“And it came to pass in those days,” says the Rev. Victor Carpenter, “that the spirit of God visited a young woman whose name was Rosa. God multiplied her strength and her determination. She would not be moved. And all Montgomery looked up on her and wondered.
“And God raised up a prophet in the midst of that people whose name was Martin, that the courage of Rosa should not perish, but that it should be extended and multiplied, and indeed, it was done.
“For the words of the prophet fell upon the ears of the nation. The people listened. A dream was dreamed, a vision was provided, a highway was created through the desert of racism, the lowly and the ignored were lifted up and exalted, and in the rough places—Selma, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Boston, Washington D.C.—the truth was made plain.
“But the plain truth was denied. The prophet was slain. Thick darkness covered the land.
“Yet the promise declared by the prophet would not be overcome. In the darkness the light continues to shine, the people are called forth…”
That’s the word from the Rev. Victor Carpenter. And you know what? We are among those people he’s talking about, the ones being called forth:
With this faith, Dr. King dreamed, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
He dreamed, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.
He dreamed, little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, joining hands and singing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
These dream images, these prophetic words—he made them ring from every mountainside, from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city. And they ring among us, here and now….
Dr. King was not silent.
And we must not be silent either.
Now to say this about ourselves might surprise, even offend. After all, we are Unitarian Universalists! Back in 1952, this congregation was the very first one in Atlanta to integrate and, as a result, members here lost jobs and endured threats and more. The very location of this building is a testimony to the prejudice and hate-mongering we came up against. During the Civil Rights years this congregation was looking for a place to move to, and one location after another in Atlanta would not have us because we were who we were. They didn’t want our kind around. Troublemakers. Heretics. We’re here because this is the one place that said, OK.
And don’t forget something else. Dr. King himself spoke from this very pulpit. Our youth group and the youth group of Ebenezer Baptist (under the leadership of Coretta herself) learned together and played together. Whitney Young, who would later become president of the National Urban League, was a member of our Board of Trustees.
How can I even suggest that we are being silent? How dare I?
Yet it is more than 50 years later since Dr. King preached his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in 1963. A lot has happened since then. In particular, look who is now President of these United States: Barack Obama! You can’t get from there to here unless a whole lot has changed. What’s gone away is the old-fashioned bigotry we have long known in America that would have made Obama’s election utterly impossible, like slavery, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow. That’s gone away. Doesn’t this mean, then, that the dream has become real? Why keep talking about it when it’s already happened?
Makes sense to stay silent. In fact it can feel like it is our duty to stay silent. Now that an African-American has ascended to the highest office in the land, and Michelle is as glamorous as Jackie, and it is as good as Camelot ever was if not better, how ungracious and mean-spirited to continue speaking of racism! Even just to talk about racial differences—to point them out, to notice them—smacks of racism.
White folks especially feel this. In their bestselling book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite a 2006 study in which 100 white parents of children between the ages of five and seven were part of a social-science experiment to measure the impact of multi-cultural videos on young children. The participants were divided into three groups: The first were asked to watch the videos alone, but not talk to their children about their content; the second were given the videos, along with a checklist of talking points; the third group was given only the checklist, and asked to talk with their kids each night for five nights. Five of the families in the last group quit immediately, telling the researchers, “We don’t want to point out skin color.” When the remaining families completed the experiment, the researchers saw no measurable difference in their children’s attitudes towards other races. But when they looked at the parents’ study diaries, they realized why: Despite explicit instruction, none of the parents had felt comfortable following the checklist. No one wanted to point out skin color—even the ones who stuck with the study. Because mentioning race—explicitly talking about differences in skin color, hair texture, culture-related behaviors—feels like a betrayal of the colorblindness ideal. Far better to just say, “Everyone is equal,” “God made all of us,” “Under the skin, we’re all the same,” and “all people have inherent worth and dignity.” Far better to just say that.
Silence about race and racial differences makes its own kind of sense. People (white people in particular) feel like it’s the right thing to do, and, frankly, it’s tempting. Especially in communities which possess some degree of multicultural diversity. Po Bronson, a white man who tells us that he grew up in an integrated school in the 1970s and that now, in the 2010s, he sends his children to an integrated school, admits to subscribing to a theory which he calls the “Diverse Environment Theory.” It goes something like this, and I quote: “If your raise your child with a fair amount of exposure to other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message…diversity breeds tolerance and talking about race was, in and of itself, a diffuse kind of racism.” In others words, raise a kid in a diverse environment (school or soccer team or church), and multicultural competency just happens naturally without ever having to talk about it and wrestle with the complexities. Natural as pie.
Staying silent can make sense.
But the time is not yet right for it. There is still a need for Dr. King’s prophetic words to ring out across the land. We have to break the silence and keep on breaking it.
Look more closely at that “Diverse Environment Theory.” What the science shows is actually opposite of what we might expect. We think a diverse environment will of itself solve all the problems of prejudice and ignorance, but it’s not true. The authors of Nurture Shock cite several long-term studies showing that the more diverse a school is, the more likely it is that the kids will self-segregate. This is so, in part, because a greater diversity just gives kids (and, really, all of us) more opportunity to find the people who look and act just like us and hang out exclusively with them. I mean, just look around this sanctuary, keeping in mind that we are in Atlanta which is 54% African American. The good news is that never before have we seen so many people of color in our pews; longtime members tell me this. Still—it’s not where things could easily be, in a place like Atlanta….
Mere diversity is not the Dream. Bronson and Merryman mention a study in which preschool children were assigned a T-shirt color to wear every day. Even in the classroom where the teacher did not acknowledge the colors, children still developed a bias in favor of their assigned color (i.e., “Reds are the smartest!”), demonstrating how kids are developmentally prone to in-group preferences. Kids and the rest of us just possess in-group preferences, and this works against a spontaneous unfoldment of multicultural competency skills. We have to work hard to develop these skills. We have to be intentional about the Dream. When our children point out gender differences, we talk about them. We talk about traditional boy-girl stereotypes in an order to combat them. We have to do the same thing with racial differences. Talk about them. “White” and ‘Black” should not be mysteries we leave to our children to figure out on their own. Same goes for all of us.
But isn’t talking about race a kind of racism? Shouldn’t we aspire to colorblindness? Isn’t it enough to say, “Everyone is equal,” “God made all of us,” “Under the skin, we’re all the same,” and “all people have inherent worth and dignity”?
No, it’s not enough. It’s true, of course; but you know what? There’s no such thing as being human in general. That’s how Rev. Doug Taylor says it, and he says it well. “Everyone is equal” is a universal truth, but the only way each of us can reach for it is through the particulars of our living—and a significant part of that has to do with the mix of privileges and disadvantages we grew up with and have made us what we are today. We can reach for the universal and timeless only through the particular and the timebound.
Let me also say this. Race is something that has been pushed into the face of people of color for as long as they have been alive. They know what it is like continually to be seen, not as free, self-determining individuals (which is what whites expect and get for themselves), but only as members of a group—either as a “credit to their kind” or as confirmation of some negative stereotype. It turns out that color blindness is really just another instance of white privilege. Even having the chance to opt out of the conversation—to wonder and worry whether we should talk about racism—is evidence of privilege! It drives people of color nuts. And they’ll tell white people, too, who are willing to listen. And as whites listen to the frustration and the pain, they need to realize that the system is larger than they are; as in the movie the Matrix, it just comes through and takes over (BZZAP!). It’s just going to take a lot of careful work and a lot time to become more aware of this as it is happening, together with the formation of healthier habits. Far better to be gentle and encouraging with oneself in this process than to be a bludgeoning taskmaster.
Anything but staying silent.
Dr. King wasn’t silent. It’s true: 50+ years later, an African-American occupies the highest office in the land. But 50+ years later, racism persists, even after the demise of old-fashioned bigotry, even after Obama’s historic election. Racism is more than individual acts of meanness. Rodney King and Trayvon Martin might never have happened and racism could still be rampant, because racism is a system thing—a system which blesses only some and not others. Whites continue to benefit from it even if they don’t feel personally powerful, owing to other aspects of their identity that may disadvantage them socially, like poverty, or disability. And even if a person of color happens to be a jerk and goes around saying and doing prejudiced things against others, still, he or she does not benefit from the larger system. A racist culture that’s been rigged in favor of whites from the beginning is like a racetrack, and only one of the aisles is free of hurdles owing to skin color. There may be other hurdles, relating to being gay, or being a woman, or being something else, but not because you are white. One less hurdle for a white person, one more hurdle for everbody else.
We must not be silent. Dr. King dreamed a dream of freedom. All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, joining hands. This is the multiculturalism dream. And do you see how it involves more than race? How it’s also about religion and class and gender and sexual orientation and ability and on and on? With all my talk about race, I don’t want to lose track of the other identity categories. They all count, they all make up who we are, they all belong at the table, they are all parts that make up the great symphony of humanity.
We have to let freedom ring. Hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. Work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Things have been moving here at UUCA. At times, and in certain circles, explicit and frank discussion and dialogue has happened, has pushed back against Diverse Environment Theory. Years ago we committed to becoming a Welcoming Congregation, as a way of affirming and embracing the LGBTQ folks among us. Our Director of Religious Education is transgender. Recently we installed rails in this sanctuary as a way of making this beautiful but difficult space more accessible to people with physical disabilities.
As for race: the focus has primarily been outward. Through our Hope-Hill school project and the Racial and Ethnic Concerns Working Group, we partner with community justice organizations beyond these walls. We were also instrumental in launching an intentionally African American Unitarian Universalist church called the Thurman Hamer Ellington (or THE) Church—the whole story around this is fascinating and deserves its own sermon.
As for internal racial diversity—and for all the work required to transform mere diversity into the Dream—it’s still a work in progress. More than ten years ago, we had antiracism trainings facilitated by UUA consultants. More recently, we formed a Cultural Mosaic group, with the goal of creating a space of fellowship for the people of color in our midst. In 2010, I preached a sermon that was explicitly about white privilege, and some people told me it was the first time ever they’d heard a message like that coming from this pulpit. In 2011, I worked with a team of folks from the Cultural Mosaic group to create an intentionally multicultural worship service. I could say a lot more, actually. Things have been moving.
And more will be happening. To get closer to the Dream, I am creating a Diversity Team that will be doing the following: become familiar with the history of multiculturalism efforts at UUCA and of best practices in the UUA and other faith communities; advise me and other relevant staff and lay leaders; assist in resolving diversity-related concerns; plan, recruit for, and coordinate initiatives that further growth towards diversity in our midst; and model diversity in the team’s make-up as well as process. One of the first things the team will be doing is participate in a multicultural training scheduled for March, and this will include taking the Intercultural Development Inventory (which is at use in the UUA). This test will help us assess UUCA’s multicultural strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.
Things are moving. We’ve got to get closer to the Dream. Just like Dr. King said, we’re going to have to work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together. It’s challenging work. To break the silence about race or other social identities, we risk offence, we risk embarrassment, and for white people in particular, we risk the consequences of never again being able to pretend that white preferences are right. Going deeper into multiculturalism in a skillful way means a willingness to experience discomfort without feeling like you have to react or blame someone or make someone wrong. Like I always say about worship: prepare to dislike something. But that’s OK! What’s bitter to one person is sweet to another. If you don’t like something, see it as a sign that someone else probably likes it a whole lot! Make peace with your dislike as a part of loving UUCA’s overall diversity. As a part of loving the Dream.
And we do it not really because of Dr. King. We do it because his “let freedom ring” vision communicates the genius of our Unitarian Universalist faith, the genius that was there long before he lived and the genius that will outlive each and every one of us. We have always sought out the ways of freedom. The words of that old Negro spiritual (“Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!) have always been inscribed on our hearts. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection without any intermediary. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions were equivalent with God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world. And now, right now, what we are saying as a people is that European American culture—specifically the Yankee variety—is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and touch God; there are lots of other ways to reach out and touch God, too.
We want this new reach of freedom. We want it for ourselves and we want it for all the people who love Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles and who love what we stand for but they come into our midst and realize, to their sadness and dismay, that they have to give up who they are in order to fit in. They have to give up everything, and we give up nothing.
That is not right.
I call that selfish.
I call that stuck in a rut.
It’s time to be more free than we have ever imagined.
More free in our community and our faith than we ever knew.
That’s what this multiculturalism thing is all about.
Being more free.
Someone say freedom.
Someone say freedom.