“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Submitted by Rev. Ben Atherton-Zeman
This Sunday, UU St. Pete will vote on the 8th Principle, and I hope you will vote to pass it. The 8th Principle affirms and promotes journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse, multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
Some have said that this is already covered by our seven principles. But most BIPOC UU leaders (remember, BIPOC stands for Black Indigenous People of Color), most BIPOC UU leaders disagree, and have asked us to pass the 8th principle. So far 243 congregations have passed the 8th Principle, including many of our UU neighbors in Florida. Let’s join them next Sunday in passing the 8th Principle here at UU St. Pete.
I’m happy to see some discussion about the 8th Principle in our Facebook group, as well as the upcoming Article II revisions. Some in our denomination simply do not believe that racism is that bad against BIPOC UUs. Many of the folks who think it’s not that bad became UUs during the time of fire hoses and burning crosses, and for them, THAT is racism.
I don’t know if these folks have listened to the stories BIPOC UUs have told them, or maybe they haven’t believed them, or maybe they haven’t wanted to believe them. I know that BIPOC UUs, including those in this congregation, have spent a lot of emotional and mental energy telling white UUs about their lives and their experiences. Those of us who are white, the least thing we can do is listen to them and believe them. When BIPOC UUs tell me they have experienced racism and white supremacy in our denomination, I believe them.
Christina Rivera is a UU religious educator who has spoken widely of her experiences. Her story is part of what set the stage for the White Supremacy Teach-In of 2017. In March of that year, Rivera, at the time a UUA Board member, wrote and posted a piece called “On Being a Good Fit for the UUA.” Rivera had applied for the Southern regional lead position that was ultimately given to a white male minister. Rivera went on, along with Kenny Wiley, Aisha (ay-shah) Hauser and many others, to organize the White Supremacy Teach-In. Over 600 congregations, including our own, signed up to participate in April and May of 2017.
While organizing the teach-in, Rivera, Hauser and Wiley reported getting pushback from white UUs, even for using the term “white supremacy.” Many white UUs felt that this term should refer to the KKK and not to them. Rivera responded that, in the United States today, “the default is white, for every standard that we have, and that in itself puts whiteness as the supreme standard to which everything else is measured. So, naming it as white supremacy is destigmatizing it and making it accessible.”
The pushback continued against Rivera. A year after she spearheaded the White Supremacy Teach-In, she arrived at her UU church to find an anonymous note in her mailbox. The note read, in part “Quit your whining. It’s always about racism with you. You have a job do it. We went into debt for your full time and now you complain?…You should be thankful and get to working.”
On her website, Rivera later wrote the following: In chat rooms, message boards, via text and direct messages we are hearing about colleagues of color who are facing a backlash to naming white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism. And yes, in this particular case it was one individual who perpetrated this attack but let me be absolutely clear…(Rivera said) our denomination, our congregations and individual Unitarian Universalists are responsible for these types of racist attacks...Because it is a denominational and congregational culture of white supremacy that made this person feel it was entirely appropriate to have these thoughts, had them affirmed and then acted out on them. Unitarian Universalist as it now exists is complicit in creating an atmosphere in which those thoughts and feelings thrive and are then born into action.
(Rivera encouraged her congregation) not to focus, discuss, perseverate, or try to form an opinion as to merits and demerits of each specific incident but rather look at how together they would contribute to a culture of complicity.”
Here at UU St. Pete, do we contribute to a culture of complicity to white supremacy?
I know that I do. It’s not intentional, but then again white supremacy rarely is.
When I went before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, seeking approval to be a fellowshipped minister in our denomination, they asked me to name some BIPOC ministers I admired. My examples were Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet I provided few details to back up my admiration. Truth is, I panicked when they asked the question, and I knew my answer didn’t have the depth the MFC wanted. Sure enough, when my results came back, they insisted I receive 4 months’ coaching about white supremacy, do some readings and preach a sermon on, you guessed it, the White Supremacy Teach-in.
So, let’s get back to the Teach-In and Christina Rivera. In the years following the Teach-In, Rivera trained her congregation on the topic of white supremacy culture, using a handout from Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. The characteristics of white supremacy are listed alongside their antidotes. These characteristics include perfectionism, sense of urgency, and right to comfort.
Perfectionism? Sure, I’ve done that. The handout says, “making a mistake is confused with BEING a mistake, doing wrong with BEING wrong.” I make plenty of mistakes here as your minister, and sometimes I get confused that maybe that means I am not qualified to be a minister. And I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this.
The antidote to perfectionism is to develop a “learning organization where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning.” Fortunately for me, this congregation has embraced the philosophy that we neither expect nor do we offer perfection.
Sense of urgency? I’ve done that too! The handout says it “frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results.” The antidote to this is to understand that “things take longer than anyone expects.”
Finally, Right to comfort is “the belief that those in power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.” We discussed this a bit at the church retreat yesterday. Right to comfort equates “individual acts of unfairness against white people with systemic racism which daily targets people of color.” Author Robin DiAngelo calls this “white fragility.” UU minister CB Beal speaks of “what about” ism, when people with privilege distract any discussion of oppression by pointing to their own feelings, and their individual examples of being hurt.
The antidote is to “understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning, (to) welcome it as much as you can.” Todd put it on Saturday that there is a difference between feeling uncomfortable and being unsafe.
And white supremacy doesn’t take vacations. During COVID, Christina Rivera went to obtain her vaccination, after receiving multiple confirmations of her appointment. She arrived and was told she wasn’t supposed to be there. When she showed them her confirmation emails, they called security and had her thrown out.
Rivera writes “A white woman in that same situation would have been seen as the hero, sticking up for herself, and asking to see the manager all the way up the chain to the head of the hospital. She certainly wouldn’t have had security called to escort her from the building. But here’s the part that changes lives…she would have been given the vaccine.”
Maybe notes in the mailbox and having security called on you isn’t as bad as fire hoses and burning crosses. But when Christina Rivera tells me this is white supremacy, I believe her.
And I don’t want Rivera to be alone in facing this. I don’t want Ariana to be alone, Djine to be alone, Bianca, William, Chandrahasa, and Terry to be alone.
White UUs: we have a choice.
We can claim that racism isn’t as bad as our BIPOC siblings say it is. We can prioritize our own feelings, our own definitions of racism.
We can leave, saying it’s exhausting work to undo white supremacy…which it is, but BIPOC people don’t have that choice to leave.
We can deflect and say all the “what about”s that CB Beal refers to.
We can focus on our own “right to comfort,” pointing out times we have felt hurt ourselves. Maybe even times we’ve felt hurt while having conversations about white supremacy.
Or we can do what BIPOC UUs have asked us to do. We can listen and learn about white supremacy in our congregation, in our denomination and in ourselves. We can realize that the experts on racism and white supremacy are not us, and BIPOC lived experience is not up for debate. And we can pass the 8th Principle here in our congregation this Sunday.
If dismantling white supremacy is the work of a lifetime (and it seems like it is) then what a wonderful group of people to do this work with! What a spectacular way to spend our lives! What an amazing reason to get up tomorrow! What else would I rather be doing? Who else would I rather be doing it with?
I close with words from the White Supremacy Teach-in website. The website says “We are called to be more invested in the relationships we find in faith community than in our own personal sense of comfort.
We encourage white people to understand discomfort as an invitation into deeper learning and deeper relationship, an invitation to lean into learning with humility and curiosity rather than succumbing to reactivity, and an invitation to imagine that the discomfort of being asked to examine white supremacy is but a glimpse into the deep pain people of color in our faith experience with the reality of white supremacy culture and systems.
They continue by saying, “We honor the request to transform the culture and systems of white supremacy as they manifest in our faith institution and practices, recognizing the tremendous risk inherent in just making this request, and we understand this request comes ultimately from a place of love, for Unitarian Universalism, and a belief, in what we can become together.”