A Cultural Activist Piece of Mike’s Mind…

By request, my column this month is a portion of the sermon from July 12th on white supremacy culture.

“…When we say white supremacy culture, we are referring to the common cultural assumptions, cultural expectations, cultural associations…, the hundreds of unspoken, unwritten, but intimately familiar ways that culturally exclude, punish, ignore, silence, or otherwise disenfranchise non-white human beings.            

To go with the iceberg analogy that Erin shared earlier, we are talking about deep-seated habits, ways of seeing, or of not seeing, of speaking or not speaking, of denying or not denying, pretending or not pretending… so internalized that it is done even without the realization that it’s being done.  Habits that are so culturally normative, that even bringing it up often makes white people uncomfortable, and sometimes, very, very angry.  As if civilization itself were somehow being called into question.  (Which of course is a false dichotomy.)            

Turns out there is lots of wonderful literature out there about how to recognize white supremacy culture, and I’ll share just a few common, often unspoken characteristics.            

White supremacy culture tends to focus on results over and above relationships.  I’ve done that a thousand times.  And so has this church.  And we often get results.  But it leaves people out.  The focus on results over relationships pragmatically and culturally, leaves people out.           

Defensiveness is a characteristic of white supremacy culture.  White people tend to get defensive, seeing any critique or correction as a personal attack instead of an invitation to a more honest relationship, but that’s only the beginning.  Whole organizations, committees, cliques, families, and social systems get set up to protect and defend “the way we’ve always done it.”  Which almost always means, the way some white man set it up to work, which, big surprise, almost always favors white men.  Defensiveness has the effect of making it difficult or socially costly to raise different ideas, again having the effect of leaving people and their ideas out.           

Defensiveness is related to power hoarding, a cultural assumption that power is a limited resource.  People who have power don’t tend to see the value in sharing it, feel threatened by suggestions for changing it, and take suggestions for organizational change as a personal attack on their leadership.  I suspect I’ve done that a time or two as well, without even being aware of it.

Paternalism is a characteristic of white supremacy culture.  Where decision-making is clear to those who have power, and utterly unclear to those who don’t.  Where those with power just assume they are capable of making decisions for those without power, assuming it unimportant and even unnecessary to understand the viewpoint or experience of those affected.  Paternalism often happens to women in white supremacy culture, and I’d bet every woman listening to this could give dozens of examples from their own experience.

Individualism, another assumption of white supremacy culture, which is great for those who have power and privilege, who look, sound and act something like the white, cultural ideal, but also functions as a very effective cop-out for not addressing the systemic, procedural, cultural structures that prevent millions from included, empowered, or even accepted.           

I could go on and on.  We are only scratching the surface.  But I’ll specifically name just one more.  White supremacy culture assumes a right to social comfort, and as many modern writers have noticed, white people in general have a very low tolerance for social discomfort.  This is often referred to as white fragility. There’s a wonderful, popular book with exactly that title by educator Robin DiAngelo.  White fragility is demonstrated when white people get defensive, or assume the privilege of avoiding or just checking-out of any real talk or relationships that challenge any of the norms, habits, or assumptions I’ve been talking about.           

We’re talking about moral courage.  We’re talking about doing the right thing.  Even when it feels risky.  Even when it’s inconvenient.  Even when it makes us uncomfortable.  I am suggesting, my dear friends, is that there’s a reason our congregation has remained so stubbornly and overwhelmingly white for all 149 years of our existence, and it has a lot to do with white supremacy culture.            

Dr. Nita Moseby Tyler, a nationally known educator and consultant on racial matters educated me a couple months ago over at Shorter AME church when she asked me if our congregation valued diversity.  “Of course,” I said.  “It’s written right into our Vision statement.”  She said, “Uh huh.  You don’t really value diversity.  And I know because diversity is the wrong word.  It’s a false flag.  A tower without foundation.The world is already diverse.  Diversity is the order of things.  Diversity is a given.  If you really want to be a more diverse community, stop talking about diversity and start talking about inclusion.  Stop talking about diversity and start talking about equity.  Start asking, what systems and social conditions are in place that perpetually maintain certain groups in the majority and perpetually leave other groups out? 

Start asking, who’s not sitting at the table when you make decisions?  Whose voices are quietly ignored or passed over?  Who looks around your space and doesn’t see themselves represented?  How many people of color are out there who are starving for community, dying to be accepted, included, and loved for who they are, but they’re just too tired to fight through the defensiveness, the paternalism, the either/or thinking, the power hoarding, or the individualism that’s built into emotional system of your church?”

I’m paraphrasing Dr. Moseby-Tyler here, but that’s what she was getting at.  And she’s right.  And that’s why we’re having this conversation.  And that’s why our covenant needs to be aspirational, a little challenging, and ruthlessly honest.

I’m not trying to beat us up!  I love us.  I love you.  I love what we stand for.  I’m bringing this up because I love us, and it’s important to tell the truth to the people we love.  I want us to have the moral courage to learn about and engage white supremacy culture.  Because not everything faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

In faith and covenant,

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