Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Getting out of Our Bubbles

A bit of context: this sermon was originally delivered in a 97% white and culturally-Christian county (The broader UU movement is more diverse in both race and religious background.)  under the presumption that it is helpful for  white people to talk to other white people about whiteness and white privilege. It was first preached as part of a “get out of your bubble” summer challenge -- a lighthearted moment in our ongoing anti-oppression and anti-racism work. 

I need to check- does everyone here know who Wonder Woman is? Remember how Wonder woman grows up on an island of warrior women? Whether you’ve seen the movie, or read the comic books, you probably remember that the island, called Themyscira is surrounded by a bubble of protection that shields them not only from harm, but also from all knowledge of the outside world. When army pilot Steve Trevor crashes through the bubble, the community has to decide- do they ignore the new information he brings from the wider world? Or do they act? It’s our hero, Diana, who decides to leave the only world she has ever known to fight the God of War. Only when she leaves the protection of her sheltered island does she begin to understand the true scope of her power, and the true nature of the world she wants to help. Only when she gets out of her bubble can she become Wonder Woman.

Like the warrior women who live on Themyscira, we all live in a bubble, though ours is rarely as obvious or literal as the one in which Wonder Woman grew up. Each morning on my walk to yoga I see the same trees, the same construction projects, and I see many of the same faces in my 7:30 yoga class. When I sit down at my computer, Facebook and Google reflect back to me the small slice of the world I already know, and when I walk my dog at lunch, I see only that one other dog owner who walks their dog at lunchtime. You would think, in fact, that there were no other dogs living in the neighborhood, but the smallest change can stretch my bubble- if I walk the dog a couple hours later, I encounter dogs and people I had no idea lived in my neighborhood.

Why does it matter whether or not we get out of our bubbles? First of all it can be fun. It’s fun to meet a new dog, to make a new friend. It’s fun to find a new author, or new cuisine. When life feels stuck and stuffy, chances are we’ve spent too much time in our bubble. There’s a huge wide world out there of new things to try and learn.

Second, getting out of our own bubble teaches us something about ourselves. In my own bubble I am like the fish who doesn’t know what it means to be wet, because wet is only a normal, inevitable state-- the only state he has experienced. I grew up culturally Christian, so I’ve been listening to a podcast called “See something, Say something” about being Muslim in America. It’s written by Muslims for Muslims, not for me and my bubble. The podcasts I listened to during Ramadan gave me a peek into a different bubble -- what is it like to be the only kid in your junior high school fasting during Ramadan? What is it like in a high school with a larger Muslim contingent who have their own space in the gym during lunch when they are fasting? What are the logistics of a working person getting up before dawn to eat, and trying to work a full day alongside co-workers who are not fasting? As I peer outside my own bubble I am invited to notice that I am part of a religious tradition that has no required fasting; in fact our tradition does not really ask us to face any physical hardship, and does not emphasize restraint. What’s up with that? What are the lessons Muslims are embodying during Ramadan that I am missing?[i]

As I peer outside my own bubble I notice that not all UUs celebrate Christmas, but most of us get the day off regardless. No one in Bradford County would think to schedule your biology final on Christmas Day, but most wouldn’t think twice about scheduling an exam during Ramadan or back to school meetings on the Jewish High holidays. Getting out of your bubble from time to time is probably good for everyone, but I would argue that it is particularly important for those of us who occupy a place of privilege. In this case, the privilege of having a school calendar that syncs up with your cultural holidays.

Last year the Athens congregation read a book called “Waking up White” by Debbie Irving which really helped me see the shape of the bubble I live in called “white culture.” For example, in the white culture in which I was raised, I was taught that it’s not polite to talk about race. In one of the author’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]. If Debbie had not intentionally tried to go outside her bubble, she could have spent her whole life thinking everyone agreed that talking about race was rude. She might never have realized that actually this rule was one of the forces holding her bubble in place, the bubble of white culture, and that outside her bubble other rules applied. Because white culture is the central, privileged culture in our society, the culture of a majority of law makers, judges, teachers, doctors, and UU ministers, if we don’t take time to get out of our bubble, we might never know that things that seem “normal” to us are just one bubble in a sky full of bubbles, and we might never know the effect our culture, our actions are having on folks who don’t live in our bubble.

This is one of the reasons I’ve been listening to a podcast called “Code Switch.” The term “code switch” describes the requirement that to survive outside your own bubble, you need to quickly and fluidly switch from, for example, the norms of your own home to the norms of your workplace or school. Because white culture is dominant in America, the culture in my home, in my yoga studio, in my grocery store, is pretty similar to the culture at my workplace and at my son’s school. When I interact with people from another bubble while inside my bubble, most likely they will be code-switching-- adapting to my culture. To get a true glimpse outside my bubble, I need to visit theirs: listening, reading, visiting a space where I am in the minority, where I don’t have any authority or power, where people from other bubbles feel at home, allows me to glimpse the limits of my own bubble, and peer into other cultural worlds.

As people of privilege, we face a similar choice as the heroes in this year’s blockbuster film Black Panther. Did folks see that movie? Black Panther is a hero-king from Wakanda, a wealthy and highly advanced nation in North East Africa, that hides behind a bubble of
cloaking technology[i].

Our invisible bubble is called white supremacy culture. And even when our hearts are in the right place, if we don’t understand our own bubble, and the bubbles of folks we want to support, our efforts may backfire. For centuries, white supremacy culture has assumed that its ways would work just the same outside their bubble as they did inside. Our ignorance about the values and wisdom of local cultures and ecosystems has often produced disastrous effects from invasive plants, to desertification, to the cultural genocide of native peoples[ii].

So how do we respectfully get out of our bubbles? When we boldly leave the confines of our own bubble, we enter someone else’s space like a house guest in a new home. We follow the local rules and conventions. For example, Wiccan teacher and activist Star Hawk writes in her blog:
“In our own communities, we have a lifetime to absorb the norms and adapt to them. But when we move into a different culture, we may not even recognize what the norms are nor be aware that we are violating them. I once attended an Ohlone ceremony and was blithely singing along with the chants in my high soprano. Had not another white woman tipped me off, I would never have guessed that in that culture, singing an octave above everyone else is considered rude and insulting.”[iii]
At some level it comes down to remembering it’s not all about us. In our own bubble we are at the center, but just as I am not the center of my cousin’s wedding, we are called to de-center ourselves when we witness or participate in someone else’s culture.

When the movie Black Panther premiered, it was an important event for my family, as we always go to see new Marvel movies opening week, but it was an even more important event for the Black community. It would have been easy to experience the movie with my own identity as a Marvel fan at the center, but I also wanted to know how folks outside my white bubble were experiencing and creating meaning around the event. My son and I listened to the full 2 hours a podcast called “Black Men Can’t Jump [in Hollywood]” in which 4 black men explained in great detail their experience of and response to the movie. It was not a very bold endeavor on our part, but it gave us a chance to de-center our experience and peer into a different bubble. Although we had all seen the same movie, the commentators used slang I didn’t know, used references I didn’t know, discussed cultural norms I didn’t know. If I had seen the premier in one of the theaters these guys went to, instead of in my home theater in Ithaca, I imagine I would have felt like a fish out of water. But if you are trying to get out of your bubble, that’s the point -- catching a glimpse of a world where you are not at the center. One of the characteristics of white privilege is that we swim in a culture that assumes that it is right and good for white people to be at the center, for white values and cultural norms to be dominant and that white culture is “normal”. So each time we allow ourselves to be a fish out of water, we are challenging that aspect of white supremacy culture.

When we venture outside our bubble, we learn that our bubble is not what everyone’s bubble looks like, that our bubble is not normative. This is hugely important, because difference exists, and difference matters. It matters especially in situations where some folks are making decisions that affect other folks. If we think our experience is universal, we are going to participate in co-creating a reality that is a bad fit for many. As we visit other bubbles we begin to learn how to be better bubble-guests; I have learned not to assume I know what pronouns people prefer, I have learned not to hold a lunch meeting with my friend who’s observing Ramadan, and I have learned that dressing up is a sign of respect when going to a Black Panther premier. We also learn to be curious about our own culture -- how we usually use pronouns, what we usually wear to a movie premier. We learn that we are making choices. And eventually we gain confidence being a fish out of water; we learn how to notice local etiquette and cultural norms, how to be a good guest.

We live at a time when we are encouraged to put a lot of energy into strengthening the walls of our bubbles, but now more than ever there must be some who are called to make their own bubble permeable enough to allow in new information, new experiences and new ideas. Like Wonder Woman and the people of Wakanda, I think the Unitarian Universalists are being called to leave the shelter of our own bubbles, to explore bravely outside their membranes, and to learn anew how we are called to serve.

[i] My colleague Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson helpfully explains: “some sort of super-advanced holographic system, probably with a force field component - plus the 24/7 facade of the Border Tribe living outside of the hologram and maintaining the low-tech illusion”
Their central dilemma is whether to keep their gifts to themselves, or to share them in service to the world.

[i] It’s important to note that my own story of growing up UU is not universal. We are a faith community of folks with diverse religious roots and beliefs: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/beliefs. To learn more about UU Muslims check out: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/beliefs/islam and Jewish UUs visit: https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/beliefs/judaism

[ii] https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/chapter-7/cultural-genocide

[iii] http://starhawk.org/blog/page/5/