About Two UU Black Kids – Part I, written by Raziq Brown, was posted in the blog, Vive la Flame, on August 29, 2011. The response, written by Kenny Wiley, was originally posted in the blog, and later adapted. The adaptation that appears below, A Unitarian Universalist Story, was a sermon delivered at the Harvard Divinity School Chapel service on April 12, 2012. Both pieces are used with permission.
About Two UU Black Kids—Part I
“Why do you keep telling me to be friends with Kenny Wiley?” I said to my mother.
A silent anger steadily blossomed in my gut while I stared at slowly chilling eggs.
“Because he seems like a nice boy and I think you should get to know him,” said my mother, patiently washing dishes.
“You just want me to be friends with him because he’s black!” I exclaimed.
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Because it is! I make friends with who I want to make friends with. I have a diverse group of friends! I don’t care about race! Nobody does! Just you and—” I stopped when I realized I didn’t hear the sound of running water.
My mother had a hard look set in her eyes, observing me. She wasn’t angry, exactly—it was something else. A shade of confusion mixed with pity and a splash of worry.
“If that’s the case,” she said very carefully, “why aren’t you friends with Kenny?”
I was 13 at the time so the best answer I could muster was . . .
“Because we’re just not friends.”
“One of these days, your white friends are going to leave you. Not because they’re racist, but because, Unitarian or not, they’re still white. You’re too young to understand this, but they live in the same world you do and it’s not kind to black people.”
With that, my mother went back to doing dishes.
In hindsight, I know what my answer should’ve been. I even knew what it was then—I just didn’t have the balls to say it.
I wasn’t friends with Kenny Wiley for the same reason my mother wanted me to know him. He was black.
When you’re a teenager, a large portion of your life is spent trying to figure out how to fit in.
I was a black male, from an upper middle class, highly educated two-parent household, in a predominantly white liberal religion, enrolled in gifted-talented/honors/AP programs since birth.
I played soccer, Dungeons & Dragons, and read comic books.
Fitting in was hard enough.
The last thing I needed was to draw attention to myself by hanging out with the only other black UU kid in the entire Southwest District.
I mean, what would people think?
Kenny and I were, and are, very different people.
While he was leading workshops and running rallies (cons to everyone else), I was sneaking off to pass a forty [a 40 oz. bottle of beer] around with underage suburbanites. On the rare occasion Kenny and I bumped into each other, we would exchange awkward handshakes and even-more-awkward small talk.
And so it went for years.
As my mother predicted, between ages 13 to 16 many of my white buddies disappeared. Not because they were racist, but because in many ways YRUU [Young Religious Unitarian Universalists] is a haven for misfit White kids. As they grow up, their social circles grow, and eventually they homogenize, like normal teenagers should.
The problem was, I didn’t have anyone to homogenize with.
It seems to me that the great power of “Whiteness” doesn’t lie in the ability to sit on the shoulders of history and scream, “I win!”
It’s the ability to be whoever you want, whenever you want, with minimal judgment and the privilege of being the measuring stick for humanity.
If you’re a white Wiccan, people will think you’re odd.
If you’re a black Wiccan, your coven will think you’re odd.
Standards of beauty are in European increments.
In history class, you learn that most of civilization as you know it was drafted and built by white geniuses.
Black history reads like a Russian tragedy.
Imagine growing up with the realization that everyone who looks like you doesn’t live like you, while everyone that lives like you doesn’t look like you.
Imagine that your face was the face of crime, poverty, and poor education, while the faces of your friends were the poster for everything normal and good in the world.
Now imagine that your peers, your mentors, and friends believed that too—and told you regularly.
“You’re not really like them, you’re more like us.”
They don’t say these things because they’re racist (obviously, they like you). They say it because they live in the same world you do and it’s not been very kind to black people.
It is a given that most teenagers are hypersensitive to everything concerning their personal lives, but when you’re a black kid growing up like a white person, you have X-ray vision and bionic hearing.
So, when a group of black kids pick on you at school, it’s because they hate you, not because kids are mean. And it’s not just those black kids that hate you, it’s all black people.
When your white friends make bad race jokes or let loose some ignorant comment, you laugh it off with gusto—because they’re the only friends you’ve got and it’s your fault for being too sensitive.
Besides: you’re different, you’re special. That’s why you’ve been chosen, not because you have the magic power to add diversity to any setting while preserving the cultural attitudes of the people there.
On the rare chance you meet someone who is just like you, you avoid them because they remind you of your insecurities, and you resent them for it.
What I’ve just described are some of the side effects of tokenism. A problem that Unitarian Universalists of Color know intimately and the rest of the church doesn’t really know how to address.
I’m not even sure that they can.
As far as white folks go, UUs are pretty good about the race thing. A lot of them adopt children of color, historically they actively support Anti-Racist efforts, and their support/want for diversity within the faith is so great it can be nauseating at times.
At the UUA General Assembly, I commented:
“I’ve never met so many white people who were happy to see me for no reason at all.”
The problem is there aren’t enough people of color, let alone black people, to go around. There aren’t enough to change the culture.
It’s easy to declare that your church is an unyielding force for diversity when the diverse peoples in your church act like you.
For all the times I’ve heard some UU minister appropriate a Native American blessing or Far Eastern meditation technique, never have I once heard a Vodun [indigenous organized religion of coastal West Africa] prayer.
When I do go to GA I never take my badge off, even outside of the convention center. I find it’s easy to be mistaken for some random “urban youth” and UUs become a lot less friendly, real fast—even the People of Color.
At 16 I joined the now defunct national organization known as DRUUMM YaYA (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries Youth and Young Adult Caucus) and I finally found my own misfit haven.
The YaYA kids felt the way I felt about my identity and were dealing with all the same teenage angst I had.
In many ways it was “race therapy.”
When I returned home from DRUUMM YaYA events I would actively engage the black kids who teased me, only to find out they thought I hated them just as much as I thought they hated me.
When my white friends said stupid things I’d call them out on it, and the ones who made a fuss about it tended to be assholes that weren’t worth my time anyway.
Instead of using my hypersensitivity to race as a way to beat up my self-esteem, I used it as a tool to better understand people of different cultures and backgrounds.
Instead of agonizing in a colorblind world of political correctness, mine was now in high definition, and it was in this state of mind, at age 18, that I met Kenny Wiley for the first time in five years.
It was after a rally and everyone had gone to International House of Pancakes for breakfast.
“Kenny, I think we should be friends. There is no reason for the only two black kids in the district to not talk to each other,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I guess not, but . . . I mean, we don’t HAVE to be friends because we’re black, do we?” said Kenny.
“No, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it? Some people bond over sports and tits. I mean, I’ve spent years not talking to you because I was afraid of what other people might think. How stupid is that? I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way—”
“Oh man, I know exactly how you feel. I’m even a little nervous right now.”
A cursory glance around the restaurant confirmed that our friends were aware the only two black UU kids in the entire district had gathered for some clandestine meeting.
We looked at each other and laughed.
“Man,” Kenny said, smiling, “my mom is going to be so happy that we talked.”
We’ve been family ever since.
A Unitarian Universalist Story
Unitarian Universalism has a story. No, wait. Unitarian Universalism IS a story. It is the story of Channing, of Emerson, of Fuller—but it is more than that, too. Unitarian Universalism is the story of identity, of race, of sexual orientation, of longing, of discovery. It is your story. And it is my story. Unitarian Universalism is my story. This UU story is a story of race, identity, and self-loathing. And this Unitarian Universalist story begins with a chat with my mom nearly ten years ago, when I was 14.
“Why aren’t you friends with George Brown? His father is a great man and I think you two would get along well.”
“This AGAIN? Really, Mom? We’re just not friends, okay? We don’t have anything in common.”
“Nonsense. You’re both educated black teenagers with brilliant black parents, if I do say so myself. Next time we go to Dallas or Fort Worth, give him a call.”
“Yeah,” I said, “maybe when the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl.”
This conversation happened in the summer of 2002, but it also could have been in December 2003, or May 2005, or January 2006. Every so often, my mom would needle me about Raziq George Brown.
“The other black guy.”
Throughout high school, I was a proud member of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) in the Southwest District, a rowdy group of roughly 150 teenagers who met several times a year at churches in the region. Like most things in my life then, it was an almost entirely white community. Sometimes we had nine or ten black youths, and other times I was the only one.
I loved the SWD community. I hated Raziq George Brown.
I didn’t really, of course. What I hated was the fact that he kept me honest. Who I hated was myself. I hated thinking and talking about race. In junior high school, I was an equal opportunity verbal punching bag. Kids, black and white, weirded out by the fact that I looked black but sounded “white,” made fun of me often.
I grew socially in high school and made several strong friends. In my UU community between 2003 and 2005, I dealt with race by taking advantage of my blackness. I was different. I was special. I was the smart, nice, non-threatening black guy. I was the Allstate guy, and my white friends were in good hands. I didn’t challenge their assumptions or prejudices, and I didn’t complain.
Raziq George Brown messed that up.
His presence at church rallies meant I couldn’t lie to myself. He never made any race-related comments to me, but he didn’t have to. Seeing him made me admit to myself a terrible truth.
I was terrified of black people, or, more accurately, I was terrified of being lumped with most black folks. I didn’t want the negative stereotypes or the mistreatment. I wanted to be an individual. I wanted out of having my race be an issue. Being black carries with it certain responsibilities and burdens, and I wanted no part of them.
I just knew I was going to get made fun of by other young black folks. I was most scared of being accused of being a sellout. I was afraid of what my white friends would think if I had too many black friends; I also felt self-conscious about only having a handful of non-family black people in my life. I felt trapped.
After five years of avoiding each other, of brief, painfully awkward small talk, Raziq George Brown and I finally broke the ice. After a church rally in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2007, we all went to IHOP before splitting off to go home. It was our final UU youth rally. For some reason—maybe it was that we were 18 instead of 14, or because our mothers had pestered us for several years—as we all waited for tables, Mr. Brown and I actually stopped to talk.
“So . . . why don’t we ever hang?” Raziq said.
“I didn’t think we should try to be friends just because we’re both black.”
“I thought the same thing.”
“That seems like a pretty dumb reason to avoid each other, though,” I said.
“That’s what my mom keeps telling me,” Raziq replied.
This is a Unitarian Universalist story. Too often, the conversation about race in Unitarian Universalism is about white folks—how our mostly white churches need to work on being more welcoming, provide more dynamic or diverse forms of worship, how more minorities are needed. These conversations are important, but they don’t tell the whole story. My story is a UU story, too. Raziq and I became best friends, but we had lots to navigate.
This is a Unitarian Universalist story. It’s hardly unique. The minorities in UU churches, whatever our age, are often dealing with “double isolation”: On the one hand, we recognize that we’re different in some way from the white folks in our churches even though we align theologically. But as I’ve outlined, we sometimes feel cut off from our racial identity group. My own father, a 60-year-old black man who is president of my home church and claims to be “not preoccupied with race,” gets emotional when he talks about how the urban black kids in his New Orleans junior high school classes mercilessly teased him for “sounding like a white boy.” He still hasn’t forgiven them, though I’m not sure he has realized that. I don’t think he’s forgiven the white kids in high school who threw rocks at him, either.
For many minority folks in UU churches, there is pain deep within. This isn’t true of everybody, of course. But there’s often that double isolation. I know I have it. The black Christian church doesn’t feel like home theologically, but sometimes, it’s nice to go . . . except there’s a feeling that I don’t really belong there, either. There is skepticism of me in my predominately black circles . . . like, why would you go to a white church? Being told “you’re not really black” from folks black, white, and other, it adds up. It’s like being told, “You don’t really count.”
This is where Unitarian Universalism comes in, friends. Because I do count. Everybody counts. I bring this message of confusion, this sense of “double isolation,” because I believe that Unitarian Universalism can do something about it. And I don’t just mean people of color identity or support groups, though that needs to be a part of it. I mean everybody. But we’re going to have to be willing to adapt a little bit. We’re going to have to try and look and feel a bit different. Because this story is a Unitarian Universalist story.
We need to look and feel different because our message is one the world needs. Individuals and the world alike need our message of affirmation. The world needs our message of universal salvation. People need our message that every person—EVERY person—matters. Nobody is beyond hope, beyond love, beyond reconciliation.
I know this is uncomfortable for some of us. Some of us don’t like to proselytize, because it sounds like what we have tried to get away from. But I stand by my statements. Individuals need our message. The world needs our message. Make no mistake; I’m not saying that they need us, the super-liberal mostly white superhero injustice-fixers. What’s needed is our faith. People need our message that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. People need a faith that says, “You’re not saved only if you do this, or believe this, or change this about yourself—but because you are of the Divine, you are loved beyond belief.”
And people with stories like mine need a place where they can share them, where they can come together with people who also have stories of isolation—different stories of isolation. Our churches have people whose families don’t talk to them because they are with someone of the same gender. Our churches have people who have been wounded by their religious upbringing. Our churches have people isolated by grief, by loss, by abuse, by loneliness. And our churches have people who feel isolated because their lives have been just great, thank you.
When I worship, I want tofeel, in community. I want to sing the hymns (poorly, in my case) not just because we’re supposed to, but because I need to. I want to worship next to people and say to them with my actions, “I don’t know your story, but I’m glad you’re here.” And I want them to say that to me, in one way or another, “I’m glad you’re here.”
But communities like that don’t just happen. Right now, I feel that sense of double isolation often when I’m in UU settings, and I want that to change. Part of that is my responsibility—to share my story, to do my part to love and listen. But when my black friends ask me why I am a Unitarian Universalist, I envision a time when I’ll be able to say more than “it’s my theological home.” I want to say more than “I theologically can’t be anywhere else.” I want to be able to tell them all the time what’s true of the UU experience some of the time: “I am a Unitarian Universalist because I am affirmed there. I can talk how I talk and read what I read and have the friends I do and not be judged, because there, I matter. Period.”
I want to tell them that I am a UU because I can quote William Ellery Channing and Kanye West in the same sermon because, really, I am both of them. I want to tell them that I am a UU because I want to hear poems from Mary Oliver and from Def Poetry Jam. Why? Because we UUs believe, as Oliver said, that “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, repenting,” and we also believe as the slam poet J. Ivy does when he said, “I’m not just another individual. My spirit is a part of this; THAT’S why I get spiritual.”
I want to tell them that I am a UU because here we sing Gathered Here softly and with reverence, AND we sing We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table loudly and with great passion, and feel them both. I want to tell them that I am a UU not because I theologically can’t be anywhere else, but because my soul can’t be anywhere else.
I can’t tell them that yet. But I believe we are on the road, because this is a Unitarian Universalist story. It can be more than a place where mostly affluent folks with varying views on God come together and listen to lectures and think a little bit. Unitarian Universalism must also be what we say it is—a space where people whose inherent worth and dignity has been challenged because they’re not black enough or Latina enough or straight enough or gay enough or saved enough can come together and say, together, ENOUGH. Because I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. God is enough. The Spirit of Life is enough.
But in order for that to happen, our worship services must become enough. Our willingness to try different things must become enough. We must become enough.
To do that, we must live out Mary Oliver’s words when she writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
Def Poetry Jam poet J. Ivy puts it another way: “If we were off the highest cliff, on the highest riff, And you slipped off the side and clenched on to your life in my grip . . . I would never, ever let you down.”