More than a Required Response

I gave this reflection at the UU church in Northampton, Mass, on July 19, 2015. It is a largely-white congregation, in a largely-white community. 

At an earlier part in the service, I read this quote, by Anne Braden: “In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe that this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.” 

I’m here today to talk about the anti-racism work that I’ve been a part of in our community. Or, more accurately, my own reflections about this work. I am a White person, who currently lives in a mostly-White community, and I am very new to organizing around anti-racism. I am constantly learning, continuously doing new things, most certainly making mistakes as I go. Chances are good that in a few years, I’ll look back on this outline and wish I had said a lot of things differently. Chances are equally good that I’ll think that by tomorrow afternoon. But in this moment, I want to invite you in to some of the points that I’ve been reflecting on.

I grew up in a community that was only 4% White- the community that I loved, and that loved me in return, was Native American and Black. Which meant that even after I left that community, I thought that my history protected me from becoming racist. As if my childhood of being the only White kid protected me from absorbing all the hateful messages about race that surround us every day.

Without any angry racist uncles at the dinner table, or any other explicit examples of racism in my life, I grew into a good-intentioned White adult. I learned not to make other people uncomfortable, and I learned that talking about racism did just that.  With those two pieces of information securely ingrained in me, the door to discussing racism had closed, and stayed closed for a long time.

Until a few years ago, I was called-in by people I work with to deepen my understanding, and join the conversation about racism once more. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading, studying something that I have been privileged enough to ignore my entire life. I joined an anti-oppression study group at my job, and started discussing racism with other people who were also learning how to do this for the first time. The impact that this reading group had on me is hard to overstate- after years of silence, the entire dictionary of racism was foreign to me, and felt off-limits. I had to learn how to say Black again.

And then, after learning some of the language and gaining a deeper understanding of systemic racism, I realized that my heart didn’t hurt for the suffering of Black people like it hurt for the suffering of White people. For all the reading I had been doing, I realized that I had inside me a massive empathy gap, between what hurt my heart and what didn’t, and how quickly I was able to ‘move past’ things. I realized that my emotions were racist, even if I didn’t think that my actions were, and that kind of flipped my understanding of racism around.

It flipped my understanding of me around. How could I have not noticed, for years, that I was losing the ability to empathize with people who look different than me? And what did that mean for my own humanity, to have lost that empathy and to have lost that love?

It is this realization that I’ve been mulling over a lot recently.

Anne Braden, the southern civil rights organizer who was quoted earlier in the service, had this to say about racial justice work- “In a sense, the battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is not something we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to be involved as if our lives depended on it, because, in truth, they do.”

I was, for a long time, viewing that quote only through the lens of intersecting oppressions. I understood that quote and that viewpoint to mean that the liberation of Black people would also support the liberation of queer people, and disabled people, and poor people, and so many others. And that isn’t necessarily wrong- all of these struggles are indeed connected.

But I was primarily viewing my anti-racism advocacy as a service to Black people, as the required response to the years of privilege that I’ve been granted as a White person in this country. But as Anne Braden points out, and as my realization about my own heart made clear, this organizing work is also an attempt for me to save my soul. To clear away all of the lies and the distrust and the walls that I have been quietly building in myself for all of these years, and to be able to reclaim my own humanity.

Nobody knows better than me how much of an uphill battle that will be. It is so much harder for me to love people when they are different than me. I have to un-learn subtle messages that I’ve been swimming in my entire life, that tell me that people who do not look like me are ‘less than’, and that their lives- their joys and their sorrows and their love, are ‘less than’ mine.

When marriage discrimination was struck down by the supreme court, the predominant message on social media was “love wins”. I believe that is absolutely true, and also an incredibly strategic declaration. Because if love does win, we have to find within ourselves a deep and abiding love for Black people.

For Black people, the history of their existence in this country has been one of being told that they are less deserving of love and of life than others. I have listened to that lie my entire life. That lie, as we are seeing so clearly in the Black church fires, the death of Sandra Bland, and the KKK rallies, still has incredible strength to this day.

And to take that strength away, we have to find ways of loving people that perhaps we haven’t discovered within ourselves yet, or that perhaps we knew at one time, and then lost. We have to rediscover this ability to love- fully and deeply- because our own humanity- and thus our own lives- depend on it.

In many ways, the campaigns at the UU are intersecting with this struggle. The living wage campaign directly affects low-income community members, who are disproportionately Black and non-Black people of color. The climate group is pushing for a transition to a sustainable future, where tar sand trains don’t go through the poorest neighborhoods, and coal plants aren’t built in Black communities. The Haiti relief effort is supporting a full-time health care worker in a mostly-Black country that is experiencing an ongoing humanitarian crisis- a crisis rapidly exacerbated by anti-Black racism from the neighboring Dominican Republic.

All of these struggles for justice are intertwined with one another, and all of them are intertwined with race. When organizers speak about collective liberation, they are building a world in which our movements support one another. Where we are vocal about the interconnectedness of our campaigns, and the cost that oppression against any one of us has on all of us.

But they are also talking about our own liberation from the cage that we’ve built for ourselves- a cage that limits the love we have for one another, and our ability to work side-by-side with those who are different than us. We are asked to be bold and courageous to dismantle oppressive structures, and we are also asked to look within ourselves, to find the walls we’ve been building from the lies we’ve been told, and to dismantle those as well.

I do believe that Love Wins- it is a central tenet of my faith, and we’ve seen the power of that love in the recent supreme court ruling, and the dramatic shift in public opinion around gay marriage. But there is so much love left to reclaim.

We aren’t going to get to a world where Black Lives Matter without first learning how to hold one another in love, and then using the anger that comes from that love to agitate for justice. That Anne Braden quote from earlier comes to mind again: “I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.”

I envision a world where I don’t have to re-learn how to love people who are different than us. And we are in an excellent space to bring that world closer to us. One of the founding pillars of the UU faith is that everyone is deserving of sacred love- that grace is for everyone. Four of the seven UU principles reflect the struggle for justice, and acknowledge that our lives are connected. Our faith is one of people struggling to love one another, working towards a better world they can envision. I am heartened by Anne’s belief that this is what makes us half divine.

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