The Diversity Curse

A sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely  Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 4, 2016

On Wednesday evening at a Rotary Club BBQ I had the pleasure of conversing with a physician visiting from Uganda.  I asked Moses a favourite question I pose to visitors:  “What is the one thing here in Edmonton or Canada that strikes you as the most different from your land?”

I get a fascinating mix of answers.  A European friend once said ‘pick-up trucks- they’re everywhere!’  A Kenyan friend noted the lack of density in our city centre compared to the teeming streets of Nairobi.  I was expecting an answer in that vein.  Instead Moses said, “The diversity!”  When I pressed him for more – since I look around town and see a still predominantly white, European culture – he surprised me.  Instead of colour or class he talked about attitude.  “There are so many things that don’t really matter here,” he said. Tribes don’t matter.  How people dress doesn’t matter here.  It’s okay to disagree politically and socially.  Everyone has rights and nobody really seems to be trying to step on them.  He made reference to what a contrast Canadian society is compared to the political frenzy in the US these days.

Naturally, I felt some red and white pride, but as the conversation deepened, I found myself chafing a little.  It’s not that Moses was wrong, but I’m afraid he wasn’t as right as I would like him to be.  The incident with filmmaker Jesse Lipscombe this week proved the point.  If you haven’t heard, Mr. Lipscombe was filming a PSA promoting Edmonton’s charms.  A car pulled up at a stoplight about 20 meters away with three middle-aged white men.  One started calling out racial slurs.  The camera kept rolling.  Mr. Lipscombe walked over, opened the door and confronted him – calmly – asking him to repeat what he said.  After a moment the light changed and the car drove away – the passenger, at least, visibly agitated and more slurs filling the air.

Jesse Lipscombe
Jesse Lipscombe

So no, it’s not a perfectly diverse society. Racism and sexism exist to name the two highest profile areas of closed-mindedness.  The systemic and historic racism directed at First Nations people stands out for me. And as we will see this month there are other forms of discrimination that challenge our commitment to diversity.  But if there is some positive news coming out it was the reaction to Mr. Lipscombe’s incident.

He posted the video clip to Facebook and within hours it had been viewed 100,000 times.  Within 24 hours Mr. Lipscombe was in Mayor Iveson’s office.  They were agreeing to collaborate on a new anti-racism campaign.  A short video appeared on the Mayor’s Facebook page with the remarks,

“Met with Jesse Lipscombe and his partner Julia to talk about his experience… I am so proud of the way he is turning his experience into a conversation starter about the need to call out racism and bigotry … Often it’s casual and awkward (conversation) around the dinner table, fire pit, water cooler or locker room. Julia coined the brilliant hashtag #makeitawkward as an invitation to bystanders to become upstanding and call it out. Creating social change often starts and advances with awkward conversations, and that’s good.

So to my new friend Moses I can say, “Yes, we have greater diversity here than in a lot of places, but there is still much work to do.”

Canadians generally talk diversity very well as a society, especially the liberals and moderates among us.  Our laws fall on the side of protecting and celebrating that diversity.  But as our society grows more mixed in colour, religious beliefs and cultural norms, maintaining diversity-accepting attitudes becomes more challenging.  People who are different aren’t “over there” anymore.  They are right here in the house next door, at the next table in the restaurant, in the next seat on the bus.

This new reality poses a question, “Do we really know what diversity means?”  I go to the Heritage Festival and enjoy the foods, the performances and the air of goodwill that pervades Hawerlawkimages Park.  It really is a weekend devoted to showing us what a grand mix of neighbours we have and that’s beautiful.  But is it really that much of an exercise in- or education about – diversity?

I love Heritage Days, but I don’t come away having had much more than smiling encounters with people from different backgrounds.  I don’t get to know them.  I don’t learn about their points of pride or their concerns.  Our annual celebration of cultural diversity only takes us so far.  It’s a great thing, but it is only a beginning.

Diversity is a far more challenging word than we think. In some ways it’s a curse.  It’s easy to point out successes like the Heritage Festival or Pride week and say Edmonton is a diverse community…but that’s only on the surface.  We all like the idea of a diverse community.  But what are we willing to do to develop one?  What accommodations will we make?  Do we confront ‘isms’ when we encounter them? We bump into discriminatory speech in places we least expect it, as the Mayor noted, “Often it’s casual and awkward around the dinner table, fire pit, water cooler or locker room.”  How many of us are willing to call it out in those times, to take a risk with friends or family or co-workers?

How many of us take the trouble to get to know a stranger?  A recently arrived Bangladeshi co-worker of a friend this week said – and not angrily – “We can work together, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that we know each other.  We would have to meet outside of work to begin to understand each other’s lives. Acceptance of diversity does not begin until we can willingly share experiences together outside of regulated settings.”

I think most UU’s would like to see a more diverse church community.  We would love to see all ages and ethnicities and genders coming together to make our church stronger.  But real diversification is hard. Why?  Because we each have our comfort zones.  Whether we admit it or not, most of us want to feel safe in church.  We want to be with people -however unconsciously – who are like us.  We want to encounter difference…just not enough to cause discomfort.  Stepping out of that safe zone is risky and sometimes hard.

That’s a feeling – a truth really- that makes me uncomfortable.  I want to think myself open to diversity.  But I don’t think I am as open as I want to be.

I realized that last September.  You may have heard this story already.  My elder daughter had just started Junior high and had made two new friends.  One day after school I asked her to point them out.  One of the two had dark skin and was wearing a headscarf fitting for a young Muslim girl.  My daughter pointed to her and said “the one in the red shirt”.  She simply didn’t notice those obvious markers that have been so deeply ingrained in me that I cannot help but to see them. but she didn’t, she saw a new friend. It was a moment that relit the flame of hope for the future in my soul.

I have to overcome my upbringing.  She might not have the same challenge.  Things can get better.  All it takes is a break down in the barriers between isolated camps of people.  It begins with attitude and a surrendering of privilege. We have to make this a place where the rules are different.

About 30 years ago when Unitarians and Universalists were creating the Statement of Principles there was a lot of discussion about the third one: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” The problematic word was ‘acceptance’.

This might seem silly now, but historically Unitarianism and Universalism had prided themselves on being religions of toleration.  We didn’t impose beliefs on others and refused to let others impose theirs on us.  Live and let live seemed to be a good way to go.

But then some justice seeking activists in our movement noted that toleration is something that can happen at arm’s length.  It implies isolated and protected camps simply not taking offence at each other’s differences.  Toleration does not require learning or appreciating the ‘other’.  Villages at a safe distance can afford to be tolerant, but that doesn’t mean they are accepting.  A classic example of the boundary of tolerance comes from the fight for LGBTQ rights.  Can you recall people saying, “I don’t care what gay people (usually meaning men) do when they’re alone, but do they have to flaunt it?”

I sure remember seemingly tolerant people saying that.  And what that says is, “I’m willing to leave them alone (be tolerant) if they just keep out of my sight.”  You might call that tolerance, but only just.  Behind it is an expectation that MY way of living is the norm and that no one has a right to challenge or upset that norm.  That is called privilege. That’s not really a community builder, is it?

So the UU activists asked us to go farther,  to move from tolerance to acceptance. That’s tougher.  Acceptance implies contact. It requires actually getting to know the ‘other’. You can’t go very far towards accepting someone until you know them, have coffee with them, go for a walk, learn their story.

That debate of 30 years ago helped us to start a shift.  In turn those steps slowly led UU’s to challenge their sense of privilege.  And here I mean the kinds of norms that go along with mostly white, mostly European, mostly educated and at least moderately well off congregations.

In Canada, the Canadian Unitarian Council took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and offered a formal apology to First Nations even though we had nothing to do with the Residential Schools.  Why?  Because we have benefitted from the privilege that allowed those schools to be built and run.

In the USA many congregations are deeply involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.  In several communities the signs and banners have been vandalized again and again. The privileged part of the population seems to think that a campaign to stop police from shooting as many black people as they do somehow demeans the white population.  They insist that ‘all lives matter’.  Except that they don’t, not by any measurable statistic you can devise.

Allen Etzler, a Golf Digest journalist reflected on white privilege in a tweet about the National Anthem flap.  You may have heard.  Colin Kaepernick, QB for the San Franciso 49ers sat during the singing of the American national anthem.  Colin-KaepernickIt caused a flap that most Canadians can’t begin to understand.  People burned his jersey and demanded that he leave the country.  In remarks afterwards the QB made it clear that his was a protest over the treatment of black people.  Yes, Mr. Kaepernick is black.

Mr. Etzler the golf journalist nailed it with his tweet:

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If we want to be part of diversity, we have to be willing to admit, confront and surrender our privilege.  We cannot say, “You are welcome in Canada but only if you act Canadian as we define it.”  “You are welcome in our church, but only if you think mostly like we do.”

Diversity doesn’t work that way.

Diversity is messy and complicated.

Diversity requires that we give up some of our ‘standard operating procedures’.

Diversity will make us anxious, but it doesn’t have to make us scared.

Diversity asks that we learn about others, share meals with them…their meals.

Diversity asks that we listen to their stories with deep compassion and a genuineness eagerness to learn.

Starhawk offers these thoughts on community:

We are all longing to go home to some place

we have never been—a place half-remembered and half-envisioned  we can only catch glimpses of from time to time.

Community.

Community means strength

that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.

Arms to hold us when we falter.

A circle of healing.

A circle of friends.

Someplace where we can be free.

Diversity simply means actively opening that circle and those arms a little wider.