A few days ago the following comment on the Trayvon Martin killing appeared on a chat list: "The UUA's Journey Toward Wholeness greatly oversimplifies the
complexity of racism, while being "anti-", offering little that is is
positive on which to build. Events like this Latino on Black
violence points up that fact."
I've been thinking about this statement for a few days, deciding whether or not to respond. However, my commitment to Journey Toward Wholeness won't let this statement go unchallenged.
I was in one of the early groups for the training provided by Crossroads for the Unitarian Universalist Association, so I got the full unadulterated version. This was in the mid-1990s. Parts of the training were hard to take, no doubt about it. Most problematic for me was the notion that we were asked to look at race separately from gender and class. I still have problems with that. However, I participated in all three levels of the training and found it to be a life changing experience.
I came to understand the importance of the definition of racism--which the chat statement IMHO fails to take into account.
Racism = prejudice + power
Using this definition, it was clear then and is even more clear today that in virtually all institutions of our society power is held by wealthy white men. Many others, particularly other white folk, benefit from the social arrangements created by these institutions.
When we who were white were asked in the training to acknowledge that we were racist, we were not saying we personally were prejudiced, although most of us discovered subtle ways we had internalized prejudiced attitudes. What saying "I am racist" meant to me was understanding the myriad ways I benefit from being white in this society.
I did not carry guilt away from the training, but instead felt empowered to continually examine my reactions and actions through the lens of my commitment to being anti-racist.
For those who find the "anti" prefix negative, I would remind you of the value of other "antis"--like antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antitoxins, etc. The comparison to medicines works especially if you think of racism as a social disease. To rid ourselves personally of this dis-ease we need to become conscious of our participation in the system and change our responses in order to change the system.
The training included the importance of understanding the relationship among different oppressed groups and introduced us to the concept of "lateral oppression." We see a lot of this today in the prevalence of bullying. One person who is bullied because of her/his participation in a particular group (based on race, social standing, class, size, strength, perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.) may bully another weaker person of a different group--or maybe just lash out at whoever is handy and likely not to resist too much.
Conficts between different ethnic groups are common, because one of the ways to gain a sense of self-esteem in an oppressive system is to oppress someone from another group. It's a very sad situation that perpetuates violence and keeps oppressive systems from changing. Understanding lateral oppression as part of racism helps us begin to figure out how to dismantle it.
What I've tried to do ever since my participation in the highly enlightening Journey Toward Wholeness training is to seek openings where the racist system can be changed. After a period of working thru several UU groups as a co-trainer, I have gone on to active participation in NAACP. Being part of a large movement with primarily black leadership has been another step in my awareness of how racism works and what we can do to move the system in the direction of justice.
So rather than disparaging past efforts, I suggest it is most useful to build on that past and continually renew our commitment to dismatle racis--in our hearts, souls and minds, and in our communities and congregations, and in our world. To do this, I suggest we need to remember the definition of racism.
Racism = prejudice + power