My recent post about how Unitarian congregations, including my own, once regularly put on blackface minstrel shows has generated a few questions and comments that I want to respond to in a more public way than a reply to a comment or a follow up email. This may be a lengthier reply than some expected, but I feel it’s all important to say.
These are the types of questions and comments I’ve received:
Are you white? If you are why would you be writing about a racist event? If you’re white how do you remove the white supremacist in you? Why must you (meaning me, Rev. Tony) always be so political? Is it really appropriate to apologize for the past, and the less enlightened behavior of other white people?
Yes, I am white. I enjoy all privileges that go with being white in our society. Before I continue. A bit about the term “white privilege.” White privilege is about the inherent advantages we have solely because we are white. It does not mean that any individual white life is without hardship, pain, or injustice. It does mean that whatever hardship, pain, or injustice you have faced in your white life would have in actuality been worse had you been Black and had the same experience. If it helps to do so, think of privilege as immunity. Being white in our society makes one immune to many things we will never have to feel or experience just because of our immunity. White people are immune to being denied housing due to the color of their skin. White people are immune to the problem of having to represent all white people in a classroom or workplace, team or group. This list goes on and on. One aspect of privilege is being able to ignore racial justice issues if they don’t impact you personally. This allows white people to label racial justice “political” and then claim no interest in politics. Choosing to be apolitical is the epitome of privilege. I do not talk about racial justice because it’s political. I talk about it because treating every human being with dignity and respect is the cornerstone of my Unitarian Universalist faith. I can not condone immunity to racial justice because the issues are political.
If even discussing white privilege, white supremacy, and racism bother you and make you defensive, this is called “white fragility.” White fragility encompasses thinking such as “How dare someone think I’m racist?” or “I’m a good person. I don’t hate Black people.” Getting offended and emotional whenever our own personal white attitudes and behavior are called into question shifts the issue at hand to our white feelings instead of the reality of racism experienced by others.
Why would I write about a racist event if I am white? First of all, it’s the right thing to do to call out racism and white supremacy when you see it. More importantly, it is precisely because I am white that I feel called to point out racism and white supremacy culture to other white people. I write in order to use my privilege in a way that might allow other white people to hear something about racism and white supremacy that they might otherwise ignore or dismiss. I write knowing full well I am sometimes guilty of being blind to my own privilege and favoring my own white fragility. But having privilege and being fragile aren’t the big sins. Ignoring them is. It is not my job, nor is there any need, to point out racism to black people. Black people don’t need white people to tell them that putting on shoe polish or make-up to mock black features and behavior through emphasizing ignorant stereotypes is racist and wrong.
The very nature of the evil of white supremacy is that it so controls the way we think, act, and perceive the world around us that white people don’t even notice how the way we think, act, speak – even the way we are in the world – has been and still remains controlled and affected by it. It is something that unseen, goes unseen until a breakthrough of consciousness occurs. This is often called “waking up” or “being woke.” Once awake we tend to be aware of it and see it increasingly easily. We wonder how – because it is so obvious and ever present – how we could have missed it at all? Once we unlearn what we have learned, going back to sleep is either impossible or intentional.
Once we wake up, even a little bit, it is incumbent upon us to continue to work on unlearning the world view, language, and behaviors of white supremacy. The more we do this, the more we see that racism is a system; that white supremacy is system. It is an interconnected web of cultural norms, mores, attitudes, language, and even laws, that insist on the inferiority of Black people and that this inferiority of status and place be maintained and preserved no matter the cost.
Learning about the systemic nature of racism and white supremacy helps us to move past some misconceptions about them. Racism is NOT individual acts of hatred and prejudice committed against Black people by a single white person or groups of white people. Those are racist behaviors. Racism and white supremacy are systems that go far beyond any one “bad” individual’s treatment of others.
So, why do I write about this racist event? I write so that my congregation is aware of its past immoral behavior. I write so that my community of Hopedale is aware of its past immoral behavior. I write so I can point out that unless we acknowledge and address our white supremacy and racism we perpetuate the myth that we can ignore past injustices; the myth that past injustices have no bearing on the present reality. We are not allowed to dismiss blackface and minstrel shows as “those silly racist things our ancestors did,” sure in our believe that we are not like them. This is white fragility at work. This perpetuates racism as individual acts of prejudice and perpetuates our white privilege. It is painful to admit that people from my congregation or my town did this horrible thing. We shouldn’t use our immunity to keep ourselves immune from the pain caused by racism. I hope that writing about the minstrel shows in my church and Hopedale helps us to be less fragile.
I’m not sure that I or any other white person can remove themselves from white supremacy. As I’ve said, white supremacy is a system. It surrounds us. It permeates us. I do not consider myself a white supremacist – one who believes white people are superior. But I am a fool if I think my behavior is free from the influence of white supremacy. I will do what I can to dismantle white supremacy. I will also make mistakes and apologize for them and carry on, doing my best to continue to take apart a racist culture and build a less racist one. Part of that work is calling out things such as blackface and minstrel shows as immoral evils. They were then, they are now, and they always will be.
One way we can help dismantle white supremacy is to make sure people know examples of it when they see it. Minstrel shows are such examples. Another way to dismantle white supremacy is to let others know we understand the importance of destroying it by apologizing for our complicity in its creation and its perpetuation. This is why I hope my congregation and my town will offer formal public apologies for the minstrel shows.
Apologies for historical events and the behaviors of one’s ancestors are indeed complex and controversial, but this doesn’t mean we should shy away from them. Quite the opposite. I believe my congregation and the town of Hopedale need to issue apologies as a congregation and as a town. Both the congregation and the town are institutions. These institutions have a public presence and public voice. Like it or not, we who are involved in these institutions – the current leaders and members of the congregation and the current citizens and government of the town – are the current incarnation of the very same institutions that engaged in this blatantly racist activity, so an institutional apology is appropriate. I don’t think we can speak for any of the individual performers or producers of the minstrel shows, but we can and should apologize as a congregation for the congregation’s behavior and as a town for the town’s. The individuals who make up the institutions may be different now than they were then, but the institution is the same institution. Institutional apologies make clear the systemic nature of racism and white supremacy. Racism and white supremacy culture are so intimately woven into our society that we often fail to see it in a “the fish doesn’t recognize the water it swims in” fashion. An institutional apology allows us to make this point and to point out that racist behavior of the past is part of the problem that perpetuates the ongoing system of racism and white supremacy experienced in the present.
Apologizing is a humble act of goodwill and good faith. It acknowledges what our institutions did was wrong and since we can’t go back in history and make the minstrel shows not happen, we can and should at the very least make a public statement that we know they were wrong and we are sorry that our institutions engaged in this behavior and that this behavior is still wrong. Does a photograph of a group of white men in blackface in Hopedale during the 1930s hurt a Black person who sees it any less than the photo of the governor of Virginia from the 1980s? Or less than any contemporary racist depiction hurts now?
Owning our institutional behavior might also lead to more moments of engagement and more learning opportunities. Our entire nation was built on the backs of enslaved Africans and on land stolen from native inhabitants who were victims of genocide. At some point, our nation will have to make amends and, I believe, reparations for this behavior. In light of the scope of that endeavor, an apology from a tiny church and a tiny town in Massachusetts is the humblest of contributions towards creating the beloved community.