A Sermonic Letter to My Church to Commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

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 school.

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:

Dear church,

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 experience.

I was born in 1973 in Yonkers, NY, just outside New York City. 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 sun.

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 distance.

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 be colorblind.

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 preserve.

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.

With hope and faith I close. Amen.