The White Supremacy Controversy in the UUA: Our Call To Covenant

About ten years ago when I was working on my doctoral thesis on the covenant tradition in the congregational church from the Puritan era through to the contemporary, I blogged quite a bit about my research. In one post, I wrote that there is no legitimate religious use of the word “covenant” that does not explicitly include or at least imply what I called a “transcendent referent,” ie, either God or some shared concept of a greater reality that calls a people out of individualistic concerns and into community ethos.

UUs absolutely freaked out.

It didn’t matter that we’re a supposedly rational people and an intellectual tradition, dozens of Unitarian Universalists poured into the comments section with raging remarks and irrational denials of simple historical fact. Suddenly the great UU respect for scholarship and academic bona fides was given the big heave-ho as people who were, as we say, getting all up in their feelings denied that they were, in fact, getting all up in their feelings. People whose entire acquaintance with the concept of covenant amounted to a few years in a congregational setting and zero formal study on the matter felt entitled to inform me that I was wrong and they were right. They were right because they had feelings, not because they had any actual knowledge – but they were unable to acknowledge that, preferring to deny my expertise in favor of their emotions.

Rationalism works kind of funny that way. Unitarian Universalists might do better to honor emotional intelligence and maturity as deeply as we (claim to) prize intellectual prowess.

The whole experience was so disturbing I actually quit blogging for years.

So I recognize what’s happening right now as Unitarian Universalists petulantly refuse to adjust their concept of the term “white supremacy” because it makes them personally uncomfortable.

Suddenly, and again, our vaunted intellectualism disappears as UUs throw temper tantrums on Facebook decrying the use of “white supremacy” to refer to anything outside of their mental map and accustomed usage. Because “white supremacist” means Ku Klux Klan member to them, and because they consider themselves good liberals, and non-racists, they are literally throwing themselves on the floor of the classroom that is our faith tradition and refusing to listen to the teacher.

What none of them will admit is that their resistance is deeply racist (and sexist, since so many of our teachers are women of color), no matter how much they claim they are miraculously untouched by that particular social evil.  White Unitarian Universalists are not used to being told that class is in session by non-white leaders unless they have invited those leaders to speak to them within the confines of a lectureship or guest preacher role, where the white UUs can pride themselves on their inclusivity and openness to different perspectives  — and then maintain their systems and norms after the guest has left the premises.

Class is in session! Healthy and mature Unitarian Universalists know we must learn and catch up fast, and we are being given tools to do so by academics in critical race theory, who have given us a helpful — if painful — broader definition of white supremacy than we have worked with before. This usage is not that hard to understand — it’s not rocket science. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation,

In academic usage, particularly in usage drawing on critical race theory, the term “white supremacy” can also refer to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy a structural advantage (privilege) over other ethnic groups, both at a collective and an individual level.


But white Unitarian Universalists who are having a very difficult time removing themselves from the center of the universe that has always revolved around them are interrupting, disrupting, arguing about this term and hijacking the conversation because they feel that their liberal credentials are being called into question, and that hurts their feelings.

If I hear one more white UU tell me that they marched for Civil Rights, as though marching fifty years ago (and then returning to spend the next five decades in an all-white town) magically conveyed lifelong wisdom and “wokeness.” Touching the hem of MLK’s garment didn’t save anyone’s soul for all time. We are in continuing education here. Class is in session.

If I hear one more white UU tell a woman of color why she’s wrong about racism, that she’s going to “turn people off” if she persists in using the term white supremacy in the broader way — ! This noisy white nonsense is Exhibit A of race privilege. Apparently it is a problem to potentially offend white UUs, and not a problem that we have already offended at least thousands of potential Unitarian Universalists who tried to find a home with us but could not endure our unexamined white supremacist institutions, practices and attitudes.

Do an audit:

Are all the books on your shelves by white authors?

Is it possible for you to spend days without ever seeing a person of color (who isn’t in a service industry position)?

Are all the leaders in your town or city government white?

Have you never worked under the authority of a person of color who had the power to hire and fire you or your family?

How white is your local police force?

Are all your kid’s teachers white?

Do you have any friends who aren’t white, and do you feel that people of color owe you their friendship and trust just because you “made an effort?”

That’s white supremacy. That isn’t “just how life is” or “beyond my control.” Unitarian Universalists are implicated in white supremacy and we have a lot of work to do.  Those who don’t want to be in the classroom should stop dominating the conversation and disrupting the rest of the class. We know who our teachers are, and we do not need consensus approval to want and need to be taught by those people.

A common complaint when such conflicts arise is that someone is denying “my” inherent worth and dignity” or “violating our covenantal commitments.” Some well-meaning Unitarian Universalists fall for this blatant manipulation and even try to adjust the terms of the conversation to try to “include” these individuals.

This instinct has destroyed more Unitarian Universalist conversations and congregations than I can count. 

The first premise of a covenanted community is that all those who voluntarily join it have consented to be made a people. See my blog post here for a further explanation. Those stubborn, exhausting, combative individuals who suck all the air out of the room because they will not (and perhaps cannot) consent to move forward with an initiative to grow and learn are in violation of our covenant, not the impatient or even angry others who are urging them to get over themselves, acknowledge that the concept is difficult for them personally (these people never admit that their reluctance to concede a point is personally, emotionally hard for them — it’s always a philosophical or historical or linguistic error they claim to be correcting) and stop hogging the microphone.

Anger is not a violation of covenant. Frustration is not a violation of anyone’s inherent worth and dignity. What is a violation of covenant is to loudly occupy a central location in a conversation and derail it because of individual immaturity, sexist entitlement, white privilege or what the Bible so wonderfully names “hard-heartedness.” What is a violation of covenant is to prevent, by constant interruption and debate, the community from moving forward in the work to which it has committed itself. What is a violation of covenant, however well-meaning, is for those who are uncomfortable in the presence of discomfort to enable the perpetrators of covenantal violation. Just today I saw a thoughtful and kind Unitarian Universalist woman ask such a person, “What term would work for you?”

This is the essence of individualistic enabling. We cannot literally change the terms of the conversation to pander to those who don’t think we should even be having the conversation. Nothing will mollify these people but that the subject be dropped and they have had their way. They are anti-progressive; they are regressive in ways that white liberals fail to recognize and name in the service of keeping the peace or ostensibly respecting someone’s inherent worth and dignity. Such keeping of the peace is, ironically and sadly, a favorite tactic of white supremacist systems.

We may make some real progress in the Unitarian Universalist Association when we begin to actively and consistently shut down invocations of the first principle that are intended to protect privilege and regression. I hope our new UUA president will speak directly to this abuse of a beautiful and worthy moral commitment.

In the meantime, class is in session. I invite you, in the comments, to name and provide links to articles, videos and posts by those people of color in UUism who are leading the effort and whose work inspires you.


27 Replies to “The White Supremacy Controversy in the UUA: Our Call To Covenant”

  1. ” They were right because they had feelings, not because they had any actual knowledge”. Hmmmm

    “What is a violation of covenant is to prevent, by constant interruption and debate, the community from moving forward in the work to which it has committed itself”.

    Don’t dare speak. Class is in session. This writer has actual knowledge. Anyone who disagrees with her only has “feelings”.

    Also: “. Nothing will mollify these people but that the subject be dropped and they have had their way. ” Irony alert! Is this not exactly a call to “drop the subject” , i.e. not have any conversations that don’t line up with your feelings (whoops I mean “actual knowledge”)?

    We can’t dialogue if we can’t respect each other.

  2. Very thoughtful and clearly written. Though I completely agree that America is a country of white supremacy, the term HAS been hijacked by extremists, and people are reacting to the emotional jolt. I work in political consulting for progressives only, and constantly push my clients to be authentic, clear, honest and honorable when speaking, advertising, or writing. But to use a term that research tells us will make people recoil is a waste or time and has a negative impact on what we want people to hear. I don’t see what’s wrong with coming up with a different term than “white supremacy” to describe our deep-seated national racism. More people would hear the message, and isn’t education and understanding the whole idea of influencing thought?

  3. Thank you. Very informative, insightful and thought provoking. White Supremacy was hard to swallow at first, becasue as you note we aquant it with KKK and other WS groups. I don’t think trotting out our past, personal experience, as white folks, in dealing with racial injustice, is helpful, but I do think some are farther down on the path of accepting our complicity in living and enjoying the privilege of being white, ad recognizing our institutions are build on white supremacy. Owning and recognizing and being willing to do the hard work is hard but necessary.

  4. Our language and intellect grows through accommodation and assimilation of new experiences. I’m ready and find this experience exciting. I want to learn all I can about something I’ve been privledged to ignore, but have wanted to understand so I can change my thought, speech And actons. Thank you for this.

  5. I have sorely missed your words. Thank you for this piece.
    Yesterday our closing song was “Wake now my senses” and after many years of singing this hymn, it was the first time I really heard the words.
    Yes, we have much much work to do.

  6. I too, think words matter. I once urged a trans friend to find another word to replace “hatred.” This suggestion arose because a number of people stood up to speak out and say they didn’t “hate” her, but rather had (unrealistic and unjustified, in my estimation) privacy concerns for their children. As a mediator of 25 years, I know that the best conflict transformers focus on interests, not positions (or labels). Emotions matter, too. People can’t listen, or effectively problem solve, if they feel their feelings are being discounted. I would be interested in getting behind these emotional reactions. I think it is fair to assume that the vast majority of UUs are interested in seeing our tradition expand and evolve.

  7. I found this new book really useful: “When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race”, by Dr. Anthony Pinn. He’ll be speaking at GA on Friday (at the UUHA annual meeting.)

  8. Gina Whitaker
    Dr. De Angelo is doing three workshops at GA all on the same day–Thursday. I wish I was going to b sitting in those workshops. Hopefully some of them will be live streamed for off site delegates! We MUST let go of our white, overly reactive sensibilities to get at the root of this overgrown tree!!!

  9. The comment on books an interesting one. I’ve always thought the test instead was what non European languages do you speak.

  10. I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful post. I am sharing it with my UU congregation. Thank you.

  11. One thing I learned many years ago is that when you want to enlist allies in an important cause, you should not go around calling them offensive names, impugning their knowledge and intelligence, dismissing their feelings as irrelevant, and insisting that you are right and anyone who disagrees is wrong.

  12. I appreciate this piece AND I’m wondering why you ended by saying “I invite you, in the comments, to name and provide links to articles, videos and posts by those people of color in UUism who are leading the effort and whose work inspires you” without including a single reference to a person of color within Unitarian Universalism who inspired YOU. It would be really helpful if this piece itself was more centered on that.

    Here are some pieces that inspire me . . . (Almost all of these people have shared many things that inspire many people. Many of these people share incredibly inspiring things several times a week through Facebook, and can be followed. Obviously this list is just one starting point)

    Lena Gardner –

    Paula Cole Jones –

    Leslie Mac –

    Arif Mamdami –

    Elandria Williams – starting at 43:31

    Kenny Wiley –

    There is an episode in the VUU where Leslie describes how she and other black organizers for the Convening were held accountable to black trans folks. I have watched it several times, but I’ve lost the links, and I would be grateful to anyone who could help us find that.

    On a personal level, I can’t think of a more inspiring example of accountability than the one relayed in that VUU episode. Leslie described how she knew that she had worked hard to prepare for the Convening and that she certainly had not meant to exclude black trans folks. But she pushed through them and quickly responded to being called out by working with others to make changes – and then to make sure she was in a position to find out whether those changes actually improved things for the people most impacted (whatever her intentions).

    [Good question. Fairly simple explanation: I have been trying to get a post on this subject written for a long time but have been too busy with parish ministry work. I found myself overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to do what you have just done — providing links to authors and articles. To be honest, I have been reading obsessively since Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, and it is to my everlasting disappointment that I did not think to keep an archive of resources. I wanted to get this post out before GA. – PB]

  13. I am wondering why the final sentence of my post (above) is not shown. It was perfectly civil and to the point, so why the censorship? Who is doing this? Why? And I wonder if this post will be shown?

    [Your original post was not touched. Not one word or punctuation mark of your classic, textbook case of White Male Fragility was altered, I assure you. It stands for the ages. I am so sorry that you don’t know that every sentence you uttered was a cliche, but you will do your work in your own time, or not. History will not wait for you. Your paranoid accusations of censorship and silencing in this subsequent comment are disturbing. Since this is my blog and my space, I will now exercise my right to exclude you from further participation in this conversation. – PB]

  14. Thank you for grounding this conversation in covenant, deepening my understanding of that concept and making space for the difficult times that we are in. Last night, I attended an Iftar with folks from my congregation and the Imam spoke of our need to ‘not push away from the table’ when we disagree – to be in relationship across difference. That staying at the table, in the presence of the holy, with people who make us uncomfortable or angry – that feels like the covenanted community we need today. [Hi Jennifer, thanks for writing. I attended an Iftar last week and when I asked to sit with some Syrian folks at their table, they said “No.” I was pretty sure that this might have been due to language issues but wow, it was so hard not to be hurt and rejected! I wound up sitting with parishioners and taking a different tack to conversing with members of the Muslim community. Thanks for the reminder of sitting with misunderstanding and awkwardness! – PB]

  15. I was censored before – I have digital proof of this. And now, by your own statement, I am censored again. Do you have any idea how petty and asinine this makes you look to any intelligent participant? And how it harms the goal of racial justice? Apparently not.


    [Look, I don’t who you are or what kind of trip you’re on, but I approved your comment on my phone with a touch of my finger. I read what you wrote, laughed, and hit a little button that says “Approve.” Anything glitchy that happened from that point on was either your faulty memory, your tech issues, possibly an issue with WordPress (but I doubt that), or your desperate need for attention. Are you getting enough yet? – PB]

  16. Not our book, the authors are: African/Black American, Japanese American, one born in the U.S. the other an immigrant. And that book is:

    Unitarian Universalists of Color: Stories of Struggle, Courage, Love and Faith
    By Yuri Yamamoto, Chandra Snell, Tim Hanami

  17. Timely and beautifully stated and provides the basis for hope Thank you. A book I would also recommend is Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald.

  18. Please consider going back to your old policy of not blogging. Your name calling and talking down to us from your pulpit makes me nauseous. I personally don’t want to associate with white supremacists like you. Your rude and snarky comments to Peter Aitken and by editing and blocking him shows your true colors. Please don’t edit my comments, but you can block me if you wish. I won’t be following you anyway. “If I hear one more white UU…” Then what?

  19. Let me guess: you’re a white man. And a friend of the lying, or hysterically paranoid, Peter Aitken. Possibly even the same person. Whatever the case, a troll.

  20. All language is subjective and context-based. The term “white supremacy” is indeed associated with extremists in many minds. Why put down people who note that and propose using another term? Why can’t this be discussed at least? Especially without smug snark?
    Discussions like this seems like a distraction for folks who don’t know how to deploy strategies, resources, etc. I would also like to hear about what folks think about the last two rounds of race discussion/education in the UU work in the past two decades. Why isn’t this discussed?

  21. You missed the point entirely. It is not for white people to “note” that white supremacy is associated with extremism and propose using another term. If leaders in the anti-racism movement ask us to embrace the discomfort of this term for important reasons, it is not for white people to center their feelings and their leadership to interrupt the conversation. White people love to discuss things to death and have fake fights. Smug snark is a perfectly legitimate tone to take with white people who insist on dominating the conversation, asking the same tiresome, self-centered questions repeatedly and refusing to accept the answers because they can’t adjust to a world where they’re not in charge of the conversation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.