First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Spiritual Practice of Decentering

January 20, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

The Practice of Decentering, Part 1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” He noted his deep disappointment in white ministers, white moderates, and churches in the work of addressing racism. He was disappointed in the silence and lack of action by what he called “the good people.” He said:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [people] willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of [kinship]. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Lamentably King’s message is still relevant. We still need to use time creatively to make real the promise. I invite you today not to merely affirm the words and message that King offers us. Not to point toward the supposedly bad people who oppose so much of the liberation work we affirm.

I invite you to search yourself, your own life, and the life of this congregation, to consider how we as individuals and collectively might need to get more creative. How and where are we silent? How and where do we serve the status quo?

In just a few minutes you’ll hear the words of Martin Luther King Jr. (from "Letter from Birmingham Jail") I invite you to resist the temptation to think he is talking about those other people, the bad people. Instead let us try to hear how his message challenges us to extend ourselves toward justice. Let us hear in his message the words of the biblical prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

The Practice of Decentering, Part 2

In a 1988 essay entitled “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh described whiteness as an invisible package of unearned privilege. Unpacking that knapsack is difficult. It involves seeing what has previously gone unseen. Whiteness is the default position in this country which is mostly taken for granted. That’s what makes it invisible.

Courtney Harris, a white life coach for teens and parents, writes that

Here in the United States, whiteness is perceived as neutral; whiteness is seen as the default. . . . whiteness is centered as the ‘norm.’ . . .  Becoming aware of this . . . is the first step to decentering whiteness.
The reality is that whiteness isn’t neutral at all. In this country, “whiteness is still positioned as superior.”
. . . We will not get free or heal or feel whole if we do not do the work of decentering whiteness in our own minds. Until we name the ways white supremacy shows up in our everyday lives and look it in the eyes, we will be stunted in our growth, our healing, and our personal development. (“What Decentering Whiteness for Families Looks Like,” Courtney Harris, https://raisingworldchildren.com/2018/10/19/what-decentering-whiteness-f...)

What occupies the center of our minds, our neighborhoods, workplaces, and churches is unearned privilege. White privilege. People on the margins only get so close to the center. The center has more power, influence, and control. It is not the responsibility of those on the margins to move into the center. It is the responsibility of those in the center to move out, to move to the margins. To learn how to do that. This is what it means to decenter whiteness.

I know that sometimes people in our congregation are frustrated when we talk about racial justice. Maybe you don’t like the terms white privilege and white supremacy. Or maybe the conversation seems too philosophical and abstract. Or maybe we think we aren’t part of the problem. All the focus on changing ourselves can seem myopic. Mostly, I hear how much and how sincerely so many of you want to create change in the world.

Yet, the single most important way to create that change is to work on oneself. This is the effort to unpack that knapsack and to begin to decenter whiteness in our own minds and hearts and spirits. In other words, to notice how whiteness takes center stage, over and over again without our full awareness.

The more I reflect on this invisible knapsack of mine, the more I am able to see it. And the more I see it, the more I recognize how much more deep spiritual work yet remains. Because white privilege is so deeply entrenched in our culture, institutions, and being. It is the water we swim in.

This morning, I want to offer some concrete tools that can help unpack that knapsack. This list I am specifically offering to white identified members and friends. People of color have their own healing work to do. Pick one or two from this list and try them out this week:

  • Lend time and support to organizations that are led by people of color and/or that have key partners of color. In other words, don’t just support organizations that benefit people of color but also be sure to support those that are run by people of color.
  • Go to a vigil at the Berks Detention Center. The vigils are held monthly and led by different interfaith partners in the Shut Down Berks coalition. We have been engaged in this work as a congregation for several years. If you haven’t been to a vigil yet, it’s time.
  • Support and shop at businesses that are owned by people of color. This includes dining at and frequenting restaurants owned by people of color.
  • Learn about and teach children about national holidays, correcting the sanitized and distorted versions so often promoted and taught in the history books. Explore the colonialist and white supremacist history behind “thanksgiving” and “independence day.” On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day resist the urge to hero-worship King. Move beyond the parts of his message that make white people feel more comfortable. Explore his more radical and challenging messages. Start by reading or listening to the full “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
  • Read magazine articles, websites, and news sources written by people of color. And not just one article here or there, but one or two publications on a regular basis. You might start with the website “The Root.” The Root covers news and politics, as well as fashion and entertainment. It gets high marks for both liberal bias and being factual. There you can read about how an Iowa bar canceled a Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired keg party when pressured to do so. The article begins: “As America celebrates the birth of one of its greatest civil rights icons, an Iowa bar decided it was a perfectly good idea to name a huge beer bash after Martin Luther King Jr, only reconsidering after considerable public outcry, proving that White America continues one of this country’s oldest traditions: “Trying it.”” Which means testing the level of tolerance for such prejudice. In another article on Thursday, the headline read: “Judge Acquits Officers for Covering up Laquan McDonald Murder.” The article begins with a single word: “again.” Which means again and again and again failing to hold accountable those who are complicit.

Other tools to consider:

  • Read more books—fiction, poetry, and nonfiction—on the topic of race. The social justice team has made available a terrific array of materials for loan at the social justice table.
  • Listen more and stop being the first person to speak at meetings.
  • Mark your calendars for February 10, when the worship program will be “Deeper Than Skin” with Reggie Harris and Greg Greenway. Reggie and Greg are two friends, one black, one white, one from the north, one from the south. Through music and storytelling they share the deep connection they experience as a way to encourage others to build those bridges.

 (inspired by “Emptying the White Knapsack: Applying Privilege by Redistributing White-Hoarded Power and Resources,” www.kzoo.edu/praxis/emptying-the-white-knapsack/)

Each of these is an opportunity to empty the invisible knapsack. Each of these is a chance to practice moving whiteness out of the center. These are ways to see more clearly the waters we are swimming in.

Amen. Blessed be.