Finding the Zone

OPENING WORDS           From Natalie Fenimore (adapted)

We seek to be a home for all who desire our company
        to make a welcome for all those in search of our good news.

Come to this loving home and safe harbor
    – but not to find a place to escape the world.

This is a community of engagement and creativity.
          Where we come together to create boldly - dangerously.
          Where Beloved Community is in view

Everyone, we heard in our story this morning, can learn to ride a bicycle.

Can everyone (by everyone I really, mostly, mean everyone who is white) – can everyone who is white really, truly recognize that we live in a deeply racist society, and care enough or have courage enough to work for change?  Can I?

Robin D’Angelo has been a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice for most of her career.  She taught at Westfield University for several years, and now lives in the state of Washington.

D’Angelo coined the term “white fragility” for the reactions and resistance she perpetually encounters in presenting workshops about multi-culturalism and systemic racism in companies and other organizations.  This year the UUA’s Beacon Press published her book, which is titled, White Fragility, Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. 

If I am white, and you are black, I do not know the trouble you have seen. 

If I am white, and you are black, I was socialized to believe that I am “the norm,” and that you are “the other.”  Unless my family is overtly racist, it is highly likely that I was raised to understand racism as bad behavior and bad intentions, something that exists only in bad people.  And I almost certainly suffer from white fragility – mostly unable or unwilling to talk about race.

UU minister Adam Lawrence Dyer wrote:     (from Love Beyond God, Skinner 2016)

This white house
Shelters myths
In a white temple of empire
Where divinity and man’s ego converge.
This white house
Was built with black hands.

If I am white, and you are black, our way of life, our social and economic systems, were built on the backs of your ancestors – enslaved men and women whose inherent civil rights continued to be denied long after slavery was legally abolished.

The stories we have all been told and believed about who we are as a nation serve white people.  Our institutions function on behalf of white people.  Our culture is a white supremacy culture.  I am more than one up by virtue of my race and, so I am led to believe, by right.

I’m not immune to white fragility.  You might be feeling some tension right now.  Notice it.  That’s white fragility.

When I was ordained, in 2009, I asked that the choir sing the introduction to John Rutter’s setting of Open Thou Mine Eyes – the response our choir sang this morning.

Open my eyes that I may see
Incline my heart, that I may desire
Order my feet, that I may walk in the way of your commandments.

It’s a prayer that I have often used in my own spiritual practice – over the years.  In personal situations as well as larger ones.

Open my eyes that I may see.
Help me to see what I need to see.  Help me to better understand myself, or the struggle I face, or what is actually happening.  

Incline my heart that I may desire
Soften my heart, help me to care, help me to want to learn and change, soften my resistance, my quickness to judgment. 

Order my steps that I may walk in the way of your commandments.
Help me to know what to do. Guide me along the path.  Show me the way. 

I’m guessing that most of us don’t believe in divine commandments, at least not in the same way that the Lancelot Andrews, the 17th century prayer writer, understood them.

But I’ve come to realize that the last part of his prayer is important.   We can hope and pray for our hearts to be opened, we can hope and pray to see more clearly what we struggle to see. 

But HOW will that happen?  We all need guidance, some structure, some steps along the way.  Steps that make sense for each of us.


In the 1920s the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed a theory of child learning that educators still use today.  Vygotsky proposed the idea of a gap between concepts a child has already mastered, and related concepts and skills which she isn’t ready to grasp. 

If instruction focuses on what the child has already mastered, she won’t progress.  If instruction focuses on concepts or skills too far beyond what she is ready for, the child will become frustrated, and the teaching will fail.  Vygotsky called the gap between what has been mastered and what she isn’t ready for the “zone of proximal development.” 

That zone of proximal development, the gap between what a child knows and just isn’t ready for, is the sweet spot for a teacher or parent. 

Instruction and assistance from an adult or another child within that sweet spot should be supportive.  It should reach just beyond the learners’ current competence, complementing and building on their existing abilities.[i]  A little bit challenging – but not so challenging that it is beyond reach.  Get things right within the zone, and a child can learn.  And as he learns, the boundary of that zone expands, now including what was formerly outside it.

Jessica told me that she worked with a teacher who called the realm beyond the zone of proximal development the “yo, yo, panic yo” place – I guess she had had some experience with frustrated learners.

I think the model of a zone of proximal development might help us understand adults confronting white privilege.  Why does Robin D’Angelo get resistance in her work as an anti-racism trainer? 

When white people go to anti-racism training courses, whether required in their workplaces or in other settings, they come from very different places – their zones come in different shapes and flavors.

They can easily end up in the “yo yo panic yo” place, the place where white fragility raises its head.  They end up there jarred by fear or shame or terms like “a white supremacy culture,” especially when that term is applied to trusted and beloved institutions and stories.

I’ve decided to rename the zone where learning can take place the “zone of possible enlightenment.”  Are there concepts you believe you “get,” others you struggle with, and still others that you resist?  What is at the center of the things you believe in the depths of your being? 

Jessica drew me a picture of the zone of possible enlightenment (before I changed its name).  There was a circle in the center representing what we have mastered already.  There was a narrower band around that circle –representing the zone. 

And then, in her drawing, there was a crazy, agitated squiggle encircling both of the smaller circles.  That was the “yo yo panic yo” zone.  I tried to think what – for me, for Unitarian Universalists – might be in the first circle.  What do we affirm and know?

The first two of the seven UU principles came to mind.  We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Here’s part of another poem by Adam Lawrence Dyer, one he wrote recently.  As I mentioned earlier, Adam is gay, and he is black. 

He calls the poem “More.”

 “Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough,
when “worth” is code for “white”
and dignity is spelled “m-a-l-e.”
This slippery intention
to name us all the same,
too often strides
into assumptions about perspective,
privilege, agency and pride.  …

Because “Inherent worth and dignity”
is the language of the colony
that doesn’t know the pain of slavery in its genes,
that ignores its culpability for Holocaust,
that continues to bastardize native people in ritual and song,
that strains against translation,
and always leaves women one step behind.

“Inherent worth and dignity”
Is carved from the dissonant language of white supremacy.
It resonates with paternal principles grown from privilege,
and rises as an onanistic declaration,
excited most by promises of self-righteous satisfaction.

 Inherent for you
But abhorrent to her;
Worthy to me
But valueless to them;
Dignity to him
That erases xyr …

“Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough
In a language where the word nigger still sours every tongue.

We must have more.

That is strong language.  Maybe too strong?

I want to say, “Wait a minute.  Inherent worth and dignity is carved from the dissonant language of white supremacy?”  These are our beloved principles.  He’s a UU minister! 

Maybe this is outside my zone of proximal development – in yo yo panic yo territory.  But maybe, just maybe, it could sit within a zone of possible enlightenment.

Open my eyes, that I may see
Incline my heart, that I may desire.
Order my steps, that I may walk in the way of your commandments.

So what are the steps?  And who is accompanying us as we try to take them?
Suzanne from the Agape community illustrates one.  If a black or Latina person has the courage to challenge our privilege or assumptions – we can listen.  Just listen – without arguing, without saying “but,” without in any way questioning the reality they experience.

See her article in The Servant Song (Fall 2018 publication of the Agape Community
                    in Hardwick, MA), by Suzanne Belote Shanley

We can notice where and when we’re uncomfortable, what we might be resisting.  I resist when Adam associates UU principle one with “the dissonant language of white supremacy.”  Maybe I need to sit with that. 

We can also get more involved with more organizations like the Pioneer Valley Workers Center that are working with immigrant communities and others who are “people of the world majority” – a new substitute for the phrase “people of color.”

We can get politically involved – in criminal justice or voting rights reform.  Mandatory sentencing and racial bias in all segments of our criminal justice system have turned our prisons into 21st century slave plantations.  Redistricting, and restrictive i.d. and early voting requirements, have effectively dis-enfranchised non-white citizens in many of our states.  The Constitution’s equal protection clause is used to dismantle affirmative action efforts.  40 years ago Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in a defense of affirmative action, wrote, “in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”[ii] 

Our own Unitarian Universalist Association is making a deliberate, explicit commitment to solicit the voices of people of color within our movement and to put “people of the world majority” in leadership positions within the UUA.  They are doing this at the expense of being understaffed until qualified, non-white candidates are found.  They are also running a special funding campaign so that they can better equip UUA staff to help UU congregations do their own work.

People in leadership at the UUA are naming our institutions – our association and its member churches and societies – as part of white supremacy culture.  They are acting on the conviction that we have been complicit for too long. 

Hearing the language of white privilege and associating our beloved institutions with white supremacy is making some of the people in our congregations uncomfortable, and it’s also making some of the UUA’s donors uncomfortable. 

It’s worth paying attention to this.  Other faith communities and non-profit groups are paying attention.  They are watching and wondering if they will have the courage to follow the UUA’s lead.  I am proud of our Association, proud of its President Susan Frederick-Gray and the rest of the leadership.  I’m grateful that they are taking these steps and building our largely white membership up to be less fragile.  Trying to model how to be the beloved community we aspire to become.

African American UU minister and religious educator Natalie Fenimore, whose words opened our service, says “We must create the beloved community with an awareness of how difficult it is – because it is hard work.  It is work that challenges us to bring our whole selves and engage deeply and for the long haul.”  Our youth group is doing some of this work.  Jessica and I are collaborating with others in the community to bring it here more consistently.

You can help by thinking about your own zone of possible enlightenment and what kinds of learning supports work for you.  And by thinking about how we might safely and lovingly challenge each other.  Can we be a community that lives in a zone of possible enlightenment?

Adam Lawrence Dyer ended his poem “More” this way:

We must have more.
We must have freedom
We must be seen
We must be heard
Un-silenced in a full-throated and triumphant cry.

I invite you to join in full-throated singing now – O Freedom! – a song of hope, and of aspiration –


[i]Irina Verenikina  Understanding the Zone of Proximal Development,

[ii] Quoted in “On Racism’s Threat to the America Idea,” by Ibram X. Kendi, The Atlantic, October 2018