On being a recovering racist
By Rev. Beth Chronister
Sometime during my 2nd year of seminary, a professor gave me a gift that was hard to receive. Dr. Miguel De La Torre* stood in front of his ethics class and stated, “As a man, the best thing I can be is a recovering sexist. As white person, the best thing you can be is a recovering racist.” I’m pretty sure my heart skipped a beat. I remember feeling the heat of shame flush across my body. Instantly my mind started running through stories that would defend how his truth could not be true for me. I was raised Unitarian Universalist. I was taught the histories of racial oppression and the language of racial justice throughout my childhood and youth. I come from an interracial family. My only sibling, my older brother Dave, is biracial. I love him deeply. Could I be both his sister and be racist? I care about justice. Aren’t I a good person?
On that day, my mind searched for something to hold onto that would preserve my image of myself as an individual and as a good person. I just couldn’t accept that so many things that felt like contradictions could be simultaneously true. However, as my studies continued in seminary and as I delved deep not only into US history, but also into my family of origin, I began to be able to hold complexity in more nuanced ways. As I learned from friends, colleagues, professors, and theologians of color, I began to see more clearly and honestly the pervasive presence of whiteness and my own complicity in it. Yes, I was raised a liberal UU and yes, I could still be the benefactor of a history that has dehumanized and violated Black life for centuries. Absolutely yes, I could love my brother and still have racist biases and beliefs. Yes, I could care about justice, try to be kind, and still need to be in recovery from my own racism and internalized white supremacism. Yes, I might never fully recover. But no, I cannot let this reality prevent me from showing up and doing the work of self-examination, authentic relationship, and collective justice. Too many Black lives and voices have been lost to violence, mass incarceration, disenfranchisement, and systemic poverty legitimized and fueled by racism. Too many Black mothers grieving the wrongful death of their child. Too many whites choosing denial, self-image, and comfort over confronting their own (my own) privilege and complicity. Too much injustice to not show up and do what I can, even if it is partial, imperfect, and in process.
It wasn’t until much later in my education that I realized the gift my professor gave me on that day. With directness and care, he told his white students that he cared for us enough to tell us the truth and to let us know that recovery was possible.
As many of us already know from personal and familial experience, recovery is not an easy road. Recovery is not possible without first acknowledging the problem and it cannot be engaged without serious effort and intention. I think of this day in class as an important one on my road to being a recovering racist. A road that I am still on. Where am I on this road? Seeking to continue to shine truth onto my own ignorance. Trying to listen deeply to the stories and voices of people of color and to follow their lead. Attempting to de-center myself (and failing more often than I would like to admit). Attempting to accept myself where I am (and failing more often than I would like to admit). Longing to know what accountability means. Sometimes fearing what it means to truly practice it. Trying to be in relationships of courage and accountability anyway.
To my fellow white UUs… How does this metaphor of being in recovery land? What are you struggling to hear or accept when we talk about racial injustice and white supremacist culture at UUC? What would it mean to be in active recovery, starting exactly where you are? What do you need to be on your own road of recovery? Wherever you are at, if you need a companion or conversation on this road, please know that I am here, as are many others, to lend a listening ear.
I know for myself, I need to be within a community of people who are also on the road to recovery. I need room to make mistakes and the courage to apologize and listen when I hurt another person. I need to listen to authors, activists, and leaders of color who have a vision of a road to a more just society. I need mentors and friends that will both meet where I am at and hold me accountable when I fall short. I need to be wary of when I am too comfortable. And importantly, I need to remember the wisdom of recovery – that it happens one day at a time and it is most successful in a community of support.
Rev. Beth Chronister
Save these Dates!
- October 22nd, 2017: Follow up to Rev. Jon’s sermon, “The Many Faces of White Supremacy.” Come join Jon and I share our reflections on General Assembly and visiting plantations while in New Orleans
- January 20th, 2018: 2018 Fleagle Lecturer — Dr. Robin DiAngelo
- February 3rd, 2018: A workshop with Kenny Wiley, UUA Senior Editor and Black Lives of UU founding member
* Dr. De La Torre was the 2016 Fleagle Lecturer at UUC.