The Black Empowerment Controversy Resources and Reflections

We learn our history to help us know who we are. This is true on many levels, including our faith, our religion. It’s important for us as UUs to know something about those who went before us, so we can better understand what Unitarian Universalism is today and how we fit into it, both as individuals and as a congregation.

This past Sunday, I preached about the UU Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 60s and early 70s. Following the service, a number of people asked about resources, so I will provide them here.
First, if you’d like to read more about this difficult and painful controversy, there is an article in the January 2012 issue of the UU World written by Mark Morrison-Reed, a UU minister who is African American. You can access the article here: Even greater detail is in the book, Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice.

Those of us who are white and liberal want to what is right, and this includes our commitment to racial justice. I had spoken about artificial dualities in the meditation on Sunday. As I was preaching the sermon and recounting the history, I realized something. And that is the idea that there is one right way and one wrong way (or one right way and many wrong ways!) to overcome racism. We all (whatever our racial identity) want to do the “right thing” regarding racial justice. It suddenly became clear that insisting on this dichotomy is what got us into trouble back then, and it eventually devolved into infighting and deep disappointment and bitterness.

And we have the same problem going on today. What I have come to realize is that there is no one “right thing.” There is an organization that has sprung up recently, and which presented a conference a few weeks ago. This organization exists because it disagrees with their understanding of the UUA’s approach to antiracism (the current “right thing” being put forth), and so most of the presentations focused on why the UUA’s focus and efforts are wrong.

Finger-pointing is not going to solve anything. One criticism some make of the “UUA’s approach” is that that it consists of holier-than-thou behavior, “I’m woke and you’re not” kind of stuff. I don’t believe that is the intent of the UUA’s message at all. If white UUs are engaged in this kind of shaming behavior, and I don’t doubt that it shows up here and there, that is a problem, and it is troubling. A healthy community follows the principles of the Beloved Community which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke so much about. Agape love –caring deeply for each other because of our shared humanity, seeing the sacred in each other; nonviolence, doing no harm; and welcoming otherness – a desire to find out more about the other person rather than shaming them. Focusing on who’s right and who’s wrong denies these principles.

Some white UUs have a strong negative reaction to learning that some of the attitudes and assumptions they have long held are being questioned. They thought they were “good” people, but now they are being told that they are “bad” people. For us white liberals, it is hard to hear, for sure. We are always well-intentioned. It’s shocking to realize that we may have unintentionally harmed someone. We are not bad people for being uninformed. If we are committed to learning and growing in our quest to become antiracists, that is the point.

I’ve had some difficult moments in my own education. I referred to micro-aggressions in my sermon. These are little hurts that add up in the life of one who is a member of an oppressed group. These hurts have been compared to receiving “a thousand paper cuts.”

One morning, when I was working as a substitute teacher in a mostly black charter school in Connecticut, I complimented one of the office staff, a black woman, on her hair. She just stared at me and then said, “It’s a WIG.” “Well, it looks nice anyway,” I replied, a bit mystified at her annoyance. I later learned that white people’s comments about black women’s hair are usually not appreciated, and I had also exposed my ignorance about the use of wigs by black women. But don’t take my word for it. Do some reading on the topic.

Another time, I called a black woman in a congregation I was serving, inviting her to be a member of the internship committee for an intern I was supervising, because “it would be helpful for the intern to have the perspective of a black woman.” There was a pause, and then she said that if that was the only reason, she would not do it. I sensed I had offended her, and quickly added that her background in social work would be an asset to the committee. She replied that if that was my reason, she would agree to serve.

It wasn’t until a few years later, when I read more about tokenism and how hurtful it can be, that I realized this was exactly what I had done. I had asked this woman to represent her race, which never feels good, rather than expressing how I valued her as an individual.
We say and do these things not intending to hurt anyone. We say and do them because we haven’t thought ahead or learned how and why they might hurt someone whose experience in this society is very different from our own. If you are interested in learning more about common sorts of micro-aggressions, here is one resource:

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may want to do a search on micro-aggressions and read several compilations. And please remember, when you find yourself reacting along the lines of, “Oh, come on, ‘these people’ are being too sensitive,” that is the part of ourselves that has absorbed the messages of the “overculture,” aka the white supremacist society. It doesn’t matter if we think someone might be overreacting. The person whose toe has been stepped on is still in pain.

UUs who are interested in furthering antiracism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism will want to visit the UUA webpage on Antiracism, Multiculturalism and Belonging at:, which has a multitude of resources.
UUCD has adopted the 8th Principle, which means it has made a commitment as a congregation to further antiracism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism within and beyond its walls. I support this commitment wholeheartedly. Let’s keep the conversation going about what our next steps might be. I would love to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.