The Next White Flight?

I was speaking with a colleague from Detroit this week, lamenting our position as activist, black, gay men who are also clergy and we realized that we are often in situations where we are asked to choose our allegiance: are we working on/with black issues or LGBT issues? I also recently attended a meeting of local black LGBT leaders where the same question arose: black or LGBT? The way that communities of color and LGBT groups are so disjointed sometimes, leaves someone like me at odds. Too frequently, in black and brown spaces, we are asked to leave our LGBT selves outside, because it is felt that sexuality issues dilute the power of the race conversation, or that LGBT is a “white” issue. Likewise, in predominantly white LGBT spaces, people of color are frequently ghettoized (that is, called upon to speak for our entire race) or entirely left out of the conversation because of access (funding, location, cultural setting, etc.) Case in point, I also attended a presentation by one of our local LGBT politicians (a dynamic young man of color) yet I was the only African American in the audience, although there were a couple of Asian and Latino folks. Questions from the audience were all targeted at youth, marriage equality and local LGBT history; the only question on race was one that furthered the perception of local black communities harboring negative feelings for LGBT issues.

“What happens when the LGBT fight becomes predominantly black and brown?”

There is a disturbing threat on the horizon. As a gay man who cannot ignore the issues of race in the United States, I watch the events of Baltimore over the last few weeks as well as New York, Oakland, Chicago, Ferguson and Sanford over the last few years and I am worried about the very real potential for “LGBT White Flight.”

What happens when the LGBT fight becomes predominantly black and brown? When the Supreme Court rules to make Marriage Equality the law of the land, will the funding from white LGBT donors dry up? Will the white LGBT allies fail to show up at the marches or more importantly at the polls?  Will we see an uptick in the number of LGBT folks who align with conservative fiscal policies that promote their personal wealth over the overal health and welfare of those who are marginalized? Right now, significant LGBT wealth is pouring into the fight for Marriage Equality. Even a cursory glance at major donors and supporters of this effort, shows how LGBT donors and organizations sometimes have significantly less connection to communities of color, and if they do, it is very narrowly focused. Yet organizations who are funding and supporting racial justice work, are much more likely to be public and financial allies of LGBT efforts.  If the commitment is only marginal now, what will the motivation be to make it more equitable in the future?

The face of the Marriage Equality fight is overwhelmingly white. Although there are a handful of plaintiffs who are people of color, and a significant number of children of these families are people of color, the positioning of the benefits to be gained from marriage status (tax benefits, partner, employment benefits, community and social standing) are portrayed on the surface as benefits that are associated with white affluence in our country. Yet, when this one battle is won, the LGBT fight for opportunity will be far from over for people of color. In a recent study from Movement Advancement Project and Center for American Progress ( PAYING AN UNFAIR PRICE: The Financial Penalty for LGBT People of Color in America) the numbers are clear that poverty and lack of opportunity and lack of security plague LGBT people of color more than their white or non-LGBT counterparts:

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A 2014 report from the Black Youth Project ( Moving Beyond Marriage: What Young People of Color Think about the LGBT Agenda) has some surprising numbers as well showing how a majority of young people of color think that the LGBT Agenda isn’t aligned with their priorities:

“This report demonstrates that while young people grant strong support to same-sex marriage, young people—especially young people of color—also believe that several other policies should have greater priority in the fight for LGBT equality. For instance, more than 80 percent of Black, white, and Latino youth support policies to guarantee employment rights, while 65 to 70 percent of young people support same-sex marriage….

Our findings also indicate that young people of color are skeptical about whether mainstream LGBT organizations advocate policies that are important for LGBT individuals in communities of color. Young people of color are perhaps uniquely situated to identify what policies are most likely to have the greatest impact on their communities.”

We cannot choose one identity or the other.  We all live at crossroads of identity.  The question is, will the same happy gay and lesbian couples who embrace and celebrate on the steps of the Supreme Court in victory for their ability to marry and share benefits, then be willing to turn around and travel the 29 miles up Interstate 295 to march in the streets of Baltimore to support their black trans* siblings who are targeted and murdered by police (Mya Hall)? Will the major donors to Equality California also fund safe spaces for Cambodian LGBT youth in Long Beach?

We cannot let the LGBT movement turn into a cultural Detroit, Oakland or Cleveland…abandoned by the people who can now afford to disappear into the suburban mainstream.

End LGBT Racism

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve created this little video as a call to action in the LGBT community. We have enough challenges without labeling each other and speaking to each other in “types.” To call the LGBT movement the “New Civil Rights Movement” without addressing the rampant racism within the community is a travesty. And this isn’t just a black white issue: it influences relationships for every person of color in the LGBT community.  If we want both self respect and the respect of society at large, let’s end this game of internal oppression and deal with our own deep failings.

End LGBT Racism NOW!

Not a Toy

The Real Tina Turner – Not a costume!

This morning I read an US Weekly piece about the music artist Ellie Goulding from “Burn” being attacked on Instagram for wearing an imitation Native American headdress for Halloween. The singer claims that she hadn’t worn the costume yet when the photos were posted. Of course this isn’t the first time Native American “inspired” outfits got someone into trouble; remember a couple of years ago when Karlie Kloss walked the catwalk for Victoria’s Secret in a full length headdress? (read about it here. Yeah, they were serving “rain dance refresher” cocktails at the “pow wow” themed afterparty.) Halloween seems to be the time when people of color suddenly go from being actual living breathing beings to someone’s first place in a costume contest.

News Flash: People of Color Are NOT Playthings

That’s right folks, gone are the days when one could dress up as an “Injun” or “Mariachi Band”or a “pickaninny.” You might think its “all just in fun” or that “everyone does it” but people of color en masse are saying enough, and frankly, we don’t do it, or if we do, its certainly to make a point. This is the danger of the commercialism of a holiday like Halloween. For years, it has taken advantage of the de-humanization of people of color so that along side the other animal costumes (gorilla, wolf, etc.) you had Aunt Jemima and Charlie Chan. Maybe these kind of outrageous stereotypes are gone, but the impulse of mocking appropriation that put them out there is not. There is still a lot of work to do in letting people know that the era where people of color are voiceless, nameless myths that are great fodder for a joke is OVER.

People of color are redefining what “harmless play” is and that’s a good thing. Some older generations squawk at a lost innocence. I would argue that it is more of a lost ignorance. Suddenly (for some) everyone actually matters. I remember years ago being told that I couldn’t play Elvis Presley in a review show. My argument was that if they were going to have a white woman playing Tina Turner in the same show, than surely I could also play Elvis. Alas I did not win that battle because of course Elvis Presley (who was dead by that point) actually matters and Tina Turner (who is still very much alive…thank you very much) does not.

What is happening is that the core sense of what it means to have an identity of any kind is changing. Not only in terms of intersectionality, but even in terms of the big ticket single identifiers (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish…etc.) But in this identity revolution it seems sometimes as if people who identify as white are being left behind. It is as if privilege has been a drug that has numbed the sense of self identity among many whites, particularly older generations. It is extremely easy for someone like me, African American, gay…to look at the actions of Ellie Goulding and say “oh HELL no!” And I would tend to believe that goes for pretty much most people of color. Our senses are open and raw to this kind of hurt.  But I know for a fact (having had the conversation about the fashion show) that any number of white people I know, wouldn’t see the harm…wouldn’t get it. This is the morphine drip of privilege at work. How can you feel a sensibility that is blocked? There are those (mostly millennials) who are coming off of the anesthetic. They immediately get what it means when you ape someone else’s culture. But Ellie Goulding is 27 years old. Granted, she’s British; she has no personal cultural context for a relationship with Native Americans. But in this age of global internet, it is difficult to make any excuse for an international public figure being this unaware.

I’ve been told by some people reacting to the people of color revolution that it seems like an awful lot of work. This is, I believe, the reason that we even use the term “people of color”; it is shorthand for the dominant culture…much more digestible. I’ve always thought, however, considering world demographics that this terminology should be the other way around and that we should be referring to the global minority as “people of non-color.” I guess, in certain minds, recognizing each and every person for who they are and how they identify and trying to be authentic with them just isn’t as sexy as being able to make the odd Chinese or Indian joke. My response is this: think about how much work it has been to live invisible, mocked at, objectified, fetishized, stereotyped and generally put down for 400+ years?

The rest of the world is a little tired and ready to move on.

Oh, and speaking of sexy…don’t get me started on the whole “Sexy(…)” costume trend and the horrific stuff that says about what we think of women. UGH! But that’s another blog.

 

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

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.