Smells Like White Racism

Smells Like White Racism March 24, 2017

A friend posted on Facebook, upset that a qualified person of color had been overlooked for a position of denominational leadership, and a white man hired instead. There were a lot of words in all caps. And I both heard what she was saying and wasn’t at all sure if I agreed. How do you really know when racism is at play? Apparently the man was a better “fit,” in spite of living, and planning on continuing to live, at some distance from the area he was to serve. Well, it’s not impossible that he was, in fact, the best fit, although that term certainly has a history of being used to exclude people who are perceived as being “not like us,” with a pretty exclusionary view of who “us” is. But I don’t like accusing people and I want to trust our leadership and I wasn’t really prepared to sign on to a protest. I mean, I wasn’t part of the hiring process. How do I know?

On the other hand, one thing I have learned is, when in doubt, when it comes to matters of racism, shut up and listen. No one needed to hear me wondering and pondering in a situation where I had no information or insight. There are plenty of times when discussions of racism leave me feeling squirmy, and I have learned to say to myself: “Huh. This is making me feel squirmy.” Just that. If you can’t say something helpful, don’t say anything at all. Maybe one of these days I will be enlightened, will be genuinely “woke.” Until that time comes, I can learn to be quiet and avoid making things worse. The fact that I am uncomfortable doesn’t have to be fixed. I don’t need to know, in that moment, who exactly is right and why. I just have to pay attention to the discomfort and try to understand what is going on.

And so, with a little more listening, I discovered that people from the region were not even involved in the hiring process. It wasn’t a matter of “fit” with them, it was a question of “fit” with others in the comparable positions. All of them white. Smells like white racism. Well-intentioned, can’t-we-all-just-get-along, defending-the-status quo racism. Because racism doesn’t need to be hostile to be destructive. It only needs to contribute, however calmly and seemingly rationally, to keeping people of color from having access to what white people have. Like decision-making power. Like positions of leadership that set an agenda for future initiatives. Like pushing individuals and the denomination as a whole into sitting with the uncomfortable places where the Holy breaks in.

Dear Unitarian Universalist Association,

You know I love y’all. You are my people. Have been all my life. And in a world where there is so much genuinely terrible leadership it seems like maybe we should make allowances for merely not as good or as deep or as challenging as we could be. But the fact of the matter is that having people in national power doing tremendously and aggressively destructive things doesn’t give us an excuse to get happy with the status quo. It is a reminder that we need to do better, be stronger, be more committed to justice and change and growth. Even when it’s uncomfortable and squirmy and we have to acknowledge that our every instinct is pushing us toward self-preservation rather than the larger love that we claim to stand for. Defensiveness comes so naturally. Believe me, I know. Reaching up and out is hard. I would like to say that we don’t have a choice whether to engage in that hard work, but the reality is that mostly we (and I include myself in that we) have chosen to avoid it. But we don’t have a choice if we are going to be who we say we are, a people committed to love and justice and change and growth. Are we going to be that people or not?  

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