As a congregation, we have been aware of and discussing “cultural appropriation” for many years. We do strive to do it right; to not borrow practices without attribution and to not use borrowed elements out of context. We do strive to do it right, but we should not assume we get it right every time.
It’s always a good idea to step back on occasion and check our knowledge. So what is Cultural Appropriation? The idea of borrowing, sharing, or being inspired by another culture. People often use cultural appropriation & cultural misappropriation interchangeably now. Cultural misappropriation is when a dominant group (usually white people, communities, or brands) profits, dresses, acts, and/or adopts cultural practices, behaviors, and beliefs of a BIPOC community. And it’s the cultural misappropriation that is most problematic.
Once we pass the resolution adopting the 8th principle, we need to begin examining our own institution and its practices. One area for introspection is determining if we have processes in place to guard against cultural misappropriation. While it will be necessary to determine whether or not we have been doing the right thing in the past, perhaps it’s more important to construct systemic controls to make sure we do the right thing in the future.
The 8th principle states that we shall “accountably dismantle racism.’ What does it mean to be accountable?
From the 8th Principleuu.org website: White UUs hold themselves accountable to communities of color, to make sure whites do what they say they will do. In practice, that can mean having a People of Color Caucus within congregations, [regions], etc., to discern and express needs and concerns to the rest of the community. Black UUs hold each other accountable and help each other see and dismantle signs of internalized racism. We need an effective mechanism or structure to ensure this. Similarly for other oppressions.
We must find ways to be held accountable that will work for a congregation of our size, composition, and location. Because of the small number of congregations who are ahead of us in this journey it’s probable that at some point in time we will be breaking new ground. Perhaps one of the most complex tasks before us will be to create this sort of oversight structure. We know that police cannot police themselves. The houses of Congress have shown that they cannot hold their own members accountable for ethics violations. Writers require editors because they know what they intended to write and will read the same paragraph over and over, continually reading what they intended to write rather than what their fingers actually keyed in on the computer. Even once we are open to seeing our mistakes, we may not be able to do so; it may require another set of eyes.
We, as a congregation, have before us a proposal to adopt an eighth principle; “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
It is a journey, and its goal is spiritual wholeness.
When we, as a community, commit ourselves to the lofty goal of building a diverse, multicultural Beloved Community, we must acknowledge not just the distance already traveled, but, more importantly, the journey still ahead.
How else can we describe the as yet unrealized intent of dismantling racism than to acknowledge that we cannot be whole until we do so?
As with all social justice work, in fact, as with all worthwhile pursuits, the journey towards a Beloved Community is a long and difficult one. It’s easy to get tired along the way; it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of steps before us. Persistence requires self-care.
We sit at home watching the news about the trial of the murderer of George Floyd (I won’t pollute my mouth with the murderer’s name) and we see a breaking story about the killing of Daunte Wright by police. We’re drawn into coverage of the over-policing that led to his death and the resulting protests and we see a story about army lieutenant Caron Nazario, in uniform, harassed and assaulted by police in another traffic stop. We’re pulled out of that by the death of Adam Toledo at the hands of police. What fresh horror will divert us from that story?
First responders know that the most important rule when approaching a disaster scene is to make sure they are safe and do not become another victim requiring help. Take care of yourself so that you can complete this good work. Sometimes it is better to do a little less today if it allows you to continue tomorrow and the day after. Seek mutual aid from those working with you. Seek support from those who will help you heal. Engage in practices that allow you to breathe; attend worship services, meditate, exercise, take a break from social media, seek counseling, yell at the TV, play with animals. When that feeling of being overwhelmed threatens to rise up, focus on the one step in front of you, not all of those beyond that.
When talking about anti-racist work “microaggression” is used so often these days that there is begining to be an assumption that everyone understands the meaning of the term. It’s worth taking a few moments to define it. From the UUA’s web page about hospitality and inclusion;
Microaggression is a term coined by psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue and it refers to a comment or behavior that others or demeans someone because of their culturally marginalized identity. Microaggressions are often unintentional but can cause serious psychological and spiritual harm over time—the effect known as “death by a thousand paper cuts.”
Microaggressions are so insidious that victims internalize the subconscious message and do not even realize that they have been wronged, especially when they are received from someone they trust in a space they consider safe.
In fact, well meaning people, in an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, may unknowingly use microaggressions when speaking with BIPOC or other marginalized people. It’s important to understand that not everyone will react the same way to any particular statement or speaker and the perspective that matters is that of the person receiving harm. Here are a few examples that might be heard at coffee hour at a UU congregation:
- “Where are you really from?”
- “You must be new to Unitarian Universalism.”
- “You speak English so well!”
- “Welcome! Do you want to join the Racial Justice Team?”
- “Ooh, I just have to touch your child’s hair.”
This is an area in which we will need to delve into this in detail. Over the coming weeks and months we will have opportunities to learn and grow as a community.
Who would have thought Sharon Osborne would have anything to teach us about being anti-racist, yet here we are with a perfect lesson in what NOT to do.
Sharon Osborne, co-host of The Talk, came under fire recently for defending Piers Morgan. The details of her defense are not the point, but rather a statement she made while defending herself on air. She turned to her co-host Sheryl Underwood, who is African American, and demanded “you tell me…educate me”.
It is not the responsibility of BIPOC to educate White people about racism. That bears repeating; it is not the responsibility of BIPOC to educate White people about racism. It is up to White people to seek the information themselves. The work of educating people about their own racism is difficult and can be emotionally draining. White people demanding – feeling entitled to – hard work from BIPOC is exactly the sort of privilege that must be dismantled. There are enough resources available for White people to educate themselves. For technology-challenged people there are plenty of White people who can provide the necessary reading material.
People who are BIPOC should not feel obligated to educate White people about racism. Self-care is always important, this need actually increases when in a normally safe space in which racism is being discussed because unintentional harm from trusted friends can be far more damaging than intentional harm from strangers. The UUA has some strategies for “When Times Get Tough” on the Hospitality and Inclusion page under Widening the Circle of Concern.
If an individual who identifies as BIPOC decides to take up the task of educating a White person about racism, that White person is obligated to listen and accept the lesson without challenging it.
We will need to work together as a congregation and as individuals in support of established organizations that work to deconstruct institutional racism within our communities. One local organization in Scotch Plains Fanwood called Social Justice Matters is doing this type of work. This month’s Share the Plate is in support of Social Justice Matters. But you are also invited to get involved by attending a Social Justice Matters quarterly meeting on March 31st at 7:30. At this meeting you can hear about the progress of several of their initiatives as well as how to participate in the Racial Healing Circles.
If you attend this meeting you will have a chance to hear about and get involved in these initiatives:
- Juneteenth Celebration
- The Scotch Plains Fanwood Truth Racial Healing and Transformation Committee (TRHT)
- The Kramer Manor Oral History Project
- The April Systemic Racism Series on Environmental Racism
- The May Commemoration of the Tulsa Massacre
- The Community Policing Initiative
I attended their last quarterly meeting in Decmber and I found it very inspiring. I encourage you to attend this quarter’s meeting on March 21st. Check out the Thursday email blast for the zoom link to attend.
This past week Deb Haaland was confirmed as the Secretary of the Interior, making her the first Indigenous cabinet member. As Secretary of the Interior, Ms Haaland is now the first Native American to lead the agency that most directly affects the lives of Native Americans. Three of the eleven bureaus within the department are dedicated to governance over and support of tribal nations. It can be said that four of the other bureaus are the arms of the government that are most at odds with tribal rights and most responsible for breaking treaties.
The importance of Ms Haaland’s appointment to Native Americans can be seen in the words of Joe Williams Jr., former mayor of Ketchikan, Alaska and Tlingit tribal elder. Although he is a conservative born-again Christian, he strongly supports Haaland because, in his words, “I don’t have to explain to her what it means to be an Indian.”
This is a model we should look to, for selection of leaders in national and local government, private companies, and our congregations. BIPOC leadership is necessary, not just to provide equitable access to opportunity, but because people are served best by leaders who are capable of understanding their needs and concerns.
We began our journey towards adopting our 8th principle in the midst of a pandemic, now approaching its first anniversary. In adopting this principle we will be committing to build a beloved community, supported by the twin pillars of economic and social justice. We know that systemic racism perpetuates class differentiation so that Black people are more likely than white people to be in the lower tiers of society in terms of income and wealth and the power that comes with them. Addressing systemic racism requires addressing this disparity as a matter of morality. Economic and social justice are also necessary for the health of individuals in a society. We have seen over the past year the racially disparate impacts of the pandemic on BIPOC members of our society; Black people are three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. Similarly, Latinx persons are over three times more likely to be hospitalized and Native Americans almost four times as likely as white people, with both groups being over twice as likely to die from this disease. But this is nothing new. Studies over the past 40 years have shown that social class and heart disease are directly related, with mortality rising in the working class, while remaining stable among professionals. With the imbalance by race across economic class, this change has had a disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities. Healthcare is a human right and access to quality healthcare should not be determined by race.
We speak about institutional racism and individual racism in our work here. Perhaps it’s time to define them clearly and place some focus on why we must address institutional racism.
Individual Racism is when a person believes themself to be superior to others because of the color of their skin or their ethnic background. Institutional Racism is when resources, power, and opportunities are distributed such that certain groups benefit more than others based on skin color or ethnic background
Examples of Institutional Racism can be found in almost every aspect of our society. Perhaps the most visible, is the criminal justice system.
- Laws criminalize the behaviors of BIPOC communities, while minimizing analogous behaviors of white communities, such as the disparities in how marijuana and alcohol offenses are treated and the differentiation between crack and cocaine.
- Policing policies such as stop and frisk and broken glass policing target communities of color.
- The cash bail system that favors people with the means to post bail. Bail is supposed to ensure appearance trial but is actually used as a punitive measure.
- Once charged there is an imbalance in trial. Diversion disproportionately favors white people, plea agreements as a means of avoiding jail time result in convictions of innocent people, and a lack of access to adequate counsel is pervasive in disadvantaged communities.
- There is a large imbalance in sentencing, with BIPOC more likely to receive harsher sentences for similar offenses than white people do.
- Effective post-incarceration support structures are often less available to BIPOC.
- The relative racism of individual actors, from legislators, to the police, to the lawyers, judges, and juries, to those managing the prisons and to the parole officers, housing providers, and potential employers, are irrelevant. Individual acts of anti-racism cannot overcome the momentum of the institution.
- And, perhaps most important today, the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, police use violence against communities of color without fear of any consequences.
A little closer to home, there is racism in Congregational Life in most denominations, including leadership selection, decision-making, location, and funding model. None of this speaks to the demographics of the congregation; an all white congregation can be institutionally anti-racist and a diverse congregation can be institutionally racist.
The bottom line is that Institutional Racism or Anti-Racism Overrides Individual Racism. An institution can be racist even if all members are engaged in anti-racism work. However, if an institution is constructed to be anti-racist, mechanisms of the institution will address any racist acts by members of the institution.