[Originally published in Unity Magazine Jul/Aug 2022 issue. Pic via Open Society Foundations]
Even though this column is titled “Love And Justice For All”, it’s emphasis so far has decidedly been about antiracsim, and how white supremacy cultural norms continue to thrive both consciously and unconsciously in us and our spiritual communities. It goes without saying that there are other traditionally marginalized groups that need more love and justice as well. And similarly, our individual and collective biases towards those groups are also largely unconscious, existing unseen and unchallenged.
Take, for example, a few months ago during announcements in a Unity church service at which I spoke. An upcoming women’s retreat was, in an attempt to be humorous, described as an “XX chromosome getaway” to discuss “secret XX chromosome things.” Undoubtedly no harm was intended, but it betrayed the unconscious and internalized heteronormative norms of our culture. The harmful impact of that message was that transgender women may have felt excluded.
Transgender people are those whose gender identity is different from the gender they were thought to be at birth. Someone born with XY chromosomes might be assigned as biologically male, but feel entirely and authentically female. Similarly, someone born with XX chromosomes might be assigned as biologically female, but feel entirely and authentically male. Some transgender people identify as neither male nor female, or as a combination of male and female, and they may describe themselves as nonbinary or queer.
When someone doesn't feel seen, they won’t feel like they belong no matter how much they are told that they are loved and welcomed. It is conflicting to tell someone they are whole, perfect, and loved, but then also make comments that do not honor them as they are. When the mistake, really the injustice, is noticed is there the courage to speak to it by someone other than the affected? Is there an openness to learning and changing and doing better? Will public amends be made? Will new training and policies be implemented? And not just for staff but also volunteers and congregants? These are just some of the rubber-meets-the-road steps that are needed to create a truly welcoming space.
As it goes, perpetuating harm on any group disproportionately affects the women and people of color in that group. A study by the National LGBTQ Task Force indicates that Black transgender people have a 26% unemployment rate (twice as high as the unemployment rate for transgender people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and four times as high as the unemployment rate in the general population), 41% of Black transgender people have been homeless (more than five times the general population), 34% of Black transgender people have household incomes less than $10,000 (more than eight times the general population), and nearly half of the Black transgender population has attempted suicide. Black transgender women are disproportionately victims of fatal violence because of the intersections of racism, transphobia, sexism, biphobia and homophobia.
Spiritual seekers tend to look towards teachings for spiritual enlightenment. We also have to look at educating ourselves about our unconscious and internalized cultural norms. We may believe that being more spiritual will automatically eliminate them, but unfortunately that is not the case. We can be both loving and perpetuate harm at the same time. Are we humble enough to accept this and do the work to transform ourselves individually and collectively? If we aren’t, we will continue to experience “welcoming” communities that are not very diverse, ultimately doing more harm than good along the way.
[Originally published in Unity Magazine May/Jun 2022 issue. Pic via iStock]
In a post last year I invited us to ponder, “Are We ALL Really Welcome Here?” I asked how uncomfortable are we willing to get in our churches and spiritual centers so that everyone truly feels comfortable. In case it wasn’t clear, “we” meant those of us who posses greater levels of privilege in a patriarchal, heteronormative, abelist, agiest society that still defaults to whiteness as the racial and cultural norm. Many of these norms are internalized and unconsciously influence us.
One example of an internalized white cultural/supremacy norm is policing the spaces that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) folx occupy. This usually manifests when a white person believes a person of color should not be doing whatever they are doing in the way they are doing it in a space they probably shouldn’t be doing it. Remember in 2018 when a white woman called the police because black people were barbecuing in a public park? Or when a white student at Yale University called campus police on a Black graduate student after she fell asleep in a common room in her dorm? How about the two Black men that were arrested in Philadelphia after white Starbucks employees called the police because the men were sitting peacefully, but not ordering anything as they waited for a friend to arrive.
You might think such extremes do not happen in spiritual communities. You would only be partly right. In a fascinatingly tone-deaf move, some churches have refused to let their congregants of color form affinity groups. To advance racial equity, there is work for white people and people of color to do together, and separately. Affinity groups (sometimes referred to as a “caucus”) provide spaces for people to work only with others from their race or ethnicity. Whether or not white bodies want to believe it, their very presence shifts the energy and power dynamics in the room. People of color feel safer to be themselves when they are by themselves.
White people often struggle with this. “We’re not being racist!” they might say. “In these already divisive times we can't have more division. Having groups separated by color only fuels more racism! We should all be working together on this!” The desire for togetherness is a false flag. There aren’t objections to other groups that divide along different lines: women’s groups, men’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, millennials or seniors groups.
Another internalized white cultural/supremacy norm, which is intended to be a well-meaning reason for not having racial/ethnic affinity groups, is the thought that if white bodies aren’t in the room how will they know what to do about racism? “We need them (BIPOC) to tell us how to fix this, how to be antiracist! We also need them to hear how progressive we are, to hear how bad we feel for what they experience, to hear how angry we are on their behalf.” These are not just excuses for wanting to manage the space, but they also put extra burdens on people of color to help educate, validate, and provide comfort.
Regardless of the intention, the impact on BIPOC of not allowing and supporting racial/ethnic affinity groups is that their needs (and by extension, they themselves) are not worthy of consideration, or can’t be trusted, or can only be allowed if it doesn’t take away from the comfort of the white-bodied majority. It is not welcoming. So again I ask: How uncomfortable are we willing to get so that everyone truly feels comfortable?
[To learn more about Affinity groups visit projectsanctus.com/antiracism-affinity-groups]