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Where Race and Class Unite

by Rev. Dr. Tracey Robinson-Harris

(This essay is developed from a sermon preached at the Arlington Street Church Boston, where I am a member.)

Race? In a word, white. Scots Irish, and a bit of German and English—to be as precise as I can. My ancestors settled on land in Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were farmers and laborers. Like hundreds of other Scots Irish, Scottish settlers in Northern Ireland, they had been dispossessed of their land and immigrated in hopes of rebuilding their lives.

Class? No one word answer here. My mother was born on a farm in Amherst County, VA. Her family was tobacco sharecroppers. In the early 1940's, when her children were in their late teens, my maternal grandmother left her husband (a man years older than she with children her age) and came to the "city" with her three children to make a better life. She got work as a dining room supervisor at a women's college. My father was born in that "city" (actually small town) of Lynchburg, VA. His childhood home was in a part of town that was also home to many African American families, the all black high school and the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. His first job after the Army was in a "horse rendering plant"—for one day! After work as a lineman for the local power company, he got a civil service job—working on the mail train. My mother stayed home after I was born, never returning to her secretarial job. When the mail trains were discontinued, my father went to work in the post office on the night shift and then to a rural mail route. By the time I was in third grade we had a brand new home in a brand new suburb with its own elementary school and I got to pick the color of the paint for my bedroom.

Poor to working class to middle class in two generations. And white. And I wonder, from time to time, just how the hell I got here?—a woman, just one generation out of the tobacco fields of central Virginia?

After thirty years as a Unitarian Universalist, I still struggle with that question and, from time to time, with feeling like a fraud. Like I don't really belong. Having learned ways of being middle and upper middle class I can, with some skill, engage in "class passing."

My parents have visited the churches that I have served. In their visits they adopt the formal behavior that comes with feeling out of place. The most respectful way they know to speak to folks in the congregation who greet them is in the language of smiles, and ma'am and sir. But here I am. Calling this place, in which they will only be visitors, home. My mother's mother's dream of a better life for her family come true! My father's hard work in providing for his family paid off!

I cannot help but wonder how many of us are like me? And I wonder how much of our Unitarian Universalist class identity is about history and heritage—who we were—and how much about who we have become? And I wonder how complicated the "class identity" of our faith community really is these days?

And I wonder—how much does race have to do with my being Unitarian Universalist?

Over the course of my journey to this religious community, and in spite of sexism, how many doors opened for me because I am "white?" I never thought of myself as privileged because of my whiteness (being white was just "normal") until a decade or so ago. As I think back on my own past, it's hard to reconstruct precisely where and how privilege made a difference. How much of what I accomplished is due to my own intelligence, persistence, hard work? How much is due to the social construct of race that privileges "whiteness" and my access to that collective identity created by racism called white.

And I wonder in what ways my journey within Unitarian Universalism is about access to "whiteness"—or more accurately, to more privileges of whiteness than I might otherwise have been able to know because of class...or gender?

I have only been a white woman for a decade or so. Before that I was a simply a woman, and one for whom gender was the defining category of oppression. Than I started trying to figure out what it means to be white and what I am called to do when my hard won, yet incomplete, justice as a woman comes face to face with another's experience of injustice. What am I to do at the intersection of gender and race? Or race and class?

What are we to do? I worry over the tender sore places in our religious community where personal commitments to overcoming oppression are so identified with one of its defining categories, or when by resistance to or denial of other categories we can't seem to find a way to move toward justice. I worry we will get stuck; arguing over where to start, what comes first, which is more important. I worry that we will sacrifice courage for fear of making mistakes. I worry that useless hierarchies and false choices will divert us. I worry that the "default option"—divide and conquer—will work it's destructive worst as the interlocked oppressions of racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, sexism and the rest...simply carry on while we disagree, deny, and those of us who are white defend our precious privileges.

Audre Lorde once wrote that the fight for justice takes all of our selves working together, and that the struggle against any form of injustice generates energies useful in our struggles against other forms.

We know how to separate the oppressions, and we must separate them to know them well and engage them effectively. My life viewed through an anti-sexist or anti-classist lens looks very different than my life through an anti-racist lens. My effectiveness depends in part on my ability to sort out the oppressions and privileges and know them for what they are. My strength grows as I am able to bring my whole self to the struggle.

Remember. The work of justice is the work of the spirit and does not require anything more, or less, than we already have—all of our selves—race, class, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation...those selves that fit the categories and those that cross, mix, challenge, and move beyond them...As Audre Lorde wrote "because it takes all of our selves working together to integrate what we learn...into our consciousness and work, to effectively focus attention and action...every one of these battles generates energies useful in the others."

She also wrote that "tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone; who lend the best of ourselves to it, and with joy."

So may it be.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 23, 2012.

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