Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

June 21, 2015: “Unintended Lessons”

(Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland)

Time for All Ages Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

“The Father and The Crow,” based on a traditional tale

I would like to share with you a traditional story. Some sources say it’s an Indian or Hindu tale. Some say it’s Muslim tale. But I nobody knows for sure. It could come from anywhere. Whatever it’s origin, it goes something like this:

One sunny Sunday a young father and his little son were walking through a park. They were happy, relaxed, and the little boy was excited just to get time to spend with his dad.

It was so nice his dad wasn’t working.

As they were walking along, the little boy saw something in a tree just ahead, movement, and the color black. He pointed and asked energetically, “Dad, what’s that?”

It’s a crow, his father said cheerfully, and squeezed the little boy’s hand affectionately with a smile.

Thirty seconds later, “Dad! What’s that?” the boy asked again, pointing. “A crow.” Again, a little squeeze a smile, and a glance down at his son.

“Dad! What’s that?” … “A crow.” Still a smile and a glance.

Dad! What’s that?” … “A crow.”

Dad! What’s that?” … “A crow.”

The father’s smile never waned, even after the boy asked the same question 23 times in less than five minutes! Now, I know you might think it’s impossible that anybody could ask the same question 23 times in five minutes, but if you can remember being two or three years old, or if you’ve ever been a parent, you know it’s true!

After the longest pause, maybe a minute, the boy asked with slightly less enthusiasm, “Dad, What’s that?”

So the father picked up the boy hugged him, sat down on a bench with the boy in his lap and said, “Son, it’s crow.” And the little boy didn’t ask again.

Now, it’s 50 years later. The boy isn’t a boy anymore, he’s a grown man, with a busy job, at the peak of his career, worried about how he’s going to pay for his son’s college in a few years, stressed by the economy which never seems to be getting any better. His dad calls one day and says, “son, can I see you for a few minutes today? I have something to ask you.”

“Really, Dad?” the son asks, impatiently. “I don’t have time.”

“I just need a few minutes of your time,” his father asks again, patiently.

“Can you just tell me what you need now, on the phone?” the son asks, sounding exasperated.

“No.” says the father. “I need to see you to ask this question.” He pauses. “It’s important.”

“Fine. I’ll pick you up on my way to my meeting.”

So the son picks up his father, and as they are driving toward the very important meeting, the father points ahead and says, “What’s that?”

The son glances over and says, “Dad, it’s a crow!”

“Oh,” says the father. He waits a moment, and again, points ahead and asks, “Son, what’s that?”

“It’s a crow!” he yells, even though his father is sitting right there next to him in the car. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see? I just got you new glasses last week.”

No response from his father. “What’s this all about? Why are you bothering me with all this nonsense? Don’t you know I’m busy and my time is valuable?”

“When you were a little boy,” the father said slowly, looking right at his son, “you asked me that same question 24 times in just a few minutes, and I answered it with smiles and a hug. I wasn’t annoyed. I was glad we were together and you were seeing the world and asking question. I ask you only twice and you get angry.”

Reading from the Global Scripture (Linda Coulter)

This morning’s reading is by The Reverend Dr. Thandeka, from her 1999 book Learning to be White: Money, Race and God in America:

Dorothy and I were introduced by the host of the dinner party: Dorothy was a “poet,” whose most recent volume of poetry was prominently displayed on the coffee table in front of the couch on which we were seated. I was a “writer” working on white identity issues. After our host departed, Dorothy wanted to know what a “white identity” was. She did not have one, she assured me. She was simply an American. I could help her find hers, I responded, if she wanted to know what it looked like. Her interest piqued, she accepted the offer. True to form, I asked her to recollect her earliest memory of knowing what it means to be white.

After a little excavation, she finally found the memory: When Dorothy was five, she and her family lived in Mexico for a year. Although her family’s housekeeper brought her daughter, who was also five, to work, Dorothy’s parents forbade her to play with the little girl. Dorothy, in fact, was never allowed to play with any Mexican children, and she and her two brothers were forbidden to venture beyond the gates of their backyard. Dorothy remembered her feelings of sadness and regret. The Mexican children and their parents seemed so much more at ease with themselves and each other. They seemed warm and tactile, unlike her own family, whose manners and expressions were cold and constrained.

Dorothy told me she had not thought of these feelings in years. She confessed that she now recalled how often, during that year, she wished to be brown. I suggested that the term “white” might not mean anything consciously to her today because it had too much negative meaning for her when she was five. She agreed and now expressed surprise that she had not written about these feelings, memories, or experiences in her work. She said much of her life had been devoted to freeing herself from the emotional strictures imposed on her by her parents. Most of her poetry was about them and the way they had drained life out of her. She reiterated her astonishment that this set of memories had not surfaced in her work. As she blushed, the resurrected feelings of the child seemed to disappear.

I now watched Dorothy transfer her own dis-ease to me and I braced myself for an attack. She was no longer the object of her painful racial memories. Now, I was. “You know,” Dorothy now said pointedly, “you are the first black I’ve ever felt comfortable with talking about racism.” To which I responded, “Why is it so easy for you to think of me as a ‘black,’ and yet until a few minutes ago you could not make any sense out of thinking about yourself as a ‘white’?” Further-“Were we really talking about racism? And if so, whose? Your parents’? Yours? That of the five-year-old girl who wanted to be brown?”

Dorothy was silent for a long moment. “I now understand what I’ve just done, and I’m horrified,” she finally confessed. She realized that if I were a black, she, too, must have a race: the one that had enraged her as a child. Not surprisingly, Dorothy now confessed that she was afraid to say anything else-not because I might condemn her, but much more tellingly because, as she put it, “I might not like what I hear myself saying.”[1]

Sermon “Unintended Lessons, Part 1” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Children aren’t born racist. They learn it.

It’s a clich� to say it, I know. We’ve all heard it a million times, and it is true. We’ve seen little children play carefree with other children and adults – people who look very different from themselves. The differences are no big thing to them. They notice. They may even ask questions out of curiosity. But the answers they get to their questions – or the lack of answers – make all the difference in the world in forming their ideas about race.

Dr. Thandeka asserts that white children in the United States learn racism not so much because they are actively taught to hate the “other,” but by being passively trained to identify with their own whiteness without ever really learning how to name that, or make sense of the construct of whiteness.

In reference to Dorothy saying “I might not like what I hear myself saying,” in the reading we just heard, Thandeka writes “Her insights had outstripped her racial vocabulary. If she’d been forced to listen to herself continue to talk, she would have had to listen to a white woman speak in ways that the five-year old child would have despised. She did not want to listen to such talk.”[2]

Building on the work of Leon Wurmser, Heinz Kohut and Helen Merrell Lynd, Thandeka links white liberal guilt to shame. Thandeka writes that “A penalty can be exacted for a wrongful act. Recompense can be made and restitution paid. Not so with shame. Nothing can be done because shame results not from something one did wrong but rather from something wrong with oneself.”[3] Shame is incapacitating.

She uses the stories of white people, told in their own words, to show how pervasive the training is, and how thoroughly we learn the lessons our parents and neighbors never set out tacitly to teach.

Dozens of personal accounts resonated with my own.

My parents were 23 years old, brand new to the United States, coming from an area of Qu�bec, Canada where everyone seemed to be the same: White, French-speaking Catholics from large families. We were living in the Qu�becois section of Hartford, Connecticut called – I’m not making this up – “Frog Hollow.” It was transitioning, as were most cities of the time, and images of racial strife were everywhere. Wanting a little house with a big yard in a quiet town, they moved us to a suburb, where everyone was pretty much the same: white (or white-looking), working-class, with a last name ending in a vowel. They were either Polish, Italian or French Canadian. And Catholic. Except for one family, the Joneses, who were (whispering) Protestant.

One day at the end of the fourth grade school year, a newcomer came to our classroom. Edgar. I was intrigued by him, he was so different from me. Tall. Athletic. Outgoing. A “real boy.” And the only black child in the whole school.

He lived on the next block, so we walked the mile together, stopping at my house so he could meet my mother, which she required. When we walked into the house, my mother greeted us, and her face changed. Her smile disappeared. Her expression became neutral.

I didn’t ask if he could stay for dinner, or swim in the pool, or even have a snack. I just introduced him and said we’d play at his house. My mother was quiet, until as we were walking out the door, she said, “don’t go anywhere. I need you to stay here and help me with something.”

There was nothing my mother needed me for, so I hung around all afternoon, bored after finishing my homework. She said nothing. I was confused. On one hand, I wondered what I’d done wrong, but on the other hand, I was sure I had done the right thing. My parents always told me to treat everybody the same, no matter the color of their skin or the size of their bank account. But I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t supposed to play with Edgar, and felt bad for being wrong, like somehow I had betrayed my family.

I was still friendly with him at school for that last week, but then in the middle of the summer his family moved away, and I never knew why. Was it because the town was unwelcoming? Did his father get a new job? Did his parents divorce? Was it….because of me?

Nobody talked about it. And I learned to live with the feelings: the desire to fit in with my family and friends, and the shame of hypocrisy.

My parents came from a place that didn’t have the history of slavery. Canada isn’t free of racism, it just looks very, very different. They set out to teach my siblings and me how to be good people: to be fair and hardworking; good citizens. They set out to teach us how to build things and cook healthy meals and manage our time and money well. But they taught us other lessons too, as they tried to figure out how to navigate this complex social system so profoundly in denial of its racism. And whatever they didn’t teach me about being white, neighbors, civic leaders, and even school teachers filled in.

At college may roommate and I moved into a neighborhood of Latino and African American families. Ours was the only white household on the street, and when white friends would come to visit, they would call before leaving and honk on arrival, so we could meet them at the door to help them avoid feeling vulnerable on the front porch.

At first, I was offended. I was offended for my neighbors and the assumptions that were made about them. I was offended for myself, feeling judged every time somebody said “I would never live in this neighborhood.” But little by little I got to meet my neighbors, most of whom belonged to one big clan whose matriarch was the big-hearted Mrs. Whetstone next door. I lived there for two years, until I graduated, but never really got over the old mixed feelings of the desire to fit in and the shame of hypocrisy. The feelings were always there, right below the surface, even as I strove to live in as diverse a community as possible.

So, when it came time to go to graduate school to become a minister in this faith that wants so much to reflect the diversity of this country, I chose a school that had an anti-racist, multicultural mission: Educating to counter oppression and build just and sustainable communities. Building a new way of seeing our future, which began with rebuilding how I understand my own identity.

I’d like to invite you now to stand for hymn #1017 in the teal book.

Hymn #1017 We Are Building A New Way

Sermon “Unintended Lessons, Part 2” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Rachel Dolezal.

Two weeks ago, I talked in my sermon at East Shore about Caitlyn Jenner, and now I find myself wanting to talk about Rachel Dolezal. You’d think that I consider Vanity Fair and the “Today” show to be the most sacred texts of our Global Scripture. I don’t. But I don’t consider them to be profane either, especially as they engage in two conversations over the last couple weeks about two different people who are forcing us to ask a whole lot of questions about identity. Questions about the malleability of identity, the discord that can exist between how we feel and how we look, and how we do or do not respect the decisions some of us make about how we present ourselves to the world.

I’ve done a lot of web surfing in the last week, reading about Dolezal, who was the chair of the local chapter of the NAACP and was outed by her family for not being Black. Little of my reading was news, most of it opinion. What struck me early in the week was that so many people didn’t know what to make of Dolezal. She’d done a lot of good for the African American community. She seemed sincere, despite the fact that she clearly misled people about her race and her family’s history. The NAACP continued to support her.

I had a whole lot of questions about Dolezal: what did she learn from her family about race? How was she affected by her parent’s adoption of four Black toddlers and infants when she was a teenager? What prompted her to so drastically alter her appearance over the years? Did she think she could not be an ally to the African American community of Spokane as a white person? Is her love and allegiance to Black culture so profound that she wanted to completely immerse herself in at as one of the community, or is her love orientalizing? Or fetishizing? Or colonizing? These were questions a lot of people were asking, in the media, in personal conversations, and the discussions were remarkably calm, for the most part.

Then Wednesday, everything seemed to change after allegations were made public that Dolezal and two others on the volunteer Police Ombudsman Commission had breached confidentiality and created a hostile work environment for city employees. Worse, that evening a gunman walked into bible study at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire an hour later, ending the lives of nine souls:

Cynthia Hurd

Tywanza Sanders

Sharonda Singleton

Myra Thompson

Ethel Lance

Susie Jackson

DePayne Doctor

The Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr.

And Pastor Clementa Pinckney

Three more adults, whose names have not been released, survived the attack. The killer is quoted by them as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”[4]

In light of this act of unspeakably hateful violence, it seems almost absurd to question the motives of a woman who claims to so love Black people and Black culture that she went to an historically Black university, married a Black man, gave birth to his son, and has worked as an artist and activist to identify and dismantle systems of racial oppression in order to become Black.

One man killed out of hatred, and one woman lied out of love.

But is Rachel Dolezal’s love a healthy love?

That judgment isn’t mine to make. As a white person, my opinion doesn’t really matter here. I defer judgment to those whose lives are directly affected by this conversation.

Jay Smooth, a New York-based hip-hop scholar and cultural commentator also recognized the absurdity of talking about Rachel Dolezal when so many people had died. He said:

“The biggest lie [she] has promoted is that you have to be black in order to love black people – that’s never been true. You don’t have to be black to love black people, but … you got to be real. Real people who want real justice need to put in the work of real love right now.”[5]

So, that’s what we did. When Joe and I found out about the vigil at St. James African Methodist Episcopal church here in Cleveland, we just showed up, out of love and concern and because we didn’t know what else to do.

I can’t speak for Joe, but on Thursday, I kept remembering that day in July seven years ago when a gunman entered a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville Tennessee during worship and opened fire as children performed a musical, killing Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry who put himself in the line of fire to protect the children. The killer’s manifesto expressed hatred for liberals as the cause for all of the struggles in his life.

Now, I know that it’s not the same as what happened in Charleston. Racism and political fanaticism are not the same thing. But as happened this week, seven years ago religious leaders of different faiths poured into Knoxville in support. Across the country, ministers in other traditions reached out with their congregants to UU churches.

They were seeking justice, and expressing their love in the only way they knew how, when words were ineffective. They just showed up, real people wanting real justice, putting in the work of real love right when it was needed.

I still don’t want to pass judgment on Rachel Dolezal. All I know is I want to show up to put in the work of real love right now. I want to show up with my body – aware of the all the privileges it brings me in its color, gender and health – and do the work of real love, even if it means putting myself at risk. Whether that risk is physical danger or the emotional vulnerability of sharing my story or the discomfort of listening to the painful truths of others.

That’s all any of us can do. And we must do it, if we are to become the church we wish to be.

[1] Thandeka. Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America. Continuum. New York NY, 1999. P 11-12.

[2] Thankdeka. P. 12.

[3] Thandeka. “the Cost of Whiteness.”

[4] Elizabeth Leland, Michael Gordon and Mark Washburn. “Suspect in Charleston massacre surrenders meekly.” The Charlotte Observer, June 18, 2015