Home > Faith and Spirituality, reflections on race > Unitarian Universalist code word for racist: “Racially Challenged”

Unitarian Universalist code word for racist: “Racially Challenged”

I know I am supposed to be blogging about my personal stuff that I’ve been avoiding. But last night I read Vessel: The Gordon Sisters did not have ‘a complicated past’. They were racist. I just can’t let it go. I think I could fill a Bingo Card from this article.

“I won’t say, ‘They were racists!’ ” said the Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, waving her arms in mock alarm.

  1. I’m pretty sure that waving your arms in mock alarm qualifies as using air quotes, which is generally offensive in any discussion about race.
  2. Racism 101: The “I’m (or in this case, they’re) not racist… BUT” disclaimer is just code for “I’m about to say something racist.”



Jean Gordon frequently said it was her interest in child welfare that led her to become an advocate for eugenics, a public policy of mandatory sterilization for certain classes of “social undesirables.” 

Kate Gordon wrote that enfranchising white women “will eliminate the question of the negro vote in politics, ” according to Larson. And Jean Gordon once refused to attend a conference at Theodore Roosevelt‘s White House because Booker T. Washington was also on the guest list, he found.

One of the sisters adamently opposed black voting rights and the other wouldn’t go to THE WHITE HOUSE because a respected black man was going to be there (and supported eugenics). Who wouldn’t call that racist? Perhaps Rev. Morel-Ensminger would find this tutorial helpful…

“It’s really kind of interesting — that on the one hand they would do so much good for the improvement of the city and for poor people, but on the other hand were racially challenged, ” said Morel-Ensminger. “But their racial attitudes are of their time and of their culture.”

That’s a conundrum for sure… but wait! Mary White Ovington & Jessie Daniel Ames were suffragists during the same time period. Ovington cofounded and served the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as board member, executive secretary and chairman. Ames was the director of the women’s committee of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) AND she founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, a group that obtained the signatures of 40,000 women to their Pledge Against Lynching.

We declare lynching is an indefensible crime, destructive of all principles of government, hateful and hostile to every ideal of religion and humanity, debasing and degrading to every person involved…[P]ublic opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they are acting solely in defense of womanhood. In light of the facts we dare no longer to permit this claim to pass unchallenged, nor allow those bent upon personal revenge and savagery to commit acts of violence and lawlessness in the name of women. We solemnly pledge ourselves to create a new public opinion in the South, which will not condone, for any reason whatever, acts of mobs or lynchers. We will teach our children at home, at school and at church a new interpretation of law and religion; we will assist all officials to uphold their oath of office; and finally, we will join with every minister, editor, school teacher and patriotic citizen in a program of education to eradicate lynchings and mobs forever from our land.

Although one can usually get away wth this kind of apologetic attitude when  talking about a beloved grandparent, when talking about women who are being immortalized as champions of our first principle, it just looks like waffling. So their racist (not racial) attitudes were common of their time and culture. So what? That does not excuse those attitudes and should not make them any less appalling. 

Among most congregation members the darker part of their agenda “is known, and we’re not exactly hiding it, ” she said. “But it’s not part of their legacy that we wish to be lifted up and celebrated. Because we don’t celebrate that.”

There it is again. “But.” Most of the members know? We’re not exactly hiding it? So we brush over facts so we get the benefits without taking responsibility as we claim the accomplishments of the Gordon Sisters without acknowledging their travesties?

“But I won’t lie about that in my teaching about them.”

Not lying isn’t the same as telling the truth. And the failure to tell the truth so we can feel better about the Gordon Sisters is such a HUGE RaceFail.

As long as Unitarian Universalists fail to acknowledge  our history without whitewashing it, we will never truly be allies in the ongoing civil rights movement(s). If we can’t candidly and honestly talk about the Jim Crow racists in the UU history vault, how can we address the color blind racism that exists in our congregations today?

When we whitewash history to make ourselves feel better, we hurt people of color by minimizing their struggle. We discredit ourselves and the sacrifices of Unitarian Universalists, like  freedom riders James Reeb & Viola Liuzzo, who gave their lives in response to Dr. King’s call to Selma.

As long as we insist on looking through white lenses and stained glass windows, we cannot truly be a safe and welcoming community to people of color.

“Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth” ~ Sheryl Louise Moller

via Vessel: The Gordon Sisters did not have ‘a complicated past’. They were racist.

  1. Lorrie
    October 25, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    Great Blog!

  2. October 26, 2009 at 6:26 AM

    You said it so much better than I. Thank you and Amen!

    • October 26, 2009 at 7:26 AM

      See, I thought YOU said it so much better. You were more composed and articulate, and less “crazy white girl.”

      Seriously, thank you for blogging about it. I was reading another blog you commented on (I think) about what’s wrong with UUism/why do we need to change it. Or maybe you made a counter point. Anyway, I’m also disappointed that there wasn’t anything in the UU blogosphere about it.

  1. October 25, 2009 at 6:45 AM

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