White Supremacy Culture
When I was about 13, I went to lunch with my dad. I don’t remember where it was, exactly; I don’t think it was anywhere we’d been before – just one of many small restaurants near where he was living in Bardonia, NY, about half an hour north and east of New York City. Through the course of our meal, we chatted a bit as usual, but I noticed my dad seemed increasingly uncomfortable. I was puzzled, but didn’t say anything. Finally, after he’d paid the bill and we were preparing to leave, he said, barely audibly, “People are giving me really dirty looks.”
“Huh? Why?” I asked, as I looked around and confirmed his observation.
“Because I’m with you. They don’t think I’m your father.” It took me a few seconds to register what he was saying. If they didn’t think he was my father, what did they think he was… Oh. Ew. The good people of Bardonia had seen a middle-aged Black man out with a very young, light-skinned, white-passing teenager, and they’d drawn their own conclusions about what they were seeing.
Whether my dad had noticed this behavior when we’d been out before and never said, or whether it was new as a result of my latest adolescence-induced growth spurt, I don’t know. But that was the last day I’d ever be able to ignore it.
Dad was quiet in the car on the way home – somewhat unusual for him – and I was left to mull over the incident on my own. That was the day I realized: racism wasn’t just about treating Black people as if they were inferior. It wasn’t just about the violence toward non-white people that had formed part of my consciousness since I could remember. At its core, racism was part of a far bigger project of dictating who belonged with whom. It was about who was permitted to be in relationship, and who wasn’t. It was a (by the early 1990’s) mostly unwritten rule that my parents had violated, and I as a result of this violation was not permitted simply to be my father’s daughter.
So… why am I telling you this story, my friends? Because lately, we’ve been having some discussion about the phrase “white supremacy culture” as it showed up in the first draft of our congregational covenant. While “white supremacy” may bring to mind skinheads and Nazis with torches, that is not what we’re talking about here. Used in the way we are using it – and as many activists and scholars who talk about inequality use it - white supremacy culture is a very specific term. While it encompasses racism, white supremacy culture actually includes all behaviors and assumptions that are used to perpetuate a wealth of inequalities, whether of race, gender, sexual orientation, income, ability… And the thing about it is, we are all part of it. We’re born into it and inculturated into these ideas of who should be in charge, whose opinion and whose existence should matter most (or at all), which ways of being in the world are more valid. And we’re not told, “You’re learning these ideas and norms because that’s how we ensure that powerful people retain power,” because of course none of us as good and loving humans would sign on to that, right? Instead we’re told, “This is the best way. This is the most efficient way. This is the proper way.” Sometimes we’re even told, “This is the fairest way.” (For a more detailed explanation and examples of what white supremacy culture looks like, visit https://alliesforracialequity.wildapricot.org/cwsc)
White supremacy culture – particularly, “binary thinking” – says that a 13-year-old white-passing girl should not be allowed to have lunch with her father, an obviously Black man. That there shouldn’t be a relationship there because people who look like me are not supposed to be in loving relationship with people who look like him. People who look like me, in fact, are supposed to carefully guard our wealth, our possessions, and our ideas from people who look like him - even if we owe our very existence to him. And if you’d asked anyone in that room if that’s what they were thinking, they probably would have vociferously denied it, and meant it. But sitting where I was, at a table with my father, somewhere in the liminal space between white and black, I felt it.
Now as Unitarian Universalists, we represent a diversity of theological expressions, but there are a few basic theological truths that we can pretty much all agree on. A few of them are displayed prominently at the front of our sanctuary, but since it’s been a while since we’ve been able to see them, I’ll remind you of two: All souls are sacred and worthy, and there is a unity that makes us one. These come out of the theologies of our Christian forebears: Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that there existed something called an Over-Soul, and that we as individuals were simply expressions of that overarching soul. And our Universalist ancestors believed in Universal salvation - that everyone was bound for heaven, and that God didn’t play favorites. And if we take these theological ideas seriously – if we hold as sacred the idea that we are spiritually and materially one – then any law, policy, idea, cultural norm, or action that favors one as more worthy (of love, of a voice, of material resources) is a violent spiritual attack on our wholeness.
White supremacy culture is such an attack, and I’m willing to speak in superlatives here: it is the most prevalent and insidious one of our times. The entire project of it is to dictate who should be in relationship with whom – premised, of course, on the assumption that there exists a subset of people with whom “we” should not be in relationship – and who should have power over whom. And so the inclusion of the term in our covenant, the document that guides us in how we want to be with one another, is not an attempt to simply root out racism in our community (though that can show up in subtle ways, too); it is meant as a loving expression of our intention to continually examine our own assumptions, no matter who we are, in order to form more loving, equitable, and just relationships.