How White People Can Spoil a Good Party

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we like to think of ourselves as a progressive denomination. However, I graduated from Central High School in Macon, Georgia, in the year 1983. The year I graduated all the senior class officers were African American and the homecoming queen was a man so I am still waiting for my denomination to catch up with my high school.

If you read the newsletter or your order of service then you know the title of this sermon is “How White People Can Spoil a Good Party.” This morning I want to talk about my high school because although I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree from the Earlham School of Religion, I could almost say that everything I ever needed to know on this subject I learned in my high school.

One of the goals of our denomination is the work of dismantling white supremacy. There has been some reactivity to this language. For some people the word white supremacy conjures up images of the KKK in white hoods or neo-Nazi groups with shaved heads. However, white supremacy is often much more subtle than that. White supremacy can be about the ways white people dominate without even noticing that we are dominating.

Which leads me back to my high school. When I was in high school the committee that planned our high school dances was predominantly and possibly entirely African American and the dances were better for it. A more racially integrated group would not have improved our dances.

Now my niece Laura grew up in a different era but a similar high school. I once saw her when Sir Mix-a-Lot came on the radio with his famous song Baby Got Back. You know the song, “I like big butts but I cannot lie. You other brothers can’t deny.” When I saw my niece start dancing to that song I knew we shared a common experience as regards high school dances. To go to such a high school dance is to have a vision of what the world might be if we were able to dismantle white supremacy. What would it feel like? It would feel like freedom.

So how do white people spoil a good party? One way to understand this dynamic is to look at it through the lens of physics; (You know you are in a UU church when the minister says we need to look at something through the lens of physics.)We can look at it through the lens of what physicists call the observer effect. The observer effect theory tells us that, “the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.” Now the observer effect has ramifications for quantum mechanics, electronics, particle physics and thermodynamics but for our purposes today we can reframe the principle to say, “When white people are observing something then the mere fact that white people are observing it inevitably changes that something.” That’s how white people can (without ever meaning to) ruin a good party.

I witnessed an example of the observer effect right here in this sanctuary. A couple of years ago we hosted the community Interfaith Martin Luther King service. At the beginning of the service the worship service was much quieter than such services usually are. Later the Reverend Carol Bodeau would describe it this way – she said that it seemed like everyone was especially conscious that we were in a “white church” and were adopting the norms of worship for white churches, quiet listening rather than active participation.

There is a preacher story that illustrates this dynamic. Once there was a man who went to visit a very staid New England Unitarian church and somewhere in the middle of the sermon he shouted out “Amen!” This was a bit unsettling to the congregation. Even so, the sermon continued for a while before the man shouted again, “Glory!” This rattled a few nerves but the sermon kept on going until the man shouted again, “Hallelujah!” Finally, an usher walked up to the gentleman and nervously asked, “Is there anything wrong, sir?” and the man replied, “No, nothing’s wrong. I’ve got religion!” To which the usher replied, “Well, you didn’t get it here.”

Now that story may be true about some other Unitarian churches but not here. Can I get an “ Amen.” A couple of years ago, I witnessed in this room what looked like it was about to become the world’s quietest and most subdued Interfaith Martin Luther King service. However, when the Reverend Harold Middlebrook , one of Dr King’s lieutenant stepped up to the pulpit he changed the dynamic completely. I do not remember his exact words but I do remember that the energy in the room changed and the volume in the room changed. There was less quiet listening and more active participation. The Reverend Middlebrook singlehandedly changed the laws of physics. He was able to help us overcome the observer effect.

So when we talk about dismantling white supremacy we are not only talking about confronting hate groups during street protests although that is important and we are committed to doing that. When we are talking about dismantling white supremacy we are talking about more subtle things, like the observer effect, where the dynamics in the room change because white people are observing them.

After the service today we are going to have a congregational meeting to vote on whether or not to ordain Christopher Watkins Lamb into the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Full disclosure, Christopher is my stepson. He went to high school here in Knoxville at Austin East, a predominately African American high school that has produced at least three Unitarian Universalist ministers, the Reverend Caitlin Cotter Coilburg who is already ordained and Isabel Call and Christopher Watkins Lamb who are in the process seeking ordination.

When Christopher went to Austin East he took the African drumming class and if all goes well with the vote today we are going to have the AE African drumming class play at his ordination.

Now let me ask you a question, how many of you have ever been to an Austin East high school graduation ceremony? If you have then you know it is fundamentally different for every other graduation ceremony held in this city. Our minister of pastoral care, the Reverend Jametta Alston, might describe those graduations with one word, “Joy.” In many graduations the line between decorum and boredom is a thin one but not at AE. It is a raucous celebration. So hopefully we may have some of that energy in the room at a future ordination ceremony.

In 1998 I was ordained at the Kumler Chapel in Oxford, Ohio, the chapel where college students and other young people gathered to organize for Freedom Summer in 1964 before moving on to Mississippi to work for civil rights. This kind of activism required courage.

Gordon Gibson, a member of this church, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister and a civil rights veteran, likes to tell the mythical story of a young college student from the North during the 60’s who was suddenly struck by a blinding light from heaven and a big booming voice that came down from heaven and said, “I want you to go down to Mississippi and work for civil rights and lo, I will be with you as far as Memphis.” For the record, Gordon Gibson served a UU congregation south of Memphis in Mississippi. His current Facebook profile is his mug shot from when he was arrested as part of the Voting Rights efforts in Selma. (In revising this sermon I texted Gordon to say “Maybe the reason I chose a church in Tennessee is because I wanted to be closer to the Lord.”)

It took courage to work for civil rights in those days. It takes courage to work for human rights today. Three of the civil rights workers who sang freedom songs in Kumler Chapel in 1964 went to Mississippi but never returned home. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney became martyrs of the civil rights movement. On the day of my ordination the Reverend Charlotte Cowtan began the ceremony with the words, “There is power in this room” and all of sudden a big boom of thunder rumbled all around us causing a woman from the African Methodist Episcopal church to shout out, “It’s the spirit of the Lord!” Needless to say, this startled some of my more humanist members. However, there was power in the room; the power of history, the power of community, the power of ministry, the power of transformation.

Freedom Summer was a powerful movement. However, there were unintended side effects when a flood of predominantly white college educated young people, many from privileged backgrounds, descended on Mississippi. The laws of physics kicked in. The observer effect became operative. Many of the educated and empowered volunteers began to assert authority, take over things, leaving local leaders sidelined and disempowered. Now there is no question that Freedom Summer did very important work that raised national awareness about the problems of racism in our country, registered a lot of voters and organized a lot of Freedom Schools. However, it also true that just as white people can ruin a good party, white people can inadvertently undermine grassroots efforts for social change.

Now I am talking about the ways good people with all the right intentions can ruin a party. There are others who ruin the party through gerrymandering, voter suppressions, draconian laws, for-profit prisons, open discrimination, hate speech, hate crimes, micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions. I could go on and on, but today I am talking about how good people can undermine our own efforts to do the right thing. I am asking us all to take an honest inward look so that we can better work for justice in the outward world.

There is a mantra I’ve made up that I believe can be helpful to all Unitarian Universalists, but especially those of us who are white, we could benefit from the following mantra. Repeat after me , “We are not as smart as we think we are.” Let’s do that two more times together, “We are not as smart as we think we are. We are not as smart as we think we are.” The more we are able to remind ourselves of that fact the more we will be able to prevent ourselves from ruining a good party or ruining a good effort to work for social change and social justice.

In the Unitarian Universalist Church we believe in working hard to dismantle white supremacy, not only “out there” in the world but “in here” in our own hearts and in our own church by re-examining all our practices to see if they help everyone to grow. The social gospel preachers used to say, “Just because a blade of grass can grow through a crack in the sidewalk doesn’t mean every blade of grass has an equal opportunity.” Dismantling white supremacy is about looking at all the systems that are holding people down and instead of celebrating the cracks in our sidewalk committing to do more; committing to work so that everyone can grow, everyone can flourish, everyone can experience the sunshine and know freedom. That’s what it means to dismantle white supremacy.

There will be some who say that this goal of dismantling white supremacy is impossible and I will be the first to admit that the challenges are daunting. However, the motto for my old high school is an optimistic one. The motto for Central High School in Macon, Georgia is this, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” So let’s say it together like we would in a high school pep rally, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” Let’s do that two more times, “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” “We Lead; It Can Be Done.” So let’s lead because it can be done and who knows maybe one day the whole world will catch up with my high school.

(Rev. Chris Buice gave this sermon on Sunday January 19, 2020, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)

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