In the last few weeks I've been challenged by my white privilege on two occasions. In the first instance I watched two black youths walk down the street on their way to school in Lake Worth. On their backs they had backpacks. The backpacks were what you might call “see-through” because the material used was clear. I could see all the contents being carried in the backpack. I didn't think how innovative it was or that it may be a new fashion trend. No, because the youths were black I thought what a good idea because the police could see inside the backpack and the youths might be less likely to get stopped, searched, or even killed. My white privilege was challenged, because had the youths been white I would have never thought of the advantages of a see-through backpack. I simply would have thought about the fashion trend. I wouldn't have worried about whether a white youth might have a greater chance of survival using such a backpack.
If you’re not a person of color in America you might not need to worry about such things. Black Unitarian Universalists and their allies across the country gather on a Facebook page to organize and support one another. They call themselves Unitarian Universalists for Black Lives. I received a notice of a post from the page. The post annoyed me. It read:
We find ourselves particularly dismayed by the willingness of UU congregations and ministers who have shown support for the Movement for Black Lives and now feel compelled to signify their allegiance to police officers and policing itself. As members of an over-policed and underserved constituency targeted by the police for harassment, economic exploitation and random violence often resulting in death, we wonder: Who does this allegiance to law enforcement serve? How does it undercut the messaging of the Movement for Black Lives and take focus away from the need for fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, if not the altogether abolition of law enforcement as we have known it? What are Black Unitarian Universalists to make of their congregations’ and their ministers’ public affirmations of an institution known to oppress and kill them from its inception?
I responded to the post writing that I was tired of groups assuming that all cops are bad cops and that if we are truly going to resolve race relations with people we need to create relationships and collaborate.
I didn't sleep after writing that message. I lose sleep when something isn't right or I believe I haven't challenged myself to do the right thing by looking at all the sides of an issue or problem. The next morning I sat up in bed and thought "white privilege!" You see, as a white person I can’t remember an instance, an experience, a situation where I couldn't trust the police. In fact, I was raised in a culture where police were my friend and helpful. If I had been born black it would've been a different story. I would have been born into a world where policing was invented to control me, deny my rights, cause physical and emotional pain. I haven't had an instance or experience that would lead me to mistrust police. I am now suspicious of police since racism in America has had a brighter light shed on it. Not being in touch with my white privilege allowed me to write that post where I was asking people who are black to get over it and move on where police were concerned.
I'm not ashamed of my white privilege. It is what it is. It is when I don't check my white privilege, identify it, own it and how it shapes my actions and reactions that I should be concerned. Had I done that work before making a decision about the backpacks and the message I sent, I likely would've never allowed my ego and privilege interfere with what is right, just, and true. We should all think about as Unitarian Universalists what we are called to do. Whether it be the Everglades, climate change, poverty, homelessness, or race relations, as Unitarian Universalists our faith and tradition calls us to respond in an informed and compassionate way. Both of the examples I shared this morning left me asking what do black leaders want from this white ally? I bet you've asked yourself a similar question.
One thing I know, that our Justice Action Ministry knows, is that blacks need to lead and white allies need to listen and to learn. Blacks need to control the narrative because whites have controlled it for far too long and look at what this is come to in our history. The answer to the question, "what do black leaders want from their white allies?" has varied. In fact over the past couple of years the black narrative has changed. Take for example the case of Cornell West. He is a black professor at Princeton and an extremely influential activist. West has been criticized that his view of race relations no longer works or is what the black community needs to progress.
Some compare him to the boxer Mike Tyson. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself. American academic Michael Eric Dyson tells us, "Like Iron Mike, West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship. Like Tyson, he is given to making cameos — in West’s case, appearing as himself in scripted social unrest, or playing a prophet on television in the latest protest. He has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity. He’s grown flabby with disinterest in the work needed to stay aloft: the readiness to read, think, and recast thought in the crucible of written words."
I am disheartened by such criticism. I admire Cornell West. However, the black community is expecting something different in their modern leadership and modern movements. That causes white allies to ask, "What is expected of me?" We should listen to the answer and learn.
It is an important question. Whether Unitarian Universalists should be allies to and involved in the modern black justice movement is not a question but a given. But what qualifies as an ally, from black and white perspectives, isn’t universal. “I think a white person can only be a true ally if he or she works from the desire to dismantle white supremacy instead of merely being fueled by white guilt,” says Katrina L. Rogers, the communications manager of an advocacy organization in New Orleans. Rogers tells us “never be under the assumption that if a white person identifies as an ally that they’re invested in my well-being.” “Labels mean little,” she says and “if you’re not working with us and taking our direction, you’re not an ally.” While some argue that institutional change happens only when white people get out of the way, seeing white people participate in the cause can lead to awareness. When white people see white people brutalized it stirs up the same fears and anxiety that black people have had to contend with on a daily basis for centuries.
While the role of white participants in Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be left to black organizers to figure out -- black Americans have had to contend with racism and it isn’t the responsibility of blacks to show whites how to be good allies and comrades -- white activists and sympathizers with the Black Lives Matter cause should take a page from white activists of the civil rights movement: that black people are the leaders, that the movement is centered around them, that glorifying white participation in a black-led movement is gauche and unhelpful, that it isn’t about white people.
There’s no clear path or prescription for how white allies should operate in a movement led by black and brown people -- that’s part of the work. But one refrain expressed among white activists is the idea that the freedom of white people, of all people, is tethered to ending injustices for people of color. One thing is for sure: it’s the responsibility of whites interested in ending racism to sacrifice their comfort, ask questions, and take cues and orders from black people without relying on them to show you and tell you how. It’s not the usual order of things, but it’s the way forward. Groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which began after black leaders approached a group of white organizers during the Tea Party’s rise in 2009, are thinking and talking about how to be effective white allies and organizers against racism. Their goal “is to get millions of white people in the movement,” says Andrew Willis Garcés, SURJ’s regional resource organizer. He says, “We actually want to ask white people to step into that messiness and tension.” When it comes to organizing, Garcés says that SURJ has developed relationships with black- and brown-led organizations, but doesn’t expect to be told what to do or say.
In his searing book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job — or, by extension the job of other black voices or leaders — to coach white folks, let alone worry about their feelings. Which it’s not. The whole point is that we white people should be the ones thinking more about black people — their feelings, their experience and their reality, which can be dramatically different than our own. But at the same time, Coates concludes his text noting that structural racism won’t change until white people change. There are already white people who want to change, and want to help spur change in their communities. Many people are reticent to speak out, for fear of misspeaking; others want to do something, but don’t know what to do. Instead of continuing to unconsciously reinforce structural racism in America, there are many white people who want to consciously help deconstruct and dismantle it. But how?
It is not up to Black Lives Matter, nor any movement led by and for communities of color, to make space for, or articulate a vision for white people. The expectation that black leaders and movements should automatically do so is a subtle extension of the sort of white-centric entitlement that gives rise to the need for such movements in the first place. Then again, we haven’t exactly blazed a path to enlightenment and liberation so far on our own. While doing research for this sermon I found some of the leading voices and activists in Black Lives Matter who shared their hopes, asks and even demands for white people in America today. Each echoed many of the same themes, encompassing both hopes and critiques. Here, in their own words, is what they said:
"I don't like the term ally.”
Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.
•Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice
“Allies are best as accomplices.”
Be complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks, putting your bodies on the line in the streets, sharing access to resources (and releasing agency over them), living in some discomfort with difficult conversations in collaboration, knowing when to listen and organizing other white folks.
•Mervyn Marcano, spokesman for Ferguson Action
“Safe spaces are illusions.”
Racism is an illness that afflicts each and every one of us. It steals our humanity, our capacity for empathy, the righteous indignation that is our birthright. I don’t believe in allies; I believe in the decolonizing power of solidarity. White people ought to challenge themselves to engage in more spaces of risk and difference.
•Umi Selah, mission director of the Dream Defenders
“You can be progressive and anti-black.”
The two are not synonymous. Just because you have progressive politics doesn’t mean you’re not racist as hell, that you don’t think black people are less than; it doesn’t mean you have a racial analysis. Being progressive doesn’t give you a pass. You have to do the work within yourself if you’re going to be in this space.
•Celeste Faison, co-founder of the Black Out Collective and coordinator of Black Lives Matter, Bay Area
“Expand what being progressive means in America.”
The conditions that are taking the lives of black and Latino communities with heart-shattering speed cannot be solved with economic solutions alone. A progressive movement that isn’t organizing to dismantle structural racism isn’t a progressive movement. It’s a movement of white middle-class self-interest, where white people on both sides of the aisle are fighting to retain white privilege in different ways.
•Malkia Cyril, director of Center for Media Justice, co-founder of Media Action Grassroots Network
“Stop saying ‘all lives matter’”
Understand why you can’t say that. Whatever people need to do to understand why that’s not OK, they need to do that. What we’re saying right now is that all lives will actually matter when black lives matter — and black lives don’t matter right now. So we need to say black lives matter to change that. We need to change that individually, we need to change that within our communities and we need to change that systemically.
•Robbie Clark, organizer with Black Lives Matter Bay Area
“It must go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
I want white people to do the work of pushing Democratic darlings to take more seriously the impact of structural racism…. Beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter, I want to hear more about what each of them will do to ensure a world where #BlackLivesMatter — and that means weighing in for an end to deportations and citizenship for all, fighting to end mass incarceration, ensuring that domestic workers have full rights in and outside of the workplace and on and on.
•Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter
“White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black-racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.”
Let us, black and white alike, do the work to understand ourselves in the context of the anti-racism movement. White allies, it is not enough to say “I’m not racist.” Prove it. Do the work. Understand white privilege without guilt. Black leaders, as white allies we will do the work but need your direction and grace as to what you need. As black leaders and white allies, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a responsibility to one another. The responsibility to love, to be outraged, to act, and to heal.
May it be so.
Black Leaders, White Allies, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 4, 2016.