Dear White Clergy,
I’d like to share a story with you. My version of it omits some details because for months I utilized those details-albeit important- to avoid dealing with my own racism. Of course, personal story, unlike larger historical context, always presents the proximity of pain and complexity we can use to avoid our own complicity, role and harm. This is one story, that I hope will be of help.
It was late September in Charlotte when a group of faith leaders gathered in response to the murder of Keith Lamont Scott. I was serving as the leader of our local clergy group. We were receiving national media attention.
I fashioned myself having “arrived” in the work of racial justice as a white lesbian Unitarian Universalist minister. So many white people said thank you to me. I even developed a good white people smile, nod and thank you (with a dash of humble).
We were listening to black woman-identified faith leaders sharing their experiences. A woman of color was leading the session. I looked at my watch feeling we needed to move on.
I approached the leader who is a national expert on anti-racism and centering blackness who had traveled from out of town to be with us. I whispered in her ear, “we don’t have time for this, we need to move on.” To be clear- I disrupted her session and continued to be disruptive.
Within days I began receiving a few phone calls from folks attempting to disrupt my racism and to prevent further white- woman racism.
My response- for months- was to be concerned for myself.
I was one of the good people! This wasn’t the proper process to give me this feedback.
Never once did I stop to consider the injury I had done. Never once did I stop to consider the experience of this leader or the experience of other leaders in my community or coalition. Never once did I ask, what else might I have done?
At the present moment there is a conversation happening within my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, about hiring practices and white supremacy.
The dialogue to this play sounds familiar because it includes words I have spoken in recent months.
Let me stop here real-quick because you may be already feeling some way about what I did. If it includes diminishing the harm I did let me be clear: I am not writing this to receive praise, defense, or support. In fact, if comments attempting to make me feel better appear, I will delete them. I am a major work in progress- a woman with a lot of privilege who sometimes swings it like a bag of rocks around my head.
I am writing with the hope that some of my white clergy colleagues might find this learning helpful.
I am hopeful that the pain I’ve caused and my own white racism can open a window of understanding for some of my colleagues.
I’ve learned that white people decentering whiteness requires an ethic of love. In my own example above, at the time it occurred, I did not know to whom I was speaking. If I had known at the time, I would not have said what I did. This shows that I was prepared to treat black women with respect only when I thought I had to do so. This does not represent an ethic of love. It represents an ethic of self-preservation.
I’ve learned that white people decentering whiteness requires recognizing how we emphasize white emotion in order to divert attention from the pain we have inflicted.
I’ve learned that white people decentering whiteness means lifting up the voices of people of color and listening. It means you do not get to demand their time, response, or energy.
I’ve learned that white people decentering whiteness requires shattering idols including governance, covenant, communication and proper pathways.
I’ve learned that white people decentering whiteness terrifies me but that I do not have to be lead by fear. I’ve learned to experience a new gratitude for the many holding me accountable. Love has many forms, and sometimes it is public accountability.
I hope we can all lead with a belief that the conversations and accountability from people of color originates from a love for progressive faith, in my case Unitarian Universalism, and a love for her people. It is an abiding love and tenacious hope white culture never taught me but that I am grateful to be learning from in this ministry.
One white clergywoman