Suffering from Withdrawal

Laptop…is…still…at…the…repair…shop… (wailing and gnashing of teeth…) it seems LCD screens are back ordered. They’ve had it since the sixth and we are still waiting. Worse, they told me not to bother to call in again for a week. How soon do I get to demand that they just pop my hard drive into a new computer and send that to me???

This is “reading week” at Starr King, so I’m also in “withdrawal” from class. Actually, it’s nice to have a week off. We had a great class last week, beginning to discuss Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness alongside an Alice Walker essay called “Orchids.” In her essay, Walker says several times “It is black to care.” It was eye-opening and fascinating to see how people grappled with that statement. It was also good to see them unpack the assumptions in Parker Palmer’s writing and begin to see the unspoken context  there.

I am learning how much I love teaching. I especially love watching people wrestle with the “givens” they’ve always accepted and begin to question and stretch their thinking. There has got to be a way to do more of this in the congregation. For instance, I’d love to engage people in my congregation in thinking about the ways Unitarian Universalism has inherited a view of the world and a culture that actually helps shore up oppression, even while we say we want to work for justice. It’s rich and fertile ground for a deep conversation about what we do with the history we’ve inherited.

Most recently, I’ve been thinking about three things that we seem to resort to that have their roots in maintaining the status quo of inequality: The first and most pervasive is what I call “being asleep.” White culture lulls us into a kind of numbness and inattention that helps keep us from noticing what’s going on. For instance, a friend of mine recently traveled to a holy shrine in Malaysia. He happens to be a person of color and struck up a conversation with his translator and guide, who told him how they used to come to the temple almost every week when he was young. They’d visit the site as a kind of pilgrimage and once they had attended to their religious obligations, they would picnic on the beautiful grounds. But once the site became a tourist attraction, they were banned from visiting.

When my friend got to the site, he saw lots and lots of white folks. English-speaking white folks, French-speaking white folks, and Israeli white folks, but no one indigenous and no one with brown skin. He couldn’t imagine how all these people could be there and never seem to notice that they were seeing nothing but other tourists. Not a single indigenous person, to whom this site is holy. Not one. But they didn’t notice. They were asleep.

Second, white culture makes us expect to be in control. Not just have personal power, but have some measure of control of ourselves and our situation. This mostly manifests as resistance to change and risk. That’s why the first “others” we reach out to are the ones most like us. And why we don’t like “angry” blacks or gays who “flaunt it.” Because those are the people that might actually begin to change our culture, and we might not be able to control what happens. We might become a “gay church” or hear about God from the pulpit…

And last, white culture thrives on defensiveness. In fact, it trains us to be defensive at every turn. When Alice Walker says, “It’s black to care,” most of us react immediately with defensiveness. “How dare she exclude us!” or “That’s reverse racism!” occurs to us before “Hm. I wonder what she meant by that?” or “What would it mean if that were true?” We’re set up to defend the status quo without thinking. We’re set up to defend ourselves too. “I never owned slaves!” or “I’m not racist!” as well as “When you get angry, I don’t feel safe…”

Wrestling with all this is somehow deeply satisfying, even when it hurts. This is the thing: when I’m able to fight may way out from under all these “white” ways, I get to be awake! And I get to embrace change and risk and growth! And I get to build relationships of trust and vulnerability.  I don’t have to “cover” any more and I don’t have to try to be something I’m not. I get to be just another human being, here among friends.


One thought on “Suffering from Withdrawal

  1. Sean, next time you are in one of those groovy Berkeley bookstores, see if you can suss out a little magazine out of Winnipeg (!) called “Geez” ( Very offbeat, emerging/questioning type of stuff. The new issue (No. 5) has a lot of stuff that is extremely relevant to your post here. It was good to read you first, then come at some of the same ideas from a few different angles.

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