The News Times, Saturday May 27, 1995
By Doris Henderson
On May 6th, a group of Unitarian Universalists from Connecticut and New York met at the church in Westport to talk about how we can help to combat racism by working through our congregations. Leaders from the Chicago and Boston areas facilitated the program, called "Creating a Jubilee World" (The phrase comes from the Hebrew Bible, and refers to a special Sabbatical when all debts and quarrels were forgiven, all slaves freed and the people lived together in peace and harmony.)
We started by expressing our own visions of a "Jubilee World " - no more divisions among people; equal opportunities for all; no more greed and discrimination; wholeness; love; community.
Then we described early encounters with prejudice, and how they made us feel. One woman remembered a childhood incident when all her playmates suddenly attacked her and called her racist names. Later, they accepted her as usual, but she never felt quite safe after that. I remember feeling guilty and confused growing up during the Second World War. We were fighting Adolph Hitler, the most notorious bigot of them all. Yet bigotry was all around us, even in my own family. A young black man from Uganda didn't understand what all the fuss was about. He had never experienced the stings and humiliations of growing up with racism.
We talked about some of the barriers to racial harmony: stereotypes promulgated in the media, the inherited emotional baggage resulting from three hundred years of slavery, the expectation of each group that the other will automatically dislike and distrust them. We asked each other, "What would make you feel safe in relating to a person of another race?"
Defining racism was a difficult task. My group felt the need first to define "race." My ninth-grade social studies teacher told us there were three races: white, black and yellow/brown. Then s he went on to describe the characteristics (color of eyes, shape of nose, etc.) that went with each of those groupings. Clearly, something was wrong with that concept. Skin has many shades and colors; facial features appear in many varieties of combinations; Millions of the world's people don't fit any of those descriptions. But if the whole concept of "race" is arbitrary and unscientific, why does it persist?
Partly, it's an issue of self-esteem, wanting to be "better" than someone else, fighting one's own feelings of inferiority by putting other people down. Placing people into categories makes it easier to discriminate. There's also the perception of scarcity - if others have, we lose. Everyone wants the biggest piece of the pie. And it's always convenient for demagogues to have a scapegoat to blame for their own mistakes and shortcomings. The longer the myth persists, the more insidious it becomes. "Racism is in the air," someone commented. "It's like the smog over Los Angeles. It's SO systemic that we don't recognize it, even in ourselves."
For me, the best part of the conference was being able to share feelings and concerns openly with people of all racial backgrounds. At the conclusion, we made come concrete suggestions to take back to our congregations.
1. To make changes in the physical plant. If people of another racial group walked into our church or meeting hall, would they feel at home there? Do the pictures on the wall and the posters on the bulletin board show awareness of diversity? Or are your heroes all of one color?
2. To seek diversity in liturgy. Do you make use of the contributions of people from other races in hymns and readings?
3. To offer programs for people outside the immediate congregation. Do you occasionally form recreational or study groups open to interested persons in the community at large? Do you have space where youths from other backgrounds can join your children in play and learning?
4. To be more active in community service. Do members of your congregation take part in mentoring and other community outreach projects?
5. To speak out in opposition to racism wherever it rears its head. It's not enough to be "not racist." We need to be anti-racist. On the fiftieth anniversary of the defeat of Nazism, we are reminded: "To be silent is to condone."
Doris Henderson is a member of t he Unitarian Universalist Society of Northern Fairfield County