“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.

What Is the Toll?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I am a minister, I am black and I serve a predominantly white congregation.  The definition “white congregation” extends beyond the physical and also appears in priorities and perceptions of the congregation as well.  I am not alone.  I have many colleagues from a wide variety of non-white backgrounds who have chosen to work, serve, and contribute to Unitarian Universalist and other religious denomination congregations as ministers, DREs, Musicians, Administrators and Building Managers where they are one of only a few or the only person of color on staff.  They do what they do because they are people who are committed to spiritual and ethical life and public morality, not because they wish to make a statement on multi-culturalism…even though they are sometimes hired for that reason. Their lived experience, not their jobs make them the embodiment of justice.  What I hear from most of them is that they also are aware that there is an existential cost to having made this dedicated choice. 

I have to ask, as I weigh the fact that both my formation and my called ministry have been entirely shaped and colored by the ongoing government sanctioned public lynching of black men by law enforcement, when is it too much?  What has the toll been on me and others like me?  Everyone talks about self-care, but no one ever put self-care in the context of epidemic violence against people of color and viral images of black lives being extinguished.  No one ever taught a seminary class in self-care as an antidote for whiteness. How do those of us who aren’t primarily among communities of color accept that self care is not abdication of some bizarre “duty” to do 24/7 race work.

So many of us have to listen patiently as our white communities try to understand what to “do” and we have to give guidance and instruction as to what is appropriate in terms of bearing witness to the ongoing tragedy.  Too often we are asked to lead protests, sing songs, create rituals, craft messages etc. that are all shaped around a white identity that is desperately searching for a place in the racial reckoning of our day.  There is a brutal contrast between this and coming together with our community of color to raise voices, mourn, celebrate, rage and resist. In those spaces we don’t have to translate, or explain. We are not the show in those spaces because no one is performing. In those spaces we are living out loud in real time. It is a loss to not be in those spaces at this time. It is no wonder that there is also a time when we must make it clear to our white communities that this kind of performance is sometimes simply too much to ask even though putting up the hand and saying “I just can’t do this for you right now” is more labor; more race work.

I have to wonder what it is like for my white ministerial colleagues who wake up in the morning and don’t have an internalized sickened dread at turning on the news or opening their email.  Who won’t see themselves lynched every few months;  who haven’t had to talk about, think about, let alone be the poster child for racial reckoning with their congregations.  I wonder what it is like to hear the helplessness of well-meaning liberal folks in their congregations who want to “do something” having also felt helpless.  I wonder what it is like to be able to decide to go to a march or protest and feel “satisfied” when you leave as opposed to feeling like its just another day at the office and knowing you will be there again.

And yes, I fully well know it is more complex than that but I have to wonder what it is like to be white in this time.

I am a minister, I am black and I serve a predominantly white congregation.  The definition “black” also extends beyond the physical and appears in the priorities and perceptions I carry as well.  I cannot see a black person under 30 gunned down without thinking he could be my child; I cannot witness elders in the civil rights movement who themselves were children when they began to fight, starting to die off without thinking will I go to my grave with this business unfinished too?  I cannot hear black voices crying for justice over, and over and over and over again at march after march, rally after rally, vigil after vigil and not hear myself preaching and writing every week, every day in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways saying this is F**KED UP…JUST FIX IT!

What un-reimbursable toll is being extracted from me and every person of color, every day as we try to explain, justify, fix and retrofit whiteness when ultimately, it is up to white people to cure whiteness?

-ALD