Draw the Circle Wide by Rev. Jonathan Rogers
I am very allergic to poison ivy. All it takes is a little brush and days later I am scratching itchy blisters on my hand wondering where I even encountered the plant. One time in my teen years I chased a baseball into a big patch of it without realizing, and ended up with such a severe case I had to take anti-inflammatory steroids and cover myself in calamine lotion several times a day. To say the least it made me severely uncomfortable…But that was nothing compared with the discomfort of talking about White Supremacy! I was going to say it pales in comparison, but that seemed like inappropriate phrasing…
I want to be clear from the top here, that this sermon is for both those who identify as white in our congregation and people of color and indigenous people; we share the work of opposing white supremacy, and because of our unearned privilege I believe white-identified folks have a special obligation in it. We, all of us, want to draw the circle wide, have no one standing alone, be standing side by side. I believe that each person in our congregation wants to draw a wide circle. I also believe that we as a congregation and as an Association systemically advantage white people at all levels of leadership, and that we can do better.
We use the term white supremacy here not in the Klan hoods and skinheads sense, but rather the academic sense where the term “white supremacy” can refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage or privilege over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level. And I acknowledge that this terminology and analysis is not shared by everyone to whom this work is important, whether white-identified or people of color or indigenous. Many folks in the last couple weeks have questioned the clarity and usefulness of the term “white supremacy” to the goals in our movement of racial justice and equity. I think we are especially sensitive to its use here in the South, where the white supremacy that refers to explicit racial hatred feels more immediate, since we are only decades removed from fighting against the expectation of segregated congregations and threats of violence from the KKK. I would like to echo the sentiments of my colleague at First Parish Cambridge, Rev. Clyde Grubbs, a long-time leader of anti-racism work in our movement, who pointed out this term is used by many scholars across a number of fields including critical race theory, sociology, and intersectional feminism. This is a broadly used and accepted term, whether we are used to it or not. To me, it was a term that felt appropriate in many instances before the current controversy in our movement, and that I have been eager to embrace. Crucially, this term allows us to centralize the role of white folks in racism; traditionally, we’ve considered racism a people of color problem, but this phrase allows us to acknowledge that if we are going to put an end to systems of oppression in our movement it’s going to take a lot of work from White people.
White supremacy is uncomfortable to talk about because discomfort is a tool of oppression. Shout out to Ana Marie Cox and Ira Madison III for their March 3rd episode of the podcast “With Friends Like These” for addressing this directly. Discomfort is a tool of oppression, and the guilt and the shame and fear and the anguish that we feel talking about white supremacy has roots dating back to the beginning of our country and before. I’m supposed to figure out how to undo the divisiveness intentionally caused in this land since the late 17th century? I can’t even figure out how to undo my Amazon order from five minutes ago! Bacon’s Rebellion happened in 1676, centuries before my ancestors set foot on this continent. Laws giving explicit privilege to white folks in what were then English colonies followed shortly after. They were negative privileges, because it was just elites taking away fewer rights from poor whites than from blacks, but it was still privilege.
I hear white supremacists talk all the time about how racism isn’t their problem because slavery happened before they were even born, or before their ancestors came to this country. I bring it up here not to let any of us who are alive today off the hook, but rather as a reminder that ending an intentional and long-standing system, that has served the wealthy of our nation very well, is inherently a difficult task that is going to take a long time. This is not easy work for any of us, regardless of skin color, but in order for it to be successful, we all need to engage in it, regardless of skin color. We need to learn to breathe through the discomfort, and to move ahead without leaving anyone behind.
What does it look like, to move ahead, and to draw the circle wider? I would like to suggest there is at least one significant change we can make to how we act together as a congregation, and it relates to microaggressions. Microaggressions are words or actions that unintentionally hurt or exclude someone based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religious background or belief, or other identity. When that happens at UUCA, it is particularly hurtful or exclusionary because this is supposed to be a place where, no matter what discrimination you encounter out in the rest of the world, you can fully be who you are. And it does happen at UUCA. I’ve had enough first and second-hand encounters with microaggressions in our community that it has become one of our biggest challenges on the Pastoral Care team. And for a long time, my constant refrain was to cite the first line of the second section of our congregation’s Covenant of Healthy Relations which states that “when conflicts arise, we intend to communicate directly with the person involved…” I encouraged, and I told our lay ministers to encourage, what I thought was the healthiest resolution to these kinds of situations, which was for the person who got hurt to speak directly with the person who committed the microaggression. But the more times I found myself saying this, the more times I heard myself asking a person with a marginalized identity to confront a person with power in our congregation, the more wrong it felt. I began to realize that, for example, a person of color (pause, emphasize) could literally spend the majority of your time at this, your spiritual home, engaging in that process of “communicating directly with the person involved…” For me, it was like the most mild possible version of the realization during the last half-hour of the movie Get Out. Which by the way, if you haven’t seen Get Out, and you can at all stand a gory horror movie, I encourage everyone to watch it. You could spend the majority of your time at UUCA having difficult, awkward conversations about microaggressions. Another option would be to just ignore the microaggressions, fearing that they would never go away and knowing that you might be missing an opportunity to make this a more welcoming place for the next person of color who walks in the door. It’s not fair. That is absolutely not a fair quandary for anyone to be in in the place where you come for spiritual nourishment. We become the opposite of spiritually nourishing, we become draining. And that is NOT drawing the circle wide. If every time there is a conflict arising from a microaggression we say “you kids work it out over there and play nice”, we are failing to take into account a power analysis, and we are placing a disproportionate burden on those who are traditionally marginalized folks in our community.
And so here is what I would like to ask us to do instead. If you become aware of a microaggression, whether it is something said in a conversation you are part of, or you see on social media, whatever scenario, I would like for us each to see those microaggressions as offenses against us, personally. To say this is a community I covenant with, and invest in, and if anyone in it is saying hurtful and exclusionary things, even if unintentionally, that is going to be an issue for me, personally. Not on behalf of the offended party, but because I expect better from our congregation. And because talking about microaggressions is an inherently difficult, awkward, stressful conversation to have, and I believe that is a burden we all should share, not just the people against whom they are most often committed. We should all be willing to have those difficult, awkward, stressful conversations about microaggressions, not because someone else needs our help but because those are the conversations that bring us closer together and help us each live into the integrity and the promise of Unitarian Universalism.
Conversations about microaggressions are hard, but they are necessary. People make mistakes. In a community and in a congregation as diverse as ours, we are bound to say things that accidentally hurt each other’s feelings. Healing and education are long and stressful processes, and it is time for each of us to take responsibility for them. This implies that each of us must educate ourselves about what is a microaggression and how to respond to it. If you are not sure, there are lots of good resources on the internet, and I am more than happy to sit down with you myself and talk about it, as I am sure many of your friends here will be. But please, please do not go looking for people of color or other marginalized folks in our congregation to educate you. It’s not their job. This is a spiritual community for everyone, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like it if you’re spending all your time here educating people about your identity. We want, I want, to partner with people with marginalized identities in all aspects of the life and work of our congregation. And I want people of color and others in our community to be able to choose NOT to lead in those areas, too. It’s OK to take a rest, to have this just be a place of replenishment and nourishment if that is what you need. But the way our covenant is set up right now, we cannot necessarily be that for everyone, because some are burdened with that consistent expectation to directly communicate with those who have hurt them. That should be everyone’s work to do. I hope we will change our covenant to reflect this, and in the meantime, I would like to invite everyone at UUCA to see the work of combating microagressions, and making this place welcoming for all, as their own.
We know how to do this in gentle and loving ways, and we will get better at drawing the circle wide, but it is going to take everyone’s effort. And I am asking all of us to make that effort, because this affects all of us. To the extent that we are not able to draw the circle wide, to the extent that anyone does not feel welcome in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we are all harmed. We are cut off from each other. Instead, we must work so that in the circle of our faith tradition, we are standing side by side, and no one stands alone. Draw the circle wide. Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.