A State of Discernment – Montana Steele

I entered into the UUA General Assembly in a state of discernment. This somewhat existential questioning has crept up on me over the course of the last several months. I’ve been told, ever since my junior year of high school when I announced my aspiration for ministry, that discernment was a natural part of the journey. And this makes sense, right? Who knew without a doubt what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives in high school, and never questioned it? As aspiring ministers, we’re supposed to go through a period where we truly question this mission, and if we come out of it impassioned, we know we’re on the right track.

Well, thing is, I have never been in discernment about whether or not I want to be a minister, and that still isn’t the discernment I’m in now. Sure, I’ve considered other paths, but nothing has ever made more sense to me than ministry. The call to ministry sits in my heart like blood. It courses through me, and returns, and when I question everything else, I still know what I’m made of. Ministry has not been called into question. But for the first time since that junior year in high school, my call to serve Unitarian Universalism is what I’m struggling with.

This struggle was sparked, in part, by the scandal that our progressive faith is complicit in upholding a system that favors white male ministers. Our young adult communities have seen systemic racism in small ways weave through regions of the UUA, and we have tried to name it before and it continued to be swept under the rug. But now that a big enough scandal has occurred to pull the white supremacy veil away and literally dismantle the UUA’s highest leadership tiers, I find myself, oddly, even more disillusioned, and I can’t quite put a finger on it. I think it’s because I worry this is still a lot more talk with no more showing up. I wonder why it had to take something like this to occur before black voices could be heard over our own. I worry it’s a big enough scandal for us all on the congregational level to still claim that systemic racism only happens in the system and not on the congregational or individual level. Honestly, I worry that I don’t have the energy to be the change maker of the system, but that I don’t want to be a part of the system if it doesn’t change.

When I sat with myself and tried to understand what was happening, trying to discern, I knew I needed to pause and at the very least, set my intention for learning. I could not in that moment control the emotions I was feeling, but I could work to open myself up to inspiration and wisdom, and thus potentially find a way to transform the negative battle into productive passion. This was my expectation to set, that I should learn something powerful this week.

I knew that this was, first and foremost, a racial justice GA. This was a GA where you had to work hard to avoid talking about white supremacy. It was a GA where you had every opportunity to learn about what white supremacy means and how we are all complicit in upholding it every single day. I know the term white supremacy has been thrown around a lot lately, and while prior to GA I felt like I had a grasp on the connotation and meaning, I came out of GA with a much deeper and more complex understanding of how it exists and is sustained. I think it’s critical that this understanding be shared, and that we come from a place of knowledge when we begin to have these conversations with others as well. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a white woman who led a workshop on white supremacy at GA, has broken down the concept so well in her article “No, I Won’t Stop Saying White Supremacy”. I have quoted from much of the article, but she puts it so perfectly. She writes:

“Many people, especially older white people, associate the term white supremacy with extreme and explicit hate groups. However, for sociologists, white supremacy is a highly descriptive term for the culture we live in; a culture which positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy captures the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white, and the practices based upon that assumption. White supremacy is not simply the idea that whites are superior to people of color (although it certainly is that), but a deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as an inherent deviation from that norm.

Thus, when race scholars use the term white supremacy, we do not use it the same way as mainstream culture does. Nor, do we use it to indicate majority-versus-minority relations. Power is not dependent on numbers but on position. We use the term to refer to a socio-political economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefit those defined and perceived as white. This system rests on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group. White resistance to the term white supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.

Because white people control the institutions, our racial bias is embedded and infused across society and works to the advantage of all white people, regardless of intentions, awareness, or self-image. Our task is not to exempt ourselves from the impact of these conditioning forces, but rather to continually seek to identify how these forces shape us and manifest in our specific lives, and interrupt those manifestations.

We cannot stop using the term white supremacy because it makes some of us uncomfortable. It’s not on those of us involved in the movement today to change our language for further white comfort. In fact, that is the height of white entitlement. Rather, it is on white people to break out of our comfort zones, realize that things have changed, and initiate our continuing education and skill-building.”

We all have been brought up in this system, and we are all conditioned to perpetuate it in subtle nuanced ways; not only white folks, but all of us. As Tema Okun from the racial justice organization Dismantling Racism Works notes in her White Supremacy Culture workbook, qualities like perfectionism, sense of urgency, paternalism, individualism and defensiveness are some of the many characteristics of white supremacy culture that are ingrained aspects of how we behave as groups in society. “They are damaging because they are used as ethnocentric norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people.”

No matter how many times I heard this explained in-depth by both white leaders and leaders of color, no matter the context given or the amount of workshop attention was lended to helping someone try to understand this, there are still those who simply will not get it. While I don’t blame older white folks for finding this conversation difficult, confusing and uncomfortable, I think what was most disappointing was to see time and time again white folks take up space to vocally dismiss an entire workshop’s premise as irrelevant or invalid because they couldn’t shift their frameworks enough to understand the nature of white supremacy culture or how they could be complicit in it. It was disappointing to hear a biased closed off statement of opinion during a workshop’s Q&A rather than questions that seek to understand.

If you are sitting here in the congregation and you do not understand, I encourage you to go home today and do the work of understanding this. Ask questions, ask for resources, be open to shifting your mindset, and really try to see white supremacy for the pervasive and powerful system that it is, and how you are shaped by it and how you perpetuate it, even without knowing. Please understand that this has nothing to do with guilt or shame, and has only to do with self-awareness and a call to do better. This work requires spiritual grounding and self-love, it does not require you to hate white people or the skin you were born with. Step into the discomfort and recognize that we are all in this struggle together, and that we can only be liberated together. It’s okay that this is hard, it isn’t supposed to be easy.

But if you’re sitting here and you do understand, or you’re trying to understand, and you’re wondering – “I get it, but how can I shift and grow, and how can I help our organization shift and grow?” – I’m right there with you. Most of GA made me feel as though I had greatly expanded my knowledge of this system and how I behave in it, but it also made me feel hopeless and exhausted – many of the workshops ended not with solutions, but with those white folks talking about how they still didn’t get it. But this is where Bryan Stevenson caught me and likely thousands of us on the day he gave his Ware Lecture.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama.  “He is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned, and has worked especially to end the prosecution of children as adults.  Stevenson has initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts that challenge the legacy of racial inequality in America, including major projects to educate communities about slavery, lynching and racial segregation.” He came and spoke to us about the reality of what a white supremacy system does to black and poor communities and the prison industrial complex, and what he has found to be the best methods of how to disrupt and change it. He lays out four action steps that we must take to instigate change:

 

  1. We must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. Stevenson believes that “if you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” If you volunteer directly with underserved populations or incarcerated peoples you begin to hear their stories and put faces to their shadowed bodies. Their suffering becomes tangible and relatable, and so does the ability to make a direct impact through simple showing up and listening or outstretching a hand. Volunteering at a children’s shelter, writing letters to the incarcerated through various educational and outreach programs, escorting families to ICE centers, donating time to receiving a refugee family with care, are all methods of getting proximate that have an immediate and significant impact on the individual.
  2. We need to change the narratives that sustain unjust practices and policies. Narratives that fail to acknowledge or accurately portray the reality of inequality only serve to perpetuate it. Stevenson referenced the narrative that some minors are not children, but rather “super-predators” — a position that has led to the detention of 10,000 minors in adult jails and prisons. This is changing the narrative from police fearing black skin to police being trained to have the sanctity of all human life. It’s changing the narrative of addiction from criminal behavior to illness. One way that Stevenson is changing the narrative around the history of black lives in America is through erecting a holocaust-style monument to memorialize the lynchings that occurred across the south – one cement pillar for every county where a lynching happened. While our history books glimpse over the atrocities committed towards black folks and center more around white-perspective narratives, Stevenson sees that we must be held accountable for and claim or actions in white violence against poc. He calls upon the counties, and especially UU churches in these counties, to come claim their pillar. Only once that narrative shifts to center the black lives taken, can we begin to actually heal as a nation. It’s not about saying sorry, it’s about owning up to our history and working to ensure it doesn’t get perpetuated. One way that we can put this into practice here and now is by beginning to have these conversations, and to stop ourselves or our peers when we realize we are perpetuating a narrative that centers whiteness or white fear, and instead explore how that narrative could shift to center around the human being and the system of inequality at play.
  3. We must be willing to do things that are uncomfortable. Stevenson observed that “fighting—sometimes in vain—for the rights of some of the most downtrodden members of society can feel incredibly painful. However, there is restorative power in doing so. Through his often-heartbreaking work, he has realized that he is committed to working for equality not only because he wants to fix a broken system, but because he recognizes his own brokenness in the brokenness of those he serves.” While we may not be on the front lines of fighting inequality in the same way Stevenson is, we must be willing to start uncomfortable dialogues with those we love. We must be willing to call one another back into a commitment to racial justice, even when it hurts. It can be uncomfortable to admit you may be wrong, or to listen to people you struggle to identify with, or to be told to go to the back at a Black Lives Matter rally. But none of this work is about our comfort, and if you’re seeking comfort, you are on the wrong side of this movement.  
  4. “But lastly, Steven advises, we must stay hopeful about what we can do to end injustice. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice,” he said. “You can’t be a change agent without hope.” He recalled a conversation with Johnnie Carr, architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Rosa Parks when both women were in their 80s. Instead of recalling past civil rights triumphs, both women were talking about what they planned to do in the future. Like Parks and Carr, “it takes courage to be hopeful,” he said.” We need hope to give us reason for doing any of this work at all. We need to continue to invest in a greater future, even when it feels like hope has run dry.

 

These spoke waves to me. I was in a state of despondency and hopelessness. I was in a state of lethargy regarding my ability to enact change. But hearing Stevenson guide us through these four steps, hearing his stories and his wisdom, shed the light I needed to find on my call to action. He pulled me back from discernment, back from the cynicism, back from the negative worrying over what other people in our faith may or may not understand, and centered the narrative back on the greater good, and how to get there. My friends, we are called to help bring this envisioning of a greater good that does not center whiteness, but rather all humanity.

On the last day of GA, we were sadly told about two UUA staff members who had been brutally mugged at the French Quarter the night before. Both had been knocked out from behind, then stripped of their valuables. At the time of the reporting, one man had been treated and released from the hospital, while the other was in critical condition. Since then, he has been recovering, and the perpetrators were caught. The police arrested four black teenagers for the violent crime. At their bail hearing, Unitarian Universalists of New Orleans filled the first rows of the court house. They did not show up to throw shame and guilt upon those accused. They did not show up to witness the proceedings and ensure justice be served. No, they showed up to advocate mercy – to support the narrative that these teens are first and foremost kids, not to perpetuate the legal narrative that they are first and foremost violent thugs, and to ask for a lower bail sentence so that they might await trial with their families. They showed up to advocate for rehabilitation, not to begin a cycle of lifelong incarceration. I leave you with that today. If you had gone to that court house, knowing these four black teen boys had caused harm to your white peers, what stance would you have taken? Do you have a gut answer, and does that gut answer take on different shapes as you begin to explore it? In answering that question, I want you to think deeply about how we live in a culture that shapes the way you respond. I want you to think deeply about how you could change the narrative, and how you can begin the uncomfortable conversation of asking others to do the same. And in turn, I reaffirm my commitment to this work as well. To not allowing the discomfort to turn to hopelessness. To persevering in difficult ministry and fellowship, and to continue to find the energy to create change, without losing the patience needed to help others along this path to change as well.  

Montana Steele

Resources:

Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s article No, I Won’t Stop Saying White Supremacy
Tema Okun’s works on White Supremacy Culture
Bryan Steven’s organization Equal Justice Initiative
Additional Resouces:
Reflection on white supremacy in the UUA, specifically within the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries (as a model for outlining white supremacy in your congregation/other UUA offices)
Resources on how white supremacy became exposed in the UUA: