How to Take Down White Supremacy
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I want to tell you how to take down White Supremacy. But first, let me share with you a story about something I learned from a bunch of youth leaders.
This first story is from about a dozen or so years ago. I was attending our General Assembly – the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists for business, programs, and collegial interaction. That year in particular, I was attending as clergy and also as a youth sponsor for my eldest child. This dual role led to some scheduling overlap and I had to make choices about where I spent my time.
One afternoon, I opted to skip the big keynote lecture at the ministers’ gathering to instead attend the orientation meeting for the Youth Delegates and their sponsors. I have been deeply grateful for that choice as the years have gone on, because at that orientation session I heard the most remarkable rationale for abiding by the agreed-upon rules of participation that I’ve ever been offered.
The ground rule that had prompted this story was the fairly standard ‘no smoking or alcohol’ rule for the youth. Instead of saying ‘hey, cigarettes and alcohol are illegal for under-age youth such as yourselves,’ or the problematic ‘hey, you can make your own choices but remember such choices can damage the whole community;’ the organizers of the event took a different route.
They began be naming the rule. They reminded folks that AA and NA recovery support meetings were available at General Assembly. But the stroke of genius was when one of the presenters said, ‘Remember, addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy; stay sober and stick it to the man.’
Sobriety as a form of resistance; such a compelling notion. Be a rebel by following these rules. It really makes one think about what being a rebel has to look like and what we are resisting, and how the conversation is about both what we are against and what we are for. Stay sober and stick it to the man.
This has been an intriguing idea for me over the ensuing years. Is addiction a tool of the Patriarchy? How would that work? To say an oppressive culture – for that is what is meant by the term ‘Patriarchy’ in this context – uses a tool such as addiction, we are not saying the Patriarchy invented addiction. Addiction is its own thing, and as such can happen without the Patriarchy’s meddling. The suggestion is that the Patriarchy has found it useful to have people addicted to drugs and alcohol so as to better maintain a patriarchal control over culture. Addiction is one of the tools the Patriarchy uses to maintain oppressive gender norms in society.
To really unpack that idea would be more of a dissertation than a sermon, but let me use the premise as a springboard into my point for us this morning. In the mid-1980’s, feminist, poet, and activist, Audre Lorde delivered a speech in which she proclaimed, “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Staying with the example of addiction for a moment, we cannot regain control of our addictive lives by becoming addicted to something else. Addiction itself will continue to twist and pervert our actions. The way to regain self-control is to recover from addiction as a tool, not to merely refocus a particular addiction onto a different topic.
And here is the pivotal thought of our morning: other oppressive systems, such as White Supremacy and racism, also use such tools to maintain control over people such as you and me. It becomes useful to ask, ‘what are the tools being used against us?’
This is a very different question from the more common one – ‘who is using these tools against us?’ It is difficult to really grapple with the discovery that, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Yes, there are actual White Supremacists out there causing trouble. This has been on the news lately. There are racists and haters of many stripes, out there insidiously committing racist and hateful deeds. And yes, it does get ugly when some of these individuals get into positions of power and authority in our country. But we also participate in this culture.
When we can ask ‘what are the tools being used against us?’ instead of ‘who is using these tools?’ then we begin to uncover the systems that are set up to support the racists and haters around us. We begin to uncover the ways in which the systems of oppression turn us into participants in our own oppression.
In our reading this morning, from Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist, we heard the distinction between a racist and an antiracist. At one point, Kendi offers this: “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.” (p9) It can be a logical assumption to say that the problem of racism is about the behaviors and attitudes of racist people.
However, we are all part of the systems and structures of our culture. I agree with what Kendi is saying, that the problem of racism is not about a group of racists who are out there somewhere doing racists things. I agree that the problem is the system around us in which we are participants.
Kendi actually goes several steps further and later in the book he talks about “racist policies leading to racist ideas, not the other way around, as we have commonly thought.” (p230) But for the sake of our point this morning, let us consider racist policies as one of the tools of White Supremacy.
Through the years, legal restrictions on housing and property and employment and education have had racial ramifications. Slavery was legal, Jim Crow segregation laws were widely upheld, mandatory sentencing for minor drug offenses created a surge in prison populations with racial implications. Kendi’s point is that these racist policies have been the tools that built up our country’s ideas of racial inequality. These and other laws have shaped our country over the generations, usually not in ways that help people of color. Occasionally there is a helpful law that comes along – voting rights, affirmative action, that sort of thing.
Over 50 years ago Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)
Here is the difficulty – Legislative change is one of the keys to dealing with racism in our country. The vast majority of citizens in this country, however, are not in a position to shape our laws. We can lobby, we can protest, we can advocate and influence, we can vote, but most of what happens with the shaping of our country’s laws and policies is not in our direct control.
So, what are we to do? How are we to participate in dismantling White Supremacy? We do have some control, some influence. I am not in congress creating better laws, but I am here – I am a leader in this community. Consider again the question “what are the tools being used against us?” Racist policies and laws, that’s one set of the tools. There are others. There are tools embedded in our culture, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We can be clear about what that means, what those tools are. And we can choose new tools with which to build.
I was rereading an article from a few years back about the characteristics of White Supremacy culture. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc The article outlined some analysis of what is meant by the tools of the oppressive culture, along with suggestions to counter these characteristics.
Before I rattle off a list, let me reiterate what I said about the idea that addiction is a tool of the Patriarchy. The Patriarchy certainly did not invent addiction. Addiction has served as a useful tool for maintaining control of the gender norms of our society. Similarly, this list of characteristics of White Supremacy includes, for example, perfectionism. White Supremacy has not invented perfectionism, it merely uses that tool to maintain control of racial norms in our society.
There are more than a dozen characteristics listed in the article: Perfectionism, Fear of Open Conflict, Either/Or Thinking, a Right to Comfort, Power Hoarding, and the idea that there is Only One Right Way – these are some of the characteristics on the list.
Again, this is one group’s considered analysis of the characteristics. They may be right on the mark, but this isn’t an exact science. We’re talking cultural analysis here, not dictionary editing.
But consider this: I have been using this analysis for several years in my ministry with this congregation.
I have been working to build a multicultural beloved community – a community that runs counter to the regular pressures of White Supremacy culture. Perhaps you have noticed, for example, the importance we place on imperfection and grace, on growing from our mistakes rather than not having any mistakes. Or perhaps you have noticed our willingness to have conflicts, to not shy away from differences and disagreements. We struggle to do it, but we value healthy conflicts in this community.
We have talked for years about “shared ministry.” White Supremacy culture uses the tool of “Power Hoarding.” Power Hoarding is marked by people who have “the best interests of the organization at heart” but resist change and see those calling for change as being “ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced.” We don’t do that here. I and other leaders work to share the power, to welcome change, to listen to dissent. We find our way to still move forward, adjusting as we go to the insights that arise.
You may notice these characteristics dovetail with each other. That emphasis on Shared Ministry connects with our pluralistic theology, which in turn counters the message of White Supremacy that there is Only One Right Way to solve a problem or be in the world. Our openness leads us to embrace a both/and perspective rather than an either/or mindset.
We have been using the better tools in the congregation for years. Ours is a culture of growth and learning rather than perfectionism, of appreciation of differences rather than fear of open conflict, of plurality rather than rigidity, of shared ministry rather than power hoarding, of kindness rather than politeness.
Our congregation is a living and thriving example of what can happen when we use these different tools. We’re not a perfect example, of course. We stumble and are still figuring it out. But that’s part of the point. We are working to build a beloved community together.
I do spend a lot of time, especially during the pandemic, talking about the value of community. But I am not just applauding conformity. I am not lauding a happy, feel-good, touchy-feely, agree-to-disagree, false-unity kind of community. I am talking about the hard work of being real and authentic together while working for more justice and compassion in the world.
If you are interested in learning to take down White Supremacy, the work can be done in layers. Big picture: pay attention to legislation and the racial consequences of our legal practices, particularly as they impact the poor. That’s where the most effective change can occur. This is what I find exciting in Kendi’s book. We can make important changes, moral changes for the good of our society.
And on another level, you can stay sober and stick it to the man. Do what you can to welcome a change of heart within yourself, an opening of grace in your life that you may continue to learn and grow. A change of heart is not something that happens once and you can check the box. It is an ongoing experience. And, that’s where you have the most control, your own life and habits.
And finally, to dismantle White Supremacy, build something better in every place you are – home, church, school, work, your circle of friends. Use the better tools. I’ll include the full list from that article I mentioned when I publish the sermon. https://www.uuare.org/cwsc
But the most important piece, at every level, is to live fully the convictions of equality and liberation. It is not enough to think about all this or sigh about it. We have to walk with the wind, move toward the trouble and work together. Change is needed and change happens through our living and our actions. Investigate the tools being used against us and explore how we can use different tools to build something better together.
In a world without end
May it be so