Can we please stop branding what white Unitarian Universalists do in an effort to be anti-racist as “the work”?
I recently made reference to this language in a sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charlottesville, Virginia, so I feel like some explanation might be in order. Throughout my parish ministry, I know that my frequently expressed frustration with this phrase infuriated some of my congregation in Cambridge and I know that my thinking directly contradicts some of my close and valued colleagues of color, but hear me out…
First of all, at its heart, this phrase is offensive. Really, this is the most racially removed and impersonal way one could refer to what actually needs to happen around racial equity in the world. “The work” makes it sound like a curriculum, which admittedly for some people, that is all it is. “The work” also makes it sound like something you get a vacation from (you don’t) or that you can put down at will (you can’t). This phrase makes what needs to happen appear to be some kind of well-contained, defined and finite set of actions that can be approached like a checklist and voilá…anti-racist! That ain’t it kids…
Second, referring to any efforts to be more cognizant of people of color and their perspectives as work, makes us (people of color) the work. It problematizes non-whiteness. Does this mean that every time you see, speak to or interact with a person of color it has to be work? Why would any non-white person want to be part of a community where being in relationship with them is publicly called work? Holy crap…
Finally, the entire framework is wrong. Why are white UUs eager to do “work” when they could be having fun, learning a new cultural sensitivity, making a friend,…cultivating the garden of their world? None of this is work. This is life. Building community around shared values, demonstrated through spiritual expression should never, in any way be about work. Put down the agenda and get to know a person.
The universal acceptance of this language may come from the settings in which the more probing conversations about race happen in UU congregations, which ultimately reinforces my point. If someone can only feel safe questioning whether or not they are a racist by going into closed, invitation only back rooms…then chances are y’all know the answer to the question before the plastic wrap is off the deviled eggs. The only way to truly “de-racist” ones self is by actually being in the world, being in relationships beyond a closed group. For white Unitarian Universalists, this means getting to know and love (not be served by or simply acknowledge on the street) some non-white people and diving in to life. Sure, there are resources and books to help unpack stuff, I’ve even created some myself. But that can’t be where the journey begins or ends. The only real work that needs to happen is opening the creaky old doors of ones heart, taking off the imaginary cloak of white safety, completely throwing away Peggy McIntosh’s knapsack and being in actual damned relationship with people who aren’t cookie cutter, mirror images of everything one already knows. Here’s a novel idea: live with us (non-white people), play with us, laugh with us, be part of the world that we want to build together, don’t keep expecting us to acclimate to or be absorbed by yours.
In stark contrast, this is what every non-white person in the United States has to sustain everywhere they go. In many places, particularly Unitarian Universalist settings, non-whites are outnumbered sometimes 10 or 20 or even 30 or more to 1. We can’t be preoccupied with conceptualizing our interactions with those who are different than us as “work”. There aren’t enough hours in a day or that much life force in a human body. We are forced to find (or at least look for) real connections and to have actual reasons to speak to people and to put effort into building something akin to what we hope will be authentic relationships. Again, this isn’t work, it is life. But it is also a habit for non-white people because so many of us have earned advanced degrees in “whiteness survival” so that we can put more energy into thriving.
Outside of the bubble, being a Unitarian Universalist is regularly a meme…a cultural joke. Often when it comes up in pop culture, being Unitarian Universalist is a placeholder for having no commitment to anything or any clarity on anything spiritual. Above all it is considered code for being a wealthy white liberal. Disturbingly, the echo chamber within Unitarian Universalism, doesn’t have the appetite to challenge the reality on which this public image is based and that in turn reinforces everything that the critics say.
Unitarian Universalism should not be satisfied with representing the performative suburban safety and social responsibility of a Toyota Prius. In a world that is challenged by well funded and organized factions and political dogma, racialized violence, gendered erasure and skewed understandings of which lives have value, Unitarian Universalism could be a place that is not at all for the faint of heart. It could be an incubator for real courage. Radical acceptance also requires radical and ongoing self interrogation. Being a warrior for equity, demands that one can be comfortable with being uncomfortable with what makes others comfortable. Putting yourself on the line to change the world requires letting go of the world as you know it. That is scary. If you need confirmation, just ask any non-white UU about the experience of walking into a new UU congregation.
Better than referring to anything about how UU values can function in the world as “the work”, why not call it what we want it to be…a celebration of a generative future we can actively dare to live today.