Dr. Jozef Bicerano is a highly educated scientist and consultant. He has written and posted in a UU Facebook group what may be the clearest-headed essay I’ve seen in opposition to the UUA’s direction on race. — MHP
By Jozef Bicerano
I have been challenged by several individuals, who are all well-meaning white birthright citizens of the USA, to explain why I am so strongly opposed to all the talk of White Supremacy Culture (WSC) in UUism although I recognize that there are improvements we can make to help UUism become more appealing to BIPOC (Black/Indigenous People of Color). I will attempt to formulate a detailed and coherent response in this post.
This response will contain many aspects that may appear “conservative” and thus may be heretical and even anathema in the perceptions of many UUs and others in the modern American Left. Please try to understand where I am coming from, however, so that we can have a civil discussion that generates more light than heat.
Focus on WSC is not a uniquely UU phenomenon. It has grown in importance as a key ideological tenet of the modern American Left over the last 30 years. Most importantly, Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is an evolving theoretical framework or school of thought for understanding interracial relations, has become a foundational ideological premise of the modern American Left. It is the intellectual framework through which all aspects of our society are viewed by many people. I don’t wish to digress here into a lengthy discussion of CRT since I want to focus in this post on my own personal experiences and what I have learned from them. The Wikipedia article on CRT provides an excellent concise introduction with many links to additional information for readers who wish to learn more. I will just add the following three paragraphs about CRT to this introduction to make my views clear.
Firstly, there is no unique formulation of CRT. Many different perspectives on interracial relations, all comprising some common features, fall within its general scope since it is a broad theoretical framework and school of thought rather than a single theory. Secondly, just like any other theoretical framework used in the social sciences, it lacks the mathematical rigor and full quantitative verifiability of a theory of physics such as quantum mechanics or special relativity. My position, therefore, is that CRT is similar to many other theories, theoretical frameworks, and schools of thought that purport to explain how humans interact in societies. More specifically, it can provide some helpful insights for understanding human societies and their issues, but it should not be accepted as an absolute truth that explains everything.
CRT provides, for example, insights into how the unique and persistent oppression of African Americans in our country over the centuries has resulted in lasting damage that is likely to require measures recognizing the residual effects of this oppression and implementing remedies for targeting the elimination of these residual effects. The pretense that these residual effects will just go away on their own without some focused effort because our laws now provide full equality on paper is seen, through the lens of the CRT framework, to be (often inadvertent, but still very real) “colorblind racism”. Nonetheless, CRT also has serious limitations, especially in some of its formulations. The Wikipedia article on CRT includes a critique which summarizes these limitations.
While UUism remains a creedless religion from the theological viewpoint, the UUA and a significant percentage of UUs have adopted CRT as a secular creed. CRT seems to have become a premise that all UUs are being pushed to accept, with consequences for “heretics” who refuse to accept either all of or some aspects of CRT.
(2) I AM A FORMERLY MARGINALIZED WHITE MAN
It is customary for us to talk about white privilege in the USA. Indeed, any white birthright citizen of this country has enjoyed white privilege from the day they were born, and hence probably has no idea from firsthand experience of what it may feel like to be marginalized because of one’s race or ethnicity. That is not necessarily true of white immigrants who may be benefiting from white privilege since arriving in this country but who know all too well what marginalization feels like from their experiences in their countries of birth.
I was a member of a tiny and marginalized ethnic and religious minority (the Jewish minority) in my native country (Turkey). I was nearly 19 years old when I arrived in the USA to attend college and then graduate school. I spent nearly 3 more years in Turkey afterwards, so that I have spent almost 22 years of my life in a place where I was in a severely marginalized group. Many opportunities were absolutely not open to me. I had to be much better than competitors from the dominant group to have any chance of success in pursuing those opportunities which were open. Microaggressions and snubs, often when least expected, were a fact of life. A Turkish sociologist once used the term “native foreigner” to describe people in my demographic group as well as in the Armenian and Greek ethnic minority groups in the country. Furthermore, it was unsafe to voice one’s discontent, since complaining risked making matters worse by irritating citizens from the dominant group against this minority individual who is not showing proper gratitude for the favor that is being bestowed upon him by being allowed to have a decent life in the country.
UU social justice activists, among whom I count myself, talk constantly about the need to give a voice to and to listen to the lived experiences of marginalized people. I hope we really mean it, even when a currently or formerly marginalized person’s voice delivers a message deviating from the teachings of the current orthodoxy of the UUA and of much of the modern American Left. The lessons I learned from my marginalization and how I was able to escape it are very different from what many well-meaning liberal birthright white Americans, who have never experienced marginalization themselves, think we should be doing.
(3) A TREMENDOUS TURNOFF!
One major reason I object to the incessant talk about WSC in UUism is that we are using the term WSC in a way that is completely different from and far broader than how it is understood by society at large.
It can be a tremendous turnoff for an outsider who is considering UUism and is unaware of our vastly expanded definition of the term to learn that the denomination one is interested in has a huge and festering white supremacy problem. It is hard to think of a worse way to demotivate outsiders, especially the BIPOC people who we hope will join us in much larger numbers, than all this talk about what a terrible WSC we have. The labeling of our entire denominational culture as a WSC, while other denominations don’t label their cultures in the same manner because they are not using a vastly expanded definition of a WSC, in fact can mislead people into thinking that UUism has a much worse WSC problem than the other denominations.
I remind you again that I make the statement above from the perspective of a formerly severely marginalized individual. When I lived in Turkey, I avoided assiduously any club, organization, or event regarding which there was open talk of its having a supremacy culture that marginalized the ethnic minorities. That was the case even if I was told that they were working to overcome this culture and that my presence would be useful in helping them overcome it. I focused my attention, instead, on clubs, organizations, and events for which there was no evidence of the existence of such cultural problems.
Furthermore, there were few things that I hated as much as receiving special attention at a club, organization, or event because of being from a minority group and well-meaning people obviously trying very hard to make me feel at home. I appreciated it most when I could go somewhere and simply be treated like anyone else without being made self-conscious by (even well-meaning) special attention of being “different” and also of being obviously perceived as being “different”.
In addition to being a potential tremendous turnoff to many non-UUs considering the possibility of joining our congregations, the labeling of our entire culture with a broad brushstroke as a WSC has created major pushback internally from many UUs who reject such labeling. In fact, the labeling is a tremendous turnoff to many UUs who find it difficult to embrace fully the anti-racism efforts of the UUA because it appears as if those embracing these efforts fully are expected to acquiesce to the labeling of our entire culture as a WSC. Resistance to the labeling of our entire culture as a WSC has, in turn, itself been labeled as an example of “white fragility” by many proponents of the labeling, leading to even more pushback so that a vicious cycle is created whereby a lot of the energy that could be used to fight racism is wasted instead in fighting over a label. We must, therefore, question whether anything is really lost if we forgo the WSC label and simply focus on identifying all of the specific issues that need our attention and working hard to overcome these issues.
From a pragmatic perspective, then, it makes sense to ask whether the drawbacks of insisting on the acceptance of the WSC label may not significantly outweigh any envisioned advantages. Would UUs really be doing less in the fight towards racial justice if they were to simply identify all areas needing work and focus on this work without the WSC label? I think not! We would probably be doing more since we would focus all of our energy on the anti-racism effort rather than wasting much of it in arguing about the WSC label.
(4) THE TRAP OF LOWER EXPECTATIONS
In the minds of many of the most vociferous proponents of the thesis that UUism is afflicted with a pervasive WSC, any integral aspect of modern Western civilization seems to be a manifestation of WSC and a tool of oppression. I beg to differ from this expansive definition of WSC.
I don’t think that dedication to reason, logic, and science, and great appreciation for the intellect, and following well-organized procedures such as Robert’s Rules of Order in formal meetings, are manifestations of WSC in any way, as has been alleged by some in the “UUism is infested with pervasive WSC” camp. Not unless one forgets the tremendous contributions that BIPOC made to all areas of human knowledge over the millennia, with white Europeans only becoming dominant a few centuries ago, can one believe this to be so. In my opinion, to think that BIPOC are not capable of pursuing all of these things just as successfully as whites, and hence are condemned to remain in a disadvantageous situation if these things are emphasized, is actually itself racism in the form of a well-intentioned but condescending paternalistic protectionism.
The same applies to claims I have seen from some in the “UUism is infested with pervasive WSC” camp that high standards of professionalism, such as punctuality and excellent work, are aspects of WSC. The contention seems to be that, if we want to diminish WSC, BIPOC should not be held to the same standards and should not be penalized in the same way as white people if they fail to live up to the same standards. So I guess if I hire a contractor and he screws up then I am justified in firing the contractor if he is white but I should give him a pass if he is BIPOC? If I make an appointment with a white person and I am kept waiting for two hours without any excuse I have the right to complain, but if the person who wastes my valuable time is BIPOC then it would be a manifestation of WSC for me to complain about it? Do I understand this correctly? Please say it ain’t so! If that really is the message, again it is actually racism in the form of a well-intentioned but condescending paternalistic protectionism.
The sorts of protectionism summarized in the last two paragraphs don’t do any favors to BIPOC. On the contrary, they risk doing grave damage to BIPOC in the long term. The potential damage is insidious. Lower levels of accomplishment resulting from lower expectations can and will result in the perpetuation of lower socioeconomic circumstances for BIPOC from one generation to the next, for many generations to come.
As I mentioned earlier, many opportunities were absolutely not open to me in my native country because I was a member of a marginalized ethnic and religious minority. Someone from my background had to be far better than someone from the majority to succeed in the areas where opportunities existed. I was taught from a very early age by my parents and by others that, as a member of this minority, I needed to study hard and excel in school to have a decent chance of having a good life if I remained in that country. I was also taught that I needed to learn other languages rather than limiting myself to my native language (Turkish) so that I could easily choose to leave and have a good life elsewhere. This was sound advice.
I shudder to think of how much worse my life would have turned out if, instead, I had been coddled by well-meaning people who told me that these things that have led me to a life of success and prosperity are aspects of the supremacist culture of the dominant group and that I am not expected to aim for high standards.
(5) SUGGESTED PATH FORWARD
It should be obvious from what you have read thus far that I am contesting the very notion of “white supremacy culture” in the UUA as well as in the larger American society, while acknowledging that continuing racism is a serious problem requiring our attention. I will, instead, suggest that there is a “mainstream culture” that varies from place to place and from one period of history to another.
Before going further, it is important to remind ourselves that (a) every human society that has ever existed anywhere in the world has always had a mainstream culture, (b) minorities in every human society that has ever existed anywhere in the world have always needed to adapt somewhat to the demands of this mainstream culture unless they lived in self-sufficient segregated communities, and (c) a mainstream culture is not static but instead it usually evolves gradually as new elements become introduced to it and gain acceptance.
American mainstream culture is no exception to these general attributes of mainstream cultures. I think that labeling (and thus condemning) the mainstream culture in the USA its entirety as a WSC is a mistake. This mainstream culture in the USA certainly contains some residual elements of white supremacy, but it also incorporates many other elements as discussed below.
These other elements include a whole range of traditional American values and practices. Most of us can probably agree that some of these traditional values and practices (such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and a spirit of adventurous exploration) are good, some (such as rugged individualism) may be good or bad depending on the circumstances, and some (such as oppression of the indigenous inhabitants of our country) are bad.
These other elements also include many newer strains originating from the vastly diverse people of all national origins, ethnicities, religions, and cultural backgrounds who are not descendants of the passengers of Mayflower or of other very early European settlers. An incredible diversity of food, expressions, musical influences, stories, myths, and religious practices are examples of the newer strains.
I think that attacking “white supremacy culture” or even attacking “white culture” is wrong-headed. I suggest, instead, that as we move forward, we should focus on:
(a) Rooting out oppressive elements from the mainstream culture, particularly through systemic change (such as through legal action, participation in elective politics, and working to change outdated laws).
(b) Establishing our respective subcultures, and standing our ground (e.g., “we’re here, we’re queer, we’d like to say hello” or “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” or “we’re Muslim, we’re also Americans, and we’re not going anywhere”).
(c) And yes, also exploring what can be done through measures that redress inequities entrenched through centuries of injustice in ways that will help level the playing field (e.g., reparations for slavery, minority business set-asides, etc.).
Copyright 2019 © Jozef Bicerano