What Is the Toll?

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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?


Black Lives Still Matter

IMG_0150Consider this:

The Dred Scott Decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, Woodrow Wilson’s segregationist policies within the Federal Government, all targeted in explicit language, the rights of blacks in the United States1. All state based anti-miscegenation laws included blacks whether or not they included other races or religions2. Throughout the history of the country, the gross majority of the time the federal government, or state or local governments have acted to restrict or exclude a race, it has largely been targeted at blacks or those with black blood in explicit language (albeit not exclusively, particularly in light of laws that restricted Chinese and Mexican immigration, interred Japanese citizens, etc.) The United States Census continued to use the term “Mulatto” until 1920 to protect whiteness in the population and vacillated between use of “color” or “race” until 19803; Even today, Black and White are still not broken down in the census except in their relationship to “Hispanic.”  Racism in the United States is built on the foundation of white superiority over black.

Now consider this:

The 15th Amendment speaks of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” even though its intent was to rectify a restriction that was aimed at blacks4; Executive Order 8802 (1941 desegregation of Federal Government) and 9981 (1948 desegregation of the armed forces) speak in general terms about “race, color, creed” even though they both only effected blacks and people of African descent (Native Americans were allowed to serve alongside whites as code breakers.)5 6 Brown v Board of Education was explicitly brought concerning blacks yet the ruling and the language of the decision speaks broadly to admit the plaintiffs to desegregated schools in the case on a “racially nondescriminatory” basis with all deliberate speed7. The voting rights act of 1965 although it was fought because of specific actions being taken against blacks includes the following broader less specific language:

“No voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”8

Time and again, the “solution” to specific discrimination aimed at blacks in the United States has not been specific to fixing that discrimination.  In 2005, 2008, 2009 Congress took baby steps toward acknowleding the government’s specific failure with blacks on this front by issuing first an apology for not passing anti lynching legislation9 and then issuing apologies for the United States’ role in the slave trade and the years of Jim Crow that followed the end of the Civil War.10  All of these congressional orders make specific reference to African Americans.  But this has been the exception to the rule.  Yet, when the Chinese Exclusion act was repealed in 1943 by the Magnuson act, the language was specific and spoke directly to people of Chinese decent11.  Somehow, whenever it comes time to fix something that is specifically aimed at blacks, white legislators get cold feet.  Even in addressing racism, black lives have not specifically mattered.

In medicine, one does not treat a sprained finger by putting someone in a body cast; One doesn’t remove the entire liver because someone has gall stones.  The goal in treating illness is always to be as specific and targeted as possible.  Rectifying the sickness of anti-black racism in the United States needs to be the same kind of specific surgery.  We cannot continue to speak or act in broad terms.  There is no shortcut, no blanket application to address black oppression because black oppression is unique; just as every other oppression that is experienced is unique.  What Black Lives Matter challenges us to do is address the specific issues surrounding black oppression without entering into the oppression olympics.  The movement tells us that we can look at the unique social location intersection that one group represents, whether that is race, color, nation of origin, sexual preference, gender identity, ability, or relationship status (or any combination thereof) and take the time to appreciate, uplift, uphold and defend each and every one of them.

Anti black racism is also not just going to “fade away.”  If the incidents at Sigma Alpha Epsilon in Oklahoma and North Carolina are any indication, young people are learning the language and action of racism just as their parents did before them12.  We are not “post racial;” If anything we are pre-racial for we have never been able to fully accept and explore concepts of identity with any sense of truth, honesty or equity.  We have only begun to explore who each of us really are.  Black Lives Matter is one step forward in that exploration.




1. Dred Scott/ Plessy
2. List of Anti-Miscegenation Laws
3. United States Census Lists
4. Fifteenth Amendment
5. Executive Order 8802
6. Executive Order 9981
7. Brown v Board of Eduction Original Document
8. 1965 Voting Rights Act
9. US Government Apology for Lynching
10. US Government Apology for Slavery
11. 1943 Magnuson Act
12. SAE Under Fire