“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.

Naming the Principles

Seven Principles Wheel (c) Kimberly Debus and Ian Riddell

Where Are UUs?

As I look at the news this week of more unmarked graves found at former “Indian Schools” in Canada, and as I hear the news of the inquiry now expanding to the United States, it feels like Unitarian Universalism has come up woefully short in how we hold our own historic role in the oppression of Native and Indigenous people.  For all our commitment to dismantling white supremacy, I carry an ongoing disappointment that we have yet to come together with our Congregational siblings to address how our Puritan ancestors established white supremacy as the unwritten law of the land.  Land acknowledgements are appropriate, but where are our relationships with the living breathing Native communities today?  To those who would say “you can’t change the past” or “my ancestors/ I didn’t oppress Native people” or “my ancestors were abolitionists”, I respond with a reminder that our theological identity with anything that holds the name “Unitarian” or “Universalism” means that we hold all of what that means.  If you are not willing to admit that, if you are only willing to acknowledge the post-merger Unitarian Universalism without everything that added up to that moment, then you are playing into the worst, most damaging aspect of white supremacy: invisibility.  Actually, dismantling white supremacy means bringing it into the light and showing it for what it is, what it was and where it comes from.  To a larger extent, white supremacy was born in the United States when the egg of Native erasure was fertilized by the sperm of African enslavement in the womb of exclusionary European individualistic capitalism.  Our Puritan ancestors were the Adam and Eve of that family.

A Principle of Atonement: We center a practice of spiritual and social atonement that begins with acknowledging the role of our faith in Native genocide and erasure and the enslavement of African people.

Progress

I am thrilled that my congregation, First Parish in Cambridge as adopted the Eighth Principle.  My hope is that others will follow suit and that the Unitarian Universalist Association can adopt this principle as a core expression of our faith.

I have written about the Seven Unitarian Universalist Principles before, specifically asking why they don’t include the word love.  There is a great deal of talk among religious professionals about how much of a refresh and revisit is needed in our theology and its various expressions.  And, this growing momentum got me wondering, what if we got rid of the numbers and named the principles instead?  The presentation of the principles as a wheel created by Kimberly Debus and Ian Riddell is a fantastic take on this idea and I think we might benefit from going even a step further.  Naming the principles could help us remember them better, make them more accessible and also let us get out of the incredibly white supremacy practice of creating hierarchies of priority.  Most importantly, naming the principles erases an implied limit to them.  Naming them gives us the opportunity to continue to grow and evolve and shape our faith as our world changes, recognizing that there will be new needs and priorities for future generations as they lead and offer insight into how our faith can work in the world.  I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this or put this forward, but I’ll take a stab at it here as an exercise:

Principle of Humanity: The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Principle of Relationship: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Principle of Diversity in Belief: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

Principle of Perspective: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

Principle of Conscience: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

Principle of Global Harmony: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Principle of Interconnectedness: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Principle of Racial Equity: *“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.”

A Principle of Atonement: We center a practice of spiritual and social atonement that begins with acknowledging the role of our faith in Native genocide and erasure and the enslavement of African people.

My hope is that Unitarian Universalism can continue to grow and mature.  Part of that process will be our capacity to always hold onto and give context to where we come from, so it doesn’t hold us back from where we can go.

A Prayer:

May we keep in prayer and consciousness all of the Native and Indigenous people within Unitarian Universalism who are feeling these latest discoveries with a mix of horror, having their worst suspicions affirmed and their reasons for distrust of Western “society” confirmed.  We as Unitarian Universalists can and must do better at following the lead of our Native and Indigenous leaders to a place of wholeness and authentic support.

ALD

*current language of the Eighth Principle under consideration

Some of my previous writing about the Seven Principles

Where is the Love?

Unitarian Universalist Principles as Expressions of Love

Demanding Love