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.

Open Letter to the UUA Board of Trustees

Hello, UUA Board of Trustees,

I’m hearing that some of my colleagues have been less than generous with you regarding your appointment of three interim co-presidents to fill the gap until the election of the new president in June. I know how frustrating this must be, especially since I know you must have carefully considered how to precede in this unprecedented governance situation. Their words must hurt.

I wanted to offer my words of encouragement to you because you need to know not all of us agree with their assessment. Sofia Betancourt, Leon Spencer, and Bill Sinkford are an extremely qualified trio of people who I have every confidence will be able to develop a transition strategy to effectively pave the way for our new president. Each brings their unique skills and abilities to the table, and I have no doubt they will serve our association well, as they have in the past. I have absolutely no reservations about having the three of them at the helm for the next three months.

I also want to affirm this is not about you. From serving in parish ministry, I know that people have a tendency to act out when anxiety is high. We find ourselves at a crossroads, torn between our comfortable complacent existence and the call to live out our highest values. I’m sorry you’re being caught in the middle of it, and I want you to know I’m here to advocate for you in any way I can as I think you have handled this crisis the best anyone could possibly expect of you.

I hope my colleagues will take some deep breathes and examine the beams in their own eyes. Where we should be focusing as an institution right now is not on the board or our interim co-presidents, but rather on what we will expect out of the next administration. Three qualified people currently stand for the office, and I sincerely hope we can use this moment in time to clarify who we are as an institution and where we will go in the future rather than being bogged down in the same old tired debates of white supremacy.

I fear that, if we continue this path of anxiety, it will tear us apart in a controversy the likes of which have not been seen in decades. This moment is an opportunity for us, and I know that Revs. Bentancourt and Sinkford and Dr. Spencer will provide the leadership needed to move forward. The hard work is up to us, though, and, in order to do this, we must move beyond the second guessing of three very good appointments.

Again, my love and support to you in all that you do. It is not an easy time to serve our association, but your leadership is needed now more than ever. You are in my prayers in all that you do.

In faith,
Rev. Chris Rothbauer
Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Houghton, Michigan