Break Through, Break Free, Break It Down

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We are cramped by a smallness,
by a law, by a custom....
Yet shell by shell we break
past a culture that stunts.
 
This poem gives me hope. When I was twenty years old, a sophomore at University of Connecticut, I went to a presentation called American Pictures. This “in-your-face” documentary-style photo essay boldly exposed American racism and poverty. Jacob Holdt, the Danish creator of American Pictures, wanted to convince privileged, young Americans that racism is real. It worked- I could no longer deny that our racist system advantages whites and harms people of color! Once I saw the ugliness of racism, I knew I had to do something about it. From that point forward, I became a warrior for liberation.
 
Each of us,
cracking the madness that says
we are divided.
We break to join!
 
I urge you to join us. Together, we can transform our communities, ourselves and our spirits. We can create liberation and justice for all human beings. I will share with you my path as an anti-racist, an aspiring, white ally to people of color. Hopefully, you too will hear the call. May the experiences and suggestions we share today support you and all of us on our path toward freedom.
 
A note about the structure of today's service, I will share a piece of my story then a related suggestion for taking action. After each suggestion, another contributor will share their own experience. As members of the youth group community, past and present, we have worked together to offer you a way in to dialogue and engagement to counter racism. For this morning, we will borrow Beverly Daniel Tatum's definition of racism as a system of advantage, based on race. Racism is a system of advantage based on race.
 
After American Pictures, some of the participants and I wanted to take action but didn’t know how. We attended a follow-up workshop to explore our own racial identities. It was awkward and uncomfortable to talk about race in a racially mixed group. We broke through taboo. We spoke about our own experiences and listened deeply to others’ truths, loosening the binds of racism as we shared. We were vulnerable. I keenly remember a young, black woman’s pain and shame as she described feeling like she wasn’t black enough. I recall my own shame at proclaiming to fellow students earlier that year that the University wasn’t racist. It was painful for all of us. Yet the growing sense of freedom we felt was like a huge sigh; We had been holding our breath all our lives. We began to see that each of us was a prisoner to racism and we could liberate each other and ourselves!
 
Suggestion #1: Take advantage of resources, books, guides and experiential workshops. Many are carefully and purposefully led and designed by people of color and white allies to explore racism and racial identity.
 
Jan Nettler’s testimony
"For much of my life, I would have described myself as not having prejudices regarding race. Beginning in the 60s, I attended meetings of CORE (Congregation of Racial Equality). I have participated in anti-racism workshops, including the Journey Toward Wholeness process here at USNF. I was politically active in radical and progressive groups, where racial equity was always a part.
 
Around 10 years ago, I was shopping at Downtown Sounds on Pleasant Street. I was interested in buying a drum. As I was browsing, I put my pocket book on a shelf, so I was free to play the drums. There were several other people in the store at the time. Then the door opened and two African American men came in. A bad thing happened. Without thinking, I immediately grabbed my pocket book.
 
Then, a good thing happened. I realized what had just happened. Despite of all of the back patting I have done through my life about not having prejudices regarding race, I really do have them. I didn't fear the white people in the store. But just the presence of two black men caused me to fear my pocket book might be stolen. I concluded that from all of racism that abounds in our culture, I have clearly internalized some of that.
 
Another good thing happened. I realized that if I noticed my action once, undoubtedly I have done similar things without realizing it. It gave me a new awareness of a weakness I have. I have noticed myself react similarly since then. Sometimes I catch it before it is visible, but other times only after I have done something. While I can continue to work to eradicate them within, I acknowledge that I may continue to have some. This experience has made me think more deeply about prejudices. It has led me to do more work as an ally to people of color."
 
After the workshop, we formed a group of white folks committed to racial justice. We had potluck meals and talked about our growing awareness. We shared stories of witnessing racism in the world around us and in ourselves. We were shocked to find racist attitudes lurking in our own psyches. Yet as we heard one another, we knew that we were all victims of our culture’s racism. Unwittingly, we had absorbed limiting beliefs based on race. We were relived to learn that we hadn’t created it but still felt responsible for changing it.
 
Suggestion #2: As authors and activists Susan Goldberg and Cameron Levin suggest, we white folks should seek the support of other white people to do our ongoing work as anti-racists. Find folks who you can talk to about your experiences with race; people who are willing to be honest as you begin to see with new eyes.
 
Hannah Krauth’s testimony
"I have been thinking a lot about how it was difficult for me coming into New York City after living in Northampton because Northampton is not the most diverse community. Although it is "tolerant" (NOT a word I'm a fan of, which may be a whole other story...) or even liberal, there isn't enough exposure to the realities of other cultures within the valley community. It is one thing to talk about these things, and an entirely different one to live in it. When I moved to my first apartment in NY it was in West Harlem. My apt was pretty much in between a neighborhood that was mostly black families and another that was mostly Dominican. I was dating someone who was Dominican and Puerto Rican. Truly these experiences completely refocused my academic and personal pursuits as I became fascinated with the complexities of individual cultures and their interactions with one another. (I now live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is mostly Puerto Rican families) I have taken courses that really helped me to challenge concepts of race in the United States. To be tolerant or even "multicultural" is not enough. We're at a point that we all have to be actively ANTI-racist."
 
Several years later, I went to the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps volunteer. I have always been drawn to those obviously different from myself. Confronted by a room full of chairs and trainees, I sat by three African-American women. Over the following weeks and months, I cultivated a friendship with one of them, Phaona. My practice at seeing racism in action served me well as we traveled together around Santo Domingo. In a culture where no one waits in line and everyone vies for attention, my white skin brought me prompt service. When we went shopping together, the bag I was carrying from another store was ignored. My friend, who was perceived as a potential thief, spent at least 15 minutes explaining to three different employees the previous purchase she carried. When I extended my thumb on a country road for a “bola,” I rarely waited long for a ride. My friend was ignored and had to pay for hard to find motorcycle taxis. I was dismayed but not surprised to see how my white skin bought me a host of privileges. I wondered, what would I notice about racism in America when I went home?
 
INTERLUDE           El Costo De La Vida            by Juan Luis Guerra
 
Suggestion #3: Practice seeing privilege rather than disadvantage. As white people, we are accustomed to looking at how racism keeps others down. We avoid seeing how it keeps us up. Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy Macintosh is a great place to start.
 
Emmi Deihl's testimony
"While scientists and anthropologists have long determined that “race” does not in fact exist, the socially constructed idea of race certainly continues to be a reality that impacts many lives. Simply by being born “white,” I benefit from the privileges bestowed on me by our society which, despite all the progress that has been made, is still largely racially structured. My friend once used a metaphor for this situation which I found very apt. Living in a racist society is like being on a moving sidewalk in an airport: even if you are not actually walking, you are still being pulled along by it. Only by actively walking in the opposite direction can you avoid being moved. Thus, even if “white” people are not actively being racist, they are still participating in and benefitting from a racist society. Where I have lived I have always been part of the majority, I don’t need to question my identity or my place in society because I fit in so well. I am accepted and expected to do well. I have more access to resources, education and jobs. I am surrounded by role models, whether adults, friends, professors or even public figures who more or less look like me and who I can relate to. The beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries affirm my privileged place in society by feeding me images of beauty and success which are usually images of people with pale skin. I can go into CVS and buy cosmetics for my skin tone, which may sound trivial, but it is actually impossible once your skin is darker than an olive shade or a dark tan, which I imagine would be immensely frustrating. Only by acknowledging privilege and being willing and prepared to give it up, thus fighting against the movement that continues to carry us onward and up, can we truly make a difference. "
 
When I returned to the United States from Peace Corps, I was eager to make friends. New in the Washington, DC area, I asked my colleague, Debbie, to join me for a day at the Smithsonian. On the metro on the way home, I asked her about her skin color. “You are so light,” I’d said, “What is your background?” She told me about her white mother and black father but years later, a mutual friend revealed that I had made Debbie uncomfortable. Although we remained friendly, we never became close.
 
Often, we are uncomfortable interacting with people of other races. We are careful because we don’t want to say the wrong thing. We fear offending. Or we try too hard, to be cool or to prove we aren’t racist. We are not free to be with each other easily and openly. UU minister Joshua Pawelek says, “In each of us, there is an unseen self beyond race, a truer self, a more authentic self, a whole self entirely free of the limits of race. We don't know that self.” We can explore, not pretending that racism doesn’t exist but yearning to see the deeper self in each of us.
 
Suggestion #4: Look at your own culture and ethnic heritage. Learn to see and treasure its gifts. Valuing who we are helps us steer clear of appropriating alluring customs and beliefs from other cultures. Knowing where we come from helps us to interact with others sincerely and authentically.

Paul Foster-Moore’s Testimony
"Because of my Aryan background of Norwegian and Swedish ancestors, sometimes I feel a little too white and a little too privileged, to ever bring this reality directly into my present day relationships. One day, I was commuting to work. I pulled to a stop at a red light in Easthampton. Right in front of me was this silver Volvo station wagon. Neatly affixed to the liftgate was a decal of the Norwegian flag and right under it, a decal of the Swedish flag. Suddenly I felt a rush of pride and an impulse to jump out of the car, run over to the driver, introduce myself, say something silly in Norwegian and get their number. A stream of questions exploded in my head: Do they speak Norwegian or Swedish or both, like my mother? They must be fantastic people - all Norwegians and most Swedes are. Do they know about the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis in WWII? Do they have an extended family of Scandinavians like me? Are they like my cousins in Wisconsin and Illinois? Do they avoid tea? Do they drink their coffee while straining each sip through a sugar cube? Why am I getting so excited?

The light turned green and we went our separate ways. I'll probably never know who they are and it leaves me wondering, What just happened? In part, an element deep in my identity was suddenly unlocked and re-revealed to me, vividly, awaiting rediscovery."

One winter morning, when I was pregnant, I walked through Pulaski Park to come here to work. I saw three young men gathered on the steps. They were, by appearances, Latinos- each a different shade of brown, each a different texture of hair. I thought of the life growing inside me. This child, son or daughter of my Dominican sweetheart and I, will be multi-racial, bilingual and bicultural. Which one of those young men would most resemble my child? Suddenly, the heart of a mother took over. I felt those boys could be my boys. They were my sons. I am responsible for their well-being, for treasuring their unique gifts, for keeping them safe.

What if we were to treat each person we encounter as “ours?” Genuine connection can overcome the separation that racism creates, putting wholeness within reach. As we allow ourselves to be moved by moments of communion with another, we glimpse the truth: there is no separation; we are one. Moments of unity with our fellow humans can offer us a taste of our oneness with all Creation. Knowledge of our spiritual union can comfort us when we are overcome by the pain and brokenness of our own selves and our world.
Suggestion #5: Make kindness and compassion spiritual practices. Turning toward yourself and all those you encounter with kindheartedness.
 
Reading # 505 Thich Nhat Hanh
 
Today, I am blessed to share with you something that means so much to me. I seized this opportunity to bring my passion to end racism to you. Should you choose this path, you will encounter opportunities, painful and joyful, to grow. You can draw on the experiences you’ve heard to day and on a long tradition of resistance. You can tap in to the wisdom, strength and the strategies of justice-promoting ancestors and contemporaries. You can reject racism and act courageously for justice and compassion.

When we integrate the power of anti-racist action with an honest, affirming identity and nourishing spiritual practice, we boost our courage, multiply our effectiveness and grow our strength. May it be so and may our work bear the fruit of wholeness for our souls, our society and ourselves. Amen. Blessed be.