On the cusp of this new day in our nation’s history, seems
like everyone has something to say.
I have been deluged with emails from the various groups I try to pay
attention to: Planned Parenthood,
the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National Religious Campaign
Against Torture, Amnesty International, a host of environmental organizations
and the list goes on. Each one is
launching some kind of initiative in the hopes of getting their concerns on the
Obama agenda for the first 100 days.
And then there are the letters.
Many authors, activists, scholars, organizers and religious leaders have
been moved to write open letters to Obama as he takes office. Tikkun magazine has organized a
collection of such letters on various subjects in their January issue. Incidentally, the letter they published
on gay marriage is by the Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian
Universalist Association and one of the letters on peace is by Dr. Sharon Welch,
provost at Meadville Lombard, our Unitarian Universalist theological
Inspired by these letters, I have decided to commemorate the
Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this year by writing an open letter to you, my
congregation. King’s prophetic
leadership encompassed the struggles against what he called the “giant triplets
of racism, materialism and militarism.”
His vision for a nonviolent revolution of values still has much to teach
us as we are once again confronted, or maybe we are still confronted, “with the
fierce urgency of now.” We know
that giant triplets are intertwined, but I am moved to focus today on
racism. And so in the spirit of the
letter, I offer you this:
By now most of you have been around a while probably realize
that anti-racist work is at the heart of my ministerial calling. I have tried to share with you in
sermons and newsletter articles and classes the kinds of questions and
scholarship that have shaped my thinking.
I haven’t yet, though, shared with you the stories that shape my
I was born in 1973 in Yonkers, NY, just outside
According to the 1970 census data, Yonkers was then about 80% white with sizable
African American and Hispanic/Latino/Latina minorities. I conclude from that information and
from vague memories that my earliest experiences took place in a largely
multicultural context. When I was
five years old, we moved to rural Piney View, WV. According to the 1980 census data, Piney
View was then about 99% white, though the nearest city did have a significant
African American population. I
conclude from this information and from vague memories that my formative school
age experiences took place in a primarily monocultural context.
It was in that context that I had an experience which I
remember still as my first conscious encounter with race. I was in the third grade in a small,
rural school. Each class in the
school had been given a country to study over a period of time. We learned what language the people
spoke in our country, what the weather was like, what sorts of clothing they
wore—the sort of stuff you would expect grade school kids to learn. The end result of this study was an all
school festival to share our countries with one another. Each class was to make a presentation
and prepare a dish native to our country for everyone to try. My class had been studying a country in
Africa (I can’t remember which one) and we had
learned a traditional dance from our country which we spent a lot of time
practicing. When the big day
finally came, we were all excited.
Shortly before it was time for us to go outside for the festival, my
teacher began calling us forward one at a time. In a bowl she had a mixture of Crisco
and cocoa powder and she was smearing a bit it on each of our faces and
forearms. Though I remember little
else about the day, I remember the greasy feel of the brown shortening on my
skin and the scent of the cocoa growing stronger as it warmed in the afternoon
I have thought about this experience several times over the
years and I still don’t really know what to make of it. Did the teacher “darken our skin” as
part of an intentional effort to get us to think more about differences in skin
color? If so, why didn’t she talk
about what she was doing? Did she
just think that our dance would come off better if we looked the part a little
more? Or was the move simply a
thoughtless effort to play with race because she could? If we had been assigned a country in
Asia would she have taped our eyes? As a child I knew that whatever her
motivation, it didn’t feel right. I
didn’t say so at the time. I didn’t
have any words to name my complicated feelings. Looking back it seems to me that this
experience was part of my early training in racism. The message: white people are free to
tread wherever we will.
A couple years later my family moved again, this time to
Pittsfield, MA, a community whose racial and
ethnic demographics are not all that different from the ones around here. In the fifth grade I met my first best
friend. Her name was Thuy, she was
Thai-American and she lived right across the street. I was aware that there were significant
differences between Thuy’s family and mine—most noticeably differences in
language and food—but these differences did not complicate our friendship
which I remember as easy and innocent.
Within a year my family moved again, this time just across town, but that
put me in a different school from Thuy and our friendship faded in the
I soon made a new best friend whose name was Lisa. Lisa was Vietnamese-American. Lisa’s dad had been a
U.S. soldier in
Vietnam. That is where he met and married Lisa’s
mother. Sometimes Lisa and I asked
her mom to tell us what it had been like in Vietnam. She showed us some beautiful pictures
and jewelry while she told us her stories.
I liked to be at Lisa’s house with her and her family. And yet, back at my house, I was getting
a very different kind of message from my mother’s boyfriend. We lived in the lower level of a big old
house that had been turned into a duplex.
Upstairs there was a family of two adults and several children who had
recently immigrated from Vietnam. My mother’s boyfriend disliked the
family for no reason I could discern except that they were not like him. He complained that they didn’t know
English and that he didn’t like the smell of their food. He made assumptions about their
character and their motivations and used racist slurs to describe them in casual
conversation. I rejected his
language and told him I thought he was wrong. And yet there was the message every
day: white people are better than
people of color.
The summer before I was to begin high school, I realized that
I had a choice. There were two high
schools in my town and I lived right on the dividing line. Somehow, without anyone ever explaining
it to me, I knew that it would be better for me to go to the one where more of
the kids from well off families would be going. Turned out that also meant that was the
school where more of the white kids in the town would be going. As a result, race kind of faded into the
background for a while. Almost all
of the teachers and the vast majority of my peers were white. I cannot remember
any conversations even acknowledging the religious or cultural differences
between the white students and the few students of color in my classes. Two contradictory messages: white is just normal and we should all
But I wasn’t colorblind. I noticed race and ethnicity and I was
interested in the difference it makes.
My first week on the campus of Westfield State College, a small,
predominantly white state school in Western Massachusetts, I saw an ad for a meeting of a
student club called the Third World Organization. I attended the meeting by myself and
decided within minutes that I had made a mistake. I was the only white person in the room
and I quickly deduced that this group must be the group for people of color on
campus. I didn’t go back. I figured it wasn’t my space.
Two years later when I transferred to Smith College, I was required with all the other
entering students to attend a day long anti-oppression training led by the
National Coalition Building Institute.
For the first time in my life I was invited and encouraged to have
conversations about race and class and ability and sexual orientation in an open
and structured environment. I
remember that day as a day of epiphanies and I count that day as the day I
decided I would learn a new way.
These are some of the contours of my racial identity
journey. All of us who dwell in
this country have a story about the formation of our racial identity. And for those of us who are white, that
story includes an education in racism.
This is not an education we asked for, nor one which we could deny. It was given whether we wanted it or
not. Racism is woven into the very
fibers of our identity as Americans.
Our country was literally founded upon racism—it was created with the
genocide of millions of Native Americans and built with the enslavement of
millions of Africans. Our country
has been defined by racism—through policy and through law the leaders of our
nation affirmed time and time again that white people were to be privileged over
people of color. This is not a
history we are proud of and thus it is not a history we are eager to
I am grateful for historians like Taylor Branch, the prize
winning author of the monumental three volume work detailing the history of the
civil rights movement, who believes it is important for us to learn from all our
history. In his research Branch
recovered a story from Alabama that bears telling. It used to be that Alabama law required all
political parties to have an official emblem out of consideration for voters
without solid literacy skills. In
1870, five years after emancipation, the Democratic Party in Alabama adopted the
emblem of a white rooster inscribed with the words “White Supremacy for the
Right.” The emblem and motto held
throughout the long years of Jim Crow.
In 1966 Stokley Carmichael went to Lowndes County, AL, to organize black people who would be
voting for the first time. Among
the people he organized was a group of sharecropper women who decided that if
they were going to risk their lives to vote (the FBI was telling them that if
they voted they would be shot) then they ought to go ahead and run for office
while they were at it. So they
organized workshops on the various offices that would be up for election and
decided that they would name themselves the Lowndes County Freedom
Organization. Next they needed an
emblem. Being farm people, they
asked themselves, what scares roosters.
They decided that cats chased chickens so they would have an emblem based
on a cat. Stokley Carmichael sent a
bunch of volunteers out looking for a suitable cat symbol and they found one at
the historically black Clark College whose football team mascot was a
black panther. We all know about
the militant Black Panthers that formed when Carmichael took the name with him
back to California, but few us of know about the original black panthers—a courageous
group of black women in Lowndes County, AL, who believed in the dream of freedom
enough to risk their lives in its pursuit.
For 312 years legal oppression was the law of our land. And yet, for just as long legal
oppression has been countered with organized resistance. The freedom fighters of one generation
passed on the dream to the next.
For years they passed the dream on until it finally became reality with
the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. With the Brown vs. Board of Education
decision in 1955, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights and
Immigration Reform Acts of 1965, our nation declared that equality and justice
for all would be the law of our land.
Those years were a profound turning point in our history and it is good
to celebrate the movement and the people who led the way. But we must also acknowledge that while
the civil rights movement mandated new laws, it could not mandate a new
start. The movement wrote a new
page in history, but that doesn’t erase the history which came before.
The history is 312 years of legal oppression. Since then we’ve had about fifty years
to find a new way. During that time
much has changed. Many doors of
opportunity have been opened.
Expressions of overt prejudice have become unacceptable in most public
places. A multi-racial black man
has won the hearts and minds of millions and will be sworn in on Tuesday as the
44th president of the United States of America. We are in the midst of another new page
in history, but we cannot forget the history which came before.
These are the words of Toni Morrison: “A good deal of time and intelligence
has been invested in the exposure of racism and the horrific results on its
objects... It seems both poignant and striking how avoided and unanalyzed is
the effect of racist inflection on the subjects. The scholarship that looks into the
mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious
intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination,
and behavior of masters.”
As we walk into the future, I believe this is our work. To fully divest of racism, I believe
that we who are white need to make a serious inquiry into what it means to
white. What is the history of
whiteness? What is white
culture? What are the benefits of
whiteness? What are the costs of
whiteness? And most importantly,
how can we learn to be white in a way that is positive and anti-racist?
This question is especially important to me because I plan to
raise children and, if they are white, I want them to be able to feel good about
their anti-racist racial identity, rather than ashamed of a racist racial
identity filled with nothing worthy but privilege. The need for this kind of education for
our children was brought home to me several years ago when my sister was living
with me for a year. She was in the
eighth grade and doing a project for her social studies class on Native
Americans. I was in a position to
overhear as she and her friend worked on their project and found myself growing
increasingly concerned that some of the resources they were using were
inaccurate and biased. I had had a
few conversations with her about race, but none of them too direct. The social studies project motivated me
to sit down with her alone and explain my concerns. I talked about racism and about how I
think it is really important for white people to do what we can to eliminate
racism. I explained about how
history is a place where we find a lot of racism and suggested ways she could
reread history as she worked on her project. I grant that I was not then (and am
still not) super skilled at having those sorts of conversations—but at the end
of it all she just looked at me and said, “It’s okay Melissa, you don’t have to
worry because I am not going to be white.
I don’t want to be white.
I’m just going to be something else.”
I have felt that way myself at times. It hurts to really acknowledge what
white people have done in the name of whiteness. But I believe the exploration is
worth the struggle. There are many
white people writing and teaching and leading the way for those of us who want
to learn how to create a positive white identity we can be proud of. My colleague, the Rev. Bill Gardiner, is
one of those people. In a couple of
weeks we will be using a curriculum he wrote to help us do this work. If you haven’t already, I urge you to
consider participating in the class on whiteness that members of the Anti-Racism
task force and I will be leading.
You can find details in the Thread from the Web. I am convinced that this is the work we
who are white need to do for our own liberation, for the liberation of our
children and for the liberation of our nation. A new dream is being born in our
country. I pray that we might be a
part of its fulfillment.
hope and faith I close. Amen.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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