Leader Resource 2: Affirming Experiences and Marginalizing Experiences
This resource includes several first-person narratives from Unitarian Universalists describing experiences with race in their congregations. Introduce these voices and experiences using a Theater of Voices technique. Facilitators act as directors of the theater, selecting narratives and choosing how to stage this reading in multiple voices.
Begin by selecting 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. For example, if your congregation has mainly White and Latino/a/Hispanic members, or if the congregation's surrounding community has a large Latino population, you may select more statements that reflect the experiences of Unitarian Universalists of those racial/ethnic or cultural identities. Or if your congregation has been singled out as welcoming of multiracial families, or has received negative feedback about welcoming people of diverse races and cultures, select statements that speak to those experiences.
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 is about 250 words and will take two to three minutes to present.
Frances, African American woman
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.
Paul, White man
As a White man, I almost always feel included in UU circles. Most of the time it feels as if in the eyes of other White UUs, there is nothing remarkable about my "race." It's as if I'm just the kind of person (also given my professional status) that people expect to see at UU churches. How well I fit in seems to be about my individual views, beliefs, and personality. The one special case is when I participate in antiracism trainings or organizing. Then I feel my White maleness is definitely noticed by everyone—and that I'm actually appreciated for being there.
Claire, White woman
Race was something to be spoken about only in hushed tones in the nearly all-white town where I grew up. What a different experience my own kids have had! Thanks to the intentional work of the Unitarian Universalist youth movement, they have engaged with issues of race, class, and privilege. I treasure the conversations about how those issues impact their lives and mine. One of my greatest joys and challenges was to serve with my then-teenage daughter on a District antiracism team. We grew side by side in understanding and commitment. For a parent, it doesn't get any better than that.
Phyllis, African American woman
During the late 1960s and early 1970s my husband and I were members of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). The denomination's willingness to fund this organization was a signal of serious commitment to supporting African American members in articulating our issues with the expectation that they would be addressed. Traditionally, the UU community is peopled by well-intentioned White liberals who assume they have explored all aspects of social issues and have developed solutions that should work for everyone.
As a BUUC member, for the first time I sat with African American members of my congregation to discuss some of the more painful aspects of what it's like to be a part of a group that may be your political/intellectual community, but whose members are often clueless regarding your cultural values and needs. This is a common experience for people from culturally marginalized groups, who often must choose between a worship environment that is culturally and spiritually nourishing or one that is stimulating, challenging, and encouraging of personal growth.
BUUC allowed us to explore this dilemma through discussions that were spirited, demanding and ultimately productive. While most of us were already active in the civil rights arena, the BUUC experience allowed us to formulate and implement strategies designed to enrich our own spiritual community. Not only were we strengthened by the experience, but the church and the denomination were strengthened also. Unfortunately, the BUUC initiative did not solve all of our problems. But for many in my congregation, it was enough to make us feel that the church and the denomination were committed to finding solutions.
Cathy, African American woman
After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Muslim students at my daughter's very diverse high school began to segregate themselves because of their sense of fear and isolation. My daughter, who has spent her whole life attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, reached out to these students. She actually made the long walk across the high school cafeteria to sit with the Muslim students and talk to them about how they were feeling. When I asked her why she had done this, my daughter told me that her faith called her to do this. As a parent, I was so proud that my daughter had learned the lessons of non-discrimination and respect for all peoples within our Unitarian Universalist community. As an African American parent, I was equally proud that my daughter understood the connection between her struggles as a young Black woman in America and the struggles of other often-marginalized groups. This affirmed for me that Unitarian Universalism has helped me raise a wonderful young woman.
Supriya, Asian woman 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.
Peter, White man
Here and now, I don't feel affirmed living out issues of race. This is a dirty business willed to us by people who looked like me. However, what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, and I can do nothing without doing some harm. I am moving from being an etherized White man ignorant of race to being a European American man discomforted everywhere; from living in the world as oyster to a world without many places to belong. My participation at a self-consciously diverse Unitarian Universalist church dismantling racism in fits and starts has offered consolation. Despite my being and my action, my brothers and sisters remain authentically engaged with me in things that I get right and things that I get wrong. Like an unreformed drunk (since my culture will not yet allow me to live one hour, much less one day at a time, privilege-free), I must lean on the good will of my fellow travelers in this religious community I have chosen to join. It's their good will and its reflection of their perception of my good will that offers affirmation.
Alicia, African American woman
The only time I've ever felt affirmed as a Person of Color in my congregation was when I was growing up in the church. When I looked around the room at my friends in Sunday School, we were a diverse group. We were African American, White, Hispanic, Biracial, and Multiethnic. The same was true in morning worship. Never did I look around the sanctuary and feel small or outnumbered. When I was sixteen, I went to the GA that was held in Indianapolis, Indiana. Most of the other Black kids there were so envious of my being raised in a church that was so diverse. It's what they expected in a major city, they being from small towns for the most part, so I felt very proud.
Chanda, White woman
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.
Supriya, Asian woman
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.
Paul, White man
There have been times during antiracism trainings when I had to work really hard with my own feelings that I didn't belong. When there is a heightened awareness and intensive dialogue about White privilege and habitual behaviors White people tend to exhibit, I sometimes forget how grateful I am for the learning opportunity. With my personal vulnerabilities to shame and depression, I have found myself forgetting my inherent goodness, and believing I can only be welcomed in the circle of humanity after I have ended racism. Ironically, People of Color in these workshops often get upset when they see me getting mired in my "bad White person" story—and their frustration triggers me to be even more critical toward myself. I'm learning to cultivate compassion and appreciation for myself, and this is helping me stay present to my inherent goodness and the learning. It has been a difficult journey, often painful and disorienting. But it's a journey home, I can feel myself arriving, and there are many wonderful people there!
Claire, White woman
When I was sixteen, I wrote a term paper about why the Supreme Court reversed its 1896 "separate but equal" decision in the 1954 Brown ruling. I was a White teenager trying to sort out confusing messages about People of Color, about my own racial identity, and about justice. I learned much about myself and my country as I wrote the paper, concluding that as the "average American" got to know Black people better, racism would go away. My paper was returned with but a single comment: "You are a hopeless optimist!" I was a kid who needed adult help with the burden of sorting out huge questions about race in the United States. What I received from my teacher was not an invitation to further reflection, but a condescending dismissal. I've never forgotten the shame I felt that day.
Alicia, African American woman
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.
Phyllis, African American woman
I am sure I had marginalizing experiences in my congregation. However, you may find that for long-time members like me, the experiences were few enough and managed in such a way as to allow us to feel comfortable about our continued attendance. Most Unitarians are not shy about speaking out.
Cathy, African American woman
Throughout all my years as a parent and teacher in the religious education program at my home congregation, I felt the need for inclusion of materials that were culturally and racially relevant for my children. All the curriculum materials are from a dominant culture point of view. I felt that people got tired of my asking for alternative points of view to be represented by someone other than myself. I felt that some White adults were uncomfortable around my children. A number of times I felt that the religious education volunteers were afraid of my African American son. There were unconscious racist remarks made. Over the years my children were often the only Children of Color in their RE classes. One Sunday, in the Youth Group, an adult advisor said to my child, "When you wear those glasses you don't look Black." I had to make an extra effort to explain to my children that although the theology of Unitarian Universalism [is] wonderful—as with all faiths—the practice falls short. I had to explain that they could not indulge in some of the more experimental activities of the Youth Group, because the authorities looked at African American youth differently than White youth. I did connect my children to the wider UU community so that they could have an experience of more diversity, but I still worry about the effects of being isolated from a larger African American community of faith has had on my children.
Carlos, Latino man
I am a Latino-looking UU minister, and when I am on vacation I like to visit other congregations. I generally don't identify myself as a minister in those situations. I visited one congregation dressed in clean, pressed designer jeans and a clean, pressed shirt. After the service, while parishioners were filing downstairs for coffee hour, I was politely but unquestionably shown the door. I never get the "bum's rush" when I come in a three-piece suit or when I make it known that I am a minister.
Peter, White man
Confronting race is almost always a source of some pain—a sense of guilt and shame, sometimes inchoate, connected to being accountable. Before bed, I read out loud to my wife, who is African American, and some texts have evoked this pain. Reading Dubois' description of the death of his child in Souls of Black Folk, I wonder how I can read such a painful narrative describing experiences whose source is America's peculiar institution and its wretched aftermath. Watching news coverage with my wife and my step-daughter of New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath evoked the same guilt and the same shame. I never felt Whiter than I did those days, and never more dissociated from my family. My race threatens to alienate me from people whom I love on a daily basis.
Sojourner, African American woman
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.
Chanda, White woman
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.
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