From Father to Son

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on June 18, 2017

 When I was in seminary at Emory University, I took a course on the sociology of religion. One of the assignments the professor gave us was to develop a timeline of significant events at our congregation over the last 15 years. We were then to layer on to this timeline what we felt were significant local, national and world events that occurred during the same period.

The year was 2006, and I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. On my timeline, I noted some of UUCA’s major events over the last 15 years.

They included the hire of what was to be our long-term minister, the loss of an associate minister who died of cancer, the completion of a capital campaign and expansion of the building, and the circulation of a petition to fire the controversial interim minister, which ultimately required an outside mediator to settle.

The congregation was also engaged in a significant effort to block the passage of the Georgia constitutional amendment that would prohibit the legality of same-sex marriage (which, as some of you may recall, we lost at the time).

During that same period, Bill Campbell and Shirley Franklin served as mayors of Atlanta, and the Olympic Games were held here. The Berlin wall fell, and the Bosnian and Gulf Wars raged. The U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Clinton, and the U.S. Supreme Court determined that George W. Bush had won the presidential election.

Coretta Scott King died. The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson was elected the first openly gay bishop of a mainline Protestant denomination. The World Trade Center towers were attacked, and the U.S. invaded Iraq.

In the paper that I submitted with my timeline, I noted that the congregation entered a period of strife and unrest about the same time our nation did. I also pointed out that it had enjoyed a period of expansion and growth about the same time the entire nation did.

About a week later, my professor returned my paper to me with a “check” mark at the top – as he always did – to indicate he had read it. There were no other comments – except one.

On my timeline and in my paper, where I had indicated that the U.S. had entered a period of unprecedented economic well-being during the Clinton years, he simply wrote, “For some.”

After class, I asked Dr. Pollard what he meant by that.

I remember him calmly responding, “The 90s were, perhaps, a period of prosperity for you and other people in our country. But I would venture to say that many African Americans have not made the same gains and, therefore, would not have made the remark you made.”

 Ouch. In that moment, I felt completely embarrassed . . . and I was also propelled forward on my journey of awakening.

That experience taught me that it’s dangerous to make broad, sweeping statements about everyone. Because someone is bound not to fit the description. I use the word dangerous, not because I fear for my life, but because I believe my blindness to my own white privilege actually exacerbates the racial injustice I say I want to help end in our world.

What I’m learning in my own awakening journey is that there are many things I observe or experience that really aren’t about living in America in general but, rather, are about being white specifically.

As a group, white people have better jobs, better homes, better education, and better healthcare than persons of color. We may have differing opinions on why this is the case, but the facts are there.

I’ve ultimately concluded that fully comprehending all the ways in which white privilege permeates my existence would be a little like asking a goldfish to comprehend water. If it’s all the fish has ever lived in, then we might imagine that it likely doesn’t even know that the water’s there. It just is.

I think my white privilege is like that. I can’t fully see it or understand it because it’s all I’ve ever known.

I believe it takes people who don’t swim in the water of whiteness the way I do to help me begin to see and feel things differently. Someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In his New York Times best-selling book, written as a letter from father to son, Coates describes the hard lessons he learned about racism as a black child growing up in Baltimore. He describes the physical danger he believes he and his son will live with forever as people who live inside in black bodies.

He writes:

But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.1)Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY: 2015), 10.

This may seem like an extreme statement to some. But I can’t look away from the fact that Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American man, feels this way every day . . . while I, a Euro American woman, never do.

An unfortunate news headline this week brought home Coates’s point. On Friday, it was reported that a Minnesota police officer was acquitted of manslaughter involving Philando Castile, a 32-year old African American and elementary school cafeteria worker. This tragedy is exactly the harsh reality that Coates believes he cannot protect his black-skinned son from and that our society refuses to do anything about.

For me, it also affirms Coates’s observation that “it does not matter if the destruction [of another black life] is the result of an unfortunate overreaction . . . if it originates in a misunderstanding . . . or springs from a foolish policy.”2)Ibid., 9 What does matter, Coates says, is that “all of this is common to black people. And all of this is old to black people.”3)Ibid. Another black man dies. And no one, Coates says, is held responsible.

I think what Ta-Nehisi Coates is saying is that whether or not one believes the acquittal was just is important and is beside the point. What is the point is that black bodies are endangered and always have been in our country, since the time of slavery. And, it seems that they are killed no matter if they are complying with or breaking the law, whether they are legally armed or unarmed.

This is what the outrage is about. This is what gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.

As Unitarian Universalists who affirm the worth and dignity of every person and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations, I imagine we all agree that something needs to be done to stem the tide of black male deaths in our country and to put an end to systemic racism. We know of many movements and programs out there that are working to do that, and some of you are active in these.

I also believe it’s important not just to look at what needs to be done out there, but also what needs to change in here – within Unitarian Universalism – to end our own internal racism so that we can truly claim the just and beloved community that is our ideal and our goal.

Just as Ta-Nehisi Coates is teaching me that I swim in the water of white privilege, our Unitarian Universalists of color are telling all of us that our beloved institution, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has been swimming in it, too.

As many of you know, the Unitarian Universalist Association – the organization to which most U.S. UU congregations belong and through which we make collective decisions for the good of our faith – is experiencing a leadership crisis.

A recent decision by our white leaders to pass over hiring a qualified person of color for a key leadership position has created an outrage. It’s led to resignation of four senior executives in our religious movement, including our UUA president and – just last week – the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, who was also a former minister of this congregation.

Unitarian Universalists of color are telling us that our UUA institution is not living up to its own commitment to embrace diversity and to hire more people of color for leadership roles. Many of our black and brown UUs are saying that we are guilty of institutionalized white supremacy, a description that has left many people feeling angry and defensive.

They want us to walk the talk of racial justice by being an organization that is actively working to root out internalized racism and put persons of color at the center of all we do.

While we wrestle these issues at the national level, what can we do about this locally and individually here at Northwest? Kenny Wiley, a senior editor at UU World magazine, director of faith formation at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church of Parker, Colorado and a co-leader of Black Lives of UU, has some suggestions. 

First, he says that we must learn all we can about the racial justice movement. At Northwest, we’ve examined together Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which is a good start. Yet, there is much more we can do. Wiley recommends that white UUs “need to talk to each other about whiteness, white supremacy, and ‘white fragility,’” which is term used to describe “a state in which even a minimal amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

If you’re not sure what that means, we might consider for a moment our individual responses to the UUA being described as suffering from institutionalized white supremacy. If our response to this label is one of anger or defensiveness, as if we had been labeled bad or immoral, then there are those who would argue that we are exhibiting symptoms of white fragility.

Kenny Wiley also suggests that we become followers, not leaders, in the cause for racial justice. “Listening to young, black leaders, locally and nationally, can be challenging,” he writes, “but it is a vital step.” I believe that 41-year old Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of those challenging, but important voices. Wiley further recommends going to where the young voices of color are (such as Twitter) and reading what they read.

Third, Wiley offers that we give all the support we can to Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements. Providing food, water, money, and meeting space all help.

Fourth, Wiley suggests that we engage. “Make it known that you are part of this movement,” he says. “Post about it on Facebook. Buy a yard sign or bumper sticker, even though it might get stolen. Go to protests or community meetings—they’re usually just a Twitter or Facebook search away.”

Along these lines, I have often wondered what it would look like if Northwest made use of a highly valuable asset it possesses for the cause of racial justice: that is, the congregation’s road front sign.

I can imagine that Mt. Vernon Highway is one of the busiest streets in Sandy Springs. What would it be like if we regularly used our sign on it to show our support for Black Lives Matter or other movements and activities that support black lives?

How many people might we reach? What partnerships and alliances might we create? Who might we piss off?

Finally, Wiley says we must “stay woke,” a term he says is used on social media by people who continue pointing to the ever-growing list of victims of state violence, racial profiling, or other racial injustices.

“Unitarian Universalists, too, can ‘stay woke’, Wiley says, “by continuing to grapple with the magnitude of the work ahead, and by refusing to succumb to the temptation to ignore the racial realities of our country.”

****

A father to son letter like the one Coates wrote to his 15-year old was heartbreaking and hard to read. And, yet, its graphic descriptions and challenging concepts can serve as our awakening. It can remind us that it’s not enough to be disturbed by headlines we read about racism out there or in here. We have an opportunity to do something really helpful.

As many of you know, after today, I’m going to be on my summer leave for the next two months. During this time, I’m going to give this question of “What can we do?” more thought. I’m hoping you’ll join me in thinking about it, too. It’s a conversation I plan to return to when I’m back in August.

I hope you’ll join me in staying woke and that, together, we can uncover how our own unconscious white privilege is getting in the way of our personal transformation and building the Beloved Community.

Let’s walk this journey together. May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY: 2015), 10.
2. Ibid., 9
3. Ibid.