May 31, 2012 - Social Studies    15 Comments

Walking the Talk

I’ve been trying to string these observations together for three days now, and failing utterly to find a single narrative thread. But I really feel the need to get these ideas out there. So, instead of a coherent blog post, you get a bunch of random thoughts about the complexities of race relations. My apologies.


Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed and me, May 2012

I’m thinking a lot about race these days. Part of that is deliberate. I took part in a study group about the racial history of my religion, Unitarian Universalism, at church, in anticipation of a weekend visit by the foremost historian of the African American UU experience, Mark Morrison-Reed. We read his book, Darkening the Doorways, and discussed everything from white privilege, to assumptions about what black visitors to our church would find welcoming, to outreach efforts to walk the talk on multicultural engagement.

The accompanying workshop, and the extended conversation for the group of us, was difficult and painful, but soul work really should be. The first principle of our faith is that we honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we’ve been unsuccessful more often than successful at truly embracing real diversity in our church homes. We’re so much more comfortable going into communities of color for a day of service–us doing things for them, not with them–then returning to our monochromatic congregations on Sunday with the glow of righteousness.

The main conclusion we came to that day, with Mark’s help, is that communities of color are used to people coming and going. What they’re not used to is people staying. Volunteers paint buildings and plant gardens. They don’t come back to touch-up or weed. It’s the same with political work. Don’t just show up for the march–come back for coffee, stay for dinner. Don’t just make speeches–ask what they want, and listen as long as they want to talk.


I’m not colorblind. My stepdad says he is, with ridiculous statements like, “I don’t see race” and “There’s no such thing as black and white–we’re all cocoa, vanilla, cream tea, cinnamon.”  It sounds delicious, but it’s hard for me to reconcile this kind of obliviousness with his history as a young white man who stood up for civil rights in the ’60s. He even attended Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. To me, this is blindness, not color blindness, and it diminishes the real struggle people of color have had and continue to have in America. Is this a relic of that generation of liberal speech on race? Did it sound as insensitive in the past as it does now?


I see race because I see patterns. As a kid, I was curious about things like melanin, epicanthic folds, and naso-labial shapes. But I was far more fascinated by the differences than worried about them. I noticed that people of different ethnicities smelled differently, and I wanted to taste the food I scented on their clothing and in their hair. I collected dolls dressed in the native costumes of different nations. I spent hours in a Chicago-area children’s museum, acting out family life from Fiddler on the Roof in the kid-sized Jewish home, and making tortillas and touching all the weavings in the Mexican home. And my mom tells me that, around the age of 2 and 3, I would babble incessantly in some weird language, then sigh in exasperation when she told me to stop talking nonsense. “*Mo-om*, it’s not nonsense,” she says I said, “I’m speaking French.” To this day, she wishes she’d known someone who spoke French, to find out if I actually was.


I worked in a record store at the last year of my undergrad work, in Lawrence, Kansas. I loved my job, but I’d watch the kids who browsed a little too long in the Rap/R&B section. The white boys were so stupidly obvious, all I had to do was walk up to them and ask them how I could help to get them to mumble nervously and quickly leave the store, their shoplifting plans foiled. When it was young men of color, I’d watch them, then deliberately turn away, telling myself it wasn’t fair to profile them thus. After they left, I’d do a quick check of the section, and when I found neatly razorbladed magnetic tags or plastic wrappers stuffed into the corners of the racks, I was furious and hurt. I hated that they reinforced the negative stereotypes, justified my profiling, and made me feel racist and ashamed.


I just read a book by John L. Jackson, Jr. called Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, in which he makes a compelling case that, in the wake of the advances at exterminating de jure (in the law) and de facto (in reality) racism, all the remaining ambivalence gets internalized into what he calls de cardio (in the heart) racism, which isn’t even always conscious, and will be much harder to stamp out. Jackson posits that, if people on both sides of the color line can’t trust people to speak the truth about race, they come to mistrust everything they say about race, leading to deep racial paranoia.


The book taught me about the propensity to believe in vast conspiracies, based on this fundamental mistrust, and the books and music who advance these theories in the black community. I felt about a dozen questions and observations snap into place, finally in context, with each chapter. And his theory confirms my suspicions about the direction public attitudes about LGBT folks are headed, as it becomes increasingly less acceptable to openly discriminate. In this way, among so many others, we have to acknowledge that civil rights are civil rights are civil rights.


Few things make me as frustrated or embarrassed as seeing white people co-opting pieces of other cultures as their own. Purely Euro-American people drumming in sweat lodge retreats at expensive resorts. Suburban soccer moms who say they understand Latinos because they’re sending their kids to a Spanish-immersion private school. Kids putting on the swagger and language of inner city culture, without having to suffer any of the doubt and fear that comes with walking through gated communities while black.

A few years ago, I heard someone ask, “Why is cocaine so addictive and damaging, when South Americans chew coca leaves for years and never suffer ill health?” The answer is simple. Because when you take something out of context–extract, distill, purify–you may amplify the parts you want, but you lose hundreds of organic compounds that balance and mitigate the downsides in ways we don’t even fully understand.

Culture works the same way. When you sample ideas and practices out of context, you may feel enlightened and energized by your new, hip, exclusive experience, but you’re missing the point, and denigrating a culture that’s richer than you even know. Admire Native American spirituality? Learn about rez life. Like to sing African American spirituals? Learn about the black experience of Christianity and liberation theology. Do the work, and learn the context.


I’m not trying to “put on” blackness, with all these inquiries into race lately. I want to understand a culture that is, in so many ways, hidden in plain sight. I want to understand how people of color experience the same things I experience, each of us through our different lenses. Those lenses are ground by things like dinner table conversations, schoolyard lessons, the looks you get (or feel) walking down the street, and how it feels to stand on thresholds real and metaphoric.

I’ve experienced the world through the lens of white privilege; I know that deep in my bones. I don’t feel guilt, but I do feel regret. I’ve also experienced the world through the lenses of being female, being autistic, being liberal, being curious. I want to hear the voices, and I have a deep desire to reach across that divide, as much as I would be welcomed, to speak to and embrace the common humanity of us all. I’m not satisfied with the boundaries others tell me are “safe.”


I am happiest when my world is diverse. And I want my boys to grow up thinking that friends come in every shape, gender, color, physical ability, and personality. When they were younger, I took them to the parks where the immigrant families came for day trips, up from Chicago. A lot of the locals in our lily-white resort town told us to avoid them on weekends, but I wanted my sons to smell different cooking, hear different languages, and play with every kind of kid. So many families welcomed my wild, gregarious sons, and seemed delighted with the mingled laughter and fun of their children and mine.

When they ran over to ask if they could play with a new friend, I asked them to point out at least one of the kids’ parents. They would point vaguely, eager to return to the game, and say, “His dad is the one in the green shirt” or “His mom has long hair.” I would follow their little pointing finger, and as often than not, the man in the green shirt was also black, or the woman with long hair was dressed in a sari. But those things didn’t register as different enough to remark upon, and skin color was irrelevant, next to the possibility of a new playmate.

Am I wrong to be proud of that? I don’t want to seem self-congratulatory. But teaching values to kids is such a fraught proposition, and the way they treat others–especially perfect strangers–is one of the real litmus tests for whether your lessons are sinking in. They’re a big part of why I want to expand my circle of friends and contacts to include more people of color. The indifference to difference doesn’t last forever. It’s time for me to put my body and heart where my values are, for them to see.



  • I’m not entirely certain we need a category of internalized paranoia separate from the normal sort of human myth making applied to the ongoing structural dimensions of race relations. And that’s what I feel is at the heart of making sense of race in the US.

    IOW for African Americans the heart of structural racism has shifted from Jim Crow laws to the discriminatory application of the “Justice System.”

    But I admit that my own intellectual bias is to put systems, structures, and institutions in the center of the analytical picture.

    • Jackson’s not denying institutional racism at all. His point is more that, if you can’t see racism anywhere because people have internalized it and it’s no longer blatant, then you start to see racism everywhere, even in places and situations where there truly is no racist angle. Once you get blindsided by it materializing from seemingly benign players in society, you start flinching at everything.

      It’s very much the same with sexism and many other forms of discrimination that are no longer socially acceptable in the “Woman, get in the kitchen and fix me some pie!” forms. It’s still institutionalized, but because some of us feel like kicked puppies about it after having our trust betrayed too many times, we read every situation as discriminatory. And sadly, bracing ourselves that way puts up walls that keep people from having honest conversations about their experiences.

  • You’re right… this is a lot of area to cover.

    One commonality in many of these stories, however, is a sort of wistfulness, an acknowledgement, perhaps, of how many ways race still segregates our experience. I hear you express, I think, a regret for that “visiting” sense in communities of color.

    But communities of color change when they’re communities of ALL colors, just as communities of women are changed by the inclusion of men. For myself, I try to value my own experiences, whether in mixed, dominant, or minority groups, as building blocks of “our” culture, and try to listen to the stories of people who have different blocks.

    • Yes, “wistful” is a good word for one of the underlying sentiments to all those stories. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a total Pollyanna. I wish I could build my own little multicultural utopia of friends around me, and keep them all safe from the slings and arrows. Or if not keep them safe, create a space where they can tell their stories–you’re completely right about that, that’s the kind of relationship I want to engage in–and be whomever they want to be.

  • I’ve always been wary of the rule, “The best way to turn your kids into racists is to raise them to be color-blind.” I say ‘wary,’ because I consider it with care; I don’t accept it in full, but neither do I want to fall into the presumed trap. It’s important for me to own my behavior about stereotypes, and yet also explain _why_ the stereotypes exist. (My sister says I’ve ruined her from watching movies and television because I pointed out the racial inequities and presumptions. I’ve instead tried to point her to resources on how to like problematic things.)

  • I find I often don’t comment on your blog, although I almost always read it, because I have the sensation of being an uneducated hayseed among a klatch of hyper-literate thinkers. I think several inches below this level, but I’ll play anyway. I have a few thoughts.

    I love that you acknowledged the irritating practice of borrowing selectively from other cultures. Come November, as the mother of a Native American child, I feel an irritation surrounding this so profound I could just bite someone. I would rather schools never mentioned Indians at all than “educated” this way, leaving out everything that matters and packaging everything as a Disney movie, which allows teachers and students to believe that they have taught and learned. I try very hard hard to remember that no harm is actually intended.

    I have three sons–two white, one brown. I noticed with pride that, growing up, my older two didn’t seem especially concerned with race, exactly the way you describe your sons. Skin color was one, not necessarily important feature. For my youngest, though, it is defining. He always notices if someone is white or “brown” like him and comments. He classifies. He sees history through the lens of race. So, it has made me wonder if the color blindness I celebrated was not itself a feature of white privilege, expressed in the language and mores of the 21st century, or whether the awareness of race within my darker son is the seed of a sort of innocuous racism itself. That is an answer I really do not have.

    • Bah, humbug–you’re easily as smart and thoughtful as any of my readers, or me, for that matter. 🙂
      And there’s nothing wrong with a kid who sees race; it certainly doesn’t indicate anything about the child’s ability to perceive the person’s inner worth. I wonder if the awareness of race your son experiences is part of seeing patterns in the world, as an ADHD kid, like I do as an Aspie. Everybody picks up on different topographies in society, and that might just be his. You’d be doing him a disservice if you kept from him for too long the complexity that defines racial history, and it’s good that you’re the kind of mom who’ll learn with him and be ready to discuss and debrief as needed when you get to the frankly disturbing parts.

      • I think you’re right. Mikalh sees race because it matters to him. I see fibromyalgia, where before it would have passed unnoticed. It just makes me wonder why, at three, it already mattered. I never felt there was anything wrong with it. I just thought there was some sort of clue to something in that fact. He was very aware that he did not look like me. He is also very proud to be Native American. Just aware.

        The history thing has already come up some, because as soon as they introduce their version of Columbus Day and Thanksgiving at home, we counter with ours. We got him a book called Squanto’s Journey and tried to educate him about the perspective of the various tribes at contact, without being overly grim. And my husband is big on not whitewashing Native culture either, but being honest about things that Indians did that we would now think of as unethical, too.

  • Hi Jess,

    A very thought provoking post and on a topic I have often considered. I have been a UU since I was eleven years old (with a sizable hiatus in my attendance during my 20s and early 30s). Race has been a constant topic, however. My mother-in-law recently delivered a sermon here in which she talked about the diversity that existed in her childhood Unitarian congregation, All Souls in Washington D.C. In the early 50s, her father, the minister stood at the pulpit and told his congregation that as Unitarians, they had no business patronizing businesses which were segregated. His congregation was home to a racially diverse crowd and it’s focus lay in social justice.

    I am half Native American, but I grew up asserting white male privilege and mostly, I get away with it. I do, however, have some opinions about race and Unitarian Universalists. I thin k it is good for us to look at race, but I do believe the elephant in the living room is classicism. Here is a link to a sermon I wrote several years ago and delivered at the Santa Fe UU congregation..

    I do think we should continue to look at race and especially the structures which continue to put racial minorities at a disadvantage. But as UUs I think we ought to look closely at class and the assumptions we make about people who might join a UU congregation.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts–I’ll read the sermon as soon as the kids are off to school! 🙂

      I urge you to grab a copy of the Mark Morrison-Reed book I referred to. It’s full of fascinating stories from the denomination’s history, and does a good job of explaining the whole Black Power thing that almost tore the denomination apart, not long after the two groups joined forces. He refers to All Souls as being one of the truly successful examples of an integrated congregation, and discusses his theories about why that is. I’d love to go there someday, when we’re visiting friends in the area.

      In the work group I participated in before his visit, the first thing we did was answer the questions “How would you describe our church to someone who’s never been here, or even heard of UUism?” Then they asked how we would describe it to a person of color. At first, all our definitions changed a great deal, then someone said, “Wait, why are we assuming they would want the same things they could get from their own traditions? If they wanted that, they’d go there.” It just rocked us, and ripped away the cloth covering all the assumptions we were making. They were all from a place of love and reaching out, but still pretty presumptive and ignorant. I was so grateful to proceed with the rest of the study with my eyes wide and alert to those kind of assumptions.

      And as a person who’s enjoyed the privilege of access to education and a middle-class upbringing, but has been poor enough to qualify for state health insurance for most of her married life, I feel those class expectations acutely, especially when it comes to pledge drives. One church we went to asked for people to pledge time and talents in addition to treasure, and I was very grateful to have something valuable to write on those lines. It’s that kind of attention to classism I’d like to see more commonly.

      • Then they asked how we would describe it to a person of color. At first, all our definitions changed a great deal, then someone said, “Wait, why are we assuming they would want the same things they could get from their own traditions?

        Wow, that is really interesting. It is the sort of thing that hasn’t ever crossed my mind. Not to say that the UU denominations I’ve been to have been particularly diverse, but it never exactly crossed my mind that people’s presentation of a UU denomination would change so much based on the color of whom they are talking to. It makes a certain kind of sense….human nature, but it really surprised me.

        I suppose, however, in a way I have been very aware of this. I have commented to people that when I worked construction, I would have been more likely to invite one of my immigrant friends than one of the caucasian workers. The reason being, I had a sense that the congregants would see someone whose not white and come over to be welcoming, regardless of their education or ability to articulate themselves. However, I didn’t think any of my white construction workers would receive the same welcome.

        In short, I believe UUs have an interesting relationship with non-whites. In an effort to be diverse and wave our non-racist flags, we would bend over backwards to welcome someone with brown skin, though in a short time, they may not actually feel welcome. While someone visiting from the same trailer park, who is white might immediately feel unwelcome or maybe looked down on.

  • Episcopalians seems to have a similar issue with and relation to race that UUs do. Much of what you said resonates with my experience of my adulthood faith (I grew up Baptist, was agnostic/recovering-Baptist/atheist for a decade or more.)

    I watched a documentary (Hip Hop and The LA Riots on which was of mixed quality but more importantly really shook me up, so that if I were to posit that I am post-racism/-race I now know better. There is yet much baggage from my background. Also, I wish we had another word for race in this context because it’s very much a class+race+history of America sort of thing, since interacting for decades with people from say Haiti or Kenya has brought up different issues, mainly of a post-colonial, linguistic or nationalist bent; totally different deal than the America-and-race scripts.

    • I wish there were a word like that too! And I’d love to see that documentary, regardless of its quality. The Jackson book had a chapter on the conspiracy messages in hip hop that was a non-stop shock to me. There’s this whole thing that the word “mathematical” means–I’ve heard that song in hip hop for decades and never known it was a reference to this whole One/Five/Ten Percenter idea (not the same one as Occupy). It was another of those moments when I realized that this whole thing has been passing me by.

  • I was just thinking about this blog post and through a series of mental leaps that make sense only to me, I remembered a documentary, “Homeland – Four Portraits of Native Action.” I found this to be an incredible documentary, uplifting and insightful. I think you would enjoy it and it does pertain to race relations in this country.

    • I’m sure I will, thanks so much for the recommendation! The film I mentioned in the list of religious studies movies, In the Light of Reverence, is also outstanding, and sounds similar. I’m also looking forward to reading the book Rez Life, but I’m something like 67th on the request list for a copy at the library. 🙂

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