GA Notes: Berry Street Essay

Rev. Sean Dennison delivered the 2015 Berry Street Essay. His title: "Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option"

When he says failure is "not an option," he means that it isn't an option because it is inevitable. Some notes:

As long as we fear failure, burn energy trying to be perfect, we won't have the energy to be the relevant and growing UU that we want to be. Fear of failure keeps us stuck thinking small. You might as well go ahead and plan to fail -- because you will fail.

Preaching today needs to be something rather different from what preaching used to be. I vital -- often central -- function of preaching used to be to explain big truths. Listeners no longer care about having big truths explained to them. They have Google for that. Listeners don't need more information any more -- rather, people need help sorting through the overload of info they already have.

"Authentic." All sorts of peo (event planners, culinary artists) are looking for better ways to appear authentic. Peo don't trust "slick." They like flaws. They detest insincerity and seek out the authentic.

How We Are Failing: Serving the overserved. Once there was a well-known preacher. He started RealLivePreacher.com -- one of the early big successes of using the internet. Then he left ministry. When asked in private, he explained, "I could no longer serve the over-served." This sums up our failure.

The Failure of Privilege. We say that everyone is worthy, but the system is insidious at getting us to judge and rank everyone -- against a standard of perfection that is young, thin, white, male, straight, etc.

"One mistake we often make is trying to lead with our strengths rather than our heartbreak." (Rev Marlin Lavanhar) Counter the culture of perfectionism and lead with our heartbreak and our failure. "We can use devastation as a seedbed for new life" (Parker Palmer)


This Week's Prayer

“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” (W.E.B. DuBois)
Dear Eternal Now, Infinite Present,

We hold in prayerful hearts today the people of Emmanuel AME Church who lost their pastor and eight others when a white supremacist terrorist entered their church, was welcomed, sat for a time among them, and then opened fire. Dead are Mira Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Singleton, and State senator and pastor Clementa Pinkney.

As Unitarian Universalists, we have been the objects of violent hatred. We lost two of our own inside one of our congregation’s buildings in 2008 in Knoxville. We were hated simply for being allies of the African American and LGBT movements for equality, freedom, and respect. In response, we Unitarians launched our "Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. This shooting in Charleston doesn't call for us to launch a movement, but to join a movement, and now is the time. This shooting calls for us to be partners, work in solidarity, join coalitions, build bridges, and step up today.

As allies we are, may we have the strength to be steadfast and strong allies.

These deaths say to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for love, and not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. May we be not politely silent when we hear words of prejudice or the jokes of bigotry. May we find the calm compassion to speak truth.

If we hear attributions of mental illness, may we have the courage to say that that’s not what mental health professionals say; that mental illness distorts ideas, but the ideas still come from somewhere; that the problem isn’t mental illness, it’s societal illness.

May we find in our hearts the commitment to initiate conversations with our neighbors, co-workers, extended family. To encourage those conversations, may we acquire and place prominently in front of our homes yards signs that say black lives matter.

There is a white supremacist culture that devalues black lives, and its continuation depends upon our silence. So may we not be silent. Thus do we pray.


"Transracial" Is Not a Thing

Rachel Dolezal, born white, began identifying as black. Is "transracial" a thing, as transgender is? What's a straight white cis-man to make of it?

I acknowledge that "nothing," is a reasonable answer to that latter question. It's not up to me to define the issue or the people or communities involved. I am, however, called to discern -- tentatively, fallibly -- where to ally. Here's what I got.

The Self-Identification Rule

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 2005 in Fort Worth, there were unfortunate race-related incidents. (Including, among other things, GA participants mistaking UU youth of color for hotel staff. Stites & Walton, UU World.)

At the following GA (2006 in St. Louis), the assembly heard periodic reports from a racism monitoring team on the look-out for racially hurtful interactions at GA. One of the reports mentioned an incident in which a group of "apparently white-identified people" entered an area. I remember nothing of what then reportedly happened involving this group. What I remember, all these years later, is the phrase, "apparently white-identified people." It was the first -- and, I think, so far, the only -- time I have heard that phrase. It was coming from the dais at General Assembly, spoken by fellow UUs committed to and engaged in the work of anti-racism, so I took seriously the implication: whiteness, and race generally, are matters of self-identification, and, without getting to know a person and hearing from them directly what their racial identification is, we can only guess ("apparently") at the race they identify as.

I had already grown accustomed to the idea that gender was a matter of self-identification. More recently, I've learned the phrase, "persistent, consistent, insistent" as the key markers of a child's gender identity. If the offspring you had assumed was your daughter is persistent, consistent, and insistent in maintaining identification as a boy, then he is a boy. There may be passing phases of opposite-gender experimentation. There may be some areas where your child seems to emulate one gender while in other areas follows the patterns associated with the other gender. The child may express ambivalence about her or his gender. All of these, the wise parent can sensibly ride out. But a gender identity that is persistent, consistent, and insistent is real. The usefulness of an older sibling's non-unisex hand-me-downs is now reversed.

Self-identification is the key -- not DNA, not secondary sex characteristics, and not even primary sex characteristics. And persistence, consistence, and insistence are the criteria of genuine self-identification. That goes for gender and also for race.

For example, Lucy and Maria Aylmer are twins -- same mother and the same father -- yet Lucy identifies as white and Maria as black.
"The story of Lucy and Maria Aylmer, 18-year-olds whose father identifies as white and whose mother is "half-Jamaican" (and, we're to assume, thinks of herself as black), is just the most recent one about fraternal twins born with such dramatic variations in complexion that they're seen by many — and even see themselves — as members of two different racial groups." (Jenee Desmond-Harris, Vox)
Presumably, their respective complexions were factors in their racial identification. Nevertheless,
"other twins with the same respective looks and identical parentage as these twins might both choose to call themselves black or biracial." (Desmond-Harris)
Their race is a matter of self-identification.

When I posted the story of Lucy and Maria on Facebook, my colleague Rev. Danielle Di Bona commented:
"I am biracial (mom was Native, dad was born in Italy.) I have a twin sister (blue eyes, fair skin, curly hair) who identifies as white, while I identify as a bi-racial person of color."
Danielle is a bi-racial person of color because she self-identifies as a bi-racial person of color. Her sister is white because she self-identifies as white.

Race is, in fact, if anything, even less "real" than gender is, in the sense that racial categories:
  • are not based on facts that people can even begin to agree on. (If we can't even get a consensus that people with the same parents are the same race, where does that leave us?)
  • are not permanent. (If Lucy decides one day, like many other people with similar backgrounds, that her Jamaican mother is black and therefore so is she, who's to stop her?)
  • are not scientific. (There's no blood test or medical assessment that will provide a "white" result for Lucy and a "black" one for Maria.) (Desmond-Harris)
"Not real" would seem to mean that with race -- as with (arguably even more so than with) gender -- we have to go by sincere self-identification. And the measure of sincerity is persistence, consistence, and insistence. (Of course, "not real" doesn't mean "not important." Racism and discrimination based on perceptions of race are very real and very important.)

Transitioning vs. Passing

Indeed, there have been "transracial" people for as long as there have been racial categories.
"Racial barriers in America have always been permeable and ambiguous, even when they have been most violently enforced. A study based on information from the DNA testing company 23AndMe recently concluded that at least 3.5% of white Americans in the South have black ancestry, a legacy of black Americans light enough to pass for white seeking lives unencumbered by white supremacy. The New Deal was many things; it could also be seen as a racial transition program for millions of Italians, Jews, Irish, and other white ethnics who were, for the first time, began attaining the full advantages of whiteness. So the answer to the question “Can you racially transition?” is: Yes, millions already have. We call them white people." (Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed)
We call them white people because they called themselves white people -- supporting the idea that self-identification is reality.

Self-identifying as white may suffice for light-skinned blacks, but not for the darker-skinned:
"If you look black, you are black in America, regardless of ethnic background or how you identify; defining himself as biracial did not prevent Tony Robinson from joining the long list of unarmed young black men gunned down by police." (Adam Serwer, BuzzFeed)
Of course, genuine self-identification often requires more than just issuing declarations and checking certain boxes on forms. We may legitimately doubt the genuineness of a self-identification if it fails the tests of persistence, consistence, and insistence. For gender tranisitioning adults, the commitment to their gender identity would typically include hormone treatments to bring facial hair to transmen or breasts to transwomen. By analogy, identifying as a different race would entail skin and hair changes -- and those would be more difficult for darker-skinned blacks. (But perhaps not impossible, with skin dyes, hair straighteners and dyes, laser procedures to turn brown eyes blue, and plastic surgery to make a broad nose narrow.) It's a very long process. One cannot just wake up one morning and decide to be another race or another gender.

What Serwer called "racially transition" is usually simply called passing. And passing is psychologically quite distinct from transgendering (from what I can gather as a person who has never had strong desires to be, identify as, or present myself as, any race or gender from the one I have always been told I was). A person passing isn't driven by a sense of "this is who I really am, deep inside." They don't say things like, "I am a white person trapped inside the body of a black person." Caitlyn Jenner explained that, "My brain is much more female than it is male." Whatever objections one may have to the idea of brain differences between the sexes (or genders), this way of describing themselves is common among transgenders -- but not among those passing. We do not hear, "My brain is much more white than it is black" -- except, perhaps, from a comedian.

Passing is motivated by a desire for access to privileges of another race. Transmen, on the other hand, are not so much motivated by desire for the privileges of men as by desire to live their true sense of themselves.

What It's Not About #1: Lying

Comparisons between Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner -- and denunciations of such comparison -- have been circulating in social media. One difference is clear: Jenner is making no attempt to hide her past as a man. (Jenner's life has been so public since the 1976 Olympics that's its hard to imagine how she could.) A number of people have held this up as the crucial difference. Yes, it does distinguish Dolezal from Jenner, but does not distinguish the way that Dolezal is (she claims) "transracial" from the way many people are transgender. Many transgender people have moved to a new town in order to live their new identity, and have not let their new neighbors, colleagues, and co-workers know about their past as the opposite gender. Do we blame them? I don't think it's the hiding of one's past that is the issue.

What It's Not About #2: Lacking the Experiences

Elinor Burkett recently raised this complaint about Caitlyn Jenner:
"People who haven't lived their whole lives as women, . . . shouldn't get to define us. That's something men have been doing for much too long. . . . Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity. They haven't traveled through the world as women and been shaped by all that this entails. They haven't suffered through business meetings with men talking to their breasts or woken up after sex terrified they'd forgotten to take their birth control pills the day before. They haven't had to cope with the onset of their periods in the middle of a crowded subway, the humiliation of discovering that their male work partners' checks were far larger than theirs, or the fear of being too weak to ward off rapists. . . . being a woman means having accrued certain experiences, endured certain indignities and relished certain courtesies in a culture and reacted to you as one. . . . Nail polish does not a woman make." (Burkett, NYTimes)
A number of people responded that women's experience is highly variable.
"In her [Burkett's] rendering, a woman born without ovaries or who becomes infertile because of illness or surgery is not a woman. Neither is a woman who never developed breasts to be glared at during meetings. Nor a woman who is physically stronger than the men in her life. The woman who has never worked outside the home and never negotiated a salary also fails to qualify." (Katie McDonough, Salon)

"The having-your-breasts-ogled, lower-pay-than-men, fear-of-pregnancy, fear-of-dark-streets "common" experiences are no more common than any other experience that women have. I'm 62 and I've not had all those experiences." ("MsPea," NYTimes letters)

"Womanhood is not an exclusive club. So many people are in it, and we are all so very different from one another. We shouldn’t imagine any of us hold the keys to womanhood. Yes, trans women have some different lived experiences than cis women—though fewer than one might expect. The trans women I have gotten to know share my struggles to overcome internalized sexism, and constantly confront the kind of suspicion of the feminine that trans theorist Julia Serano describes in her book Whipping Girl (required reading, truly). They face employment discrimination at rates even higher than cis women. It’s hard to imagine a trans woman who doesn’t know what it feels like to walk down the street and be afraid for her safety because of her gender. I bet I have a lot more “womanhood” experiences in common with my trans women friends than I do with the Queen of England, who has certainly never worried about birth control, gotten her period on the subway, or scraped by on half a man’s salary. Surely her brain has also been shaped by her experiences, which are very different than mine. Are we going to revoke her womanhood, too?" (Jaclyn Friedman, Dame Magazine)
No, nail polish does not a woman make, but it's also the case that:
"Periods, reproductive anxiety, inequality and weakness do not a woman make." (Ellen McLarney, NY Times)
So I think Burkett's complaint against Jenner doesn't stand. There is no set of experiences that all and only women have.

For the same reason, the criticisms of Dolezal that say she isn't black because she hasn't truly experienced what black people experience also fail. There is no set of experiences that all and only blacks have. Blackness cannot be defined genetically or biologically, nor can it be defined by having had an agreed-upon set of experiences.

What Dolezal Is About

For one thing, she apparently sued Howard University in 2002 for race discrimination against her as a white person (Smoking Gun). For another thing, she could be white again when it suits her.
But most infuriating to some is the idea that she may be able to retreat comfortably back into a white identity, leaving the racism she claims to have experienced as a black woman behind." (Jenee Desmond-Harris, Vox)
Dolezal fails the persistency and consistency tests for genuine self-identification. She has been passing, not transitioning. It seems she wanted a more privileged position in the black community than she could have as a white person.
"I don’t know Rachel but this is what it feels like to me: she’s a liberal white woman who is actually down for the cause. She’s here for Black folk and she understands the struggle (as much as any white woman can anyway). . . . Rachel Dolezal is a white woman who will have your back. She went to Howard. She teaches African Studies. She’s the head of the NAACP. But she’s weak. She’s a weak white woman who got tired of being shushed." (Rafi D'Angelo, SoLetsTalkAbout.com)
There's a deep sense of "who we are" that is tied up in many people's gender identity. There are also those who don't feel the gender categories have much to do with who they are -- but those aren't the ones who are going to go to the bother of transitioning. Racial identity, however powerful as a sociological fact, is not so embedded as a psychological fact about the identity of the self. While transgenders may feel they were born into the wrong body, a person can't feel "born into the wrong race" because no one is born into any race at all. Racial identity is solely a construction of one's society. Yes, I know, gender identity is too -- but with gender identity there's at least a dialog between society and biology. There's a starting "default meaning" presumed for two X chromosomes -- but there is no biological equivalent of X or Y chromosomes for race. Transgendering is about becoming what one was born to be. Neither white nor black is what anyone was born to be.


This Week's Prayer

Words of Black Elk:
“Hear me, four quarters of the world: A relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth. Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand. Look upon these faces of children without number, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet. This is my prayer; hear me.”
Dear four quarters of our one world,

We are your children. Give us eyes to see and the strength to understand.

The United Nations says we are in the midst of the worst migration crisis since World War II. Eleven million people were uprooted by violence last year, most propelled by conflict in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Conflict and extreme poverty have also pushed tens of thousands out of parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.In China mass migration of parents looking for work has left millions of children behind in rural areas. Thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Burma, have fled from poverty and persecution. Give us eyes to see and strength to understand.

Housing is a human right, increasingly denied in our country as rent for low- and middle-income earners has skyrocketed. Many families now pay more than half their income in rent. 75% of the families that need housing assistance are not getting it. Yet the plan in the House of Representatives is to slash further our already woefully underfunded housing assistance programs. Give us eyes to see and strength to understand.

Reproduction freedom for women faces further restrictions. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld a Texas law that will force most of the state's abortion clinics to close. In Florida, the governor signed an abortion waiting-period bill requiring women to make two clinic visits and wait 24 hours before getting an abortion. Give us eyes to see and strength to understand.

May we face the winds and walk the good road:
Like the Spanish Parliament passing a new law making it easier for descendants of Jews who were expelled from or fled Spain during the Inquisition to apply for citizenship;
Like those attending the Youth in Asia Training for Religious Amity in Cambodia.
Like all whose work and ministry bring healing and hope to their communities and country.

Look upon these faces of children without number. Give us strength to walk the soft earth, eyes to see, strength to understand. This is our prayer; hear us.