Soul Searching Ahead: Unitarian Universalist Conversations on Race

Over and over, the dangers of oversimplification rang forth.  Participants maintained — indeed, they demonstrated — that all of us engaged in the struggle against racism and other forms of oppression — no longer need to fear or avoid conflict, for out of such tensions may come our most creative, collaborative, and productive efforts.  Indeed, such tensions may be part of “doing the work” of anti-racism.  (Soul Work: anti-racist theologies in dialogue, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones)

Each year (more or less) since 1996, I have been attending the International Affairs Conference on Star Island, seven miles in the Atlantic, off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Star Island is a UU/UCC conference center but more importantly, it is a place my children grew up returning to, learning autonomy, community, responsibility, personal liberty and accountability.  Of the fourteen years I attended, thirteen of those years I spent staffing the vibrant youth program (18 months to 18 years), including four years of directing it.  It has been a big part of my family’s life, as well as a significant way I have engaged my Unitarian Universalist identity and community.

This year, the conference took place the day after President Obama spoke after the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict, calling for — among other things, such as spending “some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys” (let’s not forget that part) — wider conversations about race in this country.

And then, finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy. (President Barack Obama, July 19, 2013)

As part of the IA conference, each night there is a “timely topic,” and so it fit rather nicely, under the facilitative leadership of Bruce Pollack Johnson, that we convene a conversations on race.  About 50 people opted in — it was a nice-size crowd.  Though one can rightly call the amenities on Star Island “rustic,” and where public use of technology is looked askance, in general there is a modernizing influence afoot, so we were able to view together Obama giving his remarks via the wonders of the interwebs.  Then, with loving and careful attention to process (raising of hands, using “I” messages, everyone has the opportunity to speak once before some speak for a second time, etc.), we spoke with and listened to each other.

Largely (solely?) a white crowd, it was also (likely) predominantly UU, though not solely.  Given who attends this not-inexpensive conference, there was probably not much class diversity represented (welcome to the world of UUs).  There was wide representation of urban, suburban, and small town dwellers, as well as across an age continuum that spanned early 30s to mid 80s.  It was clear that most of these people had spent time thinking about race, racism and white privilege.  Some comments reflected engagement beyond intellectual or political masturbation, but life choices towards a Beloved Community.  They were heartsick and not for the first time.  I was proud to be among them and of them.

Of course, there are UU conversations on race, racism, and privilege — in person, as part of worship, on the internet — that started long before this president called on our nation to engage in them.  These conversations have been and will be encouraging, frustrating, provocative, invigorating, exhausting, discouraging, generative, and no doubt more.

I think particularly to the conversation my fellow UU seminarian colleague, Adam Dyer, has started on his blog.   In this first of numerous posts, Adam invites us to

Choose a word, write it on an envelope or similar sized piece of paper, take a picture of your self holding that word like a ‘mug-shot’ and post it to your facebook wall, twitter account or here in my comments.  Share it everywhere you can.  We need these words if we’re ever going to get past the current conversation.

In considering a single word, I was stymied.  How could I choose just one word?  Once I approached the word I wanted to offer (some form of the word, “engage”), it was insufficient by itself.  But what word was true — not just aspirational, but true now — that I could pair with “engage”?  The phrase, “willing to engage,” conveyed a reluctance I don’t feel.  “Happy/pleased/enthusiastic” conveyed a simplicity that I also don’t feel. Fact is, sometimes I dread the real work it takes for these real conversations.  Then I stumbled upon this phraseology:

ImageBlessings: a gift, but not always sought or appreciated.  A mixture of textures that bring deep joy and moving toward right relations, usually after trial and tribulations.  Think of all those reluctant prophets!  Think of the Mary Oliver poem, so brief and so true:

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In just a few days, I will take part in another conversation about race and culture.  Also under a UU umbrella, this is a three-day workshop for ministers and ministerwannabees (like myself) called, “Culture, Diversity, and Change: Skills for Developing Inclusive Community.”  This is offered because one of the ethical standards we UU clergy-types hold out for ourselves, and upon which we stand, is

Ethical Standards:

I will work to confront attitudes and practices of unjust discrimination on the basis of race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, or ethnicity, and to challenge them within myself and in individuals, congregations, and groups I serve.

Expectations of Conduct:

I will acknowledge the reality of privilege arising from differences of social location and historical marginalization. I will exercise the power of my authority and the privileges of my social location in such a way that I do not disadvantage my colleagues on the basis of my or their race, color, class, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability or ethnicity.

(from the UU Ministers Association Guidelines)

The center piece of this new version of UUs engaging the ongoing injustice of racism and racial privilege is called the “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS)”  — It’s also called the Bennett Scale — and the Intercultural Development Inventory.  It joins the litany of other effective and not-so-effective anti-racism initiatives, such as Truth, Repair, and Reconciliation; Journey Towards Wholeness; Jubilee Anti-Racism Training.   These initiatives, and others throughout U and U and UU history, have focused on individuals, congregations, and larger systems, both within the UU world and outside of it.

This DMIS-based training is getting high marks from people whose opinions on race and multi-culturalism I respect.  In the spirit of Be The Change, these three days require of participants that we not only look at our denomination, communities and congregations, but also lovingly and frankly at ourselves.  Before arriving on Monday, each of us will have taken an individual inventory test that is inter-culturally valid across nations.  This information will inform our understanding of our own developmental stage of cultural sensitivity and engagement.  I can’t think of a better way to be personally and spiritually challenged, as well as to cultivate empathy, than to engage in this process, which will reveal my strengths and vulnerabilities.  Though I like to think of myself as well-versed, both politically and interpersonally, on issues such as these, I anticipate that I will likely find myself feeling vulnerable, exposed, and inadequate.  These are not easy conversations to have.  I know I will put my foot in my mouth, because I have done it before.  My guess is I will worry about how my colleagues are perceiving me, which, if so, will be a barrier to the depth of transformation I can expect.  This is daunting, to say the least.  I hope that my mindfulness practices will help me observe and unattach from my fears, my aversions, my judgments so that I might be touched by the deep transformative power such vulnerable conversations can create.

I hope, too, that there will be laughter.  This stuff is serious, but it doesn’t mean we have to take ourselves too seriously.  In that vein, I offer this Daily Show report (“The R word,”) aired just last night.  In it, Jessica Williams and Samantha Bee also respond to President Obama’s call for conversations on race.

If they can attempt it, with all their comic relief hitting far too close to home, then I think it’s time that I (and you) should try (some more), too.  And in so doing, keep this piece of wisdom in mind:

Our job is to use love, anger, and imagination to show where to go, and laughter to keep us alive while we get there.  And we must not use laughter to make us endure what courage can change.  Mab Segrest

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