Respectability vs. Resistance

This week, when I read Barbara Reynolds column on her challenges with the Black Lives Matter Movement in the Washington Post (read here) I was deeply disappointed. Here was someone who is a respected leader and a member of the clergy, intelligent, articulate…someone who embodies all of the respectability of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s coming across like just another whiny baby boomer.  But I cannot and do not wish to get into a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of her argument. I am not qualified. I am the cusp generation…Generation X…we were the product of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and are the parents of the Millennials driving #BlackLivesMatter. We cannot claim a place of leadership in either space, yet we are deeply impacted by both.

Today’s activists are working from a point of enfranchised disenfranchisement and that is a direct result of both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and my generation actively reaping the rewards of that struggle. Arguably, an enormous benefit that my generation received from struggle of our parents and older siblings, was “respectability” which came from a few key sources. Schools were systematically and aggressively de-segregated, not just in the South but in places where the practice was more insidious like Boston and San Diego. Affirmative action was in high gear whether some of us received the direct benefit of it or not, and for the first time, college admissions teams were asking questions about “diversity” in their school populations; the Ivy League started admitting women and people of color in significant numbers. That education led to greater visibility and so we also witnessed the power roles in media go from entirely white and male to including the regular faces of Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Bryant Gumble, Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Jayne Pauley. Mini-series like Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and television programs like The Jeffersons, Dynasty (and even Good Times) changed the visibility of black history and black life. Magazines like Black Enterprise, Essence and Ebony were staples of newsstands, not just in black neighborhoods like they had been in the 50’s and 60’s and we even saw the desegregation of white fashion…thank you Beverly Johnson. By the time 1985 rolled around, when the oldest of those folks who currently claim the moniker “young adult” were just being born, we were already used to the “Huxtables,” Will Smith both Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston was at the top of what was once considered the white “pop” charts, echoing the achievements of her aunt Dionne Warwick back in the 1960’s but on a scale unprecedented by any previous artist. Colin Powell was poised to become the first head of the military (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) paving the way for back to back black Secretaries of State in the 2000s. Basically, today’s young civil rights leaders have not known a time when blacks didn’t have what appears to be access to education, high ranking jobs and “respectability.”

But that is where the communication seems to break down. Barbara Reynolds and others can’t seem to get past this word, and this is a sentiment I’ve heard from several older folks who talk about hair and sagging pants and profanity. But honestly, these are exactly the things they fought for. The church-going-white-lace-socks-and-mary-janes respectability image worked extremely well to say in the 1950’s and 60’s that once and for all, blacks are not animals. The strength of the black church over the years not only sustained and supported community, but it said to white America “we have souls.” These two questions, not being animals and having souls, were actually arguments that were frequently levied against blacks in the post Civil War era and throughout the early 20th century. The US military was segregated through WWII not because of some kind of unspecific dislike of blacks or a feeling that blacks were incapable of warfare, but rather because of more specific over arching sense that blacks could not be trusted. There are shades of this evident when looking at the events that unfolded in Britain in 1942 (see article here) The greatest achievement that Barbara Reynolds points to is respectability, but I say the greatest achievement is the buy in to American culture that the respectability gained for blacks.

This is the disconnect. Today’s youth and young adults cannot find jobs (see some stats here ) If they attend college, they emerge carrying more debt into the start of their adult lives than many of their parents incurred buying their first homes…something many black young adults may never be able to do.  They have a broader language of music and media interaction than the old guard can even conceive of and because of technology, they are internationally aware without ever having set foot out of the US. They not only know about black history, but the history of African countries, Asian countries. Middle Eastern Islam, Buddhism and other non-Judeo Christian religion is not a mystery to them and yes, some of them are Atheists and “nones.” Many of them place greater importance on the right to their gender identities and sexuality than they do their concepts of God. In short, today’s youth have taken the “respectability” of an earlier generation and turned it into fully developed lives and cultures lived without fear of certain kinds of oppression. The work of the 1960’s worked on one level; we “overcame” the question of being people. Today’s black youth feel fully enfranchised in what it means to be completely human in the United States. This is what the Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement says. It is unapologetic and expansive in its inclusivity.

So why are blacks being killed at random by overly zealous police?

Oh right…because even though we figured out the whole “respectability” thing, even though we got the education, the job, the visibility; even though black culture has become “main stream” through Hip-Hop, Rap and slam poetry; even though in some respects “we have overcome”… even though we are human and have souls, white centered US culture says…black lives don’t matter. With all the respectability in the world, black is not white and white is the context for US culture. THIS is what I believe the Black Lives Matter movement is resisting. It is a movement of resistance against contexts that are constructed for white success and safety only; a movement of resistance against cis-gendered, heteronormativity as the starting point. It is an invitation to everyone to benefit from fixing one of the most polarized cultural relationships in our nation’s history and create a new baseline. It is a movement of resistance from within the system that the Civil Rights folks of the 60’s fought to open the door to. Well guess what Rev. Reynolds, we got in. The ranch house in the suburbs belongs to us. And my generation tried living with that old flocked wallpaper and the shag carpet but the young folks who we’ve passed it on to, have decided to renovate…actually, to tear the damned thing down altogether and build something new. You fought for them to have the right to do this and unless you don’t believe in what you were fighting for, if instead you were fighting for them to remain as “respectable” non-threatening, non-violent negroes, it might be best to stay out of the spotlight…close enough to be supportive when asked…but let them drive the wrecking ball.

Finally, I would like to remind our elders of a highly ironic part of this whole “Old Civil Rights/New Civil Rights” conversation, as someone who is neither old enough to claim a place in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s and who is too old to claim a place of leadership in #BlackLivesMatter. On April 4, 1968 a gunshot rang out that many people believe brought to a close the great hope of the 1960’s movement. But it is very clear to me that the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the end. Instead, it was a beginning. His assassination was proof that black respectability, even as clergy, could be trumped by the context of angry whiteness. In that context, his life didn’t matter. Before Trayvon Martin, MLK was the first death in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Personal Infrastructure: Building the Post Ferguson Beloved Community

Barney RubbleOften when the expression “Personal Infrastructure” is used, it is in reference to either technology or specific systems and ways of being in the business world. But I believe there is a much more important way to apply this concept. What about those systems that we use to choose friends or create partnerships? All of these kinds of interactions are based on ways that we have learned to be in the world and together they create a framework, an infrastructure that supports us. Simply put, real Personal Infrastructure is the set of systems we use to support the decisions we make that determine how we live in community.

This week, I read my friend Kenny Wiley’s blog post on Unitarian Universalists in the aftermath of Ferguson and in the run up to the 50th Anniversary of Selma, Alabama. Like me, he continues to struggle with the ignorance and “Barney Rubble” eyes of blank though well meaning confusion that he is met with as a black man in a predominantly white denomination. Like me, he feels both Ferguson and Selma in ways that cannot be understood unless you are wearing brown skin.  And like me, he is left wanting at Unitarian Universalism’s response to today’s race wars.  The questions and the isolation make one genuinely wonder why pursue this faith at all; yet we persevere. His post is very timely for me in that I am working on a longer piece about race in Unitarian Universalism where I raise some very challenging questions about “why” the racial divide continues to persist in a faith tradition that touts its ability to be multi-cultural and welcoming.

This awareness (persistent Unitarian Universalist whiteness) made me think that there is an underlying element of Personal Infrastructure that may be worth exploring more deeply. Before diving in here, I want to be clear that when I speak of Personal Infrastructure, I do not intend to place a value judgment on that structure.  Instead, the intent is to simply and objectively highlight the underlying structures that people create that result in certain outcomes. This is different than in technology and business where, when Personal Infrastructure is raised, there is always a “good” or a “better”, or an “effective and ineffective”…or worse a “failure.” The attempt here is more arithmetic than algebraic…more empirical than it is philosophical. I am looking at the “x + y = z” not the “x if/then y = z2” of how we relate to one another.

Personal Infrastructure as a way to look at community came to me when reflecting on some of the planning issues facing San Diego, my current city. In the world of public policy and urban planning, infrastructure will most often refer to sidewalks, utilities, roads, and sometimes schools and even healthcare. These are the tangible systems that are in place that allow people to live in a modern Western society. I thought then, what about applying this same concept to how people are in social community with one another. What are the “roads” and “utilities” that must be in place for people to be able to thrive and relate to one another and share values and a way of life together?  Even more pointedly for my ministry, what are the systems in place that result in the continued racial segregation within Unitarian Universalism?

Unitarian Universalists

Unitarian Universalist churches are predominantly white. They desperately explore ways to find deeper connection with people of color and ways to attract more people of color, but they continue to miss the mark. Despite some prominent people of color being present in the broader movement and despite Unitarian Universalist presence in several political discourses that center around people of color, on Sunday morning, Unitarian Universalist churches are almost entirely white. Here is where we can look at the question of Personal Infrastructure. The systems in place that bring people into the church relate to location and community. More specifically, these are the same systems whereby members bring people to church. The personal infrastructure of most Unitarian Universalist congregants includes a social circle that is entirely white on an immediate level, between family and intimate friends.  Significantly, this is also true for people of color who are already within Unitarian Universalist congregations (a point also brought up by Kenny.)  Again, without value judgment, it is clear that people come to church because of people they know or people they want to know. If no one in the church knows any people of color, people of color will not spontaneously appear.  Therefore, whiteness as a Personal Infrastructure keeps Unitarian Universalist churches white.

Cautionary Tale

The danger here would be slipping into value judgments and by default simply labeling the situation outlined above as “racist.” But it is not. Again, Personal Infrastructure is not about motivation or even intention, it is about observation and about the system. It is the same with gun violence.  A gun is a system and therefore a gun never killed anyone; people use guns to kill. The system (congregants bringing people they know into the church) is not racist, but the system can be used for racially biased outcomes. The subjective choice to be surrounded socially by one demographic is based entirely on social location and it is not a system in itself. So the solution exists in using the system differently or creating a new one. By understanding this system, the effort can then be applied to where it will make the most difference.  For instance, using the system differently could look like asking Unitarian Universalists to explore who they are in relationship with and how that translates into congregational diversity. Creating a new system could mean intentionally planting churches in communities of color with local residents after doing outreach to community leaders.  No matter what, the system that must change is in the Personal Infrastructure of existing Unitarian Universalists.

By looking at real Personal Infrastructure, I believe we can take an objective view of highly problematic systems and come up with realistic and well thought out solutions. When I was a personal trainer, I often said that it is crucial to let go of punishment narratives and negative influences in order to make real progress.  Constantly dwelling on white guilt and slapping down oppressive behaviors will not fix Unitarian Universalism’s race problem.  Instead, because the goal is objective and non judgmental, the exploration of Personal Infrastructure has the potential to dive deeper into actual problem solving. For instance, by looking at a congregation and assessing the level of actual engagement of congregants with people of color outside of the church, one can create a plan and awareness. One can then ask congregants to look for times when they may have missed opportunities to develop relationships with people of color, then and only then should they ask “why?” Is this a cultural choice that has been passed on or learned? Is this motivated by fear or discomfort or some other way of being in the world? Looking at Personal Infrastructure paves the way toward asking these tougher questions.

Infrastructure supports the way we live in our society. Knowing our real Personal Infrastructure supports the way we choose to live both in our society and within ourselves.  And if Unitarian Universalists are willing to really explore their Personal Infrastructure as it relates to race, it could potentially change the dialogue within the denomination and give us a voice outside of the denomination when it is most needed.

What community will you build on your Personal Infrastructure?

Check it out!: Kenny Wiley – Who Are My People

Colonial Fool: Part IV – The REAL war on Religion

Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors’ Network, stated that he was “stunned at [the decisions on DOMA and Prop 8] today to take a 360-degree turn away from the biblical definition of marriage.…we must continue to work to keep marriages and families intact, the way God intended them, and pray for a continued revival of the values upon which this country was founded,” said Rohrer.1

When I was 15 years old I created a 2 and a half foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe.  It was quite an engineering feat: there she was in all of her youthful voluptuousness striding forward supported on nothing more than two strappy sandal, stiletto high heels.  I determined that once dried and kilned, she would balance perfectly.  Her curves, her expression her pose evoked a totally different era for womanhood…both good and bad.  Tragically, she exploded in the kiln due to unseen air pockets throughout.  That’s what I think of as I watch Paula Deen’s demise and it is also what I think of when I watch some of the conservative Christian reaction to the demise of DOMA and Prop 8.

Poor Paula.  She doesn’t understand why people get upset when she uses the word ‘nigger’ when she is angry or threatened or why having it as a part of her personal vocabulary is seen as…uh, questionable.  But then this shouldn’t be surprising coming from a woman who was fully willing to recreate a “Gone With the Wind” era South, complete with black slave help, for someone’s wedding2.

But remember, Paula Deen has always been this way; we’re just finding out about it.  We still lapped up every dollop of butter she served and bought every book and laughed with her when she was brained by a ham.  So what’s so different now.  Well, now we know.

So what do Paula Deen and Conservative Christians against Marriage Equality have in common?  A lot more than meets the swollen ham eye.  Although statements like Sam Roher’s and pretty much anything Michelle Bachmann has ever said, are just plain offensive, they point to a deeper more restrictive concept of religion than the one they are touting as being solely for married heterosexual couples and couples in waiting (aka their offspring) in much the same way that Paula Deen’s claim that ‘nigger’ is a fun expression is a sign of a deeper set of flaws.  These limited religious factions have decided that there is only one God, and only one interpretation of God not to mention deciding for everyone that there IS a God.  Last time I checked, most Atheists didn’t quite run that way, Hindus are creeped out by that kind of limitation in the concept of existence, Pagans question “just one?”,and well, us Unitarian Universalists don’t accept anything that hasn’t been decided by committee.

Before MB makes a statement like:

Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted….For thousands of years of recorded human history, no society has defended the legal standard of marriage as anything other than between man and woman. Only since 2000 have we seen a redefinition of this foundational unit of society in various nations.3

She might want to consult a Rabbi:

RebJeff on “What does the Bible say about marriage”

If you didn’t navigate away and look at Reb Jeff’s article on marriage (from 2012 but effective nonetheless) he basically says that the Bible just doesn’t lay it out that clearly.  He also brings up American law that only in the last 100 years gave married women ANY rights at all to their own property…largely because they were property themselves.

And Lord knows Michelle might be pretty confused by some of the “ins and outs” of Kosher sex…particularly where it says that the woman may not withhold sex or it is grounds for divorce.4

If the conservative Christians are not willing to accept even the twisted and conflicting language of their own Bible, do we really believe that they are going to take the time to truly accept Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Zoroastrians, Shinto or any tribal religions?  The framework that Roher, Bachmann et al are using is to declare Protestant Christianity the official national religion of the United States.  I will not argue that Protestant Christianity is what the dominant population who founded this country practiced.  But that same dominant population also practiced and perpetuated slavery, genocide, dowry rituals, marital rape, incest (first cousin marriage is still legal in 20 US states5) blood letting,  and more recently pre-frontal lobotomies, thalidomide, ‘hygenic’ circumcision, silicone breast implants and anti-miscegenation.  Not a great track record.

In the world of Bachmann, church is on Sunday, sex is in missionary position (appropriately named), marriage equals babies, people are either white or something else and God is God.  The terrifying part is that there are an awful lot of people in America who think this same way on some level, just like Paula Deen ignorantly accepts ‘nigger’ as a form of endearment (and she is definitely no rapper.)  The repulsion to same sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg here.  This is a group of people that does not want to see beyond their limited view and gay marriage is the current whipping boy.  After 9/11 Muslims got their wrath (and still carry it.)  Next year, there will be a new ‘other’ for them to be afraid of.  Prior to 1967, it was interracial marriage and before that integration in general and throughout our history any kind of immigrants.  These are all assaults on diversity and our rights to seek independent truth.

I return to my ill fated Marilyn statue, beautiful in some ways though she was, she could never have survived…and that is a good thing; let her rest in peace with all the conflict of talent, honest womanhood and male objectification and victimization she has come to represent.  Similarly, we need to see the limited thinkers who invoke the US founding fathers to foist their beliefs on the rest of us just for what they are: perilously constructed statues of dead icons, waiting to self destruct in the kiln of modern justice.

Footnotes

1. Christians Stunned Disappointed in DOMA Prop 8 Decisions
2. Paula Deen uses the n-word: 8 Shocking Details from her Deposition
3. Michelle Bachmann Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 Attack our Constitution
4.Kosher Sex
5.Wikipedia – Cousin Marriage