Our Road to Multiculturalism

For about 20 years I have from time to time met with a group of newcomers to Unitarian Universalism – sometimes including long-term members as well. I’ve done this in Nashville, Tennessee; El Paso, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; and, from time to time over the last 9 and a half years, here in White Plains, New York. I ask, “What drew you to Unitarian Universalism?”

Answers vary, of course, but two themes predominate, across the years and across the places. Asked what they like about Unitarian Universalism, UUs will often say some variation of, “I love being at a place where other people think like me.” Just as often, in my experience, we will say some variation of, “I love being at a place where people are so different; I love the variety.”

These are not contradictory. If you resonate with both those answers, there need be no cognitive dissonance there. We do have some things in common here that often aren’t all that common in the wider world. One of those things is the heritage that we come into here – the heritage that becomes your heritage when you become a Unitarian Universalist – the heritage of religious freedom, reason, and tolerance that stretches back 450 years in Europe, and was picked up about 225 years ago in this country – the heritage of resistance to Calvinist ideas of human depravity and predestination -- of 19th-century abolitionists, of the Unitarian re-shaping of the Christmas holiday, of the 1930s humanists in our churches, of the Unitarian Service Committee’s work in World War II to get Jews out of Nazi-occupied areas, of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements that found a religious grounding in our congregations – as well as the heritage of all the ways we and our forebears have fallen short, have failed to have the wisdom to see and the courage to act. We have all that in common – we are the carriers forward of all that heritage.

But before you learned about any of that, before you’d seen even one "UU Minute" or read about any of our history, you’d have noticed here a prevailing appreciation of diversity – a way of being together that prizes learning from each other and growing and changing in ways that don’t happen as well in groups where all the people have very similar knowledge, styles, habits, and expectations. One of the key ways that we are alike is that we are high in openness to difference.

We like our differences and we would like to have more. We would like this congregation to be more multicultural than it is. That’s what we’ve said, and we weren’t lying. We might criticize ourselves for not being as committed to becoming more multiculturally welcoming as we think we could be, but I believe our various surveys and focus group discussions that again and again affirm that we do want more diversity here. Unitarian Universalists – and I have been one my whole life -- have been struggling with this for as long as I remember.

Our similarities – which include an appreciation of differences – also include factors that have limited our denomination’s multicultural appeal. Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones spent decades facilitating racial equity workshops have identified features of an organization’s culture that limit its welcome of cultural diversity. Unitarian Universalist culture is pretty low on some of these – low in a good way because it means low on a barrier to welcoming more diverse cultures, but we are not low on all of them, and, if we set our minds to it, we could further lower each of these 8 barriers to multiculturalism:

1. Perfectionism. This is the belief, or implicit operating assumption, that there is one right way to do things – a best practice attainable and desirable for everyone – and that somebody in power is qualified to know what this perfect right way is.
2. Either/or binary thinking. This reduces the complexity of life and the nuance of our relationships with each other and all living things into either/or, yes or no, right or wrong in ways that reinforce urgency, and perfectionism.
3. Denial and defensiveness – specifically denying and defending the ways in which barriers to multicultural welcome are erected and maintained.
4. Conflict avoidance. An organization that prioritizes making everyone comfortable cannot have open conflict – and so it cannot develop an ethos of mutual love and respect in the midst of conflict. Conflict is inevitable where truly different cultures are brought together, so stifling conflict entails stifling voices.
5. Individualism. Our cultural story that we make it on our own, without help, while pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, is a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are, in fact, all in this together.
6. The goal is always “more.” This goal implies that what we’re after has to be objectively measurable. The emphasis on measurable quantity overlooks the importance of the quality of our relationships to all living beings.
7. Idolizing the written word – ignoring the wide range of ways we communicate with each other and all living things and treating every problem as if it were solvable by specifying in writing what the policy going forward will be.
8. Urgency. Martin Luther King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” – of the need for action over complacency. But when every day-to-day concern becomes urgent, we fail to see the power imbalance that is maintained by keeping everyone frantically busy. We fail to meet our need to breathe and pause and reflect.

These are some of the key features of an organizational culture that inhibits becoming multiculturally welcoming. To create a culture that’s more multicultural, we look for ways to lower these barriers.

As we move forward, we need also to notice that some very popular approaches to DEI – Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – haven’t worked. In 2016, the Harvard Business Review ran a cover story about how diversity training was backfiring – making things worse. These trainings teach people about bias, combat stereotypes and encourage people to assume the perspectives of others in disadvantaged groups. Alexandra Kalev and Frank Dobbin studied nearly 830 US companies. On average, five years after implementing compulsory diversity training for managers, companies saw declines in the numbers of some demographic groups -- African American women and Asian American men and women -- and no improvement among white women and other minorities.

Other social science studies have shown that efforts to reduce prejudice increase bias or lead to more hostility rather than less. David Brooks summarized the reasons Dobbin and Kalev offered that these programs don’t work:
“First, ‘short-term educational interventions in general do not change people.’ This is as true for worker safety courses as it is for efforts to combat racism.
Second, some researchers argue that the training activates stereotypes in people’s minds rather than eliminates them.
Third, training can make people complacent, thinking that because they went through the program they’ve solved the problem.
Fourth, the mandatory training makes many white participants feel left out, angry and resentful, actually decreasing their support for workplace diversity.
Fifth, people don’t like to be told what to think, and may rebel if they feel that they’re being pressured to think a certain way.”
So having our own congregational version of DEI training probably won’t be helpful.

Then, last week, I learned about the work of Australian political scientist Karen Stenner. Stenner argues that underlying racism and intolerance is something more fundamental she calls ‘difference-ism’: “a fundamental and overwhelming desire to establish and defend some collective order of oneness and sameness.” Another term for this is: authoritarian personality.

In one of Stenner’s studies, people scoring high for authoritarian personality
“were told that NASA had verified the existence of alien life––beings ‘very different from us in ways we are not yet even able to imagine.’ After being told that, the measured racial intolerance of authoritarian subjects decreased by half.”
In other words, they are afraid of whatever is most different. If there are space aliens out there, then suddenly all humans are “us” because the authoritarian personality’s animosity focuses on whatever is the most different. Stenner writes: “black people look more like ‘us’ than ‘them’ when there are green people afoot.”
“Under these conditions, the authoritarians didn’t only become kinder to black people, Stenner noted; they also became more merciful to criminals — that is, less inclined to want a crackdown on perceived moral deviance.” (Friedersdorf, Atlantic Monthly)
Stenner’s book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, concludes that not everyone can learn to respect and value difference. She writes:
“All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference...are the surest way to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviors.”
Journalist Conor Friedersdorf estimates that “perhaps 15 percent of humans are psychologically ill-suited to dealing with difference.” He doesn’t indicate where that 15 percent figure comes from – it seems to be his impressionistic guess. As a rough, ball-park estimate, maybe that’s about right. Whatever the number might be, we’re never going to “fix” every individual – so we need systems that neutralize the authoritarian personalities from inflicting their phobias on others.

Dr. Sonia Kang, Professor at the University of Toronto, says,
“There’s always going to be some portion of the population that is unreachable....That’s where the organizational design piece becomes even more important. Because if you have someone who’s not willing to change and they, let’s say, are a racist and they got into a position where they’re in charge of hiring, you want to have the structure or the processes, the procedures set up in such a way that it doesn’t matter. They can be racist, but the structure that you’ve built is so equitable that their bias can’t play in there.... I would rather see those resources put into building the structures that allow them to exist without messing things up for everyone else.”
Lily Zheng, a DEI strategy consultant, concurred, adding:
“We should work around the racists to neutralize the impact that their racism can cause. If you design an organization that’s equitable enough and inclusive enough, I really do strongly believe that you can neutralize the impact of people who, I don’t know, maybe are unsavory, maybe who just frankly aren’t perfect. This overfocus of the industry on ensuring that we’re perfect people I think is a complete waste of time and resources. We should design organizations that are equitable and inclusive whether or not every single person inside those organization is inclined the same way.”
Where does this leave us? On the one hand, Unitarian Universalists tend not to be authoritarian personalities. We affirmatively prize diversity and difference, and we tend to score high on measures of open-ness to new experience – precisely what authoritarian personalities score low on.

On the other hand, as noted, we are finding the road to multiculturalism difficult. This year’s UUA Common Read is Mistakes and Miracles. It all about Unitarian Universalist congregations on this road to multiculturalism – the mistakes made, and the grace that can sometimes break through. You can help our congregation on our road to multiculturalism by getting and reading this book and joining in the conversations about how we can change. The first prerequisite for change is: we have to really want to.

Our Unitarian Universalist Association selects only one Common Read a year – urging UUs everywhere to share in this reading experience, to talk and reflect about the issues raised. Mistakes and Miracles is this year’s Common Read. Please get a copy. Read it carefully and thoughtfully. We will be announcing opportunities for you to participate in groups reflecting on what our congregation’s road to multiculturalism might be like. Those will be in the Spring. Stay tuned for word of those – and in the meantime, please start reading.

African American UU minister Rev. Sofia Betancourt says:
“I like to invite folks to spend some time thinking about what the heart of Unitarian Universalism really is. Not what it looks like, not the old familiar comforting expression of it, but what IS Unitarian Universalism to you? What are the central values – [which may not match] how they’re expressed? Where is the faithfulness for you? Where is spiritual practice for you? What are the things that can never be set down? What’s inherent to us?”
We need to be able to relax, to slow down, to reflect. Too much busy-ness is one of the tools, as mentioned, that sustains the power imbalance. In fact, the Practice Pointer you’ll see in a moment is: Relax. But between the relaxing, the journey continues – the struggle.

There’s a story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling through the night with a stranger. We don’t know who this is: Is it God? Is it an Angel? We don’t know. But it is, for Jacob, a difficult and wounding experience. My colleague Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, who served in a neighboring church in Florida while I was a minister in the state, notes:
"Jacob prevails but he doesn’t WIN, and he’s wounded in the process. And the stranger blesses him, and renames him Israel, which means the one who has striven with God. That’s a powerful metaphor for what we are called to be in this world as Unitarian Universalists. It calls for us to be open to the spiritual discomfort of engaging with “the other”: to be present in that way, and to know that we will come out of that experience transformed and even renamed. Part of our spiritual task is to develop the muscle, the spiritual muscle, to be present to that discomfort and pain. This is where I think we have growing up to do. Being by nature conflict averse, we want quickly to move to the resolution phase, where we can just be renamed and we carry on!”
It’s going to be slow. So relax, breath, and step into the journey.

Blessed be. Amen.

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