The Problem is Power: Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/20/2013

We’ve spent a lot of time today talking about how power is an aspect of every relationship, and when there’s an inappropriate imbalance of power, it makes that relationship destructive.  And now I’d like to spend some time, on this Martin Luther King Weekend, talking about how power imbalances are at the root of the sort of racism that we Americans are dealing with in this day and age, 2013.

Obvious, right?  I mean, we can see power imbalances in all sorts of forms of racism, from slavery – which must be the greatest power imbalance of all, when one person owns another – we can see power imbalances through slavery and Jim Crow laws and voter suppression, and employment and school discrimination and all the rest of that mess.  It’s easy enough to see how those historical American practices gave white folks all the balloons , and then most of the balloons, and it took a lot of work to get those balloons even partially redistributed through political change, the sort of change for which King is so well known.

But what I’d like to say today to you all is that the balloons are still unequally distributed, no matter the equality of our laws.  I could say that the balloons are still unequally distributed because of the enduring legacy of slavery and oppression that persists through poverty and lack of education and unequal distribution of wealth and resources, and that would be a true thing to say. 

But what I really want to talk about today is about something much less visible than all of that, something that has much more to do with who we in this room are.  Because I doubt there’s anyone here who would support a racist law, and I’d hazard to guess that most of us wish that disproportionate poverty and poorer life chances of our African American brothers and sisters would come to an end.

But, unfortunately, there’s more to modern racism than unequal laws, and there’s more to modern racism than a legacy of oppression that lingers on through the markers of poverty.  Aside from those things, there’s also what racism has now morphed into, what racism now looks like, that is getting in the way of our achievement of a truly equal society where racial differences aren’t one of the things that automatically grants you more or fewer balloons.

Okay, so the topic for today is that which racism has now morphed into, what racism now looks like.  The problem with this as a topic for discussion is that the new racism is in large part invisible to white people.

The new racism is in large part invisible to white people.

I’ll be spending a lot of time this morning quoting Wellesley professor Peggy McIntosh, a white woman who was trained in feminist theory and expected to work and publish in that area.  However, while McIntosh pondered why it was that the “very nice men” she worked with were so reluctant to see how society was set up to give them advantages that women didn’t get, she realized that, as a white person, society was also set up to offer her all sorts of advantages that people who aren’t white don’t get. 

McIntosh called these advantages “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which,” – now, pay attention here – “about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

McIntosh spent some time thinking about concrete ways in which she was advantaged due to her skin color.  In 1988 she made a list of the benefits in her invisible knapsack, benefits that people of color do not have.  Here are some of them:
1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
 2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live. 
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
 6. When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
 7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can deal with my hair.
16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color, who constitute the worlds' majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
 17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
 18. I can be sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge" I will be facing a person of my race.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in flesh color that more or less matches my skin.

McIntosh goes on to say, “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average…”

I agree with McIntosh that most of us white folks work within the unspoken and possibly unrealized assumption that our culture is neutral, normative and average.  Using those words – neutral, normative, average – carries particular meaning, you’ll notice.  This is important.

To feel your culture is neutral, normative and average does not mean that we operate under the assumption that our culture is one of many others, but we happen to know the most about ours and feel most comfortable in ours.  When we say our culture is neutral, normative and average, we’re not saying that our culture is best, or most enjoyable, or makes a lot of sense.  We could say those things, but we don’t – we go a step farther than that.  We white people are taught and we act as if our culture is the norm.  And to be able to declare, without even realizing it, that one’s culture is the norm, is a tremendous act of power.  The fact that we white folks can get away with it shows how much racial power we still have these days, how many balloons we still carry around - invisible balloons tied to our invisible knapsacks.

There are lots of ways I could claim that my culture is the best, at least in my own opinion.  I’ve spent a lot of time overseas embedded in other people’s cultures, and I’m also a person who gets annoyed very easily, even though I try (unsuccessfully) not to show it.  I’ve had many experiences where my personal culture clashed with the culture with which I was interacting.  But, when power dynamics between the two cultures are the same, when the two groups have more or less the same number of balloons, that cultural “clash” is merely a question of preferences, a question of opinion, and there’s room for both sides.

Truth be told, I prefer to be in a culture where people show to up to things at the time that they said they would.  I prefer to be in a culture that values objective truth over saving face, so that when you ask someone a question they don’t know the answer to, they don’t tell you just anything so that they don’t have to feel they are ignorant.  I prefer if my baby’s head is not shaved upon his birth, which would have happened to one of my kids if I had made one particular move.  And you know how eastern European women often dye their hair that bright red color?  Truth be told, I think that’s kind of weird.  These are all my preferences, the preferences of one picky person.  And overseas, they remain that: my preferences.  I don’t get to indulge my preferences most of the time.

It is only here in America, as a white person, that I can arrange a social interaction so that my cultural preferences are established as the norm, the “right” culture that everyone else needs to adjust to.  I can’t say it better than Peggy McIntosh herself, who writes:
“My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms.”

Of course, the downside for those from other backgrounds within this American framework is that they are not able to take advantage of these same privileges, the privileges that those who have them cannot even see. 

McIntosh again:
“In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.

[Racism takes] both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant groups one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

“White privilege is like a bank account I was given,” McIntosh says, in another article. “I didn’t ask for it, but I can spend it down. And because it’s white privilege, it’ll keep refilling.”

So.  If we can start to see, or we can now clearly see, this invisible knapsack of privileges that white Americans get upon their birth, and we believe that such an unequal distribution of privileges – or balloons, if you will - is something that a good Unitarian Universalist might want to work against, the question now arises, what can we do?  It’s taken this long just to notice the knapsack.  Having noticed it, maybe having unpacked it a little, what is there to do to get rid of it, or to make sure everyone gets a knapsack, or whatever the metaphor might be?

Here are some ideas:
Peggy McIntosh says this:  “Disapproving of the system won't be enough to change [it]. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.”

She goes on to say, “To redesign social systems, we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these subjects taboo.”

McIntosh is saying that one easy way that whites can shine a light on the system is to be more comfortable talking about it.  In our day to day lives, this can be as simple as asking questions.  Say you’re in a committee meeting or a meeting at work where there is a subtle struggle over whose cultural norms will be used.  Can you call it out, talk about it?  Can you learn to notice when white privilege is happening, and then say something about it?  What will your white friends say if you challenge some of the ways in which they use the stuff in their invisible knapsack?  Will they also become aware that they’re carrying them?

A second dimension, of course, is for white people to refuse to use their knapsack, or to confer “knapsack status” on people who normally wouldn’t get to use it.  Can you, if you’re white, side with another culture by “allowing” their norms to be the norm of a group that you’re in?  Can you, if you’re white, make potentially challenging situations less so by being openly welcoming and accommodating to people of color? 

Peggy McIntosh tells us “it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.”  Yes, it is an open question.  How about if we all rise to the challenge of making day-to-day interactions between us more fair?  What if we with most of the balloons, even ones we can’t always see, offered them over to those who don’t have as many?

At the end of the day, we UUs already know how to do this.  We are used to looking for the individual beneath the trappings or the groupings.  We are accustomed to telling ourselves that every voice that we hear is an important one.  We are used to valuing humanity over social constructions.  We just need to work on this area where we haven’t been able to see so clearly. 

Could it be as simple as the President of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, puts it?  He writes, “The challenge is always for progressive institutions to be courageous enough to admit to themselves that diversity is something that they have to be very intentional about. And yet, it’s as simple as welcoming and accepting new leaders and members on their own terms.”

Hey, that’s something that UUs already kind of know how to do, right?  Perhaps we only need to expand the playing field into previously unexplored territories, letting the openness that we’ve often shown to marginalized groups like atheists and gays and lesbians be something we also show more regularly to people of color from all walks of life. 

We shouldn’t be in the business of packing new invisible knapsacks, we UUs, and I would hazard to say that we know that.  Now that the knapsacks have been seen, let us be sure we do the work that we are called to do.  Martin Luther King’s famous line that we should be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character should never be lost on an individualist, character-improving culture such as our UU culture.  Let us do the work that we are so well placed to do.