Racism: We Still Don’t Get It by Esther Nelson


I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this summer for several weeks, spending much of my time unpacking boxes the moving van had delivered while simultaneously trying to create an aesthetically-pleasing and comfortable home.  I also went to the Unitarian Universalist church–twice!  (I haven’t attended church or any other place of worship regularly for decades.)  But, moving is a socially-disruptive experience and church is one place you can connect with individual people as well as with the larger community.  So, I decided to visit the local UU congregation.

Unitarian Universalism has a fairly long and circuitous history in the United States.  It’s roots are in liberal Protestant theology and practice, but the institution has branched out from its roots, seeking to be more “inclusive and diverse.”  Some of the historical background and development of the church can be found on Wikipedia.  As fascinating as this history and development is, I want to focus here on “Black Lives Matter”–a theme the congregation chose to use as it centered its worship on one of the Sundays I attended.

Even though the full-time minister was on vacation, the congregation went ahead with their singing, announcements, and sharing of “joys and sorrows.”  One of the regular parishioners gave the sermon, spending considerable time being critical of her own community as she looked back over the collective history of the UU church during the past three or four decades, specifically regarding the lack of inclusion of Black people in leadership positions.

“We’ve done well as far as including women in positions of leadership.  More than half of our ministers today are women.”  The speaker went on to say that UUs welcomed Black people into their congregations during the 1970s and 1980s, but “we didn’t want Black people being in leadership positions.”  She added, “It seems as though we were OK with having Black people worship with us, but we were not OK with having them lead us.”

That was the gist.  I’m merely reporting on what I heard and experienced that one Sunday.  Before visiting the Las Cruces congregation, I had only attended one other UU service–way back in the 1990s.  I did note that the people attending the service in Las Cruces were quite friendly.  Many made it a point to speak with me during coffee hour.  There were about 75 people in the auditorium on this particular Sunday.  Most were White women.  There were a handful of Black people as well as a handful of Latinos.  In addition, there were several same-sex couples.  One woman wore a hijab.  Informal dress, though, was the norm–jeans, shorts, flip-flops or sandals, and T-shirts.  One woman worked on her knitting project during the service.

Immediately following the sermon, there was opportunity for people (congregants) to respond with comments or questions.  Three of the people who spoke up during this time–all White people–reflected much of what I hear today when White people respond or react to the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”

One man, from Detroit, immediately weighed in.  He wore a T-shirt that read “Roar with Cecil.”  “Believe me,” he said, “you don’t want to be a White boy in East Detroit.  I’m here to tell you that racism goes both ways.”  He elaborated some, but always came back to “racism goes both ways.”  One of the Black men who had a part in leading the service just could not contain himself, went over to the man from Detroit and said, “You are wrong.  Racism does NOT go both ways.”  He briefly explained how the structures in our society support and propagate racism.

One woman from Brooklyn then spoke up.  “You know, back when I grew up, the whole place was divided into neighborhoods.  You had your Polish, German, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Puerto Rican spaces, and you didn’t go into each other’s territory.  I think it’s a matter of ethnicity.”  She went on to explain that she was so relieved when she married and “could rid myself of my Italian name.”  It took her a while to get to the place where she could eventually embrace her Italian heritage.  I don’t think this woman “gets it.”  She’s not wrong speaking about her experience, but she’s “off,” seemingly not understanding her privileged existence in a structurally racist society.

Then a man from Connecticut made himself heard.  “We didn’t have any Black people where we lived.”  He reported that when he was in high school, a Black, middle-class family with two teen-aged daughters attempted to move into his neighborhood.  People fought to keep them out, but eventually the Black family “won” and settled in.  “I ended up having some of my classes with these Black girls, and you know, they were just the sweetest things you could imagine.”  I don’t believe he realized how condescending he sounded.

I think this concept–the structural nature of racism–is one that many people (most notably White people) have difficulty grasping and, therefore, are unable to unpack what’s at the heart of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”  Our judicial system, our educational institutions, our politics, our economic system–all have emerged from White experience.  Experience informs and shapes our beliefs and practices. Therefore, policies reflected in our laws, our schools and universities, our political parties, and our business “ethics” reflect the realities and interests of those people who have held collective power in our country–White people.

It was refreshing to hear the speaker at the UU Las Cruces church speak so candidly as she looked back on the history of her community’s behavior toward Black people.  Supporting the concept of “inclusiveness and diversity” means (at least, partially) that those people who have ready access to society’s power structures need to accept that people, currently disenfranchised and marginalized, belong in the public sphere (leadership positions) so their voices can be heard, celebrated, and acted upon.  Behaving defensively–“racism goes both ways”–does not move the conversation (and culture) forward.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

30 thoughts on “Racism: We Still Don’t Get It by Esther Nelson”

  1. Excellent piece! I agree. There is a general failure among many people, particularly whites, to understand their relationship to violence within the structure. Sure, whites are open to violence – but this is qualitatively different than the colonization and enslavement of people of color. This is why the whole “Irish Need Not Apply” argument fails.

    I look forward to more pieces from you! Somewhat relatedly, I just published my first blog post and it addresses a similar failure to “get it”. Please check it out at: https://zoneofnonbeing.wordpress.com.


    1. Thank you, Darryl. I did check out your blog and I agree with you about the how the “medicalization” of racism begins with an unsound paradigm. Seems that lots of things these days go under the “medical” paradigm. Social structures (who gets to have their voice heard and acted upon) don’t change by taking a pill! Happy you weighed in.


    2. Darryl, I read your post “Burnt Offering” this morning and the powerful imagery has been with me all day – especially the last line:
      “So you vote these so-called leaders to Washington (or Ottawa, or Victoria, or …)
      where they give your soul to the bankers
      as a burnt offering.”

      Strong words. Keep writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Esther,

    Thanks for this excellent post. I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and as I was reading it I kept thinking about the possibility of writing about it for FAR. You’ve opened the door. Coates’s extended letter to his 15-year old son specifically focuses on the experience of being a black man in America. He focuses on the black body; like the early Malcolm X, he refuses to believe in any “pie in the sky” God “out there,” and shows–in vivid and moving detail–how the black body is threatened and endangered, mostly by people “who believe they are white.” For those of us exploring feminism and religion, I think Coates’s viewpoint is a crucial one to take into account; if we claim that bodies matter, we must insist that ALL bodies matter, and recognize that all of us are accountable for what happens to any of us.

    Meanwhile, best of wishes for your move!


    1. Lovely, Joyce. I look forward to reading your piece based on your recent reading. I like (and agree with you) when you write that we must “…recognize that all of us are accountable for what happens to any of us.” So often we back away–don’t want to get involved. “It’s none of my affair.”

      Thank you for your well wishes. For now, am living between two domiciles. Am in Richmond for the Fall semester (at least). Should you wend your way down this way, perhaps we can hang out again on Lynn’s back porch!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I too have recently moved – temporarily – to Abiquiu, New Mexico – and am already aware of the racism that permeates this area – only here it is not black people – it is Indians and Mexicans that are being discriminated against…racism is alive and well.


  4. When I was in graduate school in Carbondale, Illinois–which is very close to the territory of the Old South–I belonged to the UU Fellowship. In some towns and in some churches, graduate students were (maybe still are?) the scum of the earth, i.e., very much “them, not us” to the townspeople. That wasn’t true in the UU Fellowship. This was about the time that black people shut down Cairo, Illinois, as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Funny thing–I had black friends in school, but I can’t remember seeing any black people in the UU Fellowship. Maybe that was too long ago for black lives to matter?


  5. Thanks, Barbara, for your comment. I do think, based on my limited experience, that the UU church is (and has been) more accepting of diversity than more mainstream fellowships. I loved that the woman who was leading the service one of those Sundays I attended was able to get to a very important aspect of racism. According to her, Black people were welcomed as worshippers, but not leaders. Our society reflects that with all its institutions. Look at the grief President Obama has had to endure. How dare he lead our nation? Congress has done much to block his efforts to move forward.


  6. Of course, cats and dogs also come in many different colors, and lots of other deeply loved creatures, but we don’t discriminate against them, simply because of their color, and so why should we do that with humans?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah. You make a good point. It’s true that many people can just as easily love an orange cat as a white one. Animal shelters, though, do “complain” that black dogs and cats are often overlooked (for whatever reasons) when people come in for their “forever pet.”


      1. Esther, thanks, I didn’t know that about animal shelters, though it says nothing about the creature, but only the closed mindedness of people at times. I had a black cat for many years named Miss Marple, and loved her dearly. I’ve linked my name to a picture of the cat held in my arms.


  7. A very good article. I think we’re going to have to accept that in this kind of discussion, some white folks will respond with defensiveness and just plain cluelessness (myself included, if only an internal response). It would be good to have a discussion that begins with some training: explanation of the difference between prejudice and racism, what systemic racism is, guidelines for respectful dialogue, etc. And to have a facilitator that can hold the group to the guidelines.


  8. Much-needed post! I’ve been having online discussions about structural racism recently, trying to get (white) people in the UK to acknowledge its existence. There’s very often defensiveness and a refusal to pay attention to what’s actually being said / written. I think we need to emphasise what’s going on beneath this defensiveness – how itself it perpetuates racism and forecloses the very change that needs to happen.


  9. Yes, great suggestions. In my “neck of the woods,” there is the RPEC (Richmond Peace Education Center) that addresses (and continues to address) the subject of racism as well as other themes, most notably, war. The subjects discussed have a facilitator, guidelines, and a group setting where these hard subjects can be defined, explored, and discussed. Perhaps something of this sort exists near you? Thank you for your comment.


  10. Thank you for keeping the conversation moving on this topic. It’s necessary. And it’s challenging. As you point out, many of us have a hard time fully grasping the concept of structural racism. I admit that, while I’m not an academic, I’m relatively intelligent and yet I am struggling through powell’s “racing to justice” — on one level, I *know* what y’all are saying is true and yet…just when I think I’ve begun to grasp the concept, it skitters away and I’m left flailing again at how to articulate it to myself, let alone with someone else. Maybe if we keep hearing this from you and others in a variety of ways, it will finally become comprehensible. I keep trying as I hope more and more of us will.



    1. Thank you, Darla. Appreciate your thoughtful comment. I think one of the difficulties many people face with the concept of “structural inequality” is seeing that solutions (living without racism) don’t happen overnight. Since racism is a “social structure,” people have constructed their reality with that “truth.” It will take time to undo it all.


  11. Esther, your post aroused so many memories for me! In the 1950’s I enlisted in the army and was sent to Alabama and Georgia for Basic and school. There was no segregation on the Post, but as soon as the bus reached the gate, Black soldiers had to move to the back of the bus. Many of us northerners went with them. Perhaps we felt kinship because WAC’s were, in that society, considered “lower” than Blacks plus we must be “sluts” to be in the military with all the men.
    But what I realize in a new way now, is that we were still White. “White trash”, “sluts”, in the thoughts of some, but still “White”. No one came to burn down our houses on a drunken Saturday night spree, or hang us from a tree, or rape us or kill us. We had no trouble being served in stores or cafes. If we drank from the “black” water fountain we didn’t get assaulted or end up in jail. We had the Vote. We could get a job and felt reasonably “at home” in the dominant society. I’m getting the feeling of what it is to be “White”.


    1. Thank you, Barbara. Your response is “right on.” White people, because they are white, enjoy a privileged space in a racist society (ours) that puts value on a person based on skin color. I see sexism is a similar light. Men can be (and are) supporters of women, caring for women, empathetic with women, but at the end of the day, they are still MEN and because they are, they enjoy a privileged space within our patriarchal society. Many men (most?) don’t quite get it.


  12. Thanks for this timely piece. So much of this nations current events exemplify how deeply rooted the structures and institutions are that give advantages to one group over another. The nature of it can be difficult to grasp for those in privileged positions (like myself, a white male), because it is very much ‘invisible’- those in the privileged group can never fully understand the experience of the ‘other’. But the inequality of the systems we live in is startling. I always enjoy reading your articles, and thank you for sharing your experiences and ideas.


    1. Thanks, Cole, for your kind and encouraging words. I agree with you that “those in the privileged group can never fully understand the experience of the ‘other’,” however, that very acknowledgment reflects an understanding and compassion that you demonstrate so well.


  13. Molo (isiXhosa for hello),

    I feel that we are at a zenith in which racism is understood as the either/or polarity, but what remains is the structural components that seek to keep the vestiges of institutional racism alive. This requires an acknowledgement of the sheer violence of the system.


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