When Word Debates Become Oppressive

In the midst of the current controversy on white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism, the number one objection I’ve heard to the idea that our faith is the fear that people will misunderstand white supremacy language as referring to racist hate organizations. So, debates have raged about whether we should use alternative language that essentially boils down to this: it makes white folks uncomfortable.

The fact is there is not another term currently in use that conveys the same idea: a system of oppression that places white people’s concerns above those of people of color. Some have suggested using the term white privilege instead, but others have already written about why white supremacy is not the same as white privilege.

I want to call this sort of argument the fallacy of imperfect language. The thinking goes that, because the language is imperfect and make people uncomfortable, we should put work on hold while we find words that will make us feel better about the concept. What these sort of semantic debates actually do is distract from the actual work of dismantling oppression in the elusive search for perfection.

It’s ironic that such debates are a massive display of the very concept they are debating since, most every time, it is a white person expressing concern over words, or else a person of color worried about how white people will take such words. White persons concerns take center stage over the actual work of dismantling a racist system.

The fact is language is never perfect. There continue to be people who believe white privilege means all white people’s lives are perfect, no matter how many times we explain that the term has a very specific meaning, no matter how many articles and books we publish that refute this belief. No matter what words we use to describe our concepts, there will always be those who misunderstand the intent of such concepts through ignorance, willful or otherwise.

Let me say that again: there will never be perfect words.

The term white supremacy has been used by activists and thinkers on the forefront of racial justice for decades with a very specific meaning. They have very specifically defined what they mean by such words.

What is infinitely more important than debating the use of words for emotional reasons is dismantling the system they are describing, unless, of course, your objection to the words is a smokescreen to avoiding the system.

I know how frustrating the word games can be every time a cisgender straight person asks me not to use the word “queer” to identify my sexuality and gender because they make them feel uncomfortable. What I feel like saying is that it is not up to them to tell me how to use such words. Queer is a word that has been used against my people for decades. It is my choice how I reclaim that word and what meaning I give to it.

As such, I stand in solidarity with people of color seeking to dismantle a system that continues to oppress them.

I’m making the decision that I will no longer engage in semantic debates about white supremacy language. I don’t believe that all people who engage in these endless discussions are racists or even bad people, but, speaking as a white person who has been engaging in this work for some time, I recognize how much this is a distraction from much more important issues, and it really is a manifestation of white fragility. The fact is that, years after the language goes mainstream in left-leaning circles, there will still be people insisting that use of the term is insisting that all white people are racists.

While others are busy arguing about white supremacy language, I’ll be out dismantling it. I hope that, as the UUA’s General Assembly comes up in just a couple weeks, others will join me.

White Fragility and Defensiveness: A Response to the UUA’s Hiring Practices Controversy

This week has been hard for many Unitarian Universalists, and I realize I’ve been slow to respond to the events and controversy that erupted. I think it’s time I spoke up, though, since I’m a firm believer that neutrality and silence does nothing but perpetuate oppression.

To summarize for those not familiar, Thursday, Rev. Peter Morales resigned his position as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association amid a controversy over white supremacy in the hiring practices of the UUA. Today, it was formally announced that two more senior staffers are resigning: Chief Operating Officer Rev. Harlan Limpert and Rev. Scott Tayler, Director of Congregational Life. But this response is not about Peter or Harlan, or even Rev. Andy Burnette or Christine Rivera, the two individuals who find themselves at the center of this controversy. This is not about any individual.

This is about a system that continues to place some into positions of power while relegating others to what they can get.

My colleague and seminary professor, Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed, has devoted much of his professional career to examining the systematic racism that has always existed in our movement. In his most famous work, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, and his more recent compendium of primary sources from Black Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists, Darkening the Doorways, Mark shows how, even when our movement claims to be open and affirming to people of color, we have routinely missed the mark over the years.

Take the still controversial reaction to the Black Empowerment Movement of the late-1960s. Here, we had a perfect opportunity, even if we didn’t understand the stated goals of Black Empowerment, to finally listen to the concerns of Black UUs and find a way forward. What resulted was a controversy that nearly tore apart our movement. The attempt to form a Black Affairs Caucus in the UUA was seen as repudiating UUs previous commitments to integrationist policies and, thus, as a personal attack on them.

This is, I believe, part of the problem: every step forward our movement has taken towards addressing justice issues has been met with a defensive reaction of good liberals who feel personally attacked despite their stated commitments to racial justice. It’s a phenomenon that some modern theorists have labeled “white fragility.”

I should know: I can be the most defensive person when I’m not at my best. I know from first-hand how challenging it can be not to defend myself when I feel attacked. I want to feel like I’m right and righteous and doing the right thing. When I do fail to listen, though, I miss an opportunity to remind myself that I’m not perfect and I’m not righteous and that sometimes I do participate in systems that oppress people I love.  I think this is the key: none of us want to believe that we are actively hurting people in our movement we care deeply about.

And, so, yes, I felt defensive when I read the stories about the controversy. I know Andy personally, and he’s a minister I deeply respect. I don’t believe Peter or Harlan or Scott or anyone else were, at any point, attempting to oppress Black folks. I want to believe we’re better than all of this.

Yet all of that defensiveness misses the point that it was never about them or me or anyone else. It’s about a system that we can either choose to dismantle or continue to ignore by giving voice to our feelings of insecurity rather than living into our highest religious values. The reactionary nature of this sort of response perpetuates unjust systems by making it look like marginalized people are in the wrong when we should be following Jesus’s admonition to take the beam out of our own eye.

Nobody’s asking white people to be perfect; we’re asked to listen and respond in accordance with our values.

My colleague Rev. Dawn Cooley wrote, three years ago, regarding an unrelated controversy regarding the UUA’s public response to charges of classism and ableism:

If our mission is perfection, we are doomed to fail. But I don’t think that is our mission. Neither do I believe our mission as Unitarian Universalists is to be larger in numbers or have larger churches. Our mission is not to be the religion of our time, our mission is not to be a religious home for the “nones.” Our mission is not even to make sure we don’t die out. These are all perfectly fine as goals, but they must not be thought of as our mission because they are too self-serving and do nothing to ease the pain and suffering all around us and inside us.

Instead, I believe is our mission is to love the hell out of the world. This means being in relationship with the world. It means constantly expanding who “we” are. It means challenging ourselves to listen more and put down our need to be right all the time. It does not mean we will always agree – we won’t – but it means we will stay in conversation without trying to convince the other person we are right. We will stay in conversation because we will want to hear more about their story.

What this means for this time is that, as white people, we need to stop airing our insecurities and defensiveness in public where our sentiments are guaranteed to retraumatize people of color who already worry that their movement does not truly value them, and listen more, love more, and learn more. I want to propose we adopt the model of SRUJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice, a coalition of white anti-racists that, rather than leading anti-racism efforts, follows and supports the leads of people of color-led organizations while educating one another from the inside rather than expecting to be taught by those who are marginalized.

One such organization already exists within our movement, Allies for Racial Equity, and I hope other white UUs will join me in joining and supporting the work of ARE as they support the voices of DRUUM and Black Lives of UU.

I don’t know what the way forward looks like. I doubt any of us do. I do know that we cannot afford to continue reacting as we have every time a marginalized person expresses a concern within the system. We need to find better ways to communicate that do not dismiss concerns simply because our feelings are hurt. We need to demonstrate what it means to mess up royally while staying in community and acknowledging the unintended hurt we have participated in.

In his preface to Darkening the Doorways, Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “Our challenge today is to develop a culturally inclusive vision that is grand and hopeful enough to inspire, and a way of being that is open and welcoming to all races and cultures…” This vision can be accomplished, but we must put aside our pride and understand what it means to be people of privilege. Otherwise, what hope do we have of truly living into our values? If we fail now, what message are we sending other marginalized folks?

In other words, do we want to do what’s comfortable, or do we want to do what’s right?