I love it when insight arrives unexpected, arising from an unlikely source. Like a discussion of obscure parliamentary procedures.
There I was, a delegate from my local church to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual General Assembly last week as Board of Trustees member Gregory Boyd moderated a discussion on a motion to change a word or two in the UUA’s bylaws. It was a change the delegates clearly wanted, and no one spoke against it. Couldn’t be more boring, right?
But wait! Someone wanting to amend the motion acted too late, saying they had misunderstood the rules. After Boyd ruled against introducing and debating the amendment, a woman asked whether he shouldn’t allow the proposed amendment in the spirit of fairness.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Boyd replied using one of the most popular phrases currently in UUA lingo. He said that, under the “white supremacy culture” in which the UUA operates, we rely on “Robert’s Rules” and don’t allow for fairness.
I’m not making this up.
I mean no disrespect for Boyd. As one of the moderators, he was doing a great job of moving things along under intense pressure and didn’t have time to think through his answer. But I know what was going through my head:
Yes, the woman asking about fairness has what seems like a good point. But fairness goes two ways. Some of us have followed the recommended procedure and attended the earlier mini-assembly at which amendments are supposed to be submitted, And some of us, tired as we are, did understand the rules, and now we want to have this done with.
That’s the point I might have made if I had been clear-headed and in the moderator’s role. But “white supremacy culture” has become a catch phrase in Unitarian Universalism, an easy out. It’s easier to use that phrase than to explain that fairness can be complicated. And that was my insight. We’re using “white supremacy culture” as shorthand for issues that go deeper and might be even more painful.
The interim co-presidents of the UUA, in their announcement of what they saw as inappropriate severance packages to staff members who had resigned, called the packages “an example of the culture of white supremacy in operation.”
Again, I am not making this up.
To be clear, I do believe that our Western culture is, overall, dominated by white supremacy, but that doesn’t mean that every individual act is the result of it. Every interaction between two or more people involves a balance or imbalance of power that’s not necessarily determined by the hue of their skin.
If the co-presidents meant to blame greed, mismanagement, and cronyism for the severance payments, I’m pretty sure those traits exist in Africa and Asia as well as Europe and the Western Hemisphere. In fact, they probably existed before the mutation that resulted in white skin. If Boyd meant to blame the constraints of parliamentary procedure for his decision to rule against the woman requesting her version of fairness, constraints like those exist in probably every nation on earth.
I believe the UUA is having trouble discussing long-standing issues around power and money stemming from its patrician New England roots, so it labels the problem “white supremacy.” The discussion may lead to positive changes, but here’s the problem:
- We’re a religion seeking to change the name of our movement “Standing on the Side of Love” because we don’t want to be hurtful to those who can’t literally stand.
- We’re a religion seeking to change “women and men” to “people” in one of our most fundamental documents because that’s more welcoming to individuals who identify with neither gender.
- But we blame “white supremacy” for everything we don’t like.
As a white man whose Jewish grandparents were enslaved in what’s now Belarus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I want to work with and for whoever is oppressed. And I refuse to believe that, because I am white, I was born in original sin, a sin from which there is really no redemption. I refuse to believe that all I can do is get out of the way.
In articles such as The Demon In Darren Wilson’s Head and Why Anti-Racism Will Fail, UU theologian the Rev. Thandeka sees race as an artificial construct that functions to divide us. Why are we enshrining this division?
What we need to do is to dismantle supremacy of every sort wherever we find it.
— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)
Copyright 2017 © Mel Harkrader Pine