Monday, January 21, 2013

Sermon: "Dear White America" (Delivered 1-20-12)

Call to Worship
As we gather for worship on the Martin Luther King day weekend, let us begin by listening to these words by James Baldwin:

“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.  And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed.  Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges.”

We gather this morning in a changing world, an America that is demographically and culturally growing more multicultural, and a world that is becoming smaller and more interconnected.  We come together this morning to celebrate these changes and to better understand our place in this new world.

King once said that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  And this morning we affirm that this garment is like those multicolored banners, pennants, streamers, plumes, and bandannas of which we just sang.

King once said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This morning we seek to learn so that when we “smile and shake hands and say ‘hello’” we do so with integrity and openness.

Let us commit ourselves to listening and learning, to understanding and discovery.  Come, let us worship together.

The reading this morning comes from the 2012 book Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority by Tim Wise.

“The fact is, things are changing in America, and in many ways we haven’t been prepared for those changes.  To be white has been to take a lot for granted over the years, and to assume that our normal was everyone’s normal; that our way of seeing the country and the culture – and that our experiences within both – were the ones that mattered, and were normative for all.  We could take for granted that political leaders would look like us, as would the cultural icons:  they would all have salt-of-the-earth biographies and chiseled jaws and wear cowboy hats like John Wayne…  They would all be Christians.  We could take for granted that our communities would be filled mostly with people who looked like us, and whose cultural and religious traditions were similar to our own.  We would not have to see or think about people of color too often, let alone rub shoulders with them with them daily, on the job or in the supermarket.  We wouldn’t see signs printed in languages other than English.  We wouldn’t even have ‘ethnic food’ sections in our groceries…  Above all, we could take for granted a certain level of economic security, and rest assured that our narrative about the country – what makes us great and what we stand for – would be a narrative over which we would have ultimate control.

“But now, white normativity is being challenged, and only on one front, but on four: political, economic, cultural, and demographic.  And each of these, in turn and especially together, poses a direct challenge to whiteness on yet a fifth front, the narrative front, by which I mean that battlefield of ideas within which the national character and story itself are defined and told to others.

“For a people who have been able to take our fundamental Americanness for granted, to suddenly be faced with the realization that we will have to share that designation with people who look different and pray differently and whose primary language may be different from our own, can be quite jarring for some of us.  The club is no longer exclusive.  The membership rolls are being opened up.  In the process, the sense of ‘specialness’ that American identity once held for us is being bid downward by the inclusion of some within its ranks who never would have qualified in decades and eras past. Within perhaps a decade or two, it may no longer be automatic that we envision a white person from the so-called ‘heartland’ when the terms ‘all-American boy’ or ‘all-American girl’ are used; rather, we might envision a first-generation Latina immigrant in the Southwest, a Hmong farmer in Wisconsin, or an Arab Muslim in Dearborn, Michigan.  How does that feel?  Be honest.”

In several of the books and essays by author and speaker Tim Wise, he cites theresults of several Gallup polls taken during the 1960s.  In 1963, for example, Gallup conducted a poll where they asked people whether they thought whites and blacks were treated equally in their communities.  Let’s think back to 1963, fifty years ago.  It was the height of the civil rights movement, the year that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March on Washington and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  It was almost a decade into the Civil Rights movement, the year of the march on Birmingham, Alabama, calling to mind those images of fire hoses and police dogs being turned against non-violent protesters.  The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had not yet been passed.

So, in 1963, when asked whether blacks and whites were treated equally, 2/3 of whites responded, “Yes, I believe that blacks receive equal treatment to whites.”  One year earlier, 1962, Gallup polled whites, asking, “Do white children and black children receive equal educational opportunities?”  That year, 85% of whites said that they thought black children and white children had the same chances to receive a good education.

In 1969 Gallup conducted another poll that concluded that 44% of whites thought that blacks had a better chance than whites at receiving a good paying job, while 42% percent of whites thought that black children had a better chance for a good education than white children.  The results of these polls showed that only about 20% of whites, roughly one out of five, thought whites had better chances of a good job or a good education than people of color in the society of the 1960s.

What do you think is the right way to characterize the results of these polls from forty and fifty years ago?  The findings of these surveys reveal a mindset that we might safely characterize as delusional, as so out of touch with the world in which these respondents lived that it seems no small miracle that these people were able to function at all in the course of their daily lives.

This morning, my reflections are going to introduce the work and the thinking of Tim Wise, one of America’s leading white anti-racist educators.  He is the author of hundreds of essays and six books:  Affirmative Action, an anti-racist analysis of affirmative action programs in education; White Like Me, a personal exploration of how white privilege operates; a collection of essays entitled Speaking Treason Fluently; two books, Colorblind and Between Barack and a Hard Place, that challenge the idea that we are living in a post-racial society; and, most recently, Dear White America, a polemic essay about what it means to be white in contemporary America.  I have read all six of his books as well as many of his essays.  For the past nineteen years, Tim Wise has traveled the country speaking at more than 750 universities and high schools.  It is estimated that more than a million people have heard him lecture.  I have heard him speak twice, once at UMKC and once at Johnson County Community College.  Tim Wise was also featured as a speaker at the 2011 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He has spoken at UU churches and his books have been studied by racial justice groups in UU congregations.

There are a number of things that I admire about Tim Wise.  One thing is that his analysis of oppression is geared towards racism, but also towards sexism, homophobia, and other forms of systemic injustice.  He challenges not only white supremacy, but also male supremacy and straight supremacy.  The other thing I really like about him is that he pulls no punches.  In his role as a white, anti-racist ally, he claims the liberty to be aggressive and confrontational.  He claims the sort of righteous anger that people of color are too often criticized for demonstrating.  He defends his role as a white, anti-racist educator by pointing out just how bad the dominant racial group in this nation has been, whether in the 1960s or today, at listening to and being willing to trust the experiences of people of color.  (Remember, in 1963, two thirds of whites told the pollsters from Gallup that they believed African-Americans received equal treatment.)

Here is how Tim Wise begins an essay from 2001:

“Just a few years ago, a public opinion poll indicated that only 6% of whites in the U.S. believed racism was still a "very serious" problem facing African Americans. While larger percentages believed racism to be somewhat of a problem, only this anemic share of the white community saw it as an issue of great importance.  When you consider that twice that number – or as many as 12% – have told pollsters they believe Elvis Presley is still alive, it becomes apparent that delusion has taken on a whole new meaning among the dominant racial majority. Apparently, it is easier for whites to believe that a pill-popping, washed-up lounge singer faked his own death and is playing midnight gigs at some tropical resort, than to believe what black folks say they experience every day.

By the way, if there is one thing that I would hope that you would take away from my thoughts this morning, it would be that being able to listen to another’s experience, even when it is unpleasant, even when it is difficult, even when it accuses you, is a deeply spiritual practice.  To be able to listen non-judgmentally and non-defensively and non-reactively to that person and trust how that person characterizes their own experience is a deeply spiritual practice.  As Unitarian Universalists, when we are at our best, we are able to do this.  We need to be able to listen to another person describe a spiritual experience or a theological insight that flies in the face of our own, without needing to argue with or dismiss that person.  And, we need to be able to listen to another person describe the particularities of their own lived experience without paternalistically dismissing their story.  When someone says “ouch” we need to recognize our role in wounding them, not tell them to grow a thicker skin.  If you take nothing else away this morning, this is it.

Tim Wise’s Dear White America advances the argument that our nation is experiencing a perfect storm of change in the present moment.  Our nation is changing politically, economically, culturally, and demographically, and, taken as a whole, these changes are disrupting the dominant narrative of what it means to be an American.

That our nation is undergoing political changes related to race is evident.  One need only look to this week’s presidential inauguration.  But even the race of the man elected to our nation’s highest office does not tell the whole story.  One website states, “The 113th Congress will be more representative of the United States from race to religion, and from gender to sexual orientation. It will look more like America with 4 new African American representatives, 10 new Latinos, 5 new Asian Americans and an additional 24 women in the House or Senate.  It will believe more like America with the first two Hindu congresspeople, the first Buddhist senator, and the first non-theist to openly acknowledge her belief prior to getting elected.  It will love more like America, with 4 new LGBT congresspeople or senators, including the first openly bisexual congresswoman and the first openly gay congressman of color. And it will be younger, with four new congressmen born in the 1980s.

However, these changes are not necessarily due to the racial enlightenment of the white voting populace.  Wise points out that 700,000 fewer whites cast a vote in 2008 than had voted in 2004.  Rather, these political changes reflect people of color voting in larger numbers, and changing their voting habits.  For example, in the year 2000 George W. Bush captured 70% of Muslim American votes; in 2004 he captured just 4%.  (This statistic appeared in a fascinating article about Muslim American politics by Rany Jazayerli.)

Demographically, the racial composition of America is changing.  Wise writes, “According to projections, by no later than 2050, whites will cease to be the majority in the United States… In several states, this population shift has already happened, with whites comprising half or less of the population.”  Such racial diversity is matched by cultural diversity.  “Now it is fair to say that American culture is thoroughly multicultural, with each thread of that cultural garment being intrinsically interlaced with the others.  From the foods we eat to the music we hear to the clothing styles, there is no way to separate the various cultural and ethnic threads any longer…  Even small towns now have Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, authentic Mexican food and bodegas.”

Cumulatively, Tim Wise argues, these political, economic, cultural, and demographic changes challenge some of the narratives that are held most commonly among us.  He actually begins his book by sharing a wild fantasy about challenging that narrative.  He fantasizes about going to a fourth of July firework show, and finding the person wearing the most red, white, and blue on his person, and remarking, “Why can’t you just get over it?  I mean, why do you insist on living in the past?  That whole ‘breaking away from the British’ thing was like more than 200 years ago.  Isn’t it time to move on?”

Okay, so his fantasy involves being obnoxious.  If you fail to see the humor here, this exact thing – “it was a long time ago”, “get over it” – is frequently said to people who would have us remember the more shameful episodes of our history.  Remember the revolutionary war, but not slavery.  Remember Pearl Harbor, but not the Japanese internment.  Remember the Alamo, but not the genocide of the Native Americans.

The new America that is evolving as we speak demands a new narrative.  It demands, as James Baldwin put it, that we surrender dreams long-cherished and privileges long-possessed for the sake of higher dreams and greater privileges.

When Tim Wise speaks to white audiences, he tells them that his goal is not for them to feel guilty, but to feel responsible.  “I know we aren’t to blame for history – either its horrors or the legacy it has left us.  But we are responsible for how we bear that legacy, and what we make of it in the present…  Guilt is what you feel for the things you have done, but responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person you are.”

Just as we talk about the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we just as surely understand responsibility in this sense, of being born into interconnection with others.  We have the responsibility to listen to the experiences of others.  We have the responsibility to realize our own interconnectedness.  We have the responsibility to understand, how, in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”  It is this responsibility that frees us, that liberates us for higher dreams and greater privileges.  So may it be.