Why We Can’t Shy Away from the Term “White Supremacy” – Tracy Burrows, Social Justice Council Chair

At a Social Justice Council meeting earlier this month, we discussed plans for a new Racial Justice initiative at Westside. We’d met with representatives from Eastshore UU’s Beloved Racial Justice group and we’d reached out to nearby UU congregations to see if they were interested in joining with us to offer the UUA curriculum Beloved Conversations: Meditations on Race and Ethnicity.

We also discussed Eastshore UU’s advice that we not begin our conversations on racial justice effort with the term “white supremacy.” We heard that the term was too divisive – especially for congregants who are just beginning to understand the work involved in undoing racism in America. So, we thought it was a good idea not to lead with the term “white supremacy” even while knowing that it is an accurate description of the systems of oppression that convey privilege to white people. We wouldn’t lead with “white supremacy,” but we knew that many members of the congregation would come to an understanding and acknowledgement of the term as we deepened our conversations about race.

However, Rev. Alex’s column in last week’s e-news changed our strategy a bit. His column expressed his own unease with the term “white supremacy” and asked for feedback on his thoughts for alternative wording. So, we as the Social Justice Council feel compelled to give feedback.

The term “white supremacy” is harsh. It sounds like an intentional belief. It puts many of us on the defensive. But let’s look at the facts. Data show that a person’s race is the leading barrier to success in the United States. Study after study show significant racial disparities related to educational opportunity, juvenile justice outcomes, net wealth, income, medical treatment, and life expectancy.

White supremacy refers to a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system designed to maintain white economic, legal, political, and social privilege. Our responsibility as UU’s is to understand that system and to define our role in working to change it. This is hard work. To make progress, we can’t shy away from words that make us feel uncomfortable. If naming that system as “white supremacy” makes us feel uncomfortable, then we’re on the right track. We should be uncomfortable with the racial disparities that deny opportunities to and constrain the potential of people of color.

Consider why institutions such as the UUA and PBS, are creating curricula that specifically name “white supremacy” in their exploration of the systems of inequity that debase the humanity of all of us. In using the term “white supremacy,” the UUA and Black Lives UU are pushing us to acknowledge the lived experiences of black people and other people of color. They are prodding us to stretch and raise our awareness of what it is like to be a person of color in a white dominated culture. None of us created the world that we live in today, but each of us can contribute to undoing racism within it.

In closing, consider the conclusion to Robin DiAngelo’s essay, No, I Won’t Stop Saying “White Supremacy”. She writes “It’s not on those of us involved in the movement today to change our language for further white comfort. In fact, that is the height of white entitlement. Rather, it is on white people to break out of our comfort zones, realize that things have changed, and initiate our continuing education and skill-building. The internet is over-flowing with excellent guides on how to do this. The inability (or refusal to do so) functions as a form of resistance to change and protection of a very limited and problematic world view. This resistance is not benign; it functions to hold the current racial order in place. No neutral stance exists. We need to move on and move forward, because we are calling it what it is: white supremacy.”

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