This sermon was delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East (Manchester, Connecticut) on January 15, 2006, by Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek. Used with permission.
Please read this for the next few sessions of Building the World We Dream About.
When you were born—if you were born in the United States—and if someone filled out a birth certificate on your behalf, in order to fill out that birth certificate completely, they were required to indicate your race.
Every ten years when the Census Bureau mails out its questionnaires, in order to answer question #6 you must indicate your race. Some might argue that the 2000 census was different because there was a box for “other.” But the question is asking for your race; the box actually doesn’t say “other.” It says, “some other race.”
If your children attend public school, at some point in the enrollment process you must indicate their race. Every public school system in the nation is required by law to keep track of academic performance by race. If you refuse to indicate your child’s race, the school will have no choice but to do it for you. If you want admission to a college or university, or if you’re seeking financial aid to attend a college or university, it is not mandatory to indicate your race on the application, but in many instances checking the racial identity box makes a difference in your chances of being accepted and in the amount of your financial award.
You no longer have to indicate your race to get a driver’s license, a passport, a mortgage, or to register to vote. It is illegal for corporations, governments, and many other institutions to discriminate on the basis of race. But statistically, your race will and does play a role when you are looking for a job, seeking a neighborhood in which to live, attempting to sell a house, expressing an opinion in public, getting an education for yourself or your children, interacting with police, defending yourself in court, facing the death penalty, trying to hail a cab, purchasing insurance, searching for decent healthcare, calculating your expected life span, getting access to and compensation for the natural resources on your ancestral lands, calling 911 for an ambulance, searching for clean air to breathe—even in deciding which house of worship to attend. Race will impact your psychological well-being, your sense of self-esteem, and your overall outlook on life.
Race will and does play a profound role in all aspects of life in the United States of America, which is an extraordinary realization when we pause to remember that race, biologically speaking, doesn’t exist. For hundreds of years scientists assumed race was a biological reality because people look different to the naked eye: different skin color, different hair texture, different facial structure. There must be different races! But literally hundreds of scientific studies in the last forty years have demonstrated there is no significant genetic difference between human beings regardless of differences in skin color, hair, and facial structure. Yes, not all questions about human differences have been answered; some are still under debate. And yes, there are still scientists who contend they can demonstrate race scientifically and that innate racial inferiority and superiority can be proven. Nevertheless, the commonly accepted conclusion in the scientific community is that there is no biological evidence to prove the existence of race.
Yet there it is on our birth certificates, on our kids’ financial aid applications, and within those red lines figuratively drawn around certain urban neighborhoods in the back rooms of banks, insurance companies, and supermarket chains. If you’ve lived in Manchester [Connecticut] for the last forty years and someone says to you in hushed tones, so only you can hear, “this town ain’t what it used to be,” more than likely you’ll assume they’re talking about Manchester’s changing racial demographics. Race may not be real in terms of biology and genetics, but it is nevertheless very real in our lives.
In the United Sates of America there are a number of racial categories: Caucasian, African American, Native American, Asian American, Latino or Hispanic and—certainly since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, if not before—Arab American. Some of these categories are under intense debate as to whether they are truly racial categories (which makes me laugh, since none of them actually exists from a biological standpoint). All of them, and a few more, are listed in Census question #6 pertaining to race, although “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” gets its own separate question, #5. You can choose how you want to answer Census question #6—or anywhere else the racial identity question appears. You can choose to write in “none of the above.” You can choose to say “human race.” But let’s be honest: we don’t choose our race. Do you choose your racial identity? “I think I’ll be a white person.” “I think I’ll be brown.” “I think I’ll be black.” Sometimes we wonder what it’s like to be a different race, but choosing a racial identity is not something we do in the United States. It is done for us. We have no choice in the matter. And because we’re usually very young when this happens, it doesn’t take long for us to accept our racial identity as a fact of life and to internalize the positive or negative messages society tells us about our racial identity.
This is what Lillian Smith was talking about [in her book] Killers of the Dream. “A moment before one was happily playing,” she writes, “the world was round and friendly. Now at one’s feet there are chasms that had been invisible until this moment. And one knows, and never remembers how it was learned, that there will always be chasms, and across will always be those one loves.”
I call this sermon “Racism and Spiritual Death in the United States of America” because, although race is not a biological reality, it is a spiritual reality, and it is spiritually deadly to everyone. Unitarian Universalists, I believe, are well situated to hear and understand this message. We are people who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are people whose hymns proclaim “we will all do our own naming.” We are people who believe in free will, in choice, in the sacredness of self-definition, in the holiness of self-reliance, in the value of being self-directed, in the political right and the spiritual necessity of self-determination, in the integrity of the individual, in the inviolable rights of all people to make decisions about who they want to be, what they want to believe, and how they want to live. For us, that is what it means to be spiritually alive.
But we didn’t choose our race. We weren’t part of that decision. We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll live my life out of an identity based on flawed scientific data and assumptions.” We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll be part of the privileged racial group” or “I’d like an appearance that invites negative racial profiling.” We did not define ourselves racially. We were defined racially. More accurately, racial identity was imposed on us by a power larger than us, a complex power I call demonic. And as long as we continue to live our lives out of an imposed racial identity, we live in a state of spiritual death. In each of us there is an unseen self beyond race, a truer self, a more authentic self, a whole self entirely free of the limits of race. We don’t know that self. We don’t know what we might’ve chosen had a choice been offered. We don’t know how we might be living today had a choice been offered. When we live as if race were real, we cannot know fully who we are. We live, therefore, in a state of spiritual death.
If you doubt this claim, if you find it off the mark, if you find it too big, too provocative, too audacious, perhaps even overly dramatic and unnecessarily inflammatory, I ask you to reflect on it more deeply. And I challenge you to choose for yourself an identity that is free of all traces of race. It cannot be done at this point in our history. This thing, this scientific falsehood, this immense lie used to separate people, used to exploit some and privilege others, this complex, demonic power that has been telling Americans who they are since Europeans first came to this continent has us so deeply in its grip we cannot choose an identity beyond it. How would you sustain such a choice? What would you need to say to people every time they laid eyes on you to communicate to them that you don’t have a race? We don’t have free will in this matter.
Can you imagine white people walking into retail stores or banks or waiting in line anywhere just to be served and saying, “don’t treat me like I’m white; go ahead, serve someone else first because I’m not white; feel free to follow me around as I shop because I’m not white; I no longer identify with any of the people I see in the majority of television shows because I’m not white; don’t have high expectations for my child because he’s not white; you’ve pulled me over officer, I assume, because I’m not white?” Can you imagine white people walking into people of color communities or churches saying, “I know I look white, but I’m not white. Please don’t treat me as white.” It sounds ludicrous and it is ludicrous. The opposite scenario for people of color would seem just as ludicrous except that it is normal, everyday experience. People of color have asked for centuries not to be evaluated based on the color of their skin, not to be pre-judged, not to be discriminated against, not to be profiled, not to be lynched, not to be run off their lands, not to be stereotyped, not to be deported, not to be segregated, not to be exploited, not to be invisible—they have been asking for the very thing I’m talking about—for a social, political, and economic identity beyond race—and it hasn’t yet happened.
No white person can take off white skin. No white person can give up the various privileges that come with white skin. No person of color can take off black or brown or red or yellow skin. No person of color can completely overcome the historical and systemic disadvantages perpetuated by institutional racism. The demonic power of race is a power larger than us. How we see ourselves turns out to be irrelevant. Racial identity has everything to do with how others see us, how society sees us. It is an imposed identity with immense power over us; we can’t just choose to get rid of it. And when we can’t make choices about who we are, about our deepest selves—when our relationships with others are guided by falsehoods no matter how genuine and honest we are—we are living in a state of spiritual death. Race and racism are responsible for spiritual death in the United States of America.
There are, of course, many people who believe they are spiritually alive in the United States—people of all denominations. There are many people who claim to be spiritually alive because they are living a life they believe God has called them to live. I suspect they would be upset and angry at my suggesting their spiritual life is mortally wounded by race. But none has yet convinced me my claim is wrong. Show me in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christian New Testament, or the Muslim Koran, or the Buddhist Sutras, or the Taoist philosophies, or the earth-based traditions where it says God calls each of us to take on a racial identity or that racial identity is somehow inherent in the human condition. Show me in any scripture where it says white, black, red, brown, and yellow are distinct human categories intended and ordained by God. In those scriptures I see God creating or acknowledging linguistic differences, cultural differences, national differences, ethnic differences. Nowhere is the idea of racial identity consistent with any scriptural prescription for spiritual wholeness. Race and racism do not appear in the Bible. Racial identities are modern identities. People did not start identifying by race until it became embedded in colonial American law during the 1600s. Some of my Christian and Jewish and Muslim colleagues—certainly some of my UU colleagues—will still protest: “My relationship with God is profound!” “My connection to the sacred brings depth and meaning to my life!” I do not mean to suggest that spiritual practice, spiritual endeavor, worship, prayer, and meditation are worthless. In fact, I think the way beyond race and racism in the United States of America is a spiritual way. Nevertheless, I need to ask my colleagues and others who protest, who is it that has the relationship with God? Who is it that has the connection with the sacred? Our false self—our racialized self—has a relationship with God, a connection to the sacred. Our true self beyond the falsehood of race has no such relationship because we cannot access that self. Our true self beyond race is hidden, buried, dead, in profound need of resurrection.
I long for my true self. Lillian Smith said, “There will always be chasms.” I don’t believe that. I believe we can overcome the demonic power of racism that tells us who we are and strips us of our capacity to do our own naming. I am deeply hopeful. I note the lyrics from “Ol’ Man River” … . In the midst of racism, that river, “He must know somethin’, but he don’t say nothin’ / He just keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along.” The flowing river has always been a metaphor for hope, whether in Broadway show tunes, black spirituals, literature, or poetry.
But let’s be precise in our hope. How, precisely, must we approach the problem of race? Clearly, denial of race will not work, for it leads to a denial of racism—and you can’t address a problem if you don’t think it exists. Likewise, living beyond race—as much as that is an ultimate goal and a way of coming alive spiritually—will not work in this time and place.
I hope this sermon has demonstrated how deeply the lie of race holds sway over our lives, and how it is not only premature, but impossible at this point in United States history to live as if we can set our racial identities aside. So the only honest and useful option I see—the only way to begin bridging the chasms that separate people—the only way to tap into the river of hope—is to acknowledge the truth that race holds all of us captive, to acknowledge the truth that our nation, though driven by the promise of liberty and justice for all, still rests on a foundation of white supremacy that steals our birthright and commits spiritual murder by telling us who we are rather than letting us be who we are. Let us proclaim to the demonic power of racism, “We will not stay dead. We will strive to reclaim our full humanity. We will become spiritually alive.” And to say this means we will learn, together, the strategies we must develop and the actions we must take to weaken, subvert, undermine, and ultimately destroy the demonic power of racism and the institutional structures that comply with it… .The way back to spiritual life in the United States of America is to make ourselves accountable for dismantling racism so that it can no longer tell us who we are, so that it can no longer prevent us from naming ourselves, so that it can no longer diminish the inherent worth and dignity of all people as it has been doing for 500 years in the western hemisphere, so that we can know the true meaning of freedom in this life in this country.
Amen. Blessed Be.