For nearly three months, I’ve been trying to write something about what’s been happening in the UUA around a new awareness of white supremacy as manifests in our own lives and especially our organizations. If you are unfamiliar with what has been happening, here’s a comprehensive timeline of events and links to social media and other documents relevant to how it has unfolded. For reasons I’m not entirely clear about, I’ve been unable to get enough words together and focus enough to share my thoughts or even just the details of what has gone on.
On May 7, I finally preached about it as a part of the White Supremacy Teach-in suggested by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. I got some words together, and sought to open the matter for those who were present in worship. A few days later, I received a long and thoughtful letter from one of our members offering reflections and noting a place where my meaning may well have been lost. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect a bit more on what I said and to clarify for myself and others what I was trying to lift up.
I told a story about when I was a hostess in a pizza place back in the early 1980’s, and how I had been advised to use a particular strategy for seating people during the dinner hour. My manager had been very clear: start with the tables in the middle, and save the booths for larger parties as long as you can. One night a couple asked for a booth and I refused and seated them in the very last seats in the middle. When another couple came in, I did what I had to and seated them in a booth. The first couple was black, the second couple was white, and this wasn’t lost on the ones seated in the middle. They called me over and accused me of racism, and left the restaurant. To this day, it pains me to remember that moment and how it felt.
Here’s the thing that I need to say most clearly: it pains me not because I was wrongly accused, but because I harmed the couple. My intention (following the rules set down for me) wasn’t what mattered in the moment, nor does it matter all these years later. It pains me because I did harm to two people. The impact of my actions is what is painful. And what I know now is that because the lives of people of color are littered with micro-aggressions and casual racism, my action was only one of a whole complex of experiences that leave people of color feeling abused, hurt, and angry.
Trying to sort out the subtle and pervasive roots and tendrils of white supremacy is a fraught exercise for me as a white person. I fear stumbling and getting it wrong, offending the people I want to be in solidarity with. I fear unintentionally exercising my white privilege and doing harm. I worry about blurting out something stupid and forever being dismissed as clueless. I don’t want to be uncomfortable and have to examine my own motivations and participation. I allow my comfort in white culture to take precedent over the voices and concerns of those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed.
And that’s my white fragility showing through.
So, having stumbled again, I recommit to not allowing my fear to stop me from doing what is right. I recommit to being uncomfortable. I recommit my own journey of self-discovery which means hard lessons and confessing and asking forgiveness.
I invite you to join me and share your stories, too. All of us need all of us to make this work.