Vernā Myers: How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them
Our biases can be dangerous, even deadly — as we’ve seen in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in Staten Island, New York. Diversity advocate Vernā Myers looks closely at some of the subconscious attitudes we hold toward out-groups. She makes a plea to all people: Acknowledge your biases. Then move toward, not away from, the groups that make you uncomfortable. In a funny, impassioned, important talk, she shows us how.
Edited from a sermon offered by Rev. Kathleen C. Rolenz for the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church January 20, 2002
Sometimes epiphanies just happen. They may appear as a slow, dawning realization that changes the way you look at yourself and the world. Or, they may be like the proverbial lightbulb, when, after having groped in the dark you find the switch and are blinded for a moment, by the light. It happened to me, that way, one day, while running with my friend, a National Baptist minister from Knoxville, Tennessee. We were talking, as we did on our morning run, and I was telling him about another colleague in town that I was trying to get involved in KIN, the Knoxville Interfaith Network, a program similar to Cleveland’s United WE-CAN. “Bob, who’s black, is a really nice guy, a great minister and would be an asset to KIN.” My friend Leroy looked at me for a minute, smiled and said, “now why is it that white people always refer to their “black” friends–but they never talk about their “white” friends?” I was caught off-guard, and embarrassed. “Well,” I said, “it’s simply a way of identifying him. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s like saying he is tall and thin, or has dark hair.” “So, why didn’t you say that, if you felt the need to describe him to me?”
Leroy let it go that day, but his question stuck with me. It was the first of many epiphanies–many moments of insight that have happened since I first set foot on what the Unitarian Universalist Association calls “The Journey Towards Wholeness.” For those of you who may not know what that means, it is our denomination’s attempt to become an anti-racist religious institution. And, while we are highlighting the work of the Undoing Racism group this morning, we, with the help of their leadership, will continue to work on becoming anti-racist all year.
Our history with racial justice issues has been marked by both pride and embarrassment. When the call came to march in Selma with Dr. King, Unitarian Universalists were there. Many UU’s have heard the story of James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister murdered in Selma simply because he dared to stand in solidarity with the people of Selma, or Violet Luizzo, a Unitarian from Detroit, MI. Unitarians and Universalists have marched, written, protested, and have shown up for and participated in annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. We like to imagine that we have been a color-blind institution–that we don’t care if a person is black or white; old or young; gay or straight–everybody is welcome here. At the same time, our history is also marked by stories that range from indifference and neglect to outright, often unintentional racism. The work of becoming an anti-racist denomination means that we change from the inside out. And one of the first steps in that process is for light-skinned Euro-Americans to learn what it means to be “white.”
This year, the Undoing Racism group has been studying a controversial new book by UU minister and professor Thandeka, entitled “Learning to be White.” Thandeka offers a suggestion about how we might explore what it means to be white. In the first chapter, she tells this story:
I had recently moved to a Massachusetts hamlet to teach at a local college. Several weeks after arriving on campus, I had lunch with a member of the college staff. My luncheon partner, a fifth generation Smith college graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state and a portfolio perhaps as wealthy, wanting to get to know me, asked what it felt like to be black.
I was not offended by her query. Her face was open; he eyes were friendly and engaged. She simply believed that nothing from her own background or experience could help her understand me. I knew better. I had been assigned a race by America’s pervasive socialization process, and so had she. How could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? Searching for an answer to this question, I invented the Race Game and invited her to play it for a week.
The Race Game had only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term “white” whenver she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, “my white husband, Phil, or “my white friend, Julie,” or my lovely white child, Jackie,” I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question using terms she could understand. We never had lunch together again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable. (Thandeka, Learning to be White, pg. 3)
I’d like to encourage you to try the Race Game sometime. I didn’t carry it off for an entire week–but two days drove the point home to me, namely, how uncomfortable it made me to talk about my “white husband, Wayne” or my “white step-daughter, Sarah.” The discomfort in others around me was palpable. It made whomever I was talking with uncomfortable. “Why bring race into the conversation?” one bold person asked directly, and others, through indirect feedback. Why was I making a big deal about race??
It’s the same question I asked myself when I first encountered the Unitarian Universalist’s commitment to becoming an Anti-Racist movement. It was in 1992, at the General Assembly in Calgary, Alberta Canada, when the denomination voted unanimously, to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution. At that time, I remember thinking: “Oh great–another step on the rung of political correctness. Sometimes the liberalism of my own denomination bugs me. I suppose next we’ll vote to save the whales, cure poverty and eliminate hunger in our lifetime.”
Thankfully, a committed group of Unitarian Universalists saw our efforts to become anti-racist as not a nod to political correctness, but a genuine desire to change the culture of the predominantly white-middle to upper class, Unitarian Universalist congregation. This does not mean that the sole objective of our anti-racism efforts is to become more racially diverse as a congregation. It means that the Euro-American, white people in our congregations do the hard work of examining our own assumptions, privileges and discomforts around the issue of race and racism in our culture.
Until I started the Journey towards Wholeness, I didn’t really have much of a clue about these issues. Why were we even bothering to talk about race? Wouldn’t it be better if we could simply see ourselves not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character? Didn’t we, as religious liberals, believe that deeds, not creeds, doctrines or even General Assembly resolutions were more important? Wasn’t the ideal to be a color-blind society?
There are several answers to that question. Certainly, that when it comes to having equality before the law, the goal is to be a color-blind legal system. Race and ethnicity should not be a factor in meting out justice. However, we are mostly likely already calling to mind the injustices that many minorities know all too well–the young girl suspected of shoplifting, the young man whose only crime is driving while black. The civil rights movement brought to the foreground the legal apartheid that had been written into both the law and the consciousness of this country, and through satygraha, or soul force, an unwieldy nation turned around. It is this victory that we celebrate this day, and on the national holiday celebrating his birth, tomorrow.
I suspect that if Dr. King were alive today, he would be saddened to discover that a newer, more pernicious and infinitely more subtle form of racism exists in our culture today. It’s harder to root out, more complex and perhaps more psychically painful than living under our country’s version of apartheid prior to the civil rights movement.
That form of racism is found in the belief that we should live in a color-blind society–that, if you are black and I am white–it does not matter. To live in a color blind society is not unlike the early 20th century America’s ideal of becoming a melting pot for all the immigrants who were flocking here. For my Hungarian grandmother and Yugoslavian grandfather, to become an “American” at the beginning of the 20th century meant forsaking their ethnic identity and heritage, and submerging their rich eastern European traditions into the mainstream until only the food, and a few swear words in Yugoslavian remained. To be “color-blind” –to advocate for color-blindness is a strategy employed by the dominate racial group which says that the status quo is normative. In a color-blind society, the dominate group has the power and the privilege to determine that the society should be color-blind–meaning that who you are, where you come from–the traditions and cultures and experiences you bring from your racial or ethnic heritage, is not as important as “fitting in” to the dominate culture.
The liberal interpretation of color-blindness, however, is quite different. Unitarian Universalists have, historically, have been proud to say that we welcome everyone to our churches–regardless of race, or culture, or sexual orientation or class or belief system. And yet, we too, have had many painful and awkward moments in our history which made us realize that being “color-blind” is not an asset.
I wonder if any of you made it to the General Assembly held in Charlotte, North Carolina several years ago. I was excited about the ball that was to be held in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. GA participants were encouraged to wear costumes of the era and enjoy a different kind of dance–a formal ball. Some members of our denomination protested. They asked “and how are we to come to this ball? Our ancestors were slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Should we attend the ball wearing rags and chains?” It was an awkward, painful, difficult time in our movement’s history. It had all seemed so innocent, and so fun, to pretend to be part of Thomas Jefferson’s entourage. And yet, what that incident did, was to remind white Unitarian Universalists that for the descendents of slaves, it was hard, if not impossible, to embrace this as a celebration. It showed white UU’s how unconscious they were of the inequalities of their personal histories. In other words, our color-blindness had blind-sided us.
So, on this Sunday, before Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, what are white people supposed to do? Holding hands and singing “we shall overcome” just doesn’t go far enough in this day and age, because the issues continue to be complex, confusing and daunting. Do we support Affirmative Action, though our 23 year old white son is passed over for a policeman’s position to meet a racial quota? Do you file a law suit if you believe you were the subject of reverse discrimination? Can you overlook the centuries of oppression of minorities in this country without feeling the need that some reparation is due?
I can’t give you the answers, because these are questions with which all of us are called to struggle and engage. What can we do, as Unitarian Universalists? First of all, you can attend (available trainings from your church, cluster or region). Become aware of your own prejudices. Support diversity and multicultural programs and issues with your presence. Invest financially in diversity programs, services and people. Be aware that prejudice and discrimination come in many forms and accepting one is in effect promoting all. Spend time with people who are different than you are. When reading the newspaper or watching T.V., become sensitive to how oppression permeates our society and therefore influences your understanding.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do is simply to stay open to the work that lies ahead of us. For most Euro-Americans, the idea of having power and privilege bestowed upon you by virtue of being white seems to be hard to swallow. For those same white Americans, struggling to make ends meet in lower-paying jobs, the analysis of race=power + privilege is difficult, as many of the “lower-class” feel, regardless of skin color, that they have neither power or privilege. What I believe the Undoing Racism Group is doing is changing attitudes, mind-sets, and perceptions–one conversation at a time. Where else, but at this church, do you have a safe place to explore your own doubts, fears, and uncertainties about racism? Where can you confess your own struggles and doubts about race? Where else can you be supported in your Journey Towards Wholeness?
It’s been (50) years since we marched in Selma. There are no longer laws that condone a Bull Connors, no “coloreds only” signs, no separate but equal facilities. And, this undoing racism work is not about making Euro Americans feel guilty about their heritage, their race, their class or their efforts this far. Instead, the work that our denomination is doing now is simply expanding and deepening our understanding of the complex matrix between class and race. It’s engaging with the hard work–the work that has an influence and affect as all of us, as part of the interdependent web of life
The hilltop that Martin Luther King Jr. took us to was the closest thing to heaven we can imagine–a place where our differences are cause for celebration not divisiveness;
Where the color of your skin and the culture from which you come is honored and appreciated;
Where all of earth’s people’s are given the opportunity to develop their talents and see the tangible results of their hopes and dreams;
And may our aspirations for a beloved community of justice allow us to say with Dr. King; When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Copyright © 2002 West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church
Additional Optional Materials:
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by
Voices from the Margins: An Anthology of Meditations edited by Mark Morrison-Reed and Jacqui James
Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America by