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What We Inherit: White Supremacy

For several years people have mentioned how much I look like my mother. I never thought I looked like my mother. She had brown eyes, I have blue. I have freckles, she had none. I certainly hear my mother’s voice in my own … in the phrases I use, my tendency to mumble incomplete thoughts, and an occasional exclamation to the person driving (my husband), “You don’t want to go that way!” (An inside family joke – a story for another time.) But, since I got my hair cut short a couple of months ago, every time I look in the mirror, there’s my mother. Can’t get away from what we inherit in looks, and difficult to run from the mannerisms, phrases, and other characteristics we are either born with or pick up from those who birthed us and/or raised us.

We inherit many things that are invisible to us, until and unless we intentionally seek to see the invisible. White supremacy is like this. Everyone of us living in the United States of America inherited the systems of white supremacy that are in the DNA of our founding. Whether one is actually a White Supremacist, actively engaged in promoting the idea that people who believe they are white (of western European descent) are better than people of other ethnicities, or one is actively working to build an equitable, just, multicultural country, we are swimming and functioning in the waters of white supremacy.

I’m currently reading “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg. For anyone still living under the illusion that the U.S. was intended as a class-free society, that illusion will quickly melt away. America offered an opportunity for England to rid itself of the poor, the criminal, the homeless, and the “unworthy.” Our founders were not saints who saw all humans as equal. Most of those who protested slavery did so because of the belief that having a slave system made white people lazy, not because it was wrong to enslave people, or because they saw people who were not white as equals. And this is what we in the United States have all inherited: a system that was based on the premise that some people are better than others, some white people (descendants of wealthy, educated Englishmen) are better than other white people, and all white people are better than people who are not white.

Just like the face I see in the mirror will always remind me of my mother, it will also reminds me of the system of white supremacy in which I swim. This is important for all white folks to see … and especially liberal white folks. We can often fall in to the trap of thinking that because we envision an equitable society where we see no race, or because we aren’t overt racists, that we aren’t part of the system of white supremacy. This is how we become complicit and perpetuating systems of white supremacy. I recommend this spiritual practice for people who pass as white: In order to increase your awareness, each day wake up and ask, “How will my life be easier today because I am white?” Then, at the end of the day reflect on all the encounters in the day in which you were aware that you are white, and the advantages that provided. Awareness is just the beginning. The next step is to challenge yourself to step away from those advantages, decline the offer (or don’t apply in the first place), hand the microphone to a person of color, listen more than talking, actively challenge your white privilege.

A Change of Plans

Sabbatical time for ministers is unique to each minister. We each have to follow our hearts and souls toward what is calling us forward in this time of rest, renewal, and reflection. Recently I listened to a guided meditation containing affirmations “to help you switch on the happiness button in your brain and have a magical day.” One of the affirmations is “I make plans that are flexible and open to the surprises life has in store for me.”

I made plans to backpack on the Appalachian Trail for 30 days … really serious plans! There are countless details that have to be considered for food, shelter, clothing, and so forth. I embarked on my journey on Easter Sunday, starting with an ascent of over 3,000 feet in elevation change over very challenging terrain. Over the next four days I hiked more difficult ascents, navigated steep descents, walked through pouring rain, and found my way through dense fog. I saw great beauty, the devastating effects of humanity where whole forests and mountaintops were burned to the ground, and found hope in the new life emerging in those spaces.

I felt strong, capable, and agile. And, a knee injury I sustained last year kept nagging me all along the way. After four days, four nights, and 30 miles, I came to the realization that if I continued to hike for 26 more days, this could be my last hike. I’m young(ish)! I want to hike for 20 or 30 more years! So, I said, “Yes!” to a future of hiking and came off the trail. I am making a commitment to myself to go on day hikes and overnight hikes several times a year so I can regularly connect with the earth and keep my body strong.

Spiritually, this hike was extraordinary. I can’t wait to share some of the stories with you when I return. I encountered over 270 people hiking north as I hiked south from the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, NC. I had deep conversations with several people, and with each person I encountered, however briefly, I felt the divine spark of connection. I walked with a bigger smile, a lighter step, and a song on my heart after each encounter. It was a great joy to have this experience. I am full of gratitude.

On another note, there is much happening in our UU faith in the past couple of months. Emotions are high as deep wounds from many decades are being exposed, wounds that lay hidden or ignored for too long. I expect many of you are tuned in, and perhaps wondering where we are going. I have a deep and abiding faith in Unitarian Universalism and I am excited for our future … we are finding a new way towards being the multicultural, multigenerational, spiritually pluralist faith many of us dream about. I hold you all in my heart with compassion as we navigate the journeys of our faith, with all the ascents, descents, sunshine, downpours, and fog.