her song and the story behind it seemed to me a reflection of living out our UU principle and faith in our essential interconnectedness.  Here are Kesha’s words:

Praying, my first single in almost four years, comes out today.  I have channeled my feelings of severe hopelessness and depression, I’ve overcome obstacles, and I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach.  I’ve found what I had thought was an unobtainable place of peace. This song is about coming to feel empathy for someone else even if they hurt you or scare you. It’s a song about learning to be proud of the person you are even during low moments when you feel alone.  It’s also about hoping everyone, even someone who hurt you, can heal.

My own interpretation of spirituality isn’t important, because we all have our own. What matters is that I have something greater than me as an individual that helps bring me peace. This is one of the reasons why I love swimming way, way out into the middle of the ocean and just letting the sea carry my body. It is my greatest form of surrender to the universe, a full-body prayer — or meditation.

To give oneself over to something higher than the self seems to me a pretty good idea if the problem is a sense of superiority.  In fact as Kesha tells us this sort of surrender, not submission, surrender, is empowering and uplifting to those places inside where we feel inferior and shamed.  Listen for Kesha’s song at the completion of our service today.  I hope you will find it moving, as I did.  In the words of Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed keep doing the work of our UU faith “until the last sinner is dragged kicking and screaming into heaven”. *

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