Editor's note: This sermon was prepared for a white congregation, and thus speaks to those who identify as white, centering the dismantling of white supremacy from a white perspective. If your community includes people of color (POC), it may be more appropriate to include and/or center those voices and experiences.
Unitarian Universalism is currently taking a profoundly important step in committing to work as an entire body, a Beloved Community, against white supremacy. In order to make this commitment as effective as possible, it is important to reflect on the internal struggle that we who are white may undergo as we come to recognize, accept the reality of, and commit to working against, white supremacy. These responses and emotions can halt us in our tracks or we can recognize them and work with them to enable ourselves to move forward and to support each other along the way.
We might view this process as a set of stages. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggested that there were five stages of grief. In contrast, one might envision at least eleven stages of emotional struggle around accepting white supremacy as a white person. The stages don’t always happen in order, they can overlap, and we may move back and forth between them. They are denial, resistance, discomfort, defensiveness, guilt, fear, paralysis, anger, sadness, resignation, and commitment. Even those of us who are further along than denial may not be living in commitment full-time but we may be there part of the time and we can work toward being there more of the time.
How do white people first engage with white supremacy? Often, we don’t. We reject the idea that racism is still present and harming people. We say, we’ve had a black president. How bad could it be? We say that Oprah seems to be doing pretty well and ignore the fact that upscale jewelry stores have refused to let her in since black people surely don’t have enough money for expensive jewelry. We say proudly that we are color-blind and that we don’t care whether people are white, black, yellow, red, or purple, signaling by our mention of purple people that we are not taking the whole matter terribly seriously.
The stage of denial may not involve deep-seated, unconscious inability to see what’s right in front of us. We may simply be insanely busy and focused on our day-to-day lives. We may be struggling with our own challenges. We may well be ignorant of the depth of continuing white supremacy today.
Once we confront the reality and enormity of racism we may move to resistance. We don’t want this to be true. We are being forced to see what’s going on and we hate and resent it, thank you very much. Our pass-through resistance may feel like an adult temper tantrum minus the actual kicking and screaming.
After we’ve spent some time resisting the reality of white supremacy we may become uncomfortable. We start figuring out the implications of racism for our own lives. We may wonder whether we are bad people, or what our friends of color think of us, or whether our successes have always been due to our hard work and talent as opposed to preferential treatment.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that distress may lead to defensiveness. My family didn’t own slaves, we might say. I have black friends, we might say. I would never use a racial slur, we might say. The list goes on and on but it’s all in service to our attempts to rescue our wounded feelings and say that at some level this is all not about us. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it is about us, because who else could it be about?
Once we cannot avoid that fact, we may find that we struggle with guilt. Guilt because we benefit from white supremacy. Guilt because, truth be told, we like not being stopped by the police when we’re doing 50 in a 45-mile-an-hour zone because we are late for church. Guilt because we could be resisting racism more actively than we are, pretty much all the time. Guilt that we resent having to deal with the topic at all.
Then there’s fear. We may be afraid of appearing racist. We don’t want to say the wrong thing in a social justice context and embarrass ourselves. And we may fear what will happen if we start taking personal responsibility for working against racism. We think we might become that person – the one who awkwardly interrupts racist comments and jokes. The one who calls people out, making them uncomfortable and becoming uncomfortable ourselves. The one who might risk friendships, family relationships, even jobs to point out racist words and actions in front of us, promulgated by people we love, people we respect, and people who pay us.
At about this point we might find ourselves emotionally immobilized, paralyzed by a combination of helplessness and hopelessness. We know that having good intentions about being part of the solution means very little on its own. We want to do the right thing and sometimes we succeed, but not often enough, it seems. The enormity of racism, the horrific power of its impacts on people of color, and the relatively little that it seems we can do come together.
But we may eventually break through the paralysis and get to some pretty deep anger. Anger at the systems that hurt people, anger at the individual people who hurt other people, anger at the people who don’t see the harm or perhaps do see it but do not seem to care about it. Anger that this commitment to work for racial justice is so hard, even if it is definitely the right commitment to make. Anger that every time the country makes two steps forward on racial equality it makes at least one step back.
And, unsurprisingly, underneath everything else we’ve yet encountered is deep, abiding sadness, grief for light-years. Sadness that white supremacy ever came to pass at all, grief at the suffering endured by people of color. Sadness that some people feel so disrespected that they have to find someone else to look down on. Sadness that the many and profound gifts that people of color have to offer the world are, in many cases, not available because the individuals in question are not able to get a good education or they experience violence or they encounter the criminal justice system and are treated unfairly by it, or aren't taken seriously and are seen as culturally inferior.
Eventually, we get to resignation. We can deny it,. we can resist it,. we can rage or cry, but there it is: white supremacy. How we feel about it is beside the point. Our intentions are beside the point. We trust good evidence and the evidence is compelling, both historically and in the present. White supremacy is real. So now what are we going to do? We can’t unlearn what we have learned. We have agreed to be uncomfortable for the rest of our lives and we are as fine with that as we can be.
And finally we begin to reach the closest thing to a final stage: commitment. The willingness to stay in solidarity, to keep learning, to keep listening, to keep contributing where we can. It can be hard to stay in this zone. But once we have had a taste of commitment, we know for sure how important this work is and we keep returning to it.
Denial. Resistance. Discomfort. Defensiveness. Guilt. Fear. Paralysis. Anger. Sadness. Resignation. Commitment. These are places we may find ourselves as we move from cluelessness about racism to a degree of understanding and a pledge to be part of the solution,.
Moving through the stages of confronting both the racial structures of society and our place in them is profoundly difficult, but fortunately we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we can’t do it alone. If we work together, we can support each other in our difficult growth processes, in our understanding of white supremacy, and in our willingness to be in solidarity with communities of color.
We, the Beloved Community, can respond to those among us who are in denial about white supremacy by gently and non-judgmentally being witnesses to its reality. We can bring up the topic. We can talk about our own experiences of understanding ourselves as color-blind and describing what changed. We can comment on racism as it appears around us. We can ask questions that reveal the double-standards hidden in some kinds of talk about race, such as inquiring, when someone mentions “black-on-black” crime, why they are not also talking about “white-on-white crime,” since almost all crime is intra-racial due to racial segregation. These actions are difficult to take and we are likely to be uncomfortable taking them but if our actions make one life easier, freer, or richer, our discomfort is worth it.
We the Beloved Community can respond to those among us who resist the reality of white supremacy simply by being good listeners, providing an open and non-anxious presence for them. And this can continue into the phases of discomfort and defensiveness.
We, the Beloved Community, can respond to those among us struggling with the guilt related to being white in a white supremacist society both by being supportive and by pointing out some realities that can be helpful. It is only human to be grateful for inequality when it benefits us. It is only natural to resent having to spend our precious time, money and energy trying to end something that we did not ask to exist in the first place. It is only reasonable to react with stress when we can’t hold back the ocean with a toy bucket and feel that we should try harder even if we know it’s not sustainable. If we can jettison our guilt, we will be more free to take up responsibility for being part of the solution.
We, the Beloved Community, can respond to those among us struggling with fear by telling our stories and showing how we got through difficult situations, whether those situations involved falling on our face in front of activists of color or having a painful conversation with a friend or relative. For many of us, when it comes to fear, the only way out is through. We might make fewer mistakes over time. And as for those difficult conversations and experiences of calling people out, the second time we might be less afraid, and the third time we may be less afraid still.
We, the Beloved Community, can respond to those among us struggling with paralysis, immobilization, helplessness, and hopelessness, by pointing to the historical successes of the civil rights movement and the multitudes who fight on today. And we ourselves can be models for action, however modest and preliminary. Doing anything is better than doing nothing. We know this and we can demonstrate it.
We, the Beloved Community, can respond to those among us struggling with anger and sadness and resignation in the same way as we respond to some of the earlier stages: with good listening, gentle support, and great compassion. We love each other through the difficulty and into acceptance of and engagement with white supremacy in the many ways we might work against it.
And so, finally, we the Beloved Community welcome those who have reached the stage of commitment even as we struggle to stay committed ourselves. We care for one another and encourage one another, and we celebrate progress and mourn the continued losses and keep at it, day after day, year after year.
When we, as the Beloved Community, make these promises and act on them, we join the prophetic people who make up the history of Unitarianism and Universalism, and those who are hard at work in today’s Unitarian Universalism. And with these promises and actions, we proclaim our commitment to a world bursting with joy for all people, a world where people of color do not need to confront racial slurs, discrimination, or violence, a world where no one needs to specify that black lives matter because it’s so patently obvious that they do. We don’t live in that world yet but we are working our way toward it, one person at a time, one action at a time, one stage at a time, and we are taking care of each other on the way.
By confronting the reality of white supremacy head-on, we build a world where such white supremacy is only a bad memory. So may we build this world, alone and together, every day of our lives. Amen and blessed be.