*This entry adapts the introduction to my new book: Clueless: My Education in White Supremacy. If you find this intriguing and want to know more, the book is available as a paperback and also e-edition on amazon.
In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance.” I was seventeen years old when he wrote that. I gaze back across those decades and realize he was definitely writing about me, not just then, but also now.
Having passed my Biblical “threescore and ten,” my choice of a title for this book has two meanings. For the first half of my life, I was, without realizing it, educated to practice patriarchal White supremacy. For the second half I have, in Dr. King’s words, progressively worked to “reeducate” myself to see and oppose patriarchal White supremacy.
That process is not complete. Decades-old assumptions and reflexes die hard, particularly when they are invisible. Unfortunately, invisible is what they often are to someone privileged by the system. Still, I believe I’ve come far enough along this path to share parts of my journey. If this book helps, or even just lends encouragement to a fellow traveler, or if it validates the experiences of some millions marginalized by our society, it will have served its purpose.
On reflection, Dr. King’s call for reeducation about the marginalized spans more than just Black people. Marginalization affects many groups. Furthermore, many people are combinations, in various ways, of privileged and marginalized. It’s a huge, complex, and subtle puzzle, which allows many of the most privileged to deny it even exists.
Growing up, I was often present when teachers, shopkeepers, sales people, friends, or employers would discriminate against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) and LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) people, not to mention people with various disabilities.
Sometimes I would notice. Too often, I would not, at least until later, on reflection. We do not live in a world of absolutes. If a person ignores cultural nuance, our mind can rationalize even the most blatant cruelty. From Joseph Goebbels in the last century to Fox News anchors today, real bigotry hides in plain sight.
King invoked the need for White reeducation, but also cited “an ever-present [White] tendency to backlash.” There is, in our time, a reactionary movement within Unitarian Universalism which is “backlashing” in exactly the way King predicted. They argue that systemic racism and transphobia don’t exist, and that White privilege is just an empty theory.
As a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, I believe that America’s dominant culture, beginning with straight, White male me, need more than ever to listen and learn from ethnicities and gender identities other than our own. I know that many are still making up their minds about the backlash within Unitarian Universalism: the claims that concerns about hiring discrimination and harmful treatment of non-White, non-cisgender ministers, staff, and members is “political correctness and safetyism run amok.” Let us not be deceived. There will always be those who refuse to see injustice, and don’t want others to see it, either.
I came of age during the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s. I thought I supported equal rights, but I didn’t see my own prejudices. In my teens, I was already well-and-invisibly educated in cultural tropes that advantaged me and disadvantaged others.
Like other Whites, I feared Malcolm X and thought Muhammad Ali boorish and arrogant. The “Ioose and easy language about equality” would stream from my mouth one day. Sometimes I would even argue King’s case with adult relatives who despised him. (One aunt became so angry at my support for King and the civil rights movement, she threatened to throw me out of her house until I learned some respect.)
Alas, though, l didn’t comprehend that laughing at a racist joke the next day was not only hypocrisy on my part, it also reinforced racism and undid any witness I might have stood for the previous day. I have since learned the ways in which continual mockery or disdain—or simply not listening to someone’s lived experience—can weigh peoples’ spirits down until it threatens real lives. Acknowledging that power, visible and invisible, of words and attitudes is not “political correctness.” It’s not “safetyism.” It’s compassion and, more importantly, respect. We all deserve that. We all need to practice it.
My “reeducation” is still in process. Voices and writings from society’s margins make it plain that ethnic “isms,” sexuality “phobias”—multiple forms of exclusion and shaming—still keep the religious goal of King’s “Beloved Community” out of reach. And diminish or threaten the very lives of all too many.
The Heart Sutra tells us, the Bodhisattva: “perceives that all five skandhas are empty. . . .
Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness. . . . all dharmas are marked with emptiness. . . .
I’ve meditated on The Heart Sutra for years. To “reeducate myself,” as King put it, I must provide “empty” space for learning to enter: the kind of “emptiness” that makes room for surprises and, not least, uncomfortable new viewpoints. The call to “center” marginalized voices compels me to seek out and pay heed to experience outside my own, privileged context.
Injustice within a system is most often invisible to someone comfortable with that system. We need to “center”—and really listen to—voices that know what exclusion feels like. The patterns of White, mostly male, patriarchal domination are still so hugely ubiquitous, they were difficult even for me to see accurately as I was groping toward them in my writing.
Reeducation required “unlearning” false stereotypes and assumptions. It also meant following the lure of questions I didn’t even know I had—until I stumbled across answers I didn’t know I was looking for.
Back to the “emptiness” of The Heart Sutra: volumes have been written about that short scripture, peeling its meaning down, layer by layer, like an etherial onion. Medieval Zen master Dogen Zenji wrote of the “five skandhas: form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness,” in part, as “the five clingings.” The mind comforts itself by pretending we know something—not because we actually do, but because thinking we know makes us feel better. Thus, in pretending to be knowledgeable and logical, we find ourselves “clinging,” to things which don’t even exist.
This applies, not least, to those who sanctify “reason,” “objectivity,” and the “Western intellectual tradition.” It’s not that those things are not to be taken seriously. But decades of study, on how the human brain and nervous system work, have demonstrated that reason and objectivity don’t even exist in the way the Western intellectual tradition originally described them. Thus, the truly “objective” observer realizes the potential inaccuracy in that which they may think is certain.
“Reeducation” begins by letting go of what we think we already know. To do that, as one Dharma Teacher observed, “we must be deeply fearless and honest with ourselves.” This often means the courage to let go of what pretends to be self-evident “truth.” Deconstruct many an assumed “fact” and we find a culturally conditioned belief which does not stand up to scientific or historic scrutiny.
Born in 1950, I grew up thinking largely what my working class White culture and upbringing trained me to think. I didn’t realize that. I often perpetuated my culture’s assumptions while pretending to rebel against them, deluding myself that my thinking was deeply original.
“Reeducating myself” requires commitment to a level of discomfort. It asks that I relinquish what I think I already know, and heed words and writings of people too easily ignored. It is a discipline I’m still learning
“Emptiness” demands that I put down what psychologists call “defense mechanisms”—or what Unitarian process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman would call “evasions.”6 I must lean into my discomfort—or as Wieman puts it, “anxiety.”
One particularly uncomfortable suggestion for a Unitarian Universalist is to release the emotional protection of theory. Theory has value as a broad overview, a connecting explanation of related phenomena. But there is nothing theoretical about the experiences of LGBTQI, non-binary people, people with disabilities, or for that matter, the way our racialized, patriarchal culture trained me. There is nothing theoretical about arrogance in the history of my Unitarian Universalist religious tradition, particularly on the Unitarian side. After all, if we can keep the discussion at the level of theory, we gain distance from other people’s suffering. We absolve ourselves of accountability around that suffering.
Let it be enough to note that Martin Luther King, Zen Buddhism, Wieman’s process theology, not to mention the psychological studies of Heinz Kohut, Arno Gruen, and others all converge at this same precise point: we obtain a clear view of ourselves and our neighbors only if we brave our own discomfort, anxiety, evasion, put down what we think we already know, and engage the lived experiences of people with lives unlike ours.
Slavery, jim crow, beatings of gay, lesbian, or transgender folx, the suffocation of George Floyd, the centuries of slow genocide against this continent’s original Indigenous inhabitants. Not one of those atrocities is theoretical. Theorizing about them merely reduces them to a size we can conveniently ignore.
Therefore, I delve into lived experience: not just my own, but more importantly, experiences of people whose lives differ from my own, both in bygone years and also in our own day. Conditions which may baffle or frighten me are the stuff of daily life for, say, a marginalized ethnicity or gender noncomforming person.
Growing up White and male in our patriarchal culture, I never realized until much later how afraid I often was. Patriarchal domination is actually full of fear. But when I lead with curiosity, humility, “emptiness,” my fear fades. I lose the need for comforting misperceptions, some of which lay so deep I didn’t know they existed until someone else’s wisdom revealed them for what they were.
In journeying through my own ignorance, I draw lessons from written history. I also delve into insights from popular culture: history and theory of motion pictures and mass media. Popular media can provide a jarring lens into our culture’s self-deceptions, as well as ways we cause suffering which remains invisible to us.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I learned that a minister’s job is often to repeat the obvious until the obvious actually becomes visible. At other times ministry calls me to acknowledge my own ignorance as a teaching tool.
If our Fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle, the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is to mean anything, it calls each of us to experience honestly, with courage and penetrating curiosity. Otherwise, we too easily shelter in comfortable old assumptions, thus evading the challenge of new insights. We too easily make the obvious invisible all over again. Some voices preach this evasion as a new and revolutionary message. There’s nothing new about it. It’s the same old, fearful, White arrogance that Martin Luther King condemned.