READING: An excerpt from “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”
Micheal Eric Dyson is a professor of Sociology at Georgetown and a New York Times contributing opinion writer. He is also an ordained Baptist minister. In 2016, after the election, Dyson wrote a book called “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America”. Comparing Dyson to James Baldwin, a white reviewer for the New York Times called the book frank and searing: “a lament, originating from within the grieving heart of black America, aimed directly at white readers who are often too frightened, or indifferent, or ashamed, to look a man like Michael Eric Dyson in the eyes. I can only hope that others will read and be changed by this book.”
Here is a sample.
“You don’t get whiteness from your genes,” writes Michael Eric Dyson. “It is a social inheritance that is passed on to you as a member of a particular group… Whiteness is an advantage and a privilege because you have made it so, not because the universe demands it. So I want to tell you right off the bat that whiteness is made up, and that white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity.”
He goes on . . .
“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of. The fragility of ego versus the forced labor of slavery, the lynchings of Jim Crow, the beatings and the police violence sparked by the endeavors of desegregation. . . .
“Beloved,” he writes, “your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in the place of the black bodies it wills into nonbeing.”
SERMON: “White Like Me” by Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator (copyright)
Two years ago I went to a workshop at a UU church on Gender Identity, led by a transgender person. Like most people in the room, I think, I went in there, subconsciously I think, expecting the leader to tell us about their experiences as a transgender person, to impart upon us, the “normal” cisgender listeners, education.
I was wrong.
Instead the workshop began with a exercise in self reflection. Can you remember a time when your experience of gender didn’t match social expectations, when you’re weren’t sufficiently masculine or feminine enough to fit into a certain role? How has your experience of your own gender changed over time?
As a cisgender woman and a feminist, I was used to deconstructing femininity, but I had never before looked at that work through the lens of transgender liberation. In that moment, I saw myself for the first time not as simply “normal” when it came to a binary definition of gender – normal vs not normal – but as a person standing (and sometimes moving) along a huge and glorious spectrum of gender identities.
Suddenly, the old “us” and “them”, normal vs not normal, melted away, for everyone in the room, I think. We were suddenly, all of us, just people experiencing gender in a million different ways.
I see now that being in the majority in that situation, that thinking of myself as “normal” when it comes to gender, had blinded me to all that complexity, had oversimplified the world, had let me live inside a false sense of superiority, had made a barrier between me and the “not normal” group, had cut me off from my human connection to my siblings.
That blindness of the “normal,” the tyranny of the majority, had stoked separation within me. And separation, estrangement – from loved ones, from human connection, from the divine as it manifests in all people – is a spiritual disease. It is a broken-heartedness, a wound, a jagged edge, a soul sickness.
And so it is too with whiteness, of course.
Do you think of yourself as white? Do other people identify you that way? Are you conscious of being white in your daily life, when you’re out in public or in a store?
Or are you just “normal” and safe, just about all of the time?
What are your first memories of whiteness? Of being white or not white?
Looking back on it now, I’d say that I was raised solidly, 100% surrounded, like a fish in water, in the myth of whiteness, 1970’s and 80’s Midwest flavor.
The myth went like this: Racism is real, or it was. It happened in the South, far away, done by those evil people in white robes who were also bad sheriffs with water cannons. Martin Luther King came along, like an angel, and he chased all that away. He made them fix those laws, so there are no more colored water fountains. Now, everybody is equal. We have a level playing field. Some blacks even get advantages, like Affirmative Action, so they have it easier than us. We are on the way to a color-blind society – almost there!
But I can remember, as a kid, not buying it. If this was true, I asked my parents, then why do we live in all-white town? Why do I only see black people living in the inner city, in worse conditions than these? Aren’t we therefore living in segregation, even if we don’t call it that? Why do I hear other kids in the neighborhood and adults at parties using the N word?
They didn’t have answers for me.
I remember asking my parents and other adults, “If there’s a level playing field, why does it seem that most black people live in poverty?”
And they would say things like “Well, that’s their choice, isn’t it? They want to live that way.” And I’d say, “No way. That doesn’t make sense. No sane person chooses poverty. Either an entire class of people is somehow mentally ill – or the playing field is not level. One of these is a lie.”
Last month the Institute for Policy Studies issued on a new report on the racial wealth divide. It found that the median white family owns holds around $147,000 in assets. The median Black family owns $3,600 – just 2% of the wealth of the median White family.
The median Latino family owns 4% of the median White family.
Two percent. Average Black families own two percent of what white families own. 50 years after the end of Jim Crow.
The level playing field is a lie. Part of the larger lie of whiteness. …
When I got to college in the 1980’s, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement. It was so easy to see the injustice there and to be outraged about it.
If a white South African had said to me, “Well, I didn’t make this system. It was here before me, it’s just how things are and I don’t know how to change them,” I would not have sympathized with him. I would have said, “That’s ridiculous. It’s your country. Of course you can change the system.”
And yet, and yet.
I didn’t see then that was exactly how I was living my white life in America, telling myself, “Well, I didn’t make this system. It was here before me, it’s just how things are and I don’t know how to change it.”
It’s not my fault. There’s nothing I can do. Part of the larger lie of whiteness.
Whiteness is a kind of blindness, like the blindness I had about gender spectrum. Life was simpler when I got to hide behind my place in the majority, in the sea of “normal” people. I got to indulge in the old “us” and “them” thinking. It was easier to make transgender stuff someone else’s issue, someone else’s problem. When the real problem was me, was my willed ignorance to see myself as part of the greater, more complex whole.
Whiteness as “normal” does exactly the same thing. It makes race and racism someone else’s problem, and thereby hides from us our own participation, our own complicity in systems of oppression.
It can be so easy for us to see how white South Africans should have known better, how Germans under the Third Reich should have resisted. But us? Our culture of whiteness wants to let us off the hook.
Part of the myth of whiteness, one of its most pervasive lies, is that racism is primarily interpersonal. It’s about an individual’s actions and words, says the culture, says the media.
So if we don’t personally use the N word, or wear blackface, or mistreat people of color we might encounter, we’re not racists, right? We are innocent of racism.
Recall the recent news stories about the Virginia governor, Ralph Northam, and whether he was represented in a photo on his page in his medical school yearbook. It depicted two men, one in blackface and the other in a Klan outfit. Was either of them Northam? Why was it on his page, under his name? Who decided that photo represented him and why? Who decided it was funny?
The media had a feeding frenzy.
Is Northam a racist? Reporters asked Rev. Dr. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign and a veteran NAACP campaigner. “Stop getting all excited over cultural things, “said Barber, “and let’s get down to the real issues here – Voting rights. Economic inequality. Immigration, health care, living wages, environmental threats.
Barber wrote: “Scapegoating politicians who are caught in the act of interpersonal racism will not address the fundamental issue of systemic racism. We have to talk about policy. But we also have to talk about trust and power. If white people in political leadership are truly repentant, they will listen to black and other marginalized people in our society.”
We have to talk about trust and power. We have to listen to black and marginalized people. Are we ready to listen yet?
When it comes to talking about trust and power, our UU faith has a checkered history. We’ve always held up diversity as a goal, but we often falter – and even break our promises – when diversity then actually requires us to share power, share money, and change our treasured white culture and practices.
Before the civil rights era, both Unitarianism and Universalism were overwhelmingly white, around 99 percent. Yes, we had some African American leaders and even a few African American clergy, but their efforts to form black UU churches were not supported by the denomination.
Then, in the 1960’s, MLK called on clergy to help in the civil right struggle, and white UU’s responded in large numbers. When one of our ministers was killed by racists in Selma, it hit the national news, and it helped sway LBJ to pass the Civil Rights Bill. Later that same month, another white UU, this time a lay woman, was also killed while helping to register voters.
Walking our talk on civil rights helped UU’s to build trust with the black community, and our numbers swelled in the late 1960’s. A black caucus several hundred strong emerged and asked for significant funding from the UUA, which agreed to support it over four years. In year two, however, a financial crisis forced the association to withdraw funding, and the black caucus walked away. Many of its members never came back to our faith. The hard-won but oh-so fragile trust was broken, and the controversy cast a shadow over the association for 50 years.
In the last four years a new group has emerged, the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism or BLUU, which provides information, resources and support for Black Unitarian Universalists and works to expand the role and visibility of Black UUs within our faith. Last year, this congregation participated in the Promise and Practice program and sent financial support to BLUU.
At the same, about two years ago now, UU leaders of color confronted the UUA about hiring practices that favored white applicants, triggering a controversy that led to the resignation of several top UUA officials, including the president. Since then the association and the whole denomination has engaged in a huge and ongoing conversation about structures and practices within the UUA that sustain white supremacy, from how we hire to how we vote to how we sing. If you’re connected to that conversation, as we all should be, via the “UUA World” and social media, it’s a challenging time to be a UU, but also very rich with opportunities for education and transformation.
Right here in our church, our new Anti-Racism Ministry Team has taken up this mantle, and is helping us to engage. On MLK day in January, the team hosted both the city-wide signups for volunteers and two great speaker programs, one on the history of housing discrimination here in Melrose and the other on the local effort to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. And tomorrow evening, the Anti-Racism Team welcomes the whole town – and especially you – to a program here about how we can better support the METCO program, which brings more diversity into our schools.
We UUs are fixers. We want to pick up a sign, hang a banner, sign a petition and feel like we’ve done our part, we’ve fixed what we can fix. But if we listen to our siblings of color, both within our faith and outside it, doing our part is much bigger and deeper than going to an occasional protest or voting a certain way. We cannot fix this complex system of oppression, 400 years strong, in a few hours a year or even a few hours a month. Waking up to our own complicity and learning how to undo it will demand lifelong learning . . . and it promises us nothing less than spiritual transformation.
“Empathy must be cultivated,” writes Dyson. “The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate and fear. Imagine that for many moments.
Only then when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives,
only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.”
Empathy must be cultivated. The truth is that there is no other, no us and them, no black and white, no gay and straight, no easy lines to draw. The separation is the sin. The estrangement – from loved ones, from human connection, from the divine as it manifests in all people – is a spiritual disease. It is a broken-heartedness, a wound, a jagged edge, a soul sickness.
And now here it comes, the hardest hard truth Dyson has to share.
“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of. The fragility of ego versus the forced labor of slavery, the lynchings of Jim Crow, the beatings and police brutality . . .”,
Dyson preaches on: “Beloved, to be white is to know that you have at your own hand, or by extension, though institutionalized means, the power to take black life with impunity. It’s the power of life and death that gives its force, its imperative. White life is worth more than black life . . .
The most radical action a white person can take is to acknowledge this reality, this denied privilege, to say Yes you are right.”
Yes, yes, you are right, brother Dyson.
And it pains me to say it. But that’s just ego pain, isn’t it? The twinge of loss at the image I had of myself as innocent, blameless, normal. I can bear that pain, can’t I? Compared to yours, what is it?
Yes, yes, you are right, brother Dyson. Yes, I see the myth and lies and my participation in them. I can see them and I can feel them and I can commit to let them go, to root them out.
I can do better. I will do better.
Because finally I have learned, in this whole big wide world, there is . . . no . . . Other.
There is only a big complicated US, bound up together in a single garment of destiny.
For any of us to get free, we all must get free.
We need each other . . . all of us every day . . . we need each other to survive. Amen.
CLOSING HYMN: “I Need You To Survive” by David Frazier