Sermon: Where Does Racism Live?

2017 October 15
by First U Bklyn

Part 1: Meagan Henry:

After high school, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where I was lucky enough to find my people. Living my young adult years in Knoxville gave me an opportunity to meet some really incredible activist and organizers fighting for environmental and racial justice in that region.  I became involved with an organization called the Oak Ridge Environment Peace Alliance where I learned about the history of nonviolent civil disobedience and participated in trainings on how to use the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience when engaging in direct action and protest. I went to workshops at the Highlander Center and marched and sang and prayed with Buddhist and Catholic nuns. This is when I began to learn much more about the history and strategy of the civil rights movement.


Then one day something happened that changed my perspective on the world. An activist friend said to me, “Hey the Nazis are coming to town and I think we need to tell them they’re not welcome here.”

My response was something along the lines of: “Nazis? What do you mean, Nazis? Nazi‘s don’t exist anymore.”

He said, “It’s the KKK. You know, the Ku Klux Klan. They are a bunch of neo-Nazis and they’re holding a rally here. They have a permit and everything.“


This pretty much blew my mind because I’d learned of the KKK and Nazis as a thing of the past. These were antiquated and eradicated white supremacist groups who no longer existed. Right?! Of course I was wrong. My white privilege had protected me from knowing. That day I began to wake up to what so many people of color and white racial justice activists already knew.


In preparation for talking about this today, I decided to check in on the state of things currently. So I did what one does, and I searched the Internet. The Southern poverty Law Center documents 917 hate groups that are currently operating in the US. There are 47 hate groups identified in New York State alone. I imagine many people have done this type of search lately. We know that the activity of white nationalist groups has intensified in the past few years, as evidenced by KKK flyers posted around Long Island and spread around trains on the Long Island Rail Road, in addition to other such acts in and around our city.


On August 12, 2107 in Charlottesville, VA, the world learned that organized white supremacist groups are thriving in the United States. We saw that there is a growing number of young people who’ve joined the ranks of this movement. We saw them marching in the streets carrying torches. The world witnessed as violent gun toting white nationalists literally fought in the streets with anti-fascist groups and Black Lives Matter members. Meanwhile, the woefully unprepared local police force were few and far between and scarcely present. 

The world witnessed as clergy from all faiths were physically threatened by white supremacists wearing shields and carrying guns.

The world witnessed as a car mowed through peaceful marchers, killing one and wounding several.


The events in Charlottesville are a wake up call for many, as they should be. For many others, especially those black and brown members of the world majority, this was not a surprise. It is for all of us, however, a clear reminder of the need for vigilance in dealing with hate groups. They are not hiding. They are clearly not ashamed of their ideology or their behavior. Let us not allow these and the growing number of overt acts of white supremacy taking place in our faces and in the streets of our nation take our attention away from the deeply embedded systems of white supremacy functioning in our lives.


Racism lives here. It is in our lives every day. Those trainings I attended on civil disobedience, non-violence, and direct action are important and I’ll never regret participating in protests against hate. My fear is that we will look at events like what happened in Charlottesville and point and say, “See that is the real problem. Those are the white supremacists.” And we will neglect to deal with the system white supremacy functioning in our everyday lives. My great hope is that we will not do that. That we will use this moment in time to deeply delve into the work of uprooting systemic white supremacy.


Part 2: Shari Halliday-Quan:

My family immigrated to this country illegally. Most people do not suspect that about me.

On my mother’s side with our share of very enthusiastic amateur genealogists, we pride ourselves on being descendants of John Smith, a leader of the Jamestown colony in what is now called Virginia. While the settlement was granted a charter by the King of England, there was no such invitation from the Algonquin-speaking peoples who lived there already. My father emigrated from China in the late 60’s, his entrance here paved by family members who were already citizens. A hundred years prior, his grandfather’s grandfather survived working on the transcontinental railroad. His labor was cheap, his life expendable. The mass destruction of government records in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 opened up an opportunity to register forged birth records and thus my ancestor became an American citizen. I think neither story has solid facts: John Smith had no children for one, and a system of racist immigration and citizenship policies of the United States would have made the forged naturalization of my father’s grandfather’s grandfather unlikely at best.

Together though, we have a story of two major movements of American White Supremacy. White entitlement to space no longer takes the form of Western Expansion across the American continent, but it does raise questions about gentrification. Cheap labor—and in particular, the slave labor of people kidnapped from Africa—formed the basis of this country’s economy. While the politics, theology, and science that once went into uphold the idea that white people are inherently superior have changed considerably over the last 400, 100, 50 years, white supremacy in American institutions remains. It cuts across all elements of contemporary society. We see it in casting decisions in Hollywood. We see it in schools and who gets expelled. We see at hospitals and whose pain is believed.  We see it in lending decisions at banks and who gets loans that might help them buy a house that will help their family accumulate wealth over the long run, as well as who gets loans that can’t possibly ever be repaid. We see it in law enforcement in the names of the people killed by police, many unarmed. We see across the criminal justice system with huge racial disparities of stops, arrests, indictments, and sentencing. We see it in the cheap labor upon which the American economy is still built, including migrant farmers and also prison industries. The Louisiana sheriff who said last week that they can’t release prisoners for good behavior from the state penitentiary because that’s how they wash the cars, sweep the floors, and generally keep everything in order at the local jail was morally wrong, but he wasn’t factually incorrect.

From phone calls to legislators to dropping water in the desert at border crossings, Unitarian Universalists are engaged in the greater struggle against systemic racism in a great variety of ways. And so when a scandal of sorts erupted in our Unitarian Universalist Association last year, many people were surprised to hear that white supremacy, as it turns out, also lives within our own spiritual home.

In March of this year, Christina Rivera, a woman of color, a religious educator and church administrator who serves on the UUA Board of Trustees was passed over for a regional leadership position. Despite being told during the interview that she was fully qualified and could do the job from day one, she had been deemed not a good fit. This news broke during a conference for UU religious professionals of color, and so President of the UUA Peter Morales, who is Latinx, was asked about hiring and race. His answer implied that there simply were not qualified people of color to fill leadership positions, and over the next few months, he continued to dismiss the concerns as “hysterical” and “self-righteous.” A closer look at denominational history and hiring suggests otherwise.

White supremacy is a complex system that privileges whiteness, privileges the feelings, ideas, success and lives of white people over that of people of color. White supremacy is not maintained only by overt racists, not even only by white people. White supremacy is rooted in history, perpetuated by institutions, and alive in our habits, actions, and beliefs.

A pattern of withholding support for ministers, religious professionals, and communities of color connected otherwise isolated incidents of “not being a good fit” in hiring decisions. While the UUA seemed to have more people of color on staff than your typical American institution, a closer looker revealed that so-called diversity hiring was concentrated in low-wage support jobs. None of the regional lead positions were held by people of color. While the President of the UUA at the time identified as Latino, his leadership council included only one other person of color, and that person was charged specifically with Multiculturalism.   

When I said that many people were surprised to learn the white supremacy might be present in our faith, the surprise mostly sat with white people. People of color involved with our denomination already knew this to be the truth and carried the pain of this with them even as they continued to serve our faith.


Part 3: Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons:

After the events of last year, which showed that racism lives not only among fringe white nationalist groups and not only at the national level, but also within our own denomination, a call came out to all of us from the Black Lives of UU organization to do some serious introspection on white supremacy within our communities. This did not mean ferreting out secret neo-Nazis. The term “white supremacy” was used very intentionally as a way of helping us recognize a through line between the “white supremacists” and those of us who publicly reject racism and yet tacitly accept a culture of white supremacy. Black Lives of UU challenged us to do a “White Supremacy Teach-In” last spring to explore these issues – which we did. They asked us to do a follow up teach in today. Over 200 UU congregations across the country are joining us.


At our teach-in in April, I talked about a group of people of color I had been speaking with who told me that from their perspective, this is clearly a “white” congregation. In exploring what that meant – how whiteness may be built into our culture here, I came across many examples – moments and situations where people of color were (completely unintentionally) made to feel other or less than or simply like this place was not oriented toward them. I’ll share some of these examples again because I think they’re useful reminders of what we’re talking about:


  • ·         A white person speaking to a mixed group implies that the presence of people of color is an act of social justice on the part of the congregation.
  • ·         A sermon perpetuates the white savior trope.
  • ·         The conversational tone of a committee meeting is so fast-talking, expertise-based, and competitive that the one woman of color in the room feels marginalized and drops off the committee.
  • ·         A person of color is publicly complimented by a white person as “very articulate.”


None of this is to say that we are bad people, but just that our community, like every community in this country, has work to do in this area.


To this end, we invited everyone to read three books dealing with racism over the summer (you can find the list of them in your Order of Service if you missed this). I loved all three of these books. I feel like I learned so much from them. They each showed, in very different ways, how race is a construct. They each showed how white supremacy permeates our culture. I started to get a clear understanding of some of the subtle things that we do in this community – more subtle than the things I just listed – that uphold white culture as literally “supreme.”


The book Waking up White by Debby Irving was especially helpful for me as a white person trying to understand whiteness. I’m going to be facilitating a conversation about this book after the service today. In it, Irving lists some of the characteristics of the dominant white culture – cultural norms that we tend to follow in meetings, casual conversations, decision-making. She writes: “The list of dominant white culture behaviors that holds racial barriers in place is not endless. In fact, it’s surprisingly short. As someone who at first was sure that the term ‘white culture’ was a bunch of baloney, I now confess that I have discovered in myself each and every one of the beliefs and behaviors listed below:


  • ·         Conflict avoidance
  • ·         Valuing formal education over life experience
  • ·         Right to comfort / entitlement
  • ·         Sense of urgency
  • ·         Competitiveness
  • ·         Emotional restraint
  • ·         Judgmentalness
  • ·         Either/ or thinking
  • ·         Belief in one right way
  • ·         Defensiveness
  • ·         Being status oriented.”


Now, we can hear that list and think of plenty of people of color who exhibit these beliefs and behaviors and plenty of white people who don’t. We can come up with all kinds of objections. This list is not meant to explain everything in all cases. But I want to invite you to soften any objections you may have and just let these concepts settle in for a minute. These characteristics of white culture are widely embraced by racial justice educators across this country. publishes a very similar list, as do other groups.


Part of becoming truly anti-racist is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable enough to recognize things about ourselves and our community that might not be comfortable, but might be true. Or even recognize things that we are proud of about ourselves that might inadvertently be causing harm. This entails us basically trying on a different pair of glasses – they may seem like they are distorting your vision at first, but when you give them a minute, your eyes might adjust and you might see something different.


White supremacy lives in us as individuals and as groups and I’m not just talking about white people. Studies have shown that white people will give higher tips to white waitstaff than to black waitstaff. People of color will also give higher tips to white waitstaff. This is the most painful and tragic aspect of white supremacy – it gets internalized by all of us and by each of us from the time we are children in this society.


In a minute I’m going to read the list again and ask you to think of an instance where you personally may have perpetuated one of these beliefs or behaviors or an instance where you have been hurt by one of these beliefs or behaviors. I’ll give you an example from my own experience as a white person: I once witnessed a white man in a very public setting parodying a black preaching style for comic effect. I have reason to believe that people of color within earshot were made uncomfortable and felt alienated by this. I cringed internally – but only internally. I said nothing to him at the time or later. So from the list we just heard, I was exhibiting at least two of the characteristics of white supremacy culture:

  • ·         “conflict avoidance” – I didn’t want to have a difficult exchange with him
  • ·         “entitlement to comfort” – I felt entitled to my comfort, to not raise this issue with him AND I probably felt that as a white man, he was entitled to his comfort, to not be criticized.


By not taking him aside and telling him what I had seen in that situation, I failed to take a risk on behalf of people of color. As a white person, I had the privilege to let this go and say nothing to him, and I availed myself of that privilege. Am I a bad person because of this? No. But I should have done it. This is a growth area for me as it is for many of us. Your examples might be more dramatic or less dramatic.


So, I’m going to read this list again, slowly, and then pause for a minute to give us all a chance to reflect on one instance in which we participated in upholding white culture or one instance in which we’ve been hurt by it.


  • ·         Conflict avoidance
  • ·         Valuing formal education over life experience
  • ·         Right to comfort / entitlement
  • ·         Sense of urgency
  • ·         Competitiveness
  • ·         Emotional restraint
  • ·         Judgmentalness
  • ·         Either/ or thinking
  • ·         Belief in one right way
  • ·         Defensiveness
  • ·         Being status oriented


If there’s anything we can learn from all of this, it’s that white supremacy lives, not just with the white nationalists, not just in our country, not just in our denomination, not just in our congregation, but in us. And so it is up to each of us to try on a different pair of glasses and look within – to examine behaviors that feel so normal to us, they are like breathing. It’s up to each of us to listen openly to the experiences of others, even when we don’t like what they’re saying. It’s up to each of us to take the uncomfortable step of talking about race, even when staying comfortable by avoiding it is an option. It’s up to each of us to take the risks of action, even when inaction is made possible by privilege.


The piece of music we’re about to hear next quotes Rev. Martin Luther King, saying, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness …. What are you doing for others?” What are you doing? What are we doing?


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