Since erecting a “Black Lives Matter” sign, some people have called the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a “racist church.” I suppose the truth of such an assertion depends largely on the definition we apply to the word “racist.” So, let me make this easier by discussing myself in this context.
I am racist. Me, Jeff Liebmann, I am racist. Now, what do I mean by that? I mean that as a person identified as white in a society where being identified as white is a privilege, I am by definition racist. I benefit from my inherent whiteness, whether I want to or not.
This does not make me a bad person. Just as I did nothing to earn my white privilege, I could not stop society from bestowing that privilege on me. Therefore, until I learned that this imbalance existed, I was not to blame for the privilege I received, even though I unknowingly took full advantage of that privilege.
That said, it did not take long for me to learn that I was privileged in this society because of my skin color. In school, I studied slavery, the Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement. I read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and bell hooks. I grappled with the guilt and shame that I was somehow responsible for injustice and inequality that I felt might be inherent in our society.
I was racist. And I was a racist. I was a racist because I was not yet doing anything to eliminate racism. I had not yet learned how to use my privilege to create space for people of color in America to speak for themselves and to be heard. So I attended workshops on community organizing and anti-racism/anti-oppression. I practiced being an ally to people of color. And I helped other whites understand privilege and its pernicious effects.
I am still racist. Barring a radical social revolution, I will retain my white privilege for the rest of my life. So I am still racist. But I am working very hard at not being a racist. That may sound like a subtle distinction, but it is not. All people who possess privilege are by definition oppressive. But they don’t have to be oppressors. I am racist because I possess privilege I did not earn. But I try to use that privilege to create a society where privilege does not exist. I am racist, but I am trying to not be a racist.
So, by my definition, is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland racist? Yes. Because our membership happens to be predominately white in a society, and in particular in a city where whiteness is privileged, then we are racist.
Is the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland a racist church? We are trying very hard not to be. By erecting our Black Lives Matter banner, we tell our neighbors in Midland that racism is alive and well and that we are working to eliminate it. Through study and reflection, we are seeking ways to end systemic oppression of people of color in our society. And through our public witness, we hope to use our privilege to create a space for oppressed voices to be heard.
The arc of the moral universe is long, and we cannot see its path over the horizon. But we believe that that arc bends toward justice.