Whenever I hear something I haven’t heard before, and then hear something very similar again from a different speaker the next day, I start to wonder if maybe there’s a trend developing. Wednesday I drew your attention to a quote from Rosemary Bray McNatt, the African-American minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, in which said that race was often standing in for issues of culture, and that flagellating ourselves and each other over racial issues is making the cultural issue more difficult.

Thursday morning I went to the “Perversity of Diversity” talk by another African-American UU minister, Mark Morrison-Reed. He kept saying “We are an ethnic faith” until eventually he got the room to repeat it back to him. Like McNatt, he was referring to the primacy of culture, not race, in determining who fits in and feels at home in UU congregations.

Culture prevails. Diversity advanced more quickly when the primary barrier to inclusivity wasn’t culture, but gender or sexual orientation. And indeed the people of color who become UUs are always those who have operated within our current norms. People like me. Raised middle-class, lifelong UU, trained at Meadville-Lombard — I’m pretty assimilated.

The #1 predictor of UUism being education, Morrison-Reed observed that the number of African-American UU ministers increased as the number of African-Americans with bachelors degrees increased — independent of what the UUA policy might have been at the time.

What has happened over the last 70 years is that the make-up of the groups that our congregations draw from has changed. … Rather than leading, we are simply reaping the reward of a changing and evolving society.

And that gives us a self-image problem. We want to think of ourselves as social leaders, not social followers.

Why the fretting? We as Unitarian Universalists have a self-image problem. … Seduced by our self-image, we make far-fetched predictions and set unattainable goals. Then of course we don’t live up to one particular racially focused set of expectations … and we feel bad about ourselves. And what do we do? We like to flagellate ourselves. … This response really isn’t about social change or spiritual transformation or even diversity in its broadest sense. It’s about our self-image. … We want to be different than we are because we want to feel better.

The cycle of unreasonable goals, failure, flagellation, and new unreasonable goals isn’t getting us anywhere. Like McNatt, Morrison-Reed doesn’t call for giving up, but for lightening up.

Lecturing and cajoling is not the way. Pulling the race card, kicking you in the teeth and telling you what low-down racists you honkies are is not the answer. … Our earnestness is sabotaging this project because guilt always deals cruelly with vision. … Trepidation encourages timidity. We’ve got to lighten up, laugh at our mistakes, apologize for our gaffes, and forgive the inevitable blunders.

Instead of condemning and living fear of the condemnation of others, Morrison-Reed believes we need to recapture what we had as children, before we had been taught racism, classism, and conformity all sorts, when we had a natural attraction to what seemed different or new.

The sort of transformation we are seeking will only grow out of what we yearn for.

And that means yearn honestly, and not just because we think good people should.

At the moment, I wonder if this is a message we can only hear from our African-American ministers. As a white male UU, I have some trepidation even repeating it, for fear that I will appear to be running for cover and letting myself off the hook.


One related issue that came up several times in Morrison-Reed’s talk was class.

We don’t want to talk about it. I mean, we did have that article in the World about a year and a half ago. You got any resolutions about working class? You got an anti-oppression thing that’s focused on working class?

His implied answer was “no”. (And I barely managed to restrain myself from jumping up and yelling, “Me! Me! That was my article!”) He likened a UU with a working class background to gay and lesbian UUs in the 1980s.

These are people you know who are closeted, who don’t want to tell you how they grew up. They’re right here, right now.

And he challenged us to come out.

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doug muder


  1. Rex Styzens

    As someone who participated in GAs at the time a promise was made to fund generously the Black UU Caucus, a promise that was later called back when UU congregations (I am proud to say that was not true of mine at the time) refused to put our money where our mouth was, I find myself not reassured by the messages on race at this year’s GA.

    UUs have consoled ourselves by claiming to have an influence out of proportion to the size of our membership. Well, our world is in one heck of a mess. I doubt we will ever take our share of the responsibility for that, despite all the flowery prose. It is in keeping with our, yes, class history where our denominations were slow to support the Abolitionists, because property rights were at stake. Money talks; BS walks.

    It may be that property no longer plays a central role in issues of race. If so, that comes as a surprise. But it does in issues of climate change, urban decay, suburban sprawl, and immigrant rights, to mention just a few. Since war is the fastest way to take property away from others, I cannot help wondering how popular among us an anti-war position might be.

    To be honest, I have never seen UUs flagellating ourselves over anything since the days of the Civil Rights struggle, at least not since our youth burned their draft cards and our clergy were gunned down in the South. The message that somehow we are doing all that can be expected of us does not ring true to me, regardless of the skin color of those reassuring us. The next thing you know we’ll be told that Affirmative Action is passe by those whose lives it has improved.

  2. Steven R

    Our current attempts have failed to make Unitarian Universalism multi-cultural.
    Is this something that can really be denied?

  3. joseph santos-lyons

    I love Mark, but I absolutely disagree that every person of color UU is middle class, assimilated and educated. It is true that we are inspired by the Principles and Purposes, and applied theology of Unitarian Universalism. Perhaps he is referring to his generation.

  4. Doug Muder

    I wonder if I did Mark Morrison-Reed an injustice with that quote. It’s accurate (I just listened to the recording again), but in the larger context he was talking about UU ministers, not all UUs. I wonder if he meant to say “the people who become UU ministers” and it just came out wrong.

  5. kim

    What is it really about class? What about someone of working class makes the middle and upper-middle class UUs uncomfortable?(and vice versa) Is it education level? Is it values? Is it what George Lakoff calls Nurturant versus Strict upbringing? What is it?
    My father came from a family of working-class intellectuals (yes, there used to be such a thing…) and he was entranced with UUism, and quite comfortable. Is it the “intellectual” part?
    When I think about cultural differences, I think about the kind of unconscious traditions like how far apart we stand when we talk, how long a pause between sentences we read as “end of paragraph — ok to cut in now”, and other things like that which are truly different in different cultures. When I think of that with respect to UU services, I think of how staid our services are, especially compared to the kind of service at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. If we made our services more lively, would we lose all the people who like the New England style?
    How dangerous is spontaneity?


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