I count myself lucky to have been born after the American’s with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibit discrimination based on race, religious, sex, national origin and disability. I’m glad that I grew up in a post-segregation world, grew up with heroes like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Susan B Anthony. Unfortunately I grew up with the idea that oppression was a historical artifact. I didn’t know that hate crimes still happen, that discrimination still happens. And I sure didn’t understand that these types of overt oppression are just the tip of the iceberg.
It didn’t start to dawn on me until I entered the working world and I had the audacity to question my boss about the fact that the only white candidate for a job was hired she said “It’s not about race, I just think Mary would fit in better.” The light dawned back when I was the receptionist for a manufacturing company and I noticed that women were not even interviewed for the higher paying factory jobs. The head of HR explained “women are not strong enough to work on the factory floor. Women work in the sorting room.” The fact is that the vast majority of discrimination that goes on in the world is not the overt hateful sort that scandalizes us. Most of it is perpetrated by ordinary people and institutions that are just doing things “they way they are used to doing things.” The hiring discrimination I witnessed is illegal[ We still can’t get Pennsylvania to pass HB300 which would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas based on sexual orientation and gender identity.], but I don’t think my old co-workers even understood that they were discriminating. So oppression is not a thing of the past. It is still woven into the fabric of our society and its institutions. The UUA has committed itself to become an anti-oppressive institution, and challenges us to do likewise.
Now I know it’s hard to think of UUCAS as an oppressive institution. How can we, who work so hard to be welcoming and warm, be oppressive? But being a congregation that “encourages spiritual growth and ethical living” we wanted to explore how oppression really works, and how we could become an anti-oppressive institution and more supportive of diversity. This past fall and winter we offered an Adult Education class called “Weaving the Fabric of Diversity”. Our curriculum taught us that there are some common elements to all kinds of oppression. First, oppression relies on a “defined norm.” What’s normal in our culture? It’s a white, young, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able-bodied male who has access to money, education and other resources. Now in terms of numbers, this is not the “majority” of people in America, but it represents those people who have a certain kind of access to institutional power. This group certainly is the norm in congress. In the Senate right now only 17 out of 100 people are women 13 are non-Christian, and only 3 are people of color. In the history of the US there have only been 6 openly gay members of congress, and there has never been a gay member of the senate. What is “normal” to our decision makers in Washington, is not really “normal” to most of the people in America- but the decisions made by those few powerful people are going to define and legislate normal for the whole country.
Think about other kinds of institutions- like schools; the teachers and school boards have the power to teach what they understand to be normal. The way I was taught American history, it started in Europe and told a story of those white men who lead institutions from the founding of the United States of America until today. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I realized that anther way to teach American History would be as a history of this land and all who have lived here, or learned that the GLBT movement has a history, and that that history is an important part of the story of our country. Now my high school history teachers were good people. I don’t believe there was any intentional plan to exclude certain folks from the American image of itself. Yet the history I was taught was oppressive, and the school that taught it perpetuated that oppression. If I myself was not queer, and had never had friends or family who came out to me, and never sought out books on queer history and culture, I would leave Stonewall out of Contemporary American History textbooks not as a proactive act of oppression, but as a passive one. Either way, the result is the great diversity of Americans are taught an “American Norm” that does not reflect their own experience, or their own history.
So institutional power is one thing necessary for oppression and the maintenance of a defined norm, another is economic power. It is a well known fact that women make less than men. In 2004 the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed women still make only 80.4 percent of men's weekly median earnings . In virtually every occupation listed, men earned a higher median wage than women, regardless of job title. How could this systemically unfair distribution of resources NOT contribute to the oppression of women, and yet I don’t believe in some giant conspiracy theory, just very powerful societal norms backed up by economic power.
Another important characteristic of oppression is that the institutional authority backs up the norm with violence or the threat of violence. The statistics show clearly that people of color are more likely to be brutalized by police than white persons. Violence against Transgender folks is regularly in the news. You don’t have to be yourself the victim of violence to know that it is dangerous to be in certain places if you are a person of color, that it is dangerous to show any ambiguity to your gender. The “defined norm” that “Boys don’t wear pink” is enforced not just by our cultural teachings, but by the knowledge that there are people in this country who believe crossing those normalized gender lines is an excuse for violence. The norm is backed up by the US police forces, the prison system and the army. Think about all the times the army has been called in to break up a labor strike- to support management over and above labor- to enforce that management is “normal” and working folks are “other.”
We support the norm by assuming that those who don’t comply with the norm are “other” and we could only accept them if they conformed or assimilated. Consider the kind of “defined norm” that perpetuates classism. Have you every heard anyone say that folks who don’t have much money are poor, not because they couldn’t afford to get the kind of education that would have led to better paying jobs, but because they are lazy? Yes, even those folks who work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet and feed their family – the rationalization goes that if they had always worked hard and made the right choices they wouldn’t be in that pickle. So the one poster child who works her way up from the housing projects to make it through medical school and become a doctor shows that “becoming normal” is possible, and anyone could do it if they just tried hard enough.
When we hear these ideas often enough we start to believe them. “Maybe it is my fault, maybe I am lazy and not as smart or good.” This is how internal oppression is born. I begin to carry in my way of thinking about myself and the culture the sense of norm that my culture teaches me and backs up with money and power. And because not everyone sees their life experience on TV, in the history books, in church, this leads to isolation.
When we see that oppression works in the same way regardless of the group that is being oppressed, this is called “linked oppressions.” If we are able to analyze and dismantle the mechanisms of oppression, we would have tools and processes for dismantling all oppression. Think about all the women’s suffrage and the abolition movements learned from each other in the 19th century. Think about how the black empowerment movement, the women’s liberation movement and the disability rights movements fed and taught one another back in the 1970s.
So we at this church have long aspired to be as welcoming and inclusive as we can be. But it is not enough to say “everyone is welcome to join us.” In order to be truly welcoming we must analyze our own church system for oppression, search our own hearts, do our own work to remove road blocks which might prevent folks from feeling truly welcome. We must remember that race is not a black issue, homophobia is not a gay issue; each of us has an ethnic history, each of us have a gender, a sexual orientation, a body that with weaknesses and strengths.
Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of EVERY person. So how can you and I challenge oppression? The first step is just noticing and recognizing oppression and its harmful effects. We try to get in the habit of challenging the idea that some people are “normal” and that society’s responsibility is to support and reinforce “normalness” The more we accept this challenge as part of our search for truth and meaning, and the more we support each other in that search, the more the subtleties of oppression will begin to reveal themselves in the fabric of our society. And once we learn to recognize it, then we have a chance to help change it -- whether that means speaking up when you hear a racist or homophobic comment at work, or visiting your legislator to ask equal rights to be protected under the law.
We can also practice that countering oppression here in this beloved community. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a racist or homophobic remark in this building, so our challenge will be to pay attention to the more subtle ways that some identities are normalized and others are marginalized. Can folks with visual impairment read or our orders of service? If you don’t know how to read, can you still enjoy worship with us? To help us understand the blocks and discouragements that stand between this congregation and greater diversity, we have to be willing to use our imaginations to put ourselves in our brothers and sisters’ shoes.
And how will we know if we have reached our goal? We have to be in relationship with folks who are different from us so that we can be accountable, otherwise our actions will say “we know what’s best for you” and we are still a part of the system of privilege and power. We have to ask and listen. We are quite diverse in our congregation already- so we can ask a family with small children “what roadblocks are in your way to full participation in our community.” We can ask folks whose hearing is challenged if they are missing any parts of worship. We can ask folks who struggle to make ends meet whether our church events and programs create uncomfortable barriers for folks with tight budgets. We have to venture outside our familiar circles, however, to find out what obstacles persons in wheel chairs might find when visiting our church, or how this congregation might be more welcoming and comfortable to African-American or Native-American neighbors.
We challenge ourselves to pro-actively do our own work, because that is the first step toward countering oppression in the world. Even if after 3 years of work our congregation looked no different to the naked eye, we would be changed in our hearts. Says Rev. Tom Owen Tolle, “The quest for diversity [asks us to promise 2 things]: that we will practice diversity within our own walls, not merely preach it in the wider world; and that we will stay on the path forever. Authentic diversity is not an ad hoc project but our way of being and doing religion.” I am glad we are on that path together.