CW: White supremacist fu*&ery, wrapped in gaslighting claims of feeling “unsafe” as a white male in UUism.
Context: If you can stomach some abhorrent BS, read this first, and then watch the brilliant Leslie Mac’s video response for the context of my response. I’m responding here specifically at the request of friends of color for white folks to publicly address this asshattery. Let me be clear: I AM NOT SAYING ANYTHING THAT FOLKS OF COLOR HAVEN’T ALREADY SAID, PROBABLY MUCH BETTER. But it matters that white people say it, too, so here we go.
Alright, in no particular order, let’s get some things straight, my white UU kin:
1.) People of color and indigenous folks (POCI) have never been “safe” in Unitarian Universalism, period. (I was gonna link some stuff here, but I’m actually not going to play the game of giving white people statistics and data to prove that the realities of POCI are, in fact, real). The current “crisis” in Unitarian Universalism is nothing new, but it is loud and undeniable right now because brilliant POCI within our faith–who have stuck around despite the white supremacist culture that is in the marrow of the bones of our tradition and its structures–HAVE BEEN ORGANIZING. It is absolutely no coincidence that the “hiring controversy,” which so many folks have come forward and talked about as a generations-old pattern in our UUA and our congregations, came to light in the time right after the Black Lives of UU convening in NOLA, and during Finding Our Way Home, the national gathering of POCI Religious Professionals. These gatherings–and the massive organizing power behind them that made them possible, including the organizing that led to the commitment of the UUA Board of Trustees to give BLUU $5.2 million–is both what allowed the voices of folks of color to be amplified and heard on a national scale, AND what is making the white power structure (and all of those who benefit from it, directly and indirectly) so uncomfortable and skittish and fragile.
2.) Let’s talk about violence, and the language that Mel Pine uses here. He uses words like “coup” and “attack” and “threatened” several times in this post, and I while I don’t know Mr. Pine or his life story, my interpretation here is that he is not receiving death threats, or being physically attacked, or being cut off from opportunities for employment, or being spit on, or being told he has no place in Unitarian Universalism. His definition of what it means to be “safe” is to be allowed to say whatever he wants, however he wants, with no repercussions or accountability. Let me say what so many people of color have said a zillion times, just in case you hear me say it because I am melanin deficient and that’s how this stuff works: WHITE FOLKS, JUST BECAUSE WE DO NOT FEEL COMFORTABLE AND UNCHALLENGED DOES NOT MAKE US UNSAFE. It is not the responsibility of people of color to frame their anger, sadness, grief, outrage, or any other feeling in a way that feels palatable to us.
3.) Safety has a whole hell of a lot to do with power. Mr. Pine states that the reasons he personally now feels unsafe within Unitarian Universalism are that “The demands of one UU faction have led to the resignation of the denomination’s democratically elected president,” and then, “But the faction now in control is determined to get what it wants before then, so the Board of Trustees has appointed three interim co-presidents and charged them to give the faction what it wants before the new president is elected at the regularly scheduled General Assembly.”
This, in combination with the use of the word “coup,” is a thinly veiled cry that the colored folks are getting uppity and need to be put back in their place. Let’s not mince words: this is the rhetoric of slave owners, of White Citizens Councils, of the US government as it attacked the Dakota people at Wounded Knee, of Stand Your Ground laws, of police officers who use deadly force against unarmed people of color because they feel threatened.
I will concede that Mr. Pine’s INTENT may not be to invoke these images, this history, and that he may well genuinely feel unsafe. But, when taken to its fullest extent, and in combination with the power of institutions, the IMPACT of this rhetoric is the LITERAL KILLING OF PEOPLE OF COLOR AND INDIGENOUS FOLKS. It is redlining and forced sterilization and Tuskeegee and the prison industrial complex.
In this case, we have one blowhard, garbage blog post from one sadly misguided individual who thinks he is “speaking truth to power.” But the cumulative impact, when you have hundreds or thousands of people who share these feelings, who run our congregations, who hold the power to make hiring decisions, who decide what is and isn’t acceptable behavior and demand that people assimilate to their version of what “safety” feels like is that we have a WHITE SUPREMACIST INSTITUTION that will do anything it can to keep the uprising from happening, even when the INDIVIDUAL INTENTIONS OF ITS ACTORS are not necessarily malignant.
4.) Then let’s talk about Democracy for a second, since Mr. Pine clearly has the view that so many UUs do that Democracy is the be-all-and-end-all of enlightenment and equality. I’m not even going to address the ridiculousness of insisting that the POCI “faction” (can you say offensive, much?!?!?) forced resignations, because that is so patently untrue it doesn’t deserve any more of my words. But let’s consider this assertion that leaders who haven’t been democratically elected are going to push through an agenda that they don’t have a mandate from the voting public to enact, and that this is inherently wrong.
Democracy, as it is usually practiced in our congregations and in our Association, is the concept that each person should have an equal vote in decision making, and that the majority opinion will dictate the outcome. Now, even if we assume that we practice true democracy in Unitarian Universalism (and we could certainly have a good debate about that), we have to acknowledge that true democracy means that whatever group is in the numerical minority will never have the numbers to win a popular vote. When it comes to elections, and the policies those elected will put in place, “democracy” creates a circle: in a white supremacist institution (and again, shorthand here is that white supremacist = any structure that privileges the comfort, culture, power, and importance of white people over all other racial groups), white people are in the majority, and if the one person = one vote structure is the only way decisions are made, guess what? WHITE SUPREMACY PERSISTS. Equality is not the same as equity, and unless you redistribute power and shift the dynamics to center the voices and experiences and vision of those who can’t actually attain a numerical majority, nothing will change. It’s as simple as that. This is why we need redistribution and reparations.
5.) On a kind of related note, and before you tell me that this is all really mean to say out loud, let me say: there are a whole bunch of “calls for unity” swirling around among white UUs right now. Folks saying, “Using the term ‘white supremacy’ is language that shames people, and so it’s not strategic to use that term because it shuts down the conversation.” Or, “We shouldn’t all be forced to believe the ‘politically correct’ party line on racism.” Or, “Can’t we all agree that racism is bad, but we should be glad that we’ve made so much progress and we’re so much more enlightened than Those Other People?”
Lemme just stop you there. Our faith calls us to love, not niceness; to transformation and salvation, not comfort. And that means confronting the ways in which we who benefit from privilege have also been both complicit with, and colonized and dehumanized by, oppressive systems, even when it evokes Lots Of Big Feels. It also means acknowledging that calls for unity in the face of injustice are siding with the status quo, and we white folks have to figure out how to support the liberation of our POCI kin because it is also our own liberation that is at stake. But to do that, we have to be ready to weather some storms. At the risk of being the white person to quote Frederick Douglass, I’m still gonna do it because it’s so on point (this from his 1857 West India Emancipation speech): “Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform […]. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
6.) Last thing, speaking of turmoil and discomfort: UUs have a long history of packing up our bags and bailing on our covenants with our congregations when we feel uncomfortable, when we get into fights with each other, when we don’t get our way. We have a tendency to distrust authority, and to be hyper-individualistic and self-centered. We love the idea of “free,” and we have trouble living into the idea of “responsible” in our fourth principle. Sometimes the things we leave over are legit; many, many times they’re just about how hard it is to lean into covenant with each other in the messiness of human relationships and institutions.
POCI grow up in, or arrive in, our congregations and they know what they’re signing on for from the moment they walk in the door. There are spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological costs to being POCI in white-majority spaces, no matter how good-hearted and well-intended the whtie folks in those spaces might be. Lots of POCI find those costs too high to make it worth staying for (what I truly, deeply believe is) our liberating theology, and they leave.
But there are so many who stay. And we white folks have an INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITY right now to sit back and listen to the POCI who are here, ACTUALLY speaking truth to power because they believe our faith is worth fighting for. They’ve said loud and clear that they’re not going anywhere, this faith is theirs as much as anyone’s, and they are not going to tolerate being dehumanized and ignored and aggressed and silenced any more. This very statement–that there is something inherently redeemable and even salvific about Unitarian Universalism IN SPITE of all the brokenness in our incarnation–is a GODDAMN GIFT TO OUR FAITH. My beloved POCI UU people are saying, as Jacob said to the Angel, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”
God, in your mercy, please help as many of us white folks cheer our POCI kin on in that struggle, and do whatever we can to help them wrest that blessing, because I guarantee it will be salvation to us, too.