“Meta” Supremacy

The self-conscious approach to dismantling white supremacy reinforces white priorities thereby affirming white supremacy.

From The Guardian
Māori Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer say that officially changing New Zealand’s name to its indigenous version, Aotearoa, would unite the country. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images (image, caption and full article appears in The Guardian – 9/14/2021)

Having a person of color on your board, on your staff, leading your organization, etc. will not solve your diversity problems.  In fact, my own experiences over the years have indicated that this approach as the sole answer to the question of diversity, creates many more problems than it solves.

What is more, “dismantling white supremacy culture” sounds great and challenging in the best kind of way that white liberals like to be challenged, (finite, well defined goal, etc.) but it is not the actual issue.  The issue is how organizations continue to answer to cultural priorities that are affirmed by whiteness and one’s proximity to the power of whiteness (regardless of race) and the way in which this proximity is the driver of the larger social narrative.

I am currently navigating several professional spaces and situations, and I am in conversation with several different organizations that all hold “dismantling white supremacy culture” as a priority.  The problem is that for all their efforts to do so and even achieving some success in identifying and locating the sources of this specific problem, I’m not so sure that the overall efforts can stick.  You can hire the young queer, person of color to lead your effort, that’s nice.  But if they are required to answer to and fulfill white cultural priorities in order to be “successful” then no progress will be made.  You can have a person of color on your board, but if you only call on them to do cleanup in the wake of misplaced white priorities, their board presence is a failure.  You can invite a person of color to lead your organization, but if there is no appetite or capacity to follow their leadership or if their leadership is “invisible” because the environment doesn’t understand how to recognize guidance that comes from priorities outside of cultural whiteness, no change is possible.

I’m willing to make the bold statement that “dismantling white supremacy culture” is not the actual problem.  Something that can be labeled and packaged this tidily is too easy and as the title of this piece indicates, whiteness being tasked with dismantling itself is a pretty “meta” feedback loop (“meta” in the Urban Dictionary sense – https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meta).  The real challenge for diversity comes from organizations, people, etc. that do not have real interest, capacity or understanding of what it means to embrace cultural priorities that sit outside of whiteness.  This is a problem for everyone, white and non-white and it is a problem for any dominant culture.  For example, if the only framework we have to understand the historical roots of European domination is based on being “post-colonial” that means we first have to accept “colonial” as some kind of starting point…and colonial is a framework defined by historical whiteness.  The gamechanger would be to instead understand what it is to be “a-colonial” that is, what it means to be defined entirely outside of the context of western historically oppressive systems of slave based capitalism and genocide and evolve outside of the assumption of whiteness as a defining dominant priority.

…although the dominant culture has a role to play in dismantling white supremacy, it doesn’t get to define what is built in its place.

This is a deep question.  For example, in many ways, African American culture is shaped by its resistance to white oppression.  White supremacy is a crucible that has forged in African Americans one of the most resilient, creative and arguably valuable and diverse cultures on the planet.  So, what then does it mean to define Afro-Americanness without or beyond the history of slavery?  Without the imposition of European Christianity?  Without the response to being globally dehumanized?

Native and Indigenous people around the world have powerful responses to these questions. For example, currently, Māori leaders of Aotearoa (New Zealand) are calling for a return to the native name of the islands[1].  Now that they have greater representation in the current dominant Western government, and as the original inhabitants of the land, it makes sense for them to self-define outside of the colonial name applied to their indigenous home.  Embracing this definition does not require anything from colonial progeny other than getting out of the way.  Just because Westerners have called it “New Zealand” for nearly 400 years doesn’t make it right[2].  Māori leaders have effectively infiltrated the Western structure for the purpose of making space to be defined outside of that structure.

When people of color are brought into leadership of traditionally or historically white organizations as part of an effort to create diversity, it cannot be that we are there simply to be the status quo in brown face.  If an organization is serious about diversity, it must first (before bringing in people of color to leadership) understand what kind of organization it is (culturally) and how it is defined by the dominant culture.  Then it must determine if it is truly willing to not just invite but accept and embrace the leadership and guidance of people of color, understanding that the prior dominant culture definitions will likely need to be significantly changed or even thrown out entirely.

Ultimately, although the dominant culture has a role to play in dismantling white supremacy, it doesn’t get to define what is built in its place.

ALD

[1] Tess McClure, “New Zealand Māori Party Launches Petition to Change Country’s Name to Aotearoa,” The Guardian, September 14, 2021, sec. World news, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/14/new-zealand-maori-party-launches-petition-to-change-countrys-name-to-aotearoa.

[2] “A Brief History of New Zealand | New Zealand Now,” accessed September 19, 2021, https://www.newzealandnow.govt.nz/live-in-new-zealand/history-government/a-brief-history.

A Failure of My Faith

white wooden boat adrift at shore under grey cloudy sky
Photo by Trace Hudson on Pexels.com

I have now watched the date that marks 400 years since Africans were first displaced to this continent in bondage come and go with no substantial acknowledgment by the Unitarian Universalist Association (well, we rang bells…that’s nice.)  I serve this denomination as one of all too few African American ministers and this lack of action is yet another reminder that in many ways, this is not my faith.  But I am not deterred.  In fact, I am determined that because of this minimal action, I will not let the same thing happen next year with regard to marking 400 years since the start of the aggressive and pre-meditated displacement in 1620 of Native people from the place that we now call Massachusetts.

I believe that the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ as the modern-day religious descendants of the Puritans who arrived here in 1620 must make a public acknowledgement of their role in initiating the devastation of Native people.  I also believe that as the religious body that formed and structured what would become the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the modern government of the commonwealth must join these two denominations in a public act of witness.

By 1620, Native tribes had already been poisoned by European disease.  But it was the Puritans who were then able to take advantage of this weakened position to squat on villages that had been previously cleared by dying tribes and to wield firearms (somethings never change) as a threat of lethal force to build their precious “city on a hill.”  Native people did not lay down without a fight (Pequot War, King Phillip’s War, etc.) but they were ultimately repressed by the English colonizers who had little or no interest in the original inhabitants’ continuing to survive according to their own customs let alone thrive.

…talk is cheap; repentance is dear.

There are those who will hear this call to action and resist any effort to acknowledge this history as a crime of humanity; and they may simply chalk it up to “progress”.  They may ask, how can we do this without then taking account of every one of the conflicts posed by European settlers to Native people.  They  may also retort with “but there was violence from both sides.” Frankly, I don’t give a damn because I’m tired of accommodating white fragility around this history.  I also know that if these three powerful (and supposedly liberal) entities continue to tacitly accept the forced removal, enslavement and genocide of the original inhabitants of this land as “progress” we will never get to a place of true progress; we will never truly recognize or resolve the ongoing violence of the Atlantic slave trade or the troublingly persistent second-class status of women.  In order to accomplish anything at all, we must begin at a beginning.

New England talks a good game on liberal values.  But talk is cheap; repentance is dear.  It is time for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the descended religious bodies of the Puritans (UUA & UCC) to pay up.

Inspired in this moment by the Jewish High Holy Days and the season of atonement, and the actions of the Collegiate Church of New York in 2009, the following is my imagination of what a joint declaration from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association addressing their role in Native displacement and murder might look like. Just to be clear, I am not Native or Indigenous identified and I cannot express the specific needs of those communities and I don’t intend to represent myself in that way.  But I am a minister in the lineage of the leaders who created this devastation and it is my obligation to call that legacy to account if my faith is ever to live up to my standards of racial, social and cultural equity:

A Declaration for 1620 Atonement

May it be understood:

The early colonizers of the region now known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts intentionally sought to displace the original inhabitants of this land.

Motivated by their Christian faith, the colonizers approached their project of settlement with an assumption that their “work” was ordained by God.

The religious basis for the colonizers’ social and political organization was foundational to their efforts and created a justification of entitlement to their actions in peacetime and in war.

The Puritan movement created the principle social and political order for the colonizers.

May it be resolved:

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association (primary descendants and chief beneficiaries of the Puritan colonial project) recognize the year 2020 as a year of mourning and the beginning of atonement for the loss of life, the destruction of a way of life and for the stolen cultural autonomy of the Native people in this region.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association acknowledge their direct connection to the brutality inflicted on the Native people of this region.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will seek reconciliation with the descendants of the displaced, enslaved and murdered original inhabitants of this land, but there will be no expectation of or obligation for this reconciliation to be accepted by the modern tribes.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will collectively explore in consultation with Native people a system of full enfranchisement based on the needs and wants of the Native people.  This system may include but is not limited to financial, land and or educational reparations.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association will incorporate in their respective governing and spiritual documents an acknowledgement of this unrepayable debt owed to the Native inhabitants and moving forward will approach their efforts of government and faith development with humility and recognition of their role in the near destruction of the original people of this region.

-ALD

PDF Version: A Declaration for 1620 Atonement