events in Charlotte, North Carolina, we all have some pretty fresh images in our mind of what White supremacy looks like. So if you were listening to NPR the morning after general assembly, you might have been surprised to hear a story denouncing White supremacy within the Unitarian Universalist Association. [i] And you might be surprised to hear me say that report made me proud --proud that our denomination is finally waking up to our white privilege, and to the ways that our policies and practices privilege white folks in our movement. Proud that in April and May 2017, more than 700 congregations participated in the grassroots White Supremacy Teach-In at their congregations.[ii]
Many white folks have asked- why use a phase like “white supremacy” which conjures up images of neo-Nazis marching in the streets shouting hateful slogans? My Facebook feed is full of photos of UUs marching in counter-protests, but we realize that those racist demonstrations are just the tip of the white supremacy iceberg. We are starting to wake up to the fact that we are part of systems of institutionalized racism that give white people an advantage in education, employment, housing, the list goes on and on. So by using the words “white supremacist” we are naming the fact that we participate in and benefit from a culture that privileges white people, at the expense of people of color.
It’s very easy for white people to live their whole lives without ever seeing this system. Debby Irving author of “Waking Up White” thought of herself as a pretty socially conscious white person but like so many of us slowly began to realize how much she didn’t know. “Not thinking I had a race, the idea of asking me to study my ‘racial identity’ felt ludicrous… I was nice and kind to people of all different races and cultures…I felt skeptical that examining myself could further my understanding of others.” [p. 30]
Debbie thought she knew the story of the American GI bill which provided benefits to returning servicemen after WWII, including grants for education, low cost mortgages, and unemployment. We barely have time to scratch the surface of that today, so I’m going to focus on education. Most of you probably know that when veterans returned from WWII, the GI bill allowed them to go to college for free. I asked my dad if anyone in our family benefited from the GI bill and he replied: “You bet, we all did. Paw and Alt went to school after War II, and I got it for between the Korean and Viet Nam wars. Mine was less substantial, but it really helped.”
Now here’s the part of the history that I didn’t know, and Debbie didn’t know.
“Though Black GIs were technically eligible for the bill’s benefits, in reality our higher education, finance and housing systems made it difficult if not impossible for African American GIs to access them. On the education front, most colleges and universities used a quota system, limiting the number of black students accepted each year. There were not enough “black seats” available to allow in the one million returning black GIs. In addition , many black families, already caught in a cycle of poverty from earlier discriminatory laws and policies, needed their men to produce income, not go off to school. In the end a mere 4 percent of black GIs were able to access the bills offer of free education. Meanwhile, the bill allowed my father go to law school without paying a dime.” [p. 13]
How much difference does going to college make? “… according to …an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree.”[iii]
That’s a pretty clear example of how institutional racism changed the economic futures of black GIs and their families. But that was over 70 years ago, surely that doesn’t have anything to do with us today, right? Actually it’s a clear example of how both privileges and obstacles get passed on from generation to generation. A 2014 College Board poll shows “Those raised by parents with college degrees were vastly more likely than those raised by parents without degrees to say that their family encouraged them to attend college.”[iv] People tend to do what their parents do- it’s what seems normal. As Nick, Eric and I were driving east to visit colleges this summer, I talked to my mom on the phone and told her about our adventures. She reminded me that neither of her parents went to college, and said she probably never would have gone to college if she hadn’t had that one teacher who encouraged her to apply. Because my parents went to college, it seemed normal for me to apply to college. My parents drove me all over the region looking at colleges and helping me with my audition tapes (because I was hoping to be an opera singer back then.) So it seemed natural that when my son got to be a teenager, Eric and I would hop in the car and drive him all over looking at colleges. Not only do we think of college as normal, because it’s what we did and what our parents did, but we know first-hand about the application process, and about SAT prep, and the financial aid process. That’s just one example of how privilege gets handed down from generation to generation, and how a bill passed in 1944 and the racist quota polices from over 70 years ago can still be effecting us all in 2017.
Questions for reflection:
Did anyone in your family benefit from the GI bill?
In what ways is your life like your parents? In what ways is it different?
Unfortunately there is another layer under the surface that keeps this system of privilege running. It’s called implicit bias. These are the biases we all have; every person of every race has them and they are totally unconscious. [v] The researchers who first explored this concept, Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, had noticed back in the 1970s and 80s the answers people gave on surveys about racial bias looked as if Americans had made great strides, but at the same time the lived experience of people of color didn’t really improve. Why? It turned out that our conscious attitudes and our unconscious attitudes can be different, and these differences have real impacts on everything from how your doctor treats you, to loan officers who process your loans, to the judges that sentence you, to the teachers who teach you. (There’s a wonderful “Invisibelia” episode on this phenomenon[vi] .)
My mom’s story shows what an important difference a single teacher can make in the future of a child. Did it make any difference that both my mom and her teacher were white? The National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study showed that “teachers thought that African American students were 47 percent, and Hispanic students were 42 percent, less likely to graduate college than white students, the report said” and that “tenth-grade students in the NCES study whose teachers had high expectations were three times more likely to graduate college than students whose teachers had poorer expectations.” Let me put that in plain English- if your teacher, who may be the most progressive white person you’ve ever met, has an implicit bias that black students are less likely to go to college than white students, her lower expectations of her black students may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is compounded by one of those racist policy moves from the 1950s: in 1954 the Brown V. Board of Education decision courts required schools to integrate. While I learned about that civil rights victory in school, my history books never mentioned that following the verdict, white schoolboards fired a whole generation of black teachers, because white parents couldn’t imagine their white students having a black teacher. [vii] The black teachers who had historically challenged and supported and had high expectations of their black students were expelled from classrooms, and therefore that generation of black children and all the generations of black students since have not had the privilege most of us in this room have enjoyed of --having a teacher of our own race.
Question for reflection:
Have you ever had a teacher that was the same race as you?
Have you ever had a teacher who was a different race than you?
Thankfully, research also shows that implicit bias is something we can change. We can change our habits by slowing down and using the rational part of our brain, We can change our response in the present moment and we can change our habits.
Many white people assume that since black people are concerned about racism they should fix it. But Irving challenges that assumption- Only I can change my implicit biases. White people are in positions of power- not just the in the senate and congress, but in the doctor’s office, on the judge’s bench, or in the classroom. Irving writes “how can racism possible be dismantled until white people, lots and lots of white people, understand it as an unfair system, get in touch with the subtle stories and stereotypes that play in their heads, and see themselves not as good or bad but as players in the system? Until white people embrace the problem, the elephant in the room …will endure.” [p. 153]
Racism is like an elephant in the room that white people have been taught is not polite to discuss or even notice. Did anyone ever give you a dirty look for talking about race, or tell you it was not a polite topic of conversation? Some of us grew up believing that even noticing race- even seeing race was a minor sin. Good people didn’t see skin color. I remember at our house there was a lively discussion when the first ever African American coach lead a team to super bowl victory about whether it was polite to mention his race, or if that just reinforced our biases. In one of Debbie’s college classes she was asked to fill out a survey asking “how often do you talk about race with your family and friends” she chose “a couple of times a year.” she was amazed when a young black woman in her class responded “I couldn’t believe it when I found out white people don’t talk about race very day. I thought everybody talked about race very day. Not talk about it? How can you not talk about it?” [p. 101] All of us who thought we were being polite by not talking about race, who thought we were helping to end racism by ignoring race, turned out to be ignoring an elephant in the middle of our living room. And in not talking about it, we have sort of created this cloak of invisibility for the elephant. How maddening it must be for people of color when they say “hey, can we do something about this elephant in the middle of my life?” and white people reply “what elephant?” Last spring when concerns about racial bias in UUA hiring practices emerged, interim co-president Sofia Betancourt said “We found a religious community in a state of shock. The charges of racism in hiring shocked our community. Many white UU’s asked how this could be? But most UU POC were not surprised, only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock and challenge to our community that we want to call Beloved.”
Not talking about racism, not seeing racism is one of the privileges of being white. So it’s time for all of us who have been silent about race to join the conversation. And here are 4 guidelines for doing so:
First- humility. We have to admit that there is a lot we don’t know about how racism works in America, so when a person of color tells us how racism effects them, instead of the obtuse way white people often respond “are you sure that racism? Maybe you misunderstood?” Let us listen with open hearts and minds recognizing that there is a lifetime of things we don’t know about what it is to be black in America.
Second- Do our own work. As Irving says “Today’s work to dismantle racism begins in the personal realm. Until I began to examine how racism had shaped me I had little to contribute to the movement of righting racial wrongs.” [p. 192].
Third- Intent is not impact. Just because I don’t intend to hurt someone, doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for the impact of my words and actions.
Third- When it comes time to take action, remember that “the white ally role is a supporting one, not a leading one.” For centuries white people have swooped in and tried to “fix” whole cultures and nations of people with often oppressive results. This is why the 3 co-presidents “set ambitious goals for leadership by persons of color on the UUA staff. From less than 20% POCI overall, 30% is the new goal. And from less than 15% at the Executive and First Management level, we established a goal of 40%.” We can’t make real change to racist structures in our own UUA unless we have people of color “at the decision-making level.”[viii]
Irving so carefully demonstrates in her book that “racism is a problem created by white people and blamed on people of color.”  This is not a pleasant reality to wake up to. But we are a justice loving people who believe deeply in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, so we must wake up, and once awake must not become complacent. As Irving writes “when it comes to racism everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.”
[vi] June 15, 2017 “The Culture Inside” http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia