The work of Jay Smooth came to my attention this week, thanks to Denise Benshoof who shared it with us on our FB page. You can see his 3 minute video “How to tell someone they sound racist” here. He has a longer 11 minute TEDx Talk as well. He writes political-activist blog called Ill Doctrine. I just started following him on Twitter. Can you tell that I am impressed? I am impressed because this man’s work–just the brief examples I’ve seen, have shown me myself and helped me understand my inner workings a little better.
In short, he distinguishes between what we do and who we are. I suspect that ultimately he, like many of us, believes that who we are and what we do are expressions of each other. His focus in these short videos, however, are those places where how we experience ourselves on the inside (along with how we think about ourselves) differs from things we say or things we do.
Smooth is clear: when we encounter someone else (often a friend) saying something that sounds racist, they must be held accountable. It’s not okay to let it slide. Smooth suggests that when that happens we focus on “what you said” or “what you did.” He cautions, however, that culturally too many of us have learned to shut down that conversation by flipping it to a conversation about who we are.
“Hey, friend, that thing you just said sounds racist.”
“What? You think I am a racist? But I’m a good person. You know that I am a good person!”
And there it is. In one interchange the conversation flipped from “what you did” to “who I am.”
This has been my own inner turmoil lately. The news of the hiring practices of the Unitarian Universalist Association came to light last week demonstrating clear, long standing preferences for white males in a religious community that professes and stands for the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Black Lives UU has responded by asking us to consider how a white supremacist system continues to run an organization that is not made up of white supremacists. How does that happen? It’s a damn good question.
My reaction (and to be honest, the reactions of friends around me) was immediately: but I’m not a white supremacist, and I don’t know any white supremacists, certainly not in th Unitarian Universalist community that I know!
I flipped it. I am invited to consider WHAT WE DO, and I turned it into WHO WE ARE.
Doing that feels right and righteous. We are NOT white supremacists. The sad reality that I am coming to terms with is that by flipping it (Just as Jay Smooth points out) from a consideration of what we do to a defense of who we are, we avoid making any of the necessary changes that we would otherwise want to reflect who we are.
Smooth notes in his TEDx talk: if a friend noted that you had some spinach stuck in your teeth, would you respond immediately by proclaiming: but I’m a clean person! Probably not. You might be embarrassed that you’ve been carrying on conversation all afternoon with green spinach in your teeth. You would go immediately to the bathroom to take care of the problem. You’d thank you friend for calling it to your attention, and your status as a clean person would still be firmly in tact. Your friend would still be your friend who helped you out.
We have work to do on how we act as a religious organization. I am deeply moved by who we are and what we hold dear in our Principles. Working on how we act only strengthens who we are. Ultimately, if we do not do this work on racial equity and justice, how we act will begin to tell people that this is really who we are.