This video is the first minute or so of our talk
This is the majority of our talk
On July 19, 2015 I delivered a talk with Tim Leisman, a member of my church, about our experiences in the Black Lives Matter movement in Greensboro, NC. Below is the text of our talk.
Karen: It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
Tim: It is our duty to win.
Karen: We must love each other and support each other.
Tim: We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Karen: This chant is one that we have learned through our involvement in the Greensboro Black Lives Matter movement. I have since learned that it is a quote from Assata Shakur. Assata Shakur has a long and complex history with the American legal system. I won’t get into whether she is innocent or guilty, but I will say that I have learned a lot from her writing and thoughts. She is an example of an interruption to the system, whether one agrees with her methods or not.
Sometimes it takes interruptions to help us see the systems we are operating in. Tim and I see the Black Lives Matter movement as a necessary interruption in our lives. Today we are going to tell you about our experiences and observations, and share with you some of our reflections into this movement, with the caveat that we can only speak for ourselves. These are strictly our individual experiences, we cannot speak for everyone.
We are going to go back and forth. We ask you to use your imaginations as we weave our stories together.
Tim: Thinking about how I got from sitting @ Faith Community Church, repeating “I am here because I believe this movement could be the movement” in December to July when I haven’t attended any rallies since April. Why?
When mental health issues that I thought I’d left behind in high school lifted themselves up, I turned around and realized I had no support system. All my closest friends from Guilford College had left and distance changed the nature of those relationships significantly. I couldn’t count on that anymore. Those were the same friends I talked with about whiteness. Shame. Multiculturalism. I found myself spending time with my neighbors – white and not always covert about their racism – although they would vehemently deny that jokes about Mexican immigrants are racist.
Why couldn’t I catch myself on the support offered by Greensboro’s burgeoning black lives matter movement, full of people of color and white allies committed to change and building compassionate communities? To find the answers, I would have to look farther back in my life at deeper identity issues.
Karen: I’m dedicating my part of today’s talk to Sandra Bland. This month Sandra was pulled over for improperly signalling. She was arrested and then three days later she was found dead in her jail cell. The police are saying she committed suicide. I didn’t know her but I, along with everyone who did know her, am not buying it. This is for you, Sandra Bland.
In December I gave a talk here about my early exposure to this movement. I told about my own discomfort at being in new and different situations. I told about being confronted with my own assumptions and biases and how sometimes I’d rather not be there.
I’m telling you that sometimes I want to throw in the towel. I want to stop caring. And then another horrific incident happens and I am once again reminded of the world we live in. A world where a white 21 year old man goes into a black church, sits down with church members for an hour, and then kills nine of them.
The night this happened I saw on my facebook feed that there was a shooting in Charleston. And I have to admit that my first thought was, “Another shooting” and I went to bed. This is the situation we’re in friends, where we can have another shooting and I brush it off as just one more shooting.
The next morning I woke up to the reality and a more complete picture of what happened and I cried. Sitting on the edge of my bed I cried for the families and I cried for our world. That Thursday night I, along with many of you, attended a church service at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We UUs were in a place with people who have a very different theology but we were able to be there to reach beyond our differences and see our common humanity. At the end of the service, there was an altar call.
Now, in the church I grew up in an altar call meant that was the time to come accept Jesus into your heart. So I was hesitant. But then I saw that everyone was going to the front. We all looked at each other and decided to go, too. We went up to the dias, held hands with the other service attendees and sang “Amazing Grace.” We prayed. We sang. We cried. And we hugged. Over and over the members of Bethel AME thanked us, a bunch of white members of UUCG, for being there. We showed up. We felt our own pain. We empathized with theirs. I was humbled by their gratitude that we showed up. Never, ever, underestimate the power of being there.
Tim: As a young white man, my life was shaped by the violence of contemporary racialization in schools. Schools are cultural indoctrinators – we learn how to act around our peers, whom to listen to and take messages of authority from. My first memory of experiencing racial difference was probably not the first time I experienced it – just the first time I remembered, because it was public and somehow humiliating. I gave a presentation about Thurgood Marshall and said at the end that without him, some of our friends might not be here, and named a black classmate. There was a strange moment. In front of the whole class, I had just named an unspoken difference; a truth that was meant to be left unspoken. How do we connect across racial differences? What keeps us separated, and Was I guilty? Was I a part? An 11 year old needs help with those questions; a 24 year old needs help with those questions; a 70 year old needs help with those questions.
But I didn’t get help. Our schools and youth programs are generally not effective at building compassionate communities – yes, even the Montessori school that my white, liberal parents could afford to send me to. At summer camp being harassed by other white kids about speaking with a lisp is my first memory of heteronormalization. From the beginning, we are part of a society that enforces these “normals”. As well-meaning as most of the dedicated, compassionate people who work with youth are, these institutions are an engine for normalization. It becomes normal to see racialized groups of kids sitting together. Whether we notice or not, it becomes normal to see teachers give preference to the raised hands of white students over those of black and latino students. And eventually, the kids indoctrinated in these schools become employers who unconsciously filter job applications by who has a white-sounding name.
And my experience, as traumatic as it may have been, was the experience of a privileged individual; an individual whom the culture wishes to indoctrinate (by force if necessary), rather than an individual who faces the greater violence of marginalization and exclusion. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t really ready to be a dedicated, authentic anti-racist ally: I had never truly confronted my past, my shame of being part of this culture. Any racially charged incident forces me to confront my privileged identity, but to be an effective interruptor, I would have to be intentional about exploring my identity every day, not just after tragic events.
Karen: Two days after the Charleston shooting, on Friday night, I found myself in another AME church, this one Trinity AME. This time with the local Black Lives Matter movement. Through the Black Lives Matter Movement, my vocabulary is being expanded. I’m learning to do things like “take up less space” and “de-center whiteness.” I’ve learned about “respectability politics” and “changing the narrative.” I’m becoming aware of how much I don’t know. Before November I had never heard the term “white supremacy.” If I did, I applied it to the KKK, not to systems in our culture. And certainly not to systems that I personally benefited from. I had heard of this concept called white privilege but had no real idea of how it applied to me and my life. I’m learning that I never knew the words white supremacy precisely because I have white privilege.
I’m learning to question my assumptions and be open to stories and learn from others in ways I never considered before. That night at Trinity AME we prayed, we called on the ancestors…Bayard Rustin, Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, among others, we drummed and we chanted. The pain of the last few days came up and through us while we were there for each other in ways that are hard to articulate. What I can say is that the connections are real. The ways I am being challenged to live my values as a Unitarian Universalist are real and I am committed to the process.
Tim and I come to you as people on the journey, not people with answers. I personally come to you to plead my ignorance and say that I’m learning and continue to learn, about systems of racism and how they work in our society.
Tim: At Guilford College we learned about systems of racism, about how an oppressive culture affects everyone – both the oppressed and privileged individuals. But I had never unpacked that, or truly looked into it. How do Anglo-Europeans, with all the privileges that come with living in a Euro-centric culture, suffer violence? I had a loose sense that this had to do with the psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”. It wasn’t until my senior year that an amazing individual, Jada Drew who at the time was the co-director of the Multicultural Education Dept, told me that I “didn’t know as much as I thought I knew”. Looking back, that was the piece of advice I should have taken and run with, going deeper into learning more about myself and my white identity.
At the end of one invigorating meeting with Black Lives Matter organizers and supporters, I got into a conversation where I was checked on my privilege. What did I think about being a young white man who just got a great job, living in a historically low income neighborhood? While I don’t think he intended to shame me, and he wasn’t attacking who I was as a person, I felt shameful. Being called out on privilege can always bring out a sense of shame, because so much of our identity is wrapped up in privilege. More so, I felt stupid because now it was public and clear that I didn’t know as much as I tried to present.
Did white shame prevent me from engaging with the fierce activists with whom I had been close while interning with the Beloved Community Center (around the “safer” cause of voter turnout)? Maybe. Was it overwhelming depression, worse than I had experienced since middle school? Maybe. The new and greater-than-expected challenges of balancing my life with my first full time job? Maybe.
Part of white people working with people of color for justice, to dismantle systems of white supremacy from which we outwardly benefit, is the recognition that we don’t know as much as we think we do. The acceptance that we may not always be articulate about our feelings, and that the answers to these questions are not succinct. And This sermon will not provide the answers.
The answers are in holding each other accountable, but also in laughing. In healing each other, seeking therapy alone and in groups, grieving together and forgiving. I know that I can fall back on this community for help searching, searching for transformative support. Transformation looks like organizations working to empower youth in schools with messages of anti-racism, anti-homophobia, and the tools to stand up against bias. Transformation looks like white people attending meetings organized by black leaders and lending their support. It means saying Black Lives Matter. Transformation looks like challenging and sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable.
Karen: Recently I was in a conversation with my friend April Parker who is a local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. She has several criticisms against the mainstream gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender organizations, one of which is this: Is their work transformative? Are lives being transformed? Are communities being transformed?
That really struck a nerve with me because as a leader in our church, I have a strong investment in our church being an agent for
transformation. It got me wondering if we actually are. Our governance structure is based on a book written by Dan Hotchkiss called “Governance and Ministry.” In the end of the book, after lots of explanations about policies, why we have them, and what they’re for, (only things that a governance geek like me cares about) he breaks it down like this: churches, whatever denomination they are, no matter how we practice our faith, should be about the work of transformation. The bottom line is this: we need to be transforming lives. If I am personally not being transformed, if our church is not transforming lives and our community, what are we doing?
The Black Lives Matter movement, as little as I’ve been involved in it, has transformed me. It has made me a more conscious and aware person about many issues including race. And I can honestly say that this church has transformed me as well. So my next question was: What are we as a church doing to transform both ourselves and our community?
If you’re thinking, what in the world can I possibly do, racism is HUGE and I am but one person, here’s one simple thing you can do: become of a member of the NC NAACP. It is really easy. In fact, they are having a meeting tonight. You can come with me.
You can address comments you hear at work, at the grocery store, in your own head – internalized racism is real. You can learn to question your assumptions. You can be willing to learn and you can be willing to serve. You can join me and Tim in reading Rev. Thandeka’s book, “Learning to be White.” You can come to our meeting on Tuesday, July 28.
Tim: In closing, this is what transformation looks like: two white people willing to talk about our experiences, being vulnerable with you, and saying, let’s go on this journey together. Transformation is my journey learning why it’s important to say black lives matter in this moment. It’s important to affirm the value and inherent dignity of all lives, as our first UU principle does. But to say Black lives matter is to recognize that something needs to change in 2015 in America, that I am ready to be transformed and to behave in transformative ways. Are you willing to be transformed?
Karen: If you are willing to be transformed, listen to the choir chant “Black Lives Matter!” and when you are comfortable you are welcome to join in.