The First Parish Blog

Rev. Catie’s Remarks at the Needham Diversity Summit

By , Published on November 20, 2017

November 18, 2017, Pollard Middle School

Perhaps some of you grew up in a community like the one I did: a suburb of a major East Coast city, post-Civil Rights Movement, mostly populated by “good liberal” white folks who believed that we were northwards enough not to be infected by the racist attitudes of the past and that our real goal was to stop “seeing color” at all, at which point, we’d all be friends. Does that sort of community feel or sound familiar?

Ironically, despite explicit exhortations to “colorblindness,” I was indirectly acculturated to racist ideas. I received messages from the adults of my community that rap wasn’t “real” music; that every Asian person in my neighborhood was an immigrant; that I was fortunate to go to a high school where English was the only language in the classroom; and that the black neighborhoods in the city were “dangerous,” not that anyone I knew had ever been to them.

But I was “colorblind,” because acknowledging race meant you were racist, and I was a “good white liberal.” I became a young activist against needless war and the discrimination of LGBTQ people — unmistakably worthy causes — but I paid attention to few other justice issues because, I thought, Dr. King had already solved racism and the suffragists, sexism, and frankly I didn’t really know what classism, ableism, capitalism, ageism, or colonialism even were.

When I answered my call to the ministry and attended seminary, my understanding of the world I lived in began to change. I was introduced to anti-oppressive theology and philosophy for the first time. I attended classes with people more radical than I (— people who didn’t think America was the greatest country in the world, if you can believe it!). And, I was forced by my denomination to take workshops in anti-racism as one of my ordination requirements.

I thought it was such a drag… Not just a drag, but even insulting, that I — good colorblind person who had volunteered in India, and worked in an ethnically diverse public school, and had many friends of color, thank you — it felt insulting that I had to take classes in anti-racism. But, I wanted to get ordained, so I did it. I took a class called “White People Challenging Racism” through the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I was hesitant, even defensive, at first but I started to realize the class was introducing me to parts of history and societal systems that made the problems of America make more sense: the North was complicit in southern slavery; our towns and cities were forced by law to be segregated; our criminal justice system was designed to incarcerate black and brown people…

So, then, after years hints and pushes from more radical friends and colleagues and after a lifetime of believing “color-blindness” was an achievable and laudable goal… I experienced my moment of awakening. It was a photograph of our former First Lady, Michelle Obama, resplendent as always in a formal evening gown — beige lace and sequins, if I remember correctly. The caption of the photograph read, “First Lady Michelle Obama, in a flesh-colored gown…” In that moment, a paradigm shifted in my mind. Because, of course, the gown was not Obama-flesh-colored, it was my-flesh-colored, and if even the First Lady of the United States could be subjected to a racial microaggression, well… Maybe America had never been America as I knew it. I am reminded of the gay Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who wrote,

“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every [person] is free.”

This strange, small, “a ha” moment opened me to reality, for which I am grateful, though I did mourn the loss of the story of our country I once believed in.

I was asked today to speak to you about teaching tolerance in an era of intolerance. Maybe some of you have heard this description of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism: “we’re tolerant of everything except intolerance.” That’s not quite right, but isn’t quite wrong either.

I see it as my religious duty to champion not just tolerance, not just acceptance, but enthusiasm for diversity in human identity. Any given Sunday in my congregation, you hear the message that every person has inherent worth and dignity and we are interconnected with all living beings on this precious and fragile Earth.

But, the message I want to deliver here today is that if we are enthusiastic about human diversity we cannot also be tolerant of lethal ideas. We do not have to tolerate ideas that are deadly to our own selves, or to those we love, or to total strangers whom we know still have inherent worth and dignity. We should not tolerate rape culture, toxic masculinity, “build the wall” rhetoric, “all lives matter” trivializing, legalized homophobia and transphobia for “religious freedom,” nor the consumerism that literally poisons our neighbors and the planet. We are all beloved children of God and this world is a unique and priceless gift, and any cultural messages that tell us otherwise cannot be tolerated.

I cannot imagine what damage I would be inflicting upon my congregation and the Needham community if I still believed that racism and sexism had been “fixed;” if I were still ignorant of other forms of oppression; if I weren’t dedicated to improving my understanding and practice as a flawed but-giving-it-my-best person. I am so grateful to my teachers, peers, and denomination for challenging and supporting me through the hard process of transformation.

So, I encourage all of us in this era of intolerance to engage in vulnerable, brave reflection so we can uproot oppressive ideas in ourselves and remind ourselves of our core, guiding principles. I encourage all of us to practice boldly celebrating human diversity out in our communities, such as at events like this one. I encourage all of us, especially those of us of privilege, to show up — by marching, wheeling, speaking, standing, or kneeling — when unjust ideas, policies, and violence break into our world and threaten marginalized people, building bridges to help transform hardened hearts. Let us never be tolerant of intolerance, in ourselves or in our neighbors, if we ever want to create the America that “yet must be — the land where every [person] is free.”

Thank you.

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