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.