Demolishing the Centrality of Whiteness Through Stories
In 1983, I attended the Community Church of New York for the first time. It was as diverse as your average subway car. I thought, so this is what Unitarian Universalism is. The first time I went to GA, I wondered, where did all these white people come from? So after seeing only the flecked ear of the elephant, I had a look at the whole thing. It was a white elephant.
In the 80’s and 90’s, a few of our urban, multi-racial churches used to gather at the Mountain for a week every summer. Community Church came, joined by churches from Chicago, Philadelphia and DC. Our intention was to help bring the denomination along– make the whole elephant look like its ear. How would we do this?
At the first session, we broke into groups. Our leaders asked us to take turns telling about the first time we experienced racism. I can’t tell you how stupid I thought this was. Shouldn’t we be formulating policies and strategizing about publicity? Instead we were going to waste time with personal anecdotes. I am white. I could remember a revolting racist rhyme from my childhood. Good grief, did they want me to repeat that?
Fortunately, I didn’t go first. Jean, a brilliant, kind, and warm friend from Community Church began. She was a person of color, but her social justice passion was directed toward the Deaf community. She offered the first course my daughter and I took in American Sign Language, a study that lit a fire in my child I had not seen before. When the wonderful anti-racist quartet, CommUnity, came together at one of these Mountain retreats, Jean became their official signer. Here is the story she told.
When she was a little girl, her mother took her to see Santa at Macy’s. She was brimming with excitement as she waited in the line. At last it was her turn. She ran up to Santa, but he would not let her near him. She had seen all the other kids sit on his lap. Confused and crestfallen, she thought, “How awful I must be. Santa doesn’t like me.”
The pain of little Jean hit me. The anecdote taught me about racism, sure, but more than that, it convinced me that stories were the way to go. All the manifestos and stratagems in the world won’t move the needle if we don’t do the hard work of hearing each other from the inside. We must tell our stories. We must listen to other people’s stories.
Sheryll Cashin, author of Loving, Interracial Intimacy and the Threat to White Supremacy, feels that the number of “culturally dexterous” people is growing, particularly white people who can accept the loss of the centrality of whiteness, not color-blind people, but people who have become comfortable with a plurality of cultural norms. The question at the Mountain about racism was the wrong one for me. White people should have been asked, “When did you first experience white privilege. When did you first know that you were the beneficiary of injustice? When did you feel bad enough to let go of the centrality of whiteness?”
If those had been the questions, here’s the story I would have told. In 1967, the same year that Loving versus the State of Virginia was decided, I was a graduate student at Emory in Atlanta. I found myself in a volunteer program designed to “culturally enrich” the lives of poor black children. We took the kids to museums, natural settings, and architectural sites – usually churches.
I saw in the Journal-Constitution that the Wren’s Nest, home of Joel Chandler Harris (recorder of the Uncle Remus tales), was open to the public. As a child, I didn’t know that these stories were the artifacts of America’s original sin, that enslaved western Africans brought them across the ocean to our shores. I knew I loved them. Wily Brer Rabbit outwitted Brer Fox and Brer Bear every single time. A master of reverse psychology, he got free of them by begging, “Please, please, do anything to me but don’t send me into the briar patch.” Ha ha, boy were they dumb. When they threw him into the briars, he ran off laughing. “I was born and bred in the briar patch.” The oppressed had the last laugh.
A professor of Chinese from Morehouse College and I took about 15 kids on the bus to tour Harris’s house. The lady from the front desk, looking apoplectic, greeted us at the door and ushered me inside, leaving the children and the professor on the porch.
“We can’t let them in,” she said, hyperventilating.
“No, no, no,” I said. “There must be a mistake. I saw in the paper that you were integrated.”
“Well that’s if an integrated class comes. We don’t make them wait on the porch any more. But a whole group. . .”
“I’m sure it’s all right. Why don’t you call someone?”
Her hand shook as she dialed her supervisor. “No,” came the answer.
For me, the centrality of whiteness began to disintegrate.
I came out and I looked at the black professor; he nodded. Then he took a moment to collect himself and announced, “We’re going for ice cream. Our mistake. They’re closed.”
It almost worked, but just then a troop of little white cub scouts ran up the steps and right through the door. So much for cultural enrichment. Those kids would be in their fifties by now, but I bet they all remember that moment. I thought this was big news. The TV station was not interested. So I wrote to the paper. The Wren’s Nest was shut down. It reopened under new management. No child would ever be denied entry again.
When our UU children recite “we are the church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand,” strangely enough, I think of Aristotle, Northrup Frye, and stories. Channeling Aristotle, Frye speaks of mythos and dianoia. Mythos is what happens, the plot, the action. Dianoia is the thought, what we are left with after the story is over, the theme. Mythos is what reaches our hearts. It creates the deep dismay at the child rebuffed by Santa. It lets us revel in the triumph of the rebel’s clever escape. It shames us when we think of story-tellers deprived of liberty. It arouses our rage as curious kids are thwarted in their desire to learn and made to feel the oppressive weight of racism.
Without the emotion carried by mythos, the good intentions of our thought are not grounded. After Jean’s story we think, how wrong it is to batter a small child’s sense of self-worth. After Brer Rabbit’s story we think, we can win against the ignorant forces because we are cleverer. When we see children refused admittance, we think injustice. We also might figure that the young graduate student discovered that it feels better to be on the justice side of the equation. Dianoia linked to mythos is a great power. It propels us to the “helping hand.” This means good deeds, of course, but it also means deeds committed to the ideal of a fully inclusive society.
Now we find ourselves in the middle of a hornet’s nest because of a hiring practice. I know how many efforts there have been in our denomination to make us more like the beautifully flecked elephant ear I saw when I first attended Community Church. Much of this work has been done by members of color. It is time for white members to let go of the centrality of whiteness and show our cultural dexterity. How we respond at this time of ferment can bring us closer to the better world we came here to find. I have always felt that when UUism is at its best, when it lives its values, it becomes a microcosm for the world as it ought to be. If we can get over a few stings, if we can build on the momentum of the White Supremacy Teach-in, we have a chance to make real headway toward creating the beloved community. There’s a white elephant in the room, and nobody wants a white elephant.
Flaming Chalice pumpkin by Tammy