The summer of 2016 began as an exciting one for me: I was finally going to a beloved Unitarian Universalist conference and retreat center. I’d heard many wonderful stories about it, and I couldn’t wait to bring my three children with me. On the drive there, I felt excited about spending a full week in an entirely UU space. After all, it was my UU community that so lovingly embraced me after a very painful divorce and several painful years of church shopping. I needed this week. I needed this healing.
As UUs descended on the camp and found their rooms, I began to introduce myself to others, and thought I noticed them offering me a cursory hello before making a quick getaway. Maybe, I thought, it was hard for people to speak to me because I had my one-year old in tow. Maybe they were eager to reconnect to old friends.
There was one other black woman at the camp who I had noticed; I was thankful we both signed up for the same program. I asked her: Was it just me or did she, too, feel a distinct coldness from the others? I wanted to make sure that I was not being paranoid.
But unsettling things continued to happen. There was an issue with my daughter in childcare: they felt she was a problem and difficult in comparison with the other children—although a very kind person noted that she couldn’t understand how my child was deemed “a problem” when she was doing the same things all the other children were doing. Then a black child the same age as my son—12 years old—came crying to me one night. He was being bullied—but he wasn’t being heard, because the adults around him insisted that they “knew that girl and she would never say those things.” The child trusted that as a black mother, I was the only person at the camp who would listen and believe him. I brought the matter out in the open. The typical excuses followed, like the boy misunderstood what she meant and he was just being too sensitive, and it was just in fun, and nothing was really meant by her comments.
I tuned those excuses out. And I spent a lot of time alone that week. When my daughter and I walked around the conference center, I saw reminders of racism everywhere, from the statues and memorials to the paintings on the walls. It was everywhere; it was clear as day: “Your kind are not welcome here.”
I would end my strolls by going to the dining hall, only to find there was no table for me—not because there weren’t empty chairs, but because I was told that there was no room at the table for me and my toddler. The empty seats were for other people, I was told, and they couldn’t make room for me. The pattern became so distressing that on most days I considered not eating—but I couldn’t let my child starve. If my new friend was there, she always made room for me. And there were the kids.
After the incident with the young black boy, the kids came to me quite a bit to mediate things going on between them. They even took turns giving me a break from my little one. Eventually one of them would see me trying to find a table and no matter how many people were at their table, they would find a way to squeeze me and my little one in. As kind as they were, they ate quickly and were off. And again, I was left alone in the silence. As all the tables around me buzzed with talk and laughter and I sat there alone staring at my one year old.
Then one evening my youngest finally settled down enough for me to attend evening worship. I was so excited; I grabbed my lantern and journeyed to the chapel. The guest speaker spoke so eloquently talking about what he called “the elephant” in the space—how the camp was rooted in racism. His words brought me to the edge of my seat. I was thrilled and excited: I hadn’t been paranoid! This white man saw what I saw. He was naming my hurt, my truth and I was elated.
As we left worship, my heart felt light. In the darkness that surrounded us, the voices started. I heard campers—who couldn’t see me, a black woman, listening—agree that it was one of the worst services they had been to at the camp. And how they couldn’t believe he dared to say those things. And how they, who come to the chapel to be uplifted, did not want to have that kind of mess thrown in their face.
I melted into the darkness that surrounded us. That night I cried myself to sleep.
When I left the camp at the end of the week, the knot that had formed in my stomach started to ease. Once home, I shared my story—my truth—with multiple people who were connected to the camp and its programs; people who I believed might use my experience to make future conferences and retreats more welcoming. I even offered to teach, to add some diversity to future retreats. I was told by each person that they would pass on my information and have someone contact me so they could get a better idea of what happened and how I felt so it wouldn’t happen to others. That never happened. I sent several emails and responded to all the surveys and asked to be heard. But as usual when I bring up concerns about race, there is only silence in response.
Fast forward nearly a year, and the approach of another summer. My oldest two children chatted excitedly about going back to the camp. Although I had explained that it took two years of funds and planning to go, they were still hopeful that we could make it work for this summer. I felt anxious; I felt guilty; and I could feel the knot creeping back into my stomach. I wanted them to see their friends and go back to a place that they come to love—and yet, I could not see myself stepping foot in that retreat center.
I broke down one day: I shared with my oldest two children my experiences the previous summer. Their father is white and at times I choose not to tell them things that I feel would cast a negative light on white people as to not give them negative feelings towards their family or be torn about their own genetic make-up. But I could be silent no more. And as I shared with them my experiences and my time at the camp, they sat there not saying a word but staring at me with silent tears rolling down their cheeks. They asked me why I didn’t say anything during our week at the camp. Why hadn’t I shared with them sooner? Like a lot of parents, I answered that I wanted to protect them and not give a negative light to such an enriching experience they had had.
My oldest child then asked me if I often sit in silence and hold in the pain. I answered him truthfully. I answered with a “YES.”
Many times as a black woman, I hold in my pain and my experiences to protect others. To keep and hold up the white fragility that I have been taught, or rather trained, to value more than my own feelings and my own experiences—more, even, than my own needs and self-worth. I have been trained to minimize myself, my light, my voice. To Just grin and bear it. To put up with it because I should know that they mean well. Or I didn’t want to seem too sensitive or be the “angry” black person in the room.
But I’m tired of being silent. It’s a heavy load to carry day in and day out. Sometimes, I’d like to take off my blackness and pick it up another day; sometimes it’s just too heavy a load. But I can’t, so I press on. So, I ask this question whenever someone will listen, “Who is standing in your dining hall looking for a seat at the table? And can you make room for them too?”
Note: this reflection is part of an entire Promise & Practice worship packet
|Rayla D. Mattson