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Leader Resource 5: Affirming Experiences and Marginalizing Experiences
This resource includes several first-person narratives from Unitarian Universalists, many of them young adults, describing experiences of being affirmed and experiences of being marginalized. Introduce these voices and experiences using a Theater of Voices technique as described Activity 4.
Select four or five statements from the "Affirming Experiences" section and a similar number from the "Marginalizing Experiences" section. Pick and choose voices that speak best to your context. Choose about the same number of statements from People of Color and other people marginalized by race or ethnicity as you do from people who identify as White or of European ancestry.
After you have selected your material, consider the order of the voices and how to arrange participants visually "on stage" for the most impact. Let your imagination lead you. For example, you might intersperse or alternate affirming experiences and marginalizing experiences, or you might put two readers side by side and invite them to read two different narratives from a single person. As you prepare your production, note that each narrative will take two to three minutes to present.
Frances, African American
To be African American in this country is to face racism throughout life, however subtle. The love of one's family is paramount in reducing the damage of racism on one's wholeness. Unitarian Universalism is splendid as an affirming church family. Its primary commitment to justice seeking, its deep belief that every soul has irreducible value, and its belief that there is the spark of the divine in every one of us are powerful antidotes to the insistent racist voices among us. I find Unitarian Universalism not only soothing, but healing. It is a perfect medicine for the soul made sick by racism.
Ellen, age 22, White
I questioned my gender identity a lot while I was in college. Long hair, short hair, skirts, cargo pants, binding, not binding... and for a while, I even changed my name. It was during this experimental social transition that I realized how supportive my professors were. After I e-mailed them letting them know about my impending name change, I received messages not only acknowledging it, but letting me know that they were proud of me for making that decision, asking clarifying questions about how I wanted to be addressed or referred to, and letting me know that they had my back if I ran into problems because of my gender identity. But I didn't realize the whole extent of their support until I went back to going by my birth name. My changing identities didn't mean that they were going to take me less seriously, respect me less, or be less of an advocate for me when I needed it. At that point in my life, it turned out that what was most important to me wasn't necessarily that they were supportive of my choice in gender presentation, but that they cared about and respected me regardless.
Daniel, age 30, Haitian American
I felt most affirmed in my identity as an African American of Haitian ancestry when I was able to share a Haitian song with my UU congregation during a service I led. The Director of Music took the time to learn the song Fey-O and set the words to music so that the congregation could sing along. The song was admittedly a challenge for many people in the church due to the language and the pace of the music, but I really appreciated the effort, and I had a good laugh afterwards with the Music Director. Many people in the congregation appreciated having the opportunity to learn something about my childhood and being able to share in it through music.
Supriya, Asian elder
Perhaps one of the most positive and affirming experiences within Unitarian Universalism for me was when I offered to my minister to co-lead with another lay leader a "People of Colour" worship service. Another friend of South Asian ethnicity and I had just returned from a Young Adults of Colour Leadership Development Conference. After meeting young adults from across North America, we returned to Canada inspired and full of energy and courage to have our voices heard. We led a beautiful service that included music from our South Asian heritage, special readings, and meditations. We also introduced Indian classical dance into our worship service. Our title was about the Unitarian Universalist covenant to "promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person". We spoke about how we felt when congregants spoke as if we were sisters (we were not related in any way) or asked where we really came from when giving the city of our birth was an unsatisfactory answer. We spoke of wanting to be accepted as individuals for what we were, not based on the colour of our skin. We spoke of how we felt when the colour of our skin stood in the way of accepting us as individuals. Reaction was positive, and many congregants thanked us for sharing our views. We closed with the song "Woyaya"—"... We are going / Heaven knows how we will get there / But we know we will... " That day we felt affirmed as "People of Colour"—our voices were heard.
Living in a city where your job defines your identity, you quickly learn that the first question you get asked in almost any gathering is, "What do you do?" Yet, in my congregation, not a person asked me the "Job Question." Instead, they asked things like, "Could you help us out on this project?" and "Would you like to join us for lunch?" Just like that...free acceptance. I was stunned. These people didn't care about my credentials, about my background, about my appearance. If I said I was good at something, they invited me to help out there. When I volunteered to start a new member orientation program, people just assumed I'd do well. When, as a board member, I declined to make follow-up pledge calls, nobody gave me a hard time. Other than from my mother, I've never had such unquestioning acceptance. It feels wildly luxurious to not have to present any persona other than who I really am. And yet, this is not a place where "whatever" rules. We have many expectations of each other: shared values, civility with each other, showing the courage of our convictions, giving generously of time and money, taking action for social justice. In my congregation, we seem to care about what you do in community, not what you do in your day job.
India, age 25, Black
Most recently I had the opportunity to meet one of my favorite authors. I find that I relate to much of what she's written in her poetry and essays on identity, growing up as a multiracial lesbian of Menominee descent. She was in New York to speak as the key note speaker at the fifteen year anniversary of the Audre Lorde Project. She'd known Audre Lorde as a close comrade in the struggle for civil rights for people of color and lgbt people. I went with a friend to pick her up from her hotel. As we rode to the venue she spoke with about her experiences in the movement as well as her everyday life. She listened as we shared and gave us advice on the challenges we were currently facing. I felt affirmed as a young gay woman of color to have an elder reflect that being who we were wasn't about being an different or strange but just as beautiful and commonplace as the sun rising.
Beth, age 27, White
For many people, families are the most difficult people in life to come out to. So when my partner and I decided to get married and mailed out invitations to our entire family, we were taking a risk. We were taking a risk not because any of the family would be finding out about our relationship for the first time, but because we were asking for them to reply as to whether they would attend. We figured that some of our family that we haven't kept in close touch with would decline, but we still made a point of extending the invitation to all. While many members of my partner's family never returned the RSVP card, the one cousin who did wrote in big letters at the bottom, "We will not be in attendance due to our belief that marriage is only recognized as a union between one man and one woman forever as defined by God." Although this cousin's belief was not news to us, the fact that she returned the card with this written on it was very hurtful.
We hesitated to share what happened with the rest of the family, but when we "leaked" the information to my partner's brother the news spread fast. Family members expressed shock and disappointment with the cousin, reiterating over and over again that "this is not how we treat family." (Of course, I thought, "this is not how we should treat anyone!") When news reached my partner's parents and other extended family, they made sure we knew that they supported us, they supported our relationship, and they loved us. My decision to marry a woman brought out some of the most marginalizing and hurtful responses I've ever felt because of who I am, but I am grateful that it also brought out some of the most loving expressions from family and friends.
Brian, age 24, Puerto Rican
I think that a day that I felt uplifted by one of my identities was on my wedding day. I felt such nervousness and worry. I wanted everything to look perfect and go right. But, when I stood there and I saw the faces of those assembled there. The family and friends stood there in support of me. I know that not many lgbt people get that kind of support and love. I know that sometimes people have to marry with no family around them. They knew, though, that I loved myself and unconditionally accepted who I was born to be. In that moment, which now seems so very fleeting, the room was filled with immense love.
Supriya, Asian elder
What I find challenging within Unitarian Universalism is that, although we claim that our living tradition draws on many sources, including "wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life," this is something that I see very rarely in the many UU congregations I have visited in North America. As a first-generation Canadian, I struggle every Sunday with the fact that worship and the teachings from the pulpit provide me with little connection to the wisdom of my ancestors who were Hindus. Although I find strength in my Unitarian Universalist faith, I miss affirmation that my religious background is as important as the Judeo-Christian tradition. This makes me feel somewhat of an outsider, even within my own religious community. Being the child of immigrants, being an outsider has always been a fact of life and has presented many challenges over time. One place where this challenge should not have to present itself is within a religious community. Although I chose Unitarian Universalism because it held more meaning to me than the religion of my ancestors, I also chose it based on the promise that we would be inspired by the wisdom of the world's religions. I have faith that that day will come.
Daniel, age 23, Multiracial Latino
I felt marginalized growing up in the public school system. Granted, I think any school system would have marginalized me, but public school was rough. I was bilingual, and discouraged from talking in Portuguese. Often I had to be an interpreter when school called because the only adult home was usually my grandmother (both parents worked). I also struggled with expected to be perfect at everything, from both family and the school system. I don't think either of my parents went beyond middle school, and teachers would give me marks on any little thing. People brushed it off as if teachers just do that, but I think myself and other bilingual students were just targeted for that sort of thing. One teacher even said it was to "motivate" me. It only made me miserable, and spiteful. In spite, I did learn how to do everything perfect, but a good chunk of my childhood was spent pleasing others instead of exploring myself.
Bart, age 25, White
I work in a liquor store within a large box store and many times I have people question my intentions, knowledge, or trustworthiness due to my age, class, and appearance. I am a 25 year old white male who works three jobs to pay my bills. A few days ago, I had a gentleman attempt to beckon me over with an "Ahem," a finger point, and a "come here" motion with his finger. When I refused to acknowledge him, he got hostile while I calmly explained that most people ask for assistance, they don't point. That same day, I had another gentleman question whether or not I was going to steal his identity because I called for a manger to approve his personal check. Other times, I've had people say "You don't look old enough to even drink wine, why should I trust you?" not knowing that my other job is for a wine distributor. All of these instances make me feel worthless, like the person I am is only defined by my surroundings, not by my aspirations, goals, or passions.
Alicia, African American
I came back to my congregation after I graduated from college. The racial and ethnic makeup of the congregation mirrored that of the now-gentrified neighborhood surrounding the church. I was not expecting to feel uncomfortable, but I did, instantly. I think it was the looks I received from the new White congregants. They were "What are you doing here?" kind of looks. I wasn't sure if it was my hair, clothes, shoes, or what. But I understood those looks to mean I didn't belong. I'm a Black woman in my twenties who attends a church where I'm free to dress as I want. I've always loved that about my congregation! But Black urban styles of dress, I guess, made me look like a video girl to them—or at least that's what their eyes said. I felt like they probably thought I was uneducated and ill-mannered.
KCS, age 23, White-Jewish
When I was a senior in high school, I had a crush on a sophomore girl. I felt clueless as to how to approach a same-sex relationship. All of my relationships to that point had been with men. We flirted a lot—nothing beyond that. But, as senior prom came around, I knew exactly who I wanted to ask. She was learning Chinese, so I decided to find out how to ask her to prom in Chinese. She said yes. I was elated! We went to prom looking gorgeous in browns and golds together. Although our relationship never passed the courtship phase, I was proud to have asked her out in such an original way and to have been direct for the first time about my feelings for someone of the same sex.
The next year during spring break of my first year in college, I was sitting with some teammates on the beach, drinking beer. One of the girls put everyone to the task of telling a cute story about prom. Even though I knew words couldn't convey the meaning that my prom experience had had for me, I wanted to tell the story. As each of the girls talked about their cute prom experiences with nice boys, I realized that my story wouldn't just be a cute story. I would be coming out as gay, even though I'm not. I realized that, even if they liked me, this would change how the girls related to me. I played out how the conversation would go after that, in my head. I was uncomfortable with the prospect of turning the conversation toward me and my sexuality. I didn't want to be put on the spot about defining my sexuality (which at that point had no label), and I didn't want to become vulnerable to these girls. So I kept my story and my joy to myself.
I still struggle with the issue of coming out. Based on my sexual behaviors, many people would label me as bisexual, even though I am not. I am well aware of bi-phobia and the problematic dynamic that female-bodied people who love people of many genders encounter when others (often straight men) want a demonstration. I feel that I have a certain level of privilege in not needing to come out. But I also feel sad that I don't share more of this part of myself with the people in my world.
Dominique, age 19, Black
I was in a hurry to get on the subway and I slid my card through quickly behind another person. The station manager began yelling and two police officers began to follow me. The officers grabbed me and asked why I didn't pay my fare. I told them that I did and to check my fare card but they refused. The slammed me against the gates and then arrested me for fare evasion. Not only did the officers not listen to me but the station manager also refused to check my fare card. I had to sit in the city jail for 48 hours before I was allowed to be released. Incidents like this happen often to me and to most of my guy friends. When I was younger, my city was filled with black folks. Now that more white people moved in, it feels like the cops are everywhere and always harassing other young black dudes.
Sojourner, African American
While experiencing racism with Unitarian Universalism has been painful, the reaction of UUs when I tell them my story has been even more disturbing to me. Usually most White listeners will want to hear the particulars of what happened to judge for themselves whether they would have named the incident as racism, instead of trusting me. I have to repeat time and time and again the what, where, and how, and relive the pain. It feels like I am being judged as to whether our first Principle should be applied to me. Rarely does this trial occur when I share other stories of oppression around the multiple identities I carry. Thank goodness for listeners of Color and White allies. They hear with their hearts and believe me without the nitty-gritty. When I receive this affirmation it helps me heal and move on. My pain is transformed. I have learned to share my experiences of racism with those in power who have the ability to make a change in the UU institution; and with others who hear me without the need to justify the experience within their own unique world.
As a child attending segregated schools in Louisiana, I was less aware of race as a dividing line than I was of ethnicity, class, and religion. My father's family spoke Cajun French and broken English. They lived in an unpainted wooden house on the sugarcane plantation where my gran'papa worked. Back in those days, "Cajun" was a derogatory term, and my Georgia-born mother was humiliated that we were related to such poor and uneducated people.
My own family lived on the wrong side of the bayou. We were Baptists in a sea of Catholics. Daddy only had an eighth-grade education, and we learned never to tell that secret to anybody. We struggled to maintain a veneer of gentility in our neighborhood of oyster-shell roads and ditches that overflowed every time it rained. I was a voracious reader, and books told me there was another world out there. I couldn't wait to escape Louisiana; adulthood found me living and working in Washington, DC. Only then did I discover that, despite my perceived differences from the middle class we'd desperately wanted to emulate, I'd had benefits and advantages conferred on me because I was White. I'd lost the south Louisiana accent, gone to college, gotten a high-profile job. I am now able both to understand my privileges in the context of racism and oppression of others and to embrace the gifts of my exuberant "low-class" family.
Daniel, age 30, Haitian American
I can recall a time when I was on a young adult outing with a fairly large group from my congregation at the time. We went to a local diner and in the course of conversation the topic of movies came up. Everyone shared their favorite movies, and a great many people enjoyed the same movies. They were even acting out their favorite scenes from the movies. I had been participating in the conversation up until that point, but I had never seen the films they were discussing. And, the group seemed to really bond with each other in the retelling their favorite movies. These movies were like a distinct
cultural experience that I could not participate in, because my culture was different. I saw different movies growing up. I was completely left out. The conversation stayed on movies, and I felt as though I had become totally invisible. I have never felt more aware of my difference in a UU setting until that moment.