After The Teach-In

After The Teach-In May 26, 2017

Painting by Arthur Wilkerson Photo by Maggie Beaumont

It feels necessary to state, for the record, that I write from the perspective of a white woman in the oldest cohort of the baby boomers (that means I’m 70), someone who has lived a mostly middle- to upper-middle-class life. Someone, in other words, who had to be taught to recognize White Privilege, because I have it – as I also have many of its fellow travelers.

While the UUA struggles to move forward after demonstrating its substantial White Privilege – or White Supremacy, if we are honest – at the heart of the organization, nearly 700 congregations held Teach-Ins over the Sundays of this month to address the White Supremacy in our own smaller midst.

Sit with your discomfort, said the speaker from the pulpit. Discomfort is uncomfortable, but you can stand it. If you find it scary, sit with your fear.

The first time I attended a Teach-In was 47 years ago this month, in the wake of the shootings at Kent State. This time the impetus seems less fatal (at least to white folks), but it’s much more personal to some of us.

The Sunday service I attended two weeks ago was held in two simultaneous sessions, sorted out by racial self-identifying – an extraordinarily rare event in this congregation.

The people who see themselves as White, being more numerous, stayed in the sanctuary; the people who self-identify as People of Color or Indigenous People moved to the Dining Room. Being someone who experiences the world from a White perspective, I stayed in the sanctuary, noting how peculiar it felt to be segregating on the basis of color. Noting, too, how unfair it felt that the People of Color were the ones who had to get up and move.

In the sanctuary we heard readings from writers of color – with plenty of musical interlude to give us time to process each one. What we heard was heartfelt and painful, and rather more direct and honest than we are used to. Mostly people were writing about the discomforts caused by the actions of people-who-look-like-me, or by structures designed by earlier White Americans to specifically and deliberately exclude, minimize, or otherwise mistreat people-who-look-like-them.

It was hard to hear. But I couldn’t disagree with, or challenge, a single word.

I noticed that the crowd seemed a little bit smaller than usual. One man present noted that it seemed like fewer men were present than usual.

But I’m telling you ‘about it’ instead of speaking to what I felt, and feel, and what has waked me up after just a couple of hours of sleep on several nights since.

We’ve been here before, people. In the 60s, in the 80s, in the 90s, the American dominant culture has strongly resisted changing to include more of America’s inhabitants in we and to even reduce – never mind eliminate – the number of categories we call them.

Take a moment to notice how readily this White person reduced humans to categories. And how readily (and unconsciously) I positioned myself in we, and those others in them. Go on, take a moment; I’ll wait.

Some folks have worked toward change in each of those waves of protest and self-education. Many (of whatever age and color) have only worked during one. Many, on both sides of any dividing line, have become discouraged.

I don’t know how much effect today’s work will have. I only know how it has affected me.

I learned this week that, as careful as I have been for decades, I still make unconscious racist assumptions. I learned that, as much as I try to listen deeply, I still hear what I want to hear and disregard the rest (quoting Paul Simon because he said it so well).

Even though I have known for a long time now that People of Color experience racism 24/7, even in the privacy of their own homes, there are still things about it that I haven’t wanted to know.

Struggle, Fear and Hope

I’ve been struggling to write this post for over two weeks, ever since the Anti-White-Supremacy Teach-In at my home UU congregation. At first it seemed that I couldn’t pull my thoughts together on this topic – but then I heard the sermon the week following the teach-in. Now it seems to me that it doesn’t matter if I can make this post coherent or not; it is my obligation to speak out anyway.

What do I most fear in this? What do I most hope in this?

I most fear those who insist that granting other people equality will take away from their own selfhood. Those who violently assert their superiority. Those who encourage them to privilege themselves and their own ‘kind’ over others, whether of color, religion, or whatever.

I most fear that we White folks will sink back into complacency, assuming that as long as I don’t ‘do wrong’ I am necessarily ‘doing right.’

I most hope that the current political climate will result in more clarity among people of good will – and more courage, more standing up for, more asserting the rights of all.

And I most hope this can be accomplished peacefully, gently, and speedily. The time for ‘waiting for a better season’ is so demonstrably over.

Where do I perpetuate White Supremacy? When is that entirely unconscious or culturally determined, and when am I half-consciously taking advantage of the privilege and entitlement my Anglo looks provide?

What glib explanations have I believed, uncritically, when the truth would be obvious to someone who looked?

I have some examples for that one:

  • Work-release for prisoners used to look like a good, generous idea to me, a way for people who have been convicted of some not-too-awful crime to maintain their jobs while imprisoned for all their ‘personal’ hours each day. But that’s not what it is, at all. Prisoners on ‘work release’ are not released to continue their OWN jobs; they are ‘released’ into the custody of ‘employers’ who pay them as little as 35 cents an hour (in my home community) – or even, nothing (!) – to work low-level unskilled-labor jobs at lower cost than what the prisoners call ‘free-world’ workers. Often the savings thus generated go straight to profits for the owners and stockholders and are not even passed on to the customers at all. And out of this absurdly low paycheck, the prisoners are required to reimburse their jailers for their room and board.
  • Plea-bargaining used to look like a way for a guilty person, knowing they’ve been caught and would likely lose in court, to reduce their sentence – as well as for the prosecutor to save the community the cost of a trial. But no: today, with upwards of 95% of all cases going to plea-bargaining rather than trial, that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening, instead of what I imagined, is the browbeating of almost everyone snared in an arrest – guilty or innocent, savvy or naïve – into accepting a permanent criminal record and often both a financial fine as well as jail time, rather than risk a trial in a situation where the public defenders are dreadfully overworked and the prosecutor’s future depends on a conviction rate. And where judges and juries are too-often far from colorblind. Only those who can afford their own lawyer can win at this.
  • A jury of your peers – I used to think that meant ‘everyone’ was included. But it doesn’t – in various jurisdictions, people are excluded because they work in law enforcement, or as attorneys, or clergy; people can opt-out because they work in an ‘essential’ job such as emergency medicine; people can be empaneled but are routinely challenged off the jury because they have ever been the victim of a crime, or because they are the same race as the Person of Color who is the defendant, or because they have friends who are (or have ever been) prosecutors. In some jurisdictions women are routinely challenged off wherever possible. So – not everyone gets their ‘peers’ on the jury.
  • Let the punishment fit the crime – well, maybe it used to. But now, with ‘three strikes and you’re out’ legislation (who thinks of these catchy titles?), a person can go to jail for Actually Life for jaywalking … if they’ve ever been convicted of two previous crimes. Such as, say, 15 years ago before they got their life together.

I’ve been working on this post for two weeks. I keep thinking it’s going to become coherent.

I have kept thinking I had something new to say, something that would actually make a difference.

The Witch stands at the window, watching a river through the branches of flowering trees. On the quiet surface of the water, birds are swimming. Ducks of at least two species, a couple of geese, a swan, and over there a pair who look like sea gulls (though we are far from the ocean).

What is it about humans,” she asks, “that makes it harder than it is for these birds?”

I struggle to reply, but she turns without waiting. I take another sip of tea and hope.

Blessed Be.

— Maggie Beaumont, Memorial Day Weekend 2017

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