What Does It Mean to Be White?

Adam Dyer:

This is anothe post from my Critical Whiteness Studies class.

Originally posted on the neoabolitionist:

Is not this the record of present America? Is not this its headlong progress? Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement “I am white,” the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality? Only when this basic, iron rule is involved is our defense of right nation-wide and prompt. Murder may swagger, theft may rule and prostitution may flourish and the nation gives but spasmodic, intermittent and lukewarm attention. But let the murderer be black or the thief brown or the violator of womanhood have a drop of Negro blood, and the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Nor would this fact make the indignation less justifiable did not we all know that it was blackness that was condemned and not crime. – W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of White Folk (1920)

I’ve been accused at various points through my life of being…

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An Age of Enlightenment


Paris in Morning

Sleep now.
The city of lights has gone out.
The shining beacon
The guide through the night
Of our fantasies, gone.
The Tour looms
A sleeping dark giant
The only sound, the wind in its frame.
The Arc is heavy
And silent and grave
A tomb for the gaiety
Lost in one day.
The metro is still,
The Opéra is dim,
And Our Lady sleeps
And weeps in the stillness
As she wades through the Seine.

And so you too are gone,
My light, my love
My shining beacon
Who guided me through this night called life.
My city of lights has gone out
Yet, once again it is dawn
And the morning has begun.

(For the people who lost loved ones in the recent Paris attack.)

Seeing the images from Paris makes me weep.  I’m brought back to that day when I was standing on a London street watching the twin towers collapse.  Or the summer in DC when I heard of the London bombings…or Madrid…or the Boston Marathon.  I find myself, as a spiritual leader and writer asking so many questions.  What are we fighting? Do we even know?  Why?

I am also a student of the Enlightenment.  As such, I have learned that during the 16th – 18th centuries, “identity” became fixed in the Western world as something that could not only be personally defended, but as something that could be collectively defended and celebrated as a “nation.” In an age where we saw the birth of “race,” “nationalism” and “political parties” these social constructs took on the functions that had previously been ascribed only to religion and family. This development of national “identities” created the foundation for the current state of war in which we exist.

The horror and grief over the Paris attacks is extremely accessible to us in the US.  Not only as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but as a Western nation who’s identity is in large part directly a result of the French identity, we feel this pain immediately. But ISIS is not playing the same game of “identities.” Theirs is not, as some would have us believe, a simple question of wanting to supplant the French or even Western identity. Theirs is a question of a total world view and I believe is rooted in the broader question of how they see existence. Most unfortunately, this idea about existence and the nature of human life on earth for them is rooted in their gross mis-interpretation of Islam.  We must be clear, the people behind this violence are not evil because of Islam. Rather, they are using Islam for evil purposes. To grasp this concept, you might consider turning the situation around and thinking of an organization or ideology like the Westboro Baptist Church or even the KKK.  Both are legal organizations in the United States, and both organizations would happily exterminate those who do not believe as they do (in the supremacy of white heteronormative Christianity.) A homegrown terrorist like Dylann Roof should be a reminder to us that there is little difference between ISIS and the Aryan Nation.

But, religion, specifically Islam, is not the problem here. The problem is fundamentalism that we have in part learned from religion.  Yet,  fundamentalism does not need a religion to hang itself from…although it has clearly been done in the past and will surley be done in the future. In our increasingly secular world, religion has frequently been supplanted by everything from capitalism to liberalism to atheism and even vegetarianism. The term “fundamentalism” must be viewed through a broader modern lens and as a result our current state of crisis must be as well. We are choosing the language and the tactics of “war” to counter a “nation” that is not fighting a “war” with us as much as it is reinforcing its view of existence. This is in no way an apology for ISIS/ISIL.  On the contrary, it is a call to action for us to be truly smart in how we prevent any further senseless loss of life.

The call to action will begin with the right conversation and the right questions.  Why are Western targets being attacked; why is this extremism attractive to young people, abroad and at home; why do the leaders feel like this kind of violence is productive to their ends; who are the targets…really? Part of the right conversation forces us to examine where we stand in terms of our own Western “fundamentalism” and what role we play in this conflict. No one is entirely free from accountability. We don’t want to see innocent people blown up and gunned down, but we tolerate regular mass shootings because gun companies want to make money.  We want to shelter refugees from “radical Islam” but we squabble over how to provide refugees from our own border the same protection.  We talk about police brutality and race and give little or no protection transgender people who are targeted simply for being alive.  We are horrified by the violence of people blowing up ancient shrines, yet we carved of Mt Rushmore into a sacred Native site and continue to desecrate native land for oil. We criticize somem cultures for oppressing women in the style of dress but we live in a nation that lets men legislate women’s bodies.  We cry “All Lives Matter” in a nation where blacks are 12 times as likely to be murdered than whites.

ISIS is completely and utterly wrong in what they have done. There is no excuse for the attacks in Paris or the other sickening global violence inspired and perpetuated by both ISIS/ISIL and Boko Haram. They are not Islam.

But in our response as “Western nations” we must remember that the only true victims are the dead and those they loved.


I had the great opportunity to present this poem as part of the arts and culture initiative at the Equity Summit 2015 in Los Angeles this week.  What an amazing experience to be part of this gathering of people who are changing the world through policy and practice that promote equity!  This poem was the opening for a session titled Faith Leaders Delivering on the Promise of Equity.  My hope is that we are able to make a difference regardless of how we do or do not acknowledge the presence of faith in our lives.



How will you pray for me?
Will you summon your God
Will you call on your symbols
Will you tell me your ritual
Is that all you can say?
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When you see me in chains
Will you judge
Will you jury
Will you sentence my stay
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
When my head is covered and yours is bare
If my language is ancient
And yours barely there
If my day of rest
Is your hardest day of play
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
Will you see my skin
Will you feel my body
Will you know my mind
Will you understand my words
Or will you put them each
In a separate place
Or order or way…
How will you pray?

How will you pray for me?
If I don’t pray at all
If I am not called or calling
Deemed or damaged.
If I see myself not broken
But beautiful every day.
How will you pray?

And if you’ve never prayed
And if you don’t have the time
And if you see faith as sanctified crime
And too much of a price for your sense of self to pay
Can you still look in my eyes
Hold my joy or hear my cries.
Can you love me,
Love me,
Love me,
Love me just enough
In your own way
And pray?

Does God Still Work?

I have not read the full report…only seen the headlines. Frankly, I suppose at this rate it is fitting that I would choose to come back from a self imposed month long social media blackout today, and more relevant that I would come back with the question that came to me in the wee hours of this morning before whoever decided to start shooting on yet another college campus…

Does God still work?

I don’t pose this question to be provocative, or to call into question anyone’s personally held beliefs. Nor do I pose the question as a rallying cry to Atheists or Theists to offer the “right” answer. You see, I am studying for my Masters of Divinity degree and today, I have my Intro to Theology class and tomorrow, I have my Intro to Old Testament. Ironically, in both classes, we are at a point where we are discussing/questioning the many names for “God/god.”  I will hear plenty about God in the next 48 hours.

So, I will spare you technical analysis, exegesis or deep theological reflection or sources and footnotes. For the record, I can handily jab a parry with some pretty hefty brained people at this point and there is a place for that. This isn’t it. My question comes from the gut wrenching feeling that we have to question whether we (the human race) have actually got it all wrong at this point. I am overwhelmed by a feeling of sitting in a school that is not unlike the many places where it suddenly feels very unsafe to be. I am surrounded by people who are invested in the greater good and understanding of human life as a spiritual journey, yet I have the overwhelming feeling that it is simply a bunch of crap. Hundreds of thousands of hours, millions of dollars, lifetimes, spent trying to explain, justify, affirm, deny life in relationship to one word: God.

…and a shooter can walk around a school and kill innocent students. A tsunami can kill hundreds of thousands of people. Governments attempt to exterminate people who disagree. World leaders are assassinated. Cancer still spreads. Death comes to the young…

And it has always been this way.

…and a child is born, the sun still rises, illness is overcome, prophetic words inspire, art is created from nothingness, people are fed…people are freed. There is love.

And it has always been this way as well.

We no longer live in a time of intimate communication. When I went to get a coffee this morning, I watched an entire line of people with their heads dangling into electronic devices, bumping into each other, unresponsive to the barista’s cheerful “good morning!” unengaged with each other. Many would make the excuse that in a coffee shop in the morning, people are still not awake. Frankly, that’s bullshit. This zombie parade is a product of the smart phone…which has made dumb people…and the commercially driven technical age. Even sleepy people can say good morning to one another…if they aren’t texting, tweeting and obsessing about things that aren’t actually present. Eye contact is dead. The simple return of the question “…and how are you?” is met with surprise, because it has fallen out of vogue. There is too much emphasis put on what’s next?, what am I missing?, aspiration and acquisition combined with self reliance and independent spirit. An entire culture of Generals…and no one willing to actually be a soldier…no, no one willing to be daisies in the gun barrel, or better yet, a daisy among the field. Everyone is starring in their own personal reality show. In an age when we are surrounded by bright shiny things, science as the rule and capitalism as the goal, is seems in so many ways that God has been totally left behind.

Yet, we are still alive, we are still human, we still question our existence, we still search for meaning in the way time and experience unfold, we still yearn for hope and comfort…and contact.

And it has always been this way as well.

Leaving the coffee shop, I saw a friend who spends a lot of time in the street. As such, he is often outside of places where I simply breeze in and out. He asked me how I was and I replied that I was fine. I returned the question and he answered that he had a bit of a cold and a stuffy nose as a result. He asked if I could get him some tissue from inside the coffee shop. I did so without hesitation. Simple for me, not so simple for him, but if my head had been buried in text messages, or my ears plugged with my music…I would never have heard his soft voice with the simplest fillable of human needs.

…we are still alive, we are still human…we still yearn for hope and comfort and contact.

I don’t know if God still works. But I do know that everything that compelled us to speak the name of God, or not speak the name…whatever it is that caused us to deny that there is a God or to see god in our human experience of nature…whatever brings us to church or the mosque or temple…what keeps us at home watching football instead….what makes us genuflect, wear religious garments, respect symbols of faith…and even what makes us believe that the only thing is here and now…all of that does still work.

And it always will.

Respectability vs. Resistance

This week, when I read Barbara Reynolds column on her challenges with the Black Lives Matter Movement in the Washington Post (read here) I was deeply disappointed. Here was someone who is a respected leader and a member of the clergy, intelligent, articulate…someone who embodies all of the respectability of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s coming across like just another whiny baby boomer.  But I cannot and do not wish to get into a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of her argument. I am not qualified. I am the cusp generation…Generation X…we were the product of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and are the parents of the Millennials driving #BlackLivesMatter. We cannot claim a place of leadership in either space, yet we are deeply impacted by both.

Today’s activists are working from a point of enfranchised disenfranchisement and that is a direct result of both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and my generation actively reaping the rewards of that struggle. Arguably, an enormous benefit that my generation received from struggle of our parents and older siblings, was “respectability” which came from a few key sources. Schools were systematically and aggressively de-segregated, not just in the South but in places where the practice was more insidious like Boston and San Diego. Affirmative action was in high gear whether some of us received the direct benefit of it or not, and for the first time, college admissions teams were asking questions about “diversity” in their school populations; the Ivy League started admitting women and people of color in significant numbers. That education led to greater visibility and so we also witnessed the power roles in media go from entirely white and male to including the regular faces of Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Bryant Gumble, Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Jayne Pauley. Mini-series like Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and television programs like The Jeffersons, Dynasty (and even Good Times) changed the visibility of black history and black life. Magazines like Black Enterprise, Essence and Ebony were staples of newsstands, not just in black neighborhoods like they had been in the 50’s and 60’s and we even saw the desegregation of white fashion…thank you Beverly Johnson. By the time 1985 rolled around, when the oldest of those folks who currently claim the moniker “young adult” were just being born, we were already used to the “Huxtables,” Will Smith both Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston was at the top of what was once considered the white “pop” charts, echoing the achievements of her aunt Dionne Warwick back in the 1960’s but on a scale unprecedented by any previous artist. Colin Powell was poised to become the first head of the military (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) paving the way for back to back black Secretaries of State in the 2000s. Basically, today’s young civil rights leaders have not known a time when blacks didn’t have what appears to be access to education, high ranking jobs and “respectability.”

But that is where the communication seems to break down. Barbara Reynolds and others can’t seem to get past this word, and this is a sentiment I’ve heard from several older folks who talk about hair and sagging pants and profanity. But honestly, these are exactly the things they fought for. The church-going-white-lace-socks-and-mary-janes respectability image worked extremely well to say in the 1950’s and 60’s that once and for all, blacks are not animals. The strength of the black church over the years not only sustained and supported community, but it said to white America “we have souls.” These two questions, not being animals and having souls, were actually arguments that were frequently levied against blacks in the post Civil War era and throughout the early 20th century. The US military was segregated through WWII not because of some kind of unspecific dislike of blacks or a feeling that blacks were incapable of warfare, but rather because of more specific over arching sense that blacks could not be trusted. There are shades of this evident when looking at the events that unfolded in Britain in 1942 (see article here) The greatest achievement that Barbara Reynolds points to is respectability, but I say the greatest achievement is the buy in to American culture that the respectability gained for blacks.

This is the disconnect. Today’s youth and young adults cannot find jobs (see some stats here ) If they attend college, they emerge carrying more debt into the start of their adult lives than many of their parents incurred buying their first homes…something many black young adults may never be able to do.  They have a broader language of music and media interaction than the old guard can even conceive of and because of technology, they are internationally aware without ever having set foot out of the US. They not only know about black history, but the history of African countries, Asian countries. Middle Eastern Islam, Buddhism and other non-Judeo Christian religion is not a mystery to them and yes, some of them are Atheists and “nones.” Many of them place greater importance on the right to their gender identities and sexuality than they do their concepts of God. In short, today’s youth have taken the “respectability” of an earlier generation and turned it into fully developed lives and cultures lived without fear of certain kinds of oppression. The work of the 1960’s worked on one level; we “overcame” the question of being people. Today’s black youth feel fully enfranchised in what it means to be completely human in the United States. This is what the Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement says. It is unapologetic and expansive in its inclusivity.

So why are blacks being killed at random by overly zealous police?

Oh right…because even though we figured out the whole “respectability” thing, even though we got the education, the job, the visibility; even though black culture has become “main stream” through Hip-Hop, Rap and slam poetry; even though in some respects “we have overcome”… even though we are human and have souls, white centered US culture says…black lives don’t matter. With all the respectability in the world, black is not white and white is the context for US culture. THIS is what I believe the Black Lives Matter movement is resisting. It is a movement of resistance against contexts that are constructed for white success and safety only; a movement of resistance against cis-gendered, heteronormativity as the starting point. It is an invitation to everyone to benefit from fixing one of the most polarized cultural relationships in our nation’s history and create a new baseline. It is a movement of resistance from within the system that the Civil Rights folks of the 60’s fought to open the door to. Well guess what Rev. Reynolds, we got in. The ranch house in the suburbs belongs to us. And my generation tried living with that old flocked wallpaper and the shag carpet but the young folks who we’ve passed it on to, have decided to renovate…actually, to tear the damned thing down altogether and build something new. You fought for them to have the right to do this and unless you don’t believe in what you were fighting for, if instead you were fighting for them to remain as “respectable” non-threatening, non-violent negroes, it might be best to stay out of the spotlight…close enough to be supportive when asked…but let them drive the wrecking ball.

Finally, I would like to remind our elders of a highly ironic part of this whole “Old Civil Rights/New Civil Rights” conversation, as someone who is neither old enough to claim a place in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s and who is too old to claim a place of leadership in #BlackLivesMatter. On April 4, 1968 a gunshot rang out that many people believe brought to a close the great hope of the 1960’s movement. But it is very clear to me that the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the end. Instead, it was a beginning. His assassination was proof that black respectability, even as clergy, could be trumped by the context of angry whiteness. In that context, his life didn’t matter. Before Trayvon Martin, MLK was the first death in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Where Is Your Faith?

Unitarian Universalists have struggled in the past year to embrace the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In June, we passed our action of immediate witness to embrace the movement officially, but not after a contentious, overly “processed” and public debate at our General Assembly (UUA AIW). Our congregations have been struggling with the questions of whether or not to put up public banners on our churches resulting in strained relationships between congregants and sometimes clergy. We have had ministers preaching non-stop from the pulpit about race and racially motivated violence and some of us have seen numbers drop off as a result of fatigue. Now, we are seeing hate speech appear on our Facebook pages and banners are being cut down or vandalized (See this beautiful statement from UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo: READ HERE.)

“Why can’t we just stay a nice club?”

This is a sentiment that I’ve heard in our churches repeated over the years all over the country. It is echoing louder than ever in my head these days, and it has me scared…

Scared that as a predominantly white community, Unitarian Universalists don’t have the stamina or the self education to do this thing we call “anti-racism/multi-culturalism”…that I call “being a person of color in America every day.”

Scared that we will retreat from the “fad” of “Black Lives Matter” in the reality of today, and only resurface 25 years from now to commemorate “Michael Brown Day” and converge on Ferguson, Missouri where we will cry and sing spirituals and march praising our UU presence while forgetting the thousands of people outside of our denomination who have died seeking justice for blacks in this country.

Scared that we will climb on the bandwagon to start electing old white men to the Presidency again because they talk a good game, entirely missing the point that it is more important to continue changing the face of the US presidency (and more importantly change the gender) than any political platform at this moment in history.

Scared that Unitarian Universalists and other folks of “liberal religion” are actually more concerned with protecting their white enfranchisement (regardless of their racial identity) than having a nation that is balanced in opportunity, safety, security and government.

I’m scared most of all that Unitarian Universalism isn’t strong enough as a faith.

So I ask that you don’t applaud, critique, or “white-splain” my honesty here… I don’t need the flattery of your attention. I need you to prove that my fears are wrong. Dig deep. Find the wellspring in your core that sustains you as a change agent. Where is your faith? We are on a long journey; we’ve only just begun marching up the hill…we aren’t even close to the crest. Where is your faith? We are entering a new reality where people of color are going to tell white people that they have no say; where whites are going to feel helpless and ineffectual; where people of color, trans* people and people of different abilities are going to disrupt, dismantle and disrespect the “order” that has been put in place to disrespect and disempower them.  They/we know exactly where our faith is.  Where is your faith?

Certainly, none of us knows where this will end. But we are sure as hell clear that it is headed away from single culture dominance, single gender influence and single ability perceptions.  That is the only way we will ever have real multi-culturalism and anti-oppression…

So, go put the banner back up. Let the trans*woman of color speak. Learn ASL. Trust someone else’s leadership…repeat.

And ask yourself, where is your faith?

Black Is Beautiful


Black is Beautiful

It is 1972. I am 7 years old. My mother who normally wears her hair in a large easy to care for afro has just gotten back from the beauty parlour where she has had her hair whipped up into an impressive multi-tiered array of cornrows (a la Cicely Tyson.) It sits atop her head like a crown and will be the glory of the ensemble that she will wear to emcee a gala fashion show being held in the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She is dressed to the nines. Her black and gold embroidered gown echoes tudor fashion and quite simply, the entire ensemble makes her look like a queen. It is moments like those that taught me what it meant to say BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.

imageWhy do I return to that moment now? Because, every day, there is a new video, a new story, a new revelation about how black people are being beaten and victimized by police and society in general. There is another mass shooting by a male white supremacist who can’t stomach anything female or browner than him having any sense of public pride. My Facebook feed is full of cries for help and justice. There are arguments about why “all lives matter” and the importance of animal rights and Iran and nuclear proliferation…and in the midst of it all, I fear sometimes we have lost the point.

My brothers and sisters, we have forgotten the simple fact that:


I recall that those three words caused just as much storm back in the day as #BlackLivesMatter does today. White people were not only offended, but downright scared, because just a few years earlier, Huey Newton and the Black Panthers made it clear that they meant business. They were literally prepared to die for Black Power and the idea of BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL was deeply linked to that passion.


1968 Olympics (AP Photo)

But of course there were those who would soft pedal this message. Way back when he was relevant, Bill Cosby, chimed in with a quote that the “all lives…” folks would like:

“It isn’t a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that’s beautiful.”

…yeah, Bill, that seems about right coming from you now.

People, I want to take this moment to unabashedly and most selfishly say that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. I say it not to take away the beauty of any other people…with a family that looks like the United Nations, that includes black, white, Asian, Latino and all variations in between, I couldn’t do that. I say it because, I need to be able to look in the mirror today as a 50 year old living through a media hell that feels like a constant throwback to 1964 Alabama and say BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. Just as I did as a 7 year old in a world where I was frequently surrounded by and asked to live up to whiteness. If you are black, you need this old 1970’s language more than ever to simply get through reading the papers. Say it aloud: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. If you are not black, you might want to take a moment to chime in and support those of us who are seeing nothing but images of ourselves dying and being tortured and an ongoing parade of oppression…try it: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. Consider this, because my education has been here in the United States, where we only learn about the dominant culture history (white and male), I’ve had to promote and support and glorify and praise whiteness my entire life.  My college degree is based entirely on how much I know about white history, people and ways of being.  I celebrate national holidays praising white men and barter with paper covered with their image.  I cross bridges, pass monuments and all but the odd MLK or Cesar Chavez boulevard, is named for white people. I’ve been taught more than enough about “white is beautiful.” Having a moment where we all declare that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL is not too much to ask.


Black Panther Party 1965-1970 (Ilka Hartmann 1970)

No, we should not turn away from the difficult work at hand, police and prison reform, elimination of public firearms, more comprehensive education, etc. And we need to find ways to get past the black white narrative of oppression in the United States.  But in this moment, for me, I have to pace myself through this epic march. I need a cool refreshing, replenishing drink of self love…

#BlackLivesMatter…yes, but let us not forget for one moment that before that, BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL.