News to Me

CUF Admin
April 26, 2015

News to Me

© Rev. Julie Taylor
April 12, 2015
Preached at Carbondale, April 26, 2015

Almost exactly three years ago I preached a sermon at the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City called “Wearing a Hoodie.” It was a response to the killing of Trayvon Martin. I joined ministers all around New York preaching in hooded sweatshirts that day to remember a 17 year old African American high school student walking home to his father’s house unarmed, when he was killed in Sanford, Florida —shot to death by a white, self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. At the time I preached that sermon, Zimmerman had not been charged with any crime. Ultimately he was charged and would be found not guilty of the murder.

Two and a half years ago, my wife and I moved to St. Louis from New York City, with our then 3 month old son. We were relative newcomers here when Michael Brown was killed on August 9th of last year by police officer Darren Wilson. The stirrings of pain and recognition of horrible injustice inflicted upon the black community—the recognition of the pain I had back in 2012 hit me last summer in a much more visceral way. I don’t know if it was because this was happening in my town, although I had lived in New York City through a number of extrajudicial killings of black men and women by police officers and somehow either I didn’t have the understanding or the maturity or the self awareness at the time for this to hit me the way it did last summer. I don’t know if it was finally that I was ready to face some truths about myself and about racism, but it was different. I couldn’t just preach about it, I had to get out in the streets and do something.

Within a few days of Michael Brown’s killing, I was with a group of clergy at the Canfield Apartments, right where Mike was killed, offering support to this grieving community. I was one of very few white people there that first week. A few nights later a friend from seminary who is black and went to high school up near Ferguson called and said, you’ve got to come out at night, it’s different here at night. I went. To bear witness and do what I could with a grieving community who were now being occupied by a militarized police force. I was tear gassed, I had weapons pointed directly at me while I had my hands up, all while being white, wearing a clerical collar and not breaking the law.

I am also a military chaplain. I have worked with uniformed services for the last 14 years of my ministry. I am not anti-police, but I am anti-police brutality. And anti-militarization of grieving communities. And that is what happened to this community and what is continuing to happen.

Part of what changed for me, got me started waking up when Trayvon was killed and got me fully woke standing where Mike’s body lay in the street for over 4 hours, what finally clicked for me was the connection between systemic, institutionalized racism and individual racism. And that both types of racism got us where we are. I don’t know if George Zimmerman or Darren Wilson are racist. But I know I am.

I used to think I wasn’t racist because when I was growing up I was a minority. I was a missionary kid and we lived on Native American Indian reservations. I grew up being outnumbered by people of color. My parents did not teach me that I was better because I was white, or that I deserved to be treated differently. But you know what, they didn’t have to. Television shows, commercials, books, the news, magazine advertising, radio stations, my educational system all assumed that white was the norm and everything else was what was different.

I thought I wasn’t racist because I never thought of myself as a race, I never thought of myself as white, I didn’t have to. I was just me. I was in my 30s and in seminary when I was finally confronted with this. I was white and others were defined in relation to me. I was “normal” and all else was something else. I had understood this concept in terms of my being gay and always being defined against heterosexual normativity. I got that. But it hadn’t hit me that I experience the opposite position, the privileged position as it relates to race and being white. My own racism was news to me. Now that I have thought about it, I can’t not think about it.

I have relatives who have said, and friends who have said that what happened in Ferguson is not racism because this officer was genuinely scared for his life. I say it is racism when we are scared by a category of humanity. It’s not racism, it’s law enforcement protecting the neighborhood from crime. It is racism when law enforcement see criminals only in black or brown faces.

It’s not about hate, but about protection. Those words have been said before. It’s still racism. Racism doesn’t have to be about hate, it’s enough that it is about fear.

My racism makes no rational sense, it’s not logical, at least not for me. I have never been mugged, but I have had my apartment burglarized. In the 20 years I worked construction I was ripped off by several contractors and clients who let me finish jobs then refused to pay me. Every single contractor and client who stole money from me was white. The burglar was white, a teenager from next door. They were all white and middle class. My experience should tell me logically, rationally that I should be worried about middle class white people. So why does my stomach tighten when I’m on the street at night and a scruffy kid of color is walking up fast behind me. Logically, intellectually, my reason tells me, I tell myself there is no inherent danger here. But my body braces. “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade.” I’ve been carefully taught.

As whites we are taught to be racist in this country. We may not be taught to hate, but we are taught to be racist in subtle, daily ways. We’re taught to fear the other, to know that we’re better, that they don’t belong. If you haven’t read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White, or Tim Wise’s book, White Like Me, read them. Read Peggy McIntosh’s essay The Invisible Knapsack or the brilliant piece by Andrew Kurkata What Riding a Bike Taught Me about Prejudice, Poverty and Designed Exclusion. Those of us with white skin have privilege in this country we are rarely conscious of, and this is part of our racism. That we don’t even have to think about it.

An acquaintance on facebook recently posted a meme–which is a photo with a big caption meant to be sarcastic and pithy—the picture was of Gene Wilder in his role as Willy Wonka, a sly smile on his face, the caption read, “You’re being treated poorly by the police? Have you tried not breaking the law to see if that helps?” I wanted to vomit. This is what is known as “respectability politics.” And it is racism. And it flat out isn’t true. The reality in this country is that if you have black or brown skin, you don’t have to break the law to be treated poorly by law enforcement, or security guards or neighborhood watch or anyone white. Your skin color is suspect enough to “get you what you deserve.”

In Cleveland 12 year old Tamir Rice was killed by police while playing in a playground with a water gun. That was called in by a neighbor. John Crawford was killed by police in a Walmart while he was talking on his cell phone carrying a toy rifle he was going to purchase. Both of these happened in Ohio, which is an open carry state, it is legal to carry a real gun. No law was broken by either of them. Akai Gurley was walking up the stairs in his apartment building with his girlfriend when he was killed by an officer of the NYPD. Tanisha Anderson was having a mental health episode when she was slammed to the ground in handcuffs and died in police custody. Trayvon Martin was walking home with an iced tea and skittles. Mike Brown was walking down the middle of the street on the way to his grandmother’s house.

I’ve been listening to stories of people I know, a youth from one of the congregations I serve who has brown skin, she is routinely followed and has her purse searched whenever she goes to the mall. She goes with white friends who have never had to open their bags. Black seminarians who attend Eden, where my wife is a professor have reported the many many times they are stopped by the police in Webster Groves and had their cars searched.

And then there are the cases of people like Walter Scott. I’ve heard the argument over and over in person, on Facebook, on Twitter, in the media, “He ran. If only he hadn’t run.” “If Michael Brown had only walked to the sidewalk like he was told.” The list goes on. More respectibilty politics. Blame the victim. Funny how many white people who have actually, obviously, committed heinous crimes somehow are taken into custody alive, and stay alive for a trial. Like Eric Matthew Frein, who murdered a police officer, wounded another and evaded law enforcement for months in Pennsylvania, apprehended alive. James Holmes killed 12 people, wounded 58 in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, arrested in the theatre parking lot. White guys. This is systemic racism.

Yesterday the Aryan Nation got a permit to have a rally on the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The call went out to white activists and anti-racists to show up in a counter demonstration. I went. In the pouring rain I stood with about 80 other white people holding signs and taking space while they yelled things like “Black Lives Don’t Matter.” I’m glad I went it was important to be there, but I see this as a distraction from the real work. You see, it is easy to look at a group of obvious white supremacists and say, “That’s racism. That’s not me, so I’m not racist.” Or to see there were only about a dozen of them and think racism really isn’t a problem, we outnumber them. We’re not like them. That’s true, we’re not like them, but we’ve been carefully taught. And we’ve got work to do.

As white people we have to fight against this racism. We have to do it every day. WE have to do it in this room. In this sanctuary. It is not enough to have had UU ministers and lay people march in Selma 50 years ago. The lives of James Reeb and Viola Luizo do not absolve us of our responsibilities today. Our work is not done as individuals or as a larger community.

Now that I have thought about it, I can’t not think about it. I hope you can’t too. I hope that you get so uncomfortable and angry and scared about racism that you decide to do something about it. We decide to do something about it. And that we start right here. That we march and let our voices be heard and stand up for one another and fight institutional racism in our justice system, our economic policies, our schools, our political arenas, our jobs and our familes. And that we do it here in our own hearts, minds, our subconscious. In our own skins. This is spiritual work. And it is embodied work. We must act in order for there to be change. For me, I think I changed when I did something rather than just thought about it.

I may sound angry this morning. I’m not angry. I am scared. I’m scared for the two sons I have, the two white boys I’m raising. I’m scared for the racism I will pass on. Likely unknowingly pass on through implicit messages I am not aware of. Scared for the explicit messages my children will receive from the larger culture. I’ll fight it. I’ll learn how to recognize my white privilege and fight my own racism. I do it for my boys just as much as I do it for the kids of friends who do not have the same white skin privilege I do. I’ll do what I can, and I’ll still fall short.

This is the spiritual work we are called to do as Unitarian Universalists. To truly live into our principles. To affirm and promote, when we talk about our principles…sounds like outside work…and a lot of it is. One principle I hear called on when we talk about our anti-racism work is the principle of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person; but I will challenge you that fighting racism, fighting white supremacy and fighting our own internal white privilege and white fragility goes to every single one of our principles. You can call on every one to support the work that we need to do. Working for justice, equity and compassion in human relations; that’s part of it. The acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations; dismantling our own privilege, continuing to fight the racism and privilege that exists within our own structures requires spiritual growth. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning; understanding what is truth and what is behind the messages we’re being fed. What is the truth from another perspective? The use of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large; every time there is a voter ID bill passed…this is our democracy coming under fire because of racism. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; do I need to explain that one? Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part; I’m gonna say something about that in a minute. This is outside work. But how do we live it? How do we do the inside work that makes it possible to do the outside work?

I’m not saying we have to be activists out there in the street every day. Some of us might do that. But I do believe we have to be active inside every day. And that’s hard. That’s work. That’s a commitment to spiritual transformation. Spiritual transformation, that’s what I’m here for. To go out different than the way I came in.

Here, we can take these steps of spiritual growth. That is the beauty of covenanted community. We have work to do on our own, every one of us, but then we can come together here to share, to struggle, to take steps backwards and forwards supporting one another through this spiritual labor. It’s why people in this congregation are working on the program “Examining Whiteness.”

Lets do this work. Help me do my work. Look at the person in the mirror. Help them do it. Help each other. So that there does not have to be another Michael Brown, another Treyvon Martin, another Tanisha Anderson, another Walter Scott, another Sean Bell, another Amadou Diallo, another Yvette Smith, another John Crawford, another Tamir Rice. The list is getting longer every 28 hours. The other.

We are not disconnected from this interdependent web. Let me tell you we aren’t in charge of it, we didn’t make it, but we are a part of it. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother. Mike Brown is my brother. And Darren Wilson, he’s my brother too. And that is difficult because the interdependent web includes those others as well.

This is hard. This is why we are here as a spiritual community not a social club. My racism was a revelation to me, and I hate it; but it is. It takes spiritual work, spiritual humility, spiritual strength to take seriously that the interdependent web of life of which we are a part includes that which we abhor.

We can do this. Today I don’t have a bunch of answers, or even the plan. I don’t know exactly how this congregation could or should respond as individuals or as a community. But there are people who can guide us on the path. They are out there. There is a journey toward wholeness and we can start this work together. Spiritual work is what we are here to do.

Let’s pray.

Creator, being, energy, source of all life, creativity, small voice within, hear me as I ask for help in the spiritual work of transforming my racism. Transforming my prejudice. Transforming my spirit so I can live differently in this world. I ask help for all of us to become the people and the congregation we know ourselves inside to be, even though we often fall short.

I once read something inscribed on a church’s walls, “This is a church with walls to keep the roof up, not to keep people out.” I pray that the walls of this great Unitarian Universalist congregation keep the roof up, but that they don’t keep us in. I hope, I pray we will take our religion seriously. That we will take our commitment to the principles of Unitarian Universalism outside these walls and live them on the outside.

In the name of all that is holy and that we hold sacred. Amen