Ponderings of the Spiritual Life Director 9-12-18

“Unity in Diversity: Making Room”

We are not like the social insects. They have only the one way of doing things and they will do it forever, coded for that way. We are coded differently, not just for binary choices, go or no-go. We can go four ways at once, depending on how the air feels: go, no-go, but also maybe, plus what the hell let’s give it a try.

-Lewis Thomas, physician and science writer

I’ve been studying a document for the past half year to better understand cultural systems of oppression. These systems resist change, oppress minorities, and keep new ideas from flourishing. I’ve encountered this document in my church leadership training and at General Assembly at a Fahs Collaborative workshop. Its main points were blown up on a giant, wall-sized poster, stressing the importance of understanding the culture in which we exist. The document is entitled “White Supremacy Culture” and was written by activist Tema Okun. The document are lists 15 characteristics of behavior that a culture may display, perhaps without even knowing. The thing about culture is, the longer you are in it, the more invisible it becomes. Therefore, the behavior that oppresses often goes unnoticed and is unintentionally hurting those we wish to help, or those that can help us. If we are to truly live according to our UUCL mission statement- Uniting in Diversity, Advocating for Love and Justice- then it is important for us to start naming that which is hindering our aspirations.

It is well beyond the scope of my weekly column to go into great detail about this.  However, it’s important that I introduce you to it so we can all start thinking about it and come together at a later date to discuss its importance, its presence, and the power it holds to help us move into the future.

I find this characteristic of white supremacy culture to be particularly interesting: “either/or” thinking. Do we think in terms of either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us? Do we present only binary options? Do we oversimplify things? Or do we understand there are more than 2 options? Do we create a sense of urgency to pick an option without slowing down to think creatively and consequently exclude people?

I was often bothered when engaged in my studies of archaeology by simplified thinking, boiling the reasoning of ancient humans down to one single variable. Such as, “the people on this island chose to eat this mollusk because of its high protein yield”. But culture complicates things beyond protein yields. Human beings are complicated organisms, and there are always many variables- biological, psychological, cultural and sociological- involved in our decision making process. Different cultures approach problem solving in ways we can’t easily understand.

Are we making room for all at our welcome table in an effort to explore all the possibilities? Are we really listening to the other? Do we seek a deeper understanding of other ways of thinking without simplifying it? Are we curious and open to new possibilities? As change makers, we ought to be!

Here is a link to the document:

For further reading, here is a website that can help you understand why we use the terminology “white supremacy culture”:

I ask that for this week, you contemplate this sort of “either/or” binary thinking:

Do you find it present in yourself? How about in our church culture? What sort of understanding have you come to? How can we come to an understanding together? If you notice it, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about its presence in your life and our church

Tema Okun sums up her document in this way:

One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multi-cultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multi-cultural organization.

Doing the work of love and justice is not easy, but as Unitarian Universalists we are working towards the world we want to live in. Let us do the work that our faith calls us to do!