A reflection on the value of life in Stranger Things S1E1

Contains spoilers

Image of Benny Hammond from https://strangerthings.fandom.com/wiki/Benny_Hammond
Image of Benny Hammond from https://strangerthings.fandom.com/wiki/Benny_Hammond

Last night I watched the first episode of Stranger Things. There was this moment where this woman pretends to be a social services worker, answering a call from a man who has found himself taking care of a girl who he thinks has run away from a hospital, who he thinks has been abused, who has only said one word (“eleven”). He didn’t expect social services to show up so late, so he welcomes her in but tells her he didn’t tell the child someone was coming yet, so he walks a bit ahead of her, wanting to get to the child first so he can explain what’s about to happen, so the child will be less afraid. The woman takes advantage of this gesture, this moment where the man is focusing his attention on the child, as she takes out a silenced pistol and shoots him in the back.

And the scene just moves on. No sad music, no one mourning the loss of this big, compassionate man who took this girl in. And I didn’t really even notice how devastating this was while watching. I just moved on too, thinking, okay, whatever, that’s how this show is going to be. People are expendable, apparently. But today, reflecting on the scene, I’m sad. I’m sad that it felt fairly normal, that I wasn’t that surprised that a script would just eliminate the most compassionate character in the episode without any fanfare.

And it makes me wonder, are there shows out there that do the opposite? Are there shows that magnify compassion, that celebrate it, that put the spotlight on small acts of tenderness? Because that’s what I want to watch.

Let’s Talk About Whiteness

This was originally presented as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Michigan on May 26th, 2019.

“In a 1993 interview, Toni Morrison said about racism in America: ‘White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.’ She added, ‘Take me out of it.’ Those words landed in me as a direct command.”

— Anastasia Higginbotham

Land acknowledgement

We are gathered today on the traditional territory of the Anishnaabeg people, who stewarded this land for generations, until the treaties they signed with the U.S. government established a reservation, parceled into privately owned lots. When annuity payments were delayed and many tribal members fell into poverty, they sold their lots to lumber sharks in order to survive. Many of us now live on those lots.

Memorial Day acknowledgement

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge Memorial Day. I lean pacifist, so I have trouble with this. But I want to acknowledge that soldiers fight in wars they didn’t declare, and that many of them encounter severe obstacles upon returning to civilian life. Many are treated ambivalently at best, struggle with loneliness, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. 17 veterans take their own lives each day. If you know a veteran, please offer support, and please don’t be afraid to ask if they ever think about suicide. It’s only awkward if we make it awkward. You might save a life.

Intro – opening, listening, changing

Okay, I am a white man, and today I’m speaking to white people. Feel free to include yourself if you are white-passing, or even if some of your ancestors are white and you want to explore the white part of your identity. In honor of Memorial Day, I’ll give you the Bottom Line Up Front. Today I’ll be attempting to emphasize what I believe are three important responsibilities of white people, which are born of my own experience. They are opening, listening, and changing.

First, I invite us to open. I think this is the kind of opening that can feel like breaking, to quote the story for all ages we read moments ago (Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham). I invite us to open up to the possibility that no matter how liberal and progressive our upbringing and current communities, we white people have all been socialized in a world that has repeatedly told us that we are better, smarter, more moral, and more deserving, and those messages have shaped our psyches in ways that can probably never be fully undone. This is called internalized dominance. We still harbor unconscious racist attitudes and occasionally engage in racist behaviors. I invite us to open to the realization that white supremacy culture exists, that we’re largely unaware of it, and that we’ve largely accepted it. This is where we’ll spend the bulk of our time today.

Next, I invite us to listen. We can engage within and across racial differences, inviting other whites and people of color to give us honest feedback on how we’re showing up and how we’ve affected them. We can listen without offering justifications, and take what others say to heart. This is probably the most difficult step.

After that, I invite us to change. We can commit ourselves to continually doing our own work, being self-reflective, noticing how we show up and affect others. We can form relationships characterized by mutuality. And we can engage within and across differences to dismantle racist structures wherever they exist, starting with our own organizations and institutions. As white people, dismantling racism is our responsibility. I’ll say that again: dismantling racism is the responsibility of white people. Modern racism was invented by white people to benefit white people, and it has been doing so for at least four centuries.

As an example, just to get us thinking about where the rubber meets the road: we’re about to hire a new minister. If we are not reflective on how race effects our impressions of candidates, we will reproduce the racist dynamics that we’ve been socialized into. We’ll end up thinking the person that is more similar to us is the better “fit.” It’s our responsibility to ensure we engage in a fair hiring process, and that requires us to make conscious our unconscious biases. Let me emphasize: I don’t think shame is a useful tool in this work. We all have biases. We’re human. Please don’t shame yourself or someone else for them. Start with where you are.

Opening

What is Whiteness?

Okay, let’s talk about whiteness. At the start, I acknowledge that sometimes conversations about race can feel like walking on thin ice, or through a haunted house at Halloween. You never know when you’re going to make a wrong turn that’ll get you into trouble. When something is hard, you can go ahead and call it work. Conversations about race are part of the work of racial justice. I’m not here to convince you that it gets easier, but I hope to start to convince you that it’s worthwhile.

As Sarah Stewart wrote in the story that Andrea read for us, “‘whiteness’ is not an ethnic group, a cultural group, or a nationality.” So what is it? Whiteness, and race in general, are social constructs with real consequences. Paul Kivel calls whiteness “a powerful fiction enforced by power and violence. Whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary separating those who are entitled to certain benefits from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”1 Let’s compare Kivel’s definition with some examples. Bell, Funk, Joshi, and Valdivia, writing about the beginnings of the United States, write “racial categorization and hierarchy evolved hand in hand to define some groups as inherently superior (those who were white/light skinned) and other groups as inferior (those with darker skin). This idea meshed well with a colonial and revolutionary system that espoused principles of equality and rights but had to rationalize the enslavement of human beings.” 2 Yes, Kivel’s definition checks out here; slavery is the epitome of exploitation and vulnerability to violence.

Half a century later, Irish, Italians, and people immigrating from eastern European countries were not considered white. They were regularly discriminated against. You may have heard of signs hung on shop windows stating, “No Irish need apply.” Again, Kivel’s definition checks out. Eastern European immigrants experienced job discrimination. This was the case until, in the years following the Civil War, when freed slaves began migrating north, those newer European immigrants found common cause with other light-skinned people in their discrimination towards African Americans. They sacrificed their cultural heritage in order to be counted as white. 3

Finally, as we heard in Stewart’s story, as late as the 1920s, if you weren’t born in the U.S., you had to prove you were white in order to become a citizen and own property. Again, Kivel’s definition applies: only immigrants who could prove they were white could own property and start building wealth for themselves and future generations.

These are just a few of many examples of ways in which whiteness was defined in such a way as to provide benefits to some at the exclusion of others. For more examples, check out the list of resources included in your order of service, especially Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel.

Our experiences of whiteness

It’s at this point that I want to give you all a chance to interact with today’s topic. First, a question for you: are you white? Paul Kivel writes, “If, when you move down the streets of major cities, other people assume, based on skin color, dress, physical appearance or total impression, that you are white, then in U.S. society that counts for being white.” But some of us who are read as white resist the label. Why is that?

I’m going to give you a couple questions to discuss with a neighbor or, if you prefer, to journal about on your own. I’m not going to ask you to report out to the larger group. There are some papers and pens up front. You can start talking as soon as ring the bell. Here’s the prompt: What parts of your identity does it feel like you lose when you say “I’m white?” If you don’t identify as white, you can respond to this: What parts of your identity are hidden until someone gets to know you? I’ll call us back together in two minutes. Since you only have a couple minutes, watch the time to ensure you both have a chance to speak. (Ring bell)

Another way of looking at whiteness is through the lens of the culture that has been created by it. Tema Okun has written a marvelous piece on characteristics of white supremacy culture and their antidotes, including an introduction to how culture operates, that I highly suggest you check out4. It’s listed at the bottom of your list of resources. This will provide the prompt for our next discussion question. Okun’s characteristics of white supremacy culture are “Perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, valuing quantity over quality, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, belief that I’m the only one (who can do this ‘right’), the belief that progress is bigger and more, a belief in objectivity, and claiming a right to comfort.” Take a minute to take in the list (it should be on the screen), then turn to a neighbor or your paper and make some quick observations on which of these characteristics are especially ingrained in your own ways of thinking and behaving. I’ll call us back together in three minutes. (Ring bell)

Why talk about whiteness?

The costs of racism to white people

I hope that last discussion question helped us get a handle on why it matters to talk about whiteness. One good reason is to start to grasp the costs of racism to us as white people. That conversation can help white people find self-interest in anti-racist work, which is important for maintaining authenticity and endurance in the work. I remember the first time I saw Okun’s list, I saw myself all over it. I’ve suffered from perfectionism, a sense of urgency, a fear of open conflict, a belief in only one right way, and a belief in objectivity most of my life. I also picked up worship of the written word, paternalism, dualistic thinking, power hoarding, and a belief that progress is bigger and more from most of the institutions I’ve been a part of, and especially from Christian churches. These characteristics do not lead to healthy institutions or healthy people.

I’ve felt this cost personally. I carried these white cultural characteristics into my anti-racism work, with detrimental consequences for myself and my family. When I first became active in anti-racist efforts, I felt that, as a white person, I didn’t deserve to take any breaks or pace myself. Sense of urgency and quantity over quality, right? I also felt I had to be perfect. I couldn’t accidentally recreate any racist dynamics, or I’d be doing more harm than good, right? In addition to perfectionism, that’s manifesting a belief in only one right way and a fear of conflict. Long story short, I put far too much pressure on myself and burned myself and my family out multiple times.

UU Principles

Our Unitarian Universalist principles also help us understand why it’s important to interrogate whiteness. Our first principle calls us to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Of course, we as white people need to recognize that people of color have just as much worth and dignity as us. However, we also need to recognize our own worth and dignity, which becomes more difficult the more we learn about the history of white people using their control of systems to advantage themselves at the expense of people of color. Perhaps this is part of what James Baldwin was getting at when he said, “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

Our second principle pushes us to work for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Equity requires us to give each person what they need, rather than giving everyone the same exact thing. It’s hard to make a case for equity in race relations without understanding the history of racism and whiteness.

Our sixth principle encourages us towards the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. I don’t think such a Beloved Community is possible without people who are comfortable talking about, respecting, and celebrating our differences. Until we can acknowledge our whiteness and the historical legacy that comes with it, we cannot truly be in community with people of color. In my experience, simply signaling the people of color you know that you are willing to talk about how race affects their life and your relationship will lead you to a level of depth in your relationship that would have been impossible without that invitation.

Even the seventh principle is at play here, because one of the historical legacies of racism is the exploitation of natural resources for the enrichment of wealthy white folks, from the cotton plantations of two centuries ago to the Dakota Access Pipeline today. I believe respect for the interdependent web of all existence calls us to work for a world in which all people with connections to the land and its resources have a say in what happens with it.

Because ending racism is our responsibility

The final reason I’ll give today for talking about whiteness is that, as white people, ending racism is our responsibility. When talking with Krista Tippett for an episode of On Being, writer Eula Bliss said, ”The state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.” European settlers built our country on the genocide of the indigenous population, the theft of their land, and the enslavement of Africans. White people are still benefiting from that theft of life, land, and labor. We white folks have to figure out practical ways to share what we have, and maybe even experience Beloved Community as a result.

But white folks can’t get serious about reparations if they’re still getting defensive when someone merely points out the fact that they have white privilege. Having conversations about whiteness is one way we can each help the white folks in our lives gain some stamina so we can move beyond Racism 101 and start looking for real solutions.

Listen & Change

Okay, I want to end with some lessons I’ve learned about listening and changing.

First, whites need to show up and be vulnerable. When we, as white people, show up in anti-racist work thinking we’re good allies and we know what to do, no one is better for it. We’re not in a position to grow. On the other hand, if we show up vulnerable, as the messy, imperfect human beings that we are, we are ripe for change. And that vulnerability helps us connect with other white people and call them in to the work along with us.

Second, it’s liberating to gather with other white people and admit to racist attitudes and behaviors. I wrote a blog post about this a couple years ago, after watching the video that Dawn showed us in which Jay Smooth compared unlearning internalized racism to dental hygiene. What I found in a circle of supportive, anti-racist white folks, was that there were many ways I participate in racism that I hadn’t even understood as such. We can’t do this work alone.

Third, elitism and purity are unhelpful. You will find self-righteous activists who will delight in pointing out all the ways your work is problematic, especially if you spend some time on social justice twitter. Please don’t be one of these people. It’s important to stay open, to listen to criticism, to be accountable to others, and especially to people of color. And if someone invites your critical feedback, by all means, be honest, with love. But something Evangeline Weiss said at a training I was a part of has stuck with me: there are as many ways to do anti-racism work as there are people doing it. We need everyone in the game. So, if you receive unsolicited criticism of your anti-racist efforts from another white person, just ask that person to help you make it better. You’ll find out how much they really care.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. Pace yourself. Don’t let guilt prevent you from doing the work. Don’t try to solve every problem at once. We can’t dismantle centuries of racism overnight. Love yourself, as Baldwin invited us to. This is long-haul work, work that I believe is critical for the survival of the human race. Let’s open, listen, and change.

Shalom and salaam, blessed be, and amen.

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

“Racism was not your idea. You don’t need to defend it.”

— Anastasia Higginbotham

  1. Paul Kivel. Uprooting Racism, 3rd ed. 2011, p. 17.
  2. Lee Ann Bell, Michael S. Funk, Khyati Y. Joshi, and Marjori Valdivia. “Racism and White Privilege,” in Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, 3rd ed. 2016, p. 141.
  3. Andrés Tapia. The Inclusion Paradox, 3rd ed. 2016, pp. 162-163.
  4. http://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html

As children, we start off at the center of our own universe, where we interpret everything that happens from an egocentric vantage point. If our parents or grandparents keep telling us we’re the cutest, most delicious thing in the world, we don’t question their judgment—we must be exactly that. And deep down, no matter what else we learn about ourselves, we will carry that sense with us: that we are basically adorable. As a result, if we later hook up with somebody who treats us badly, we will be outraged. It won’t feel right: It’s not familiar; it’s not like home. But if we are abused or ignored in childhood, or grow up in a family where sexuality is treated with disgust, our inner map contains a different message. Our sense of our self is marked by contempt and humiliation, and we are more likely to think “he (or she) has my number” and fail to protest if we are mistreated (The Body Keeps the Score, p. 127).

There’s racism stuck in my teeth

Have you seen Jay Smooth’s talk on talking about race? He helps us stay in it when we’re on the receiving end of a “that thing you said/did seemed racist” conversation. The title of this post will make sense once you watch it. I watched it with my spiritual community (well, one of them) yesterday. That experience yesterday motivated me to finally finish this post I’ve been sitting on since Charlottesville.

As I watched the VICE news segment on the protests in Charlottesville and our president’s commentary from the Tuesday following and realized that explicit, extreme racism is picking up steam on its path to re-normalization within the U.S., I was taken back to a training I participated in about two months ago. Of course I want to decry the neo-nazis, the white nationalists, the white supremacists, and anyone who went to Charlottesville with the intention of committing violence. But that’s easy, and I regret that we seem to be approaching a day when that becomes controversial. I left that training earlier this summer wanting to acknowledge my collusion in racism and white supremacy, and to recommit to working to dismantle racism and other kinds of oppression whenever and wherever I can, beginning within myself.

One of many transformational experiences from that training came while sitting in a circle of supportive white folks. One of the ways we supported each other in “white caucus” was by acknowledging our own racist attitudes and behaviors, and relating to each other, admitting when we’ve thought, done or said similar things. I want to share some of what came up in me and what I related to during that time. The examples that became seeds for this discussion came from a list developed by Dr. Kathy Obear.

When trying to help people of color, I’ve felt annoyed if they haven’t enthusiastically appreciated the help.

I have sought approval, validation, and recognition from people of color.

I have failed to notice the daily indignities faced by people of color, and when I have noticed them, I have sometimes tried to explain them away with Perfectly Logical Explanations.

I have accepted and felt more comfortable around people of color who have assimilated and are “closer to white.”

I have focused on my good intent as a white person and downplayed or ignored the negative impact of my behavior.

When confronted by a person of color, I’ve viewed it as an attack and focused on how they engaged with me rather than on my original words and behaviors.

I have resented taking direction from a person of color.

I have been afraid of getting called out as racist.

I have exaggerated my level of intimacy with people of color.

I have failed to interrupt racism happening to people of color in my presence.

I have rephrased the comments of people of color.

I have approached other white change agents from a starting point of mistrust and criticism.

I have minimized, ignored and discounted the talents, competencies, and contributions of people of color.

I have assumed that the white teacher/coach/facilitator/employee, etc. is in charge and that people of color are in supporting or service roles.

I have judged a person of color as overreacting and too emotional when they are responding to the cumulative impact of racist incidents (of which I’ve been a part).

I have competed with other whites to be “the good white:” the best ally, the one people of color let into their circle, etc.

When confronted by a person of color, I’ve shut down and focused on what to avoid doing or saying in the future rather than reflecting on my own socialization and unconscious bias that led to my behavior.

I’ve disengaged when I start to feel discomfort.


I felt freedom in that circle, admitting that we white folks who consider ourselves agents for social justice still contribute to racism. I feel that I am more effective as a change agent now that I’m no longer afraid of being found out as a racist. I can simply admit that yes, I am racist. I have been (and continue to be) socialized as a white person in the United States. Unlearning that socialization and replacing it with a practical vision of unity amidst diversity within a beloved community will be the work of a lifetime. I can simply apologize, and reflect on my beliefs and behavior. I can also remember that a person of color may not be reacting only to me, but to a litany of micro and macro aggressions, of which I have become a part. Recognizing this helps reduce my defensiveness and helps me have the compassion necessary to avoid causing more harm as I seek to make things right.

If you’d like to use Dr. Kathy Obear’s list to reflect on our own attitudes and behaviors, you can find it here.

I’ve reflected a bit on how I’ve been racist. In the next post I’d like to reflect on the ways that I prop up white supremacy culture.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

As has become my tradition during MLK week each year, I have once again read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This time I also read the letter from the white Alabama clergymen that prompted it. It’s unfortunate how relevant this exchange still is today. Here is what I want to reflect on after reading it this year:

  1. In what ways does American society today resemble that of April 1963?
  2. In what ways do I think and act like the white “law and order” clergyman? Have I ever been bothered by “outsiders” pointing out how I and my community still engage in racist practices? How does this attitude inhibit the work of racial reconciliation and justice?
  3. In what ways do I think like Dr. King and others who engaged in civil disobedience? How have I felt about the direct actions in which I have participated?
  4. What promises have I, my community, my institutions or the governments that represent me made to marginalized people that we have not kept?
  5. What laws am I currently bound by that I feel are immoral or unjust?
  6. Have I implicitly or explicitly encouraged marginalized folks to wait or be patient as they push for equal rights?
  7. What will it take to convince the white moderates Dr. King describes that a positive peace is much preferable to a negative peace and that it’s worth actively pursuing?
  8. What racial tensions already exist under the surface in my community? How can they be brought into the light so the healing process can begin?
  9. Which religious traditions and congregations in my community are actively working for the full and equal participation of ALL people in society without exceptions or qualifications? Which non-religious groups are?
  10. Given my talents, relationships, roles, and constraints, how can I best support these efforts? (How can I be a “creative extremist” for love?)

Sex Trafficking in Social Work Perspective

I wrote a paper on approaching sex trafficking through a social work lens a couple years ago. From the introduction:

The goal of this paper is to provide an overview of social work perspectives on and solutions for the problem of commercial sexual exploitation, or sex trafficking. Having advocated for U.S. government intervention to end trafficking in persons for five years, the author is now seeking broader perspectives and alternate solutions. Information on buyers of sexual services and traffickers is of special interest since the author knew little about them prior to this study. While most source information for this paper comes from the domain of social work, some comes from related domains such as psychology, sociology, criminology and gender studies. The problem of sex trafficking is found to be complex, requiring multi-perspective, multi-level interventions.

This literature review begins with an overview of the problem of human trafficking in general before focusing in on sex trafficking in particular. Characteristics of each type of actor, victims, buyers and traffickers, are presented. Finally, strategies for prevention and rehabilitation for each actor are proposed.

I found the research and writing process helpful in broadening my perspective on the issue. I had intended to “do something” with the paper but never did, so I’m just going to post it here:

Kevin Daum – Sex Trafficking in Social Work Perspective (2014)

Caveat: I thought of it now since I’m currently working on another paper and reading criticisms of anti-sex trafficking work from the perspectives of sex worker and human rights advocates. I have not re-read my 2014 paper using either of those lenses, so I’m sure it’s not very sensitive to the rights and concerns of consenting sex workers.

Unity

I have a hunch that growing in consciousness or maturing in faith is going to involve deepening appreciation for the wisdom of mature adherents of every faith tradition. This brings me joy because it feels like a path beyond tolerance, beyond acceptance, to celebration and unity.

Last week Maggie Escobedo-Steele told me some wisdom she heard from a man who is a keeper of three thousand years of oral history. He said that we are the fifth race of humans, in which people of every culture can come into contact with each other. We’re the ones who will decide whether there will be a sixth race. I imagine the sixth race being characterized by mutual understanding, celebration and cooperation.

Wouldn’t that be awesome? In my life I’ve encountered what feels like two fundamental religious impulses: the desire for one’s faith to take over the world, believing it to be the only or best way, and the desire to simply maintain missional and doctrinal purity among a small group of like-minded people. While the latter approach feels more mature, and is probably perfect for some, neither have felt quite right to me. I desire something else: effort towards global unity by understanding and living the best of my own tradition while seeking to learn from and perhaps occasionally incorporate the wisdom and habits of others. This necessitates friendship with people from other traditions, which is probably the effort that really matters. I’ve tried to live that wisdom from Chris Heuertz and local friends.

I take encouragement from Richard Rohr, who seems to be on the same search:

‘If there is indeed one God of all the earth, then it is this one God who is breaking through in every age and culture. Monotheists should be the first to recognize that truth is one (Ephesians 4:4-6) and that God is “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). As Rumi said, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Different religions use different words to describe essentially the same change of consciousness that is necessary to see things in their fullness:

• Many writers in the early Christian era called the necessary perceptual shift away from the dualistic, judging, and separate self contemplation.

• Buddhists called it meditation, sitting, or practicing.

• Hesychastic Orthodoxy called it prayer of the heart.

• Sufi Islam called it ecstasy.

• Hasidic Judaism called it living from the divine spark within.

• Vedantic Hinduism spoke of it as non-dual knowing or simply breathing.

• Native religions found it in communion with nature itself or the Great Spirit through dance, ritual, and sexuality. Owen Barfield called this “original participation.”‘

I’ve focused here on bridging the gap between faith traditions since that’s on my mind right now, but I think friendship across other boundaries (racial, economic, cultural, sexual, etc.) is just as important.