One Church’s Struggle with White Supremacy


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Frederick Douglass, 1857

My denomination is fairly roiling these days. And for good reason. On many counts a religious bastion for progressive causes, we’ve discovered anew that even a communion of overwhelmingly liberal do-gooders, bent on changing the world, is not immune from the scourge of white supremacy.

The exact details are better left for other contexts, but at issue are longstanding, denominational-level hiring practices skewed to favor white candidates – a jarring and confounding state of affairs for a religious tradition whose historical sense, self-image and brand are steeped in a vision of “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”

It’s not clear what comes next for my spiritual tribe. Efforts are underway to create space in our heady, privileged culture for deep discussions that amount to more than the venting of white liberal shock and guilt; or worse yet, give rise to a premature call to “fix” things that will likely result, at best, in a missed opportunity for renewal and understanding.

If we get it right, the white folks who hold sway in our circles (like me) will yield the point to our people of color, transgender persons and other minorities. We’ll take their lead, and partake in honest and intentional conversations designed and facilitated by those who have for too long been patronized if not marginalized: we’ll resist the urge to rush the process rather than sit in the anxiety of an uncertain order in which the old rules no longer apply.

But even if we who are awash in the paradigm of white supremacy choose to resist that urge – and here I’m talking about whites in the broader culture, not just my denomination – we will need to grieve the loss of the long dominant “normals” that accompany life at the top of the heap: Normal language and dialect. Normal dress. Normal food. Normal cultural traditions, normal music, normal families, normal religion, normal gender identities and yes, normal skin pigment.

In a penetrating book released earlier this year, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, African American educator, author and political commentator, Michael Eric Dyson suggests this unresolved white grief is real. And more nuanced than you might think.

Adopting a semi-stage-theorist approach as applied to Black America – Dyson cites five rationalizations that reinforce the white supremacy most whites received as gospel:

Stage One is defined as a chosen ignorance: black histories and cultures are simply irrelevant to the dominant “normal.” Next, the assertion that even though slavery was wrong, it has nothing to do with the present. Thirdly, there is no sin in the appropriation of black culture (especially music). Fourth is the attempt to rewrite racial history, especially as it applies to the causes of the Civil War. And Stage Five, the discounting of the unique degree and scope of black suffering in America.

Progressives like those who make up the bulk of my religious tribe will at first not connect with so “primitive” a form of white grief. We hear such rustic racism, and take solace in the knowledge we have risen above this kind of cruelty and crudeness. And fact or fiction, I’d like to believe we have done just that.

But therein lies the root if not the seed of white supremacy; namely that without the help of a guide who can show whites otherwise, we’re left to read Dyson’s list through the lens of the categories we fit, the privilege they afford and the norms we’ve in turn constructed over decades. So long as we remain unchallenged, unaware and unwilling to push the pause button on what we swear to God is normal, there can be no gut connection when a Latina or African American parishioner lifts her voice to tell a different and threatening alternative story.

And I fear, no way to hear her.

My tribe’s narrative is an instructive one. We live in an age in which liberalism in its many forms is due a reformation, religious liberalism withstanding, and change is in the air. That change will often as not be born of struggle. We who have held sway for so long must recognize the struggle as right and good, even as it makes its heavy demands on us.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2017

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