The Worth and Dignity of Every Person …and Racism

“The Worth and Dignity of Every Person” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, February 17, 2019

Social psychologists are quick to point out that we human beings have an ancient and ingrained habit of mistrusting others, strangers, people who are not us.

It makes sense.  During prehistoric times and well into the era of modern history, we lived under direct threat of having our resources taken, of being enslaved, raped or being killed by others who were more powerful than us.  The stranger was never to be trusted.  It still exists some places. I recall how last fall a devoted Christian missionary, John Chau, after months of trying, finally was allowed to go to an isolated island off the coast of India. The resident tribe, the Sentinilese, was notorious for keeping their land closed and refusing all visitors.  The young missionary arrived and was soon killed.  Strangers aren’t trusted.

Today, a story like that earns headlines around the world. It seems odd and unusual although it shouldn’t.  Tribal systems, some of which are strongly based on “us vs. them”, are still present in many parts of the world. And we forget that for much of human history, that kind of behaviour was the norm.  Think it’s not ingrained?  How often do you notice a stranger who happens to walk past your house?  How often are your suspicions raised when your doorbell is rung unexpectedly?  How often do you go on alert when someone seems to be heading right for you in the street?

Last week I suggested that racism is a fairly new concept and a manufactured concept in human history.  It’s not a real thing.  There is only a small (5-10%) genetic difference between races.  It is a false idea.   However, looking at people as ‘other’ and excluding them because of that is as old as the hills.  Racism has become the dominant form of ‘othering’ in the western world.

I would expect that most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist.  We don’t because we have never engaged in overt racism: demeaned someone because of the colour of their skin, never refused to deal with ‘them’ in stores or medical clinics, never told cruel jokes.  

And that’s good, but the social psychologists who authored our reading point out that we have a large and sometimes subtle issue:  The society in which we live is implicitly and institutionally racist.  It is the water in which we swim.  We are trying to change it, but it’s hard. There is lots of push back from people who don’t think themselves racist. Caucasian people often don’t even notice that they sometimes act on racist assumptions, or at least fail to challenge the racism in some of our social systems. I promise you that many people of colour notice.

And they are speaking up.  Many First Nations people offer opinions that the truth and reconciliation process is moving too slowly, that the dominant culture is failing to live up to the promises it made.  People of colour are calling out institutions, like police services, over racial profiling and carding. 

And two years ago, Jesse Lipscombe made headlines by calling out a passenger in a car who cast an epithet in his direction.  It led to the #makeitawkward campaign in Edmonton. The demand for meaningful change is getting out.  And it is affecting us all, subtly.

I have a personal, well tested theory.  Once you name a potential social or cultural change out loud, it becomes real and starts to have an effect.  Sure, some will vehemently object or dismiss the idea, but ideas are persistent things.  They don’t die even when they are unpopular.   And often, though painfully slowly, the idea influences more and more people.  Subversive ideas like that can change cultures.  Just look at that first Pride parade decades ago.  A handful of men in masks quickly walking a block or two and then dispersing.  Now, it is Edmonton’s largest street event.  Ideas grow in our consciousness and people are influenced a few at a time until change becomes a groundswell.

To go back to my opening thoughts about otherness and tribal cultures, sure that mistrusting, frightened world still exists, but because of education and social contact it is less prevalent than once it was.  Canada, for all of its faults, has become a leader in multiculturalism.

Erna Paris, who has written extensively on the International Criminal Court said this in a Toronto speech last spring,

…quietly over the next decades, official multiculturalism lost its hokey qualities, as well as its capital letter, and evolved into an ingrained collective value. Canadians began to define themselves as citizens of a multi-ethnic, multireligious society… In 1985, when asked what made them proudest of their country, Canadians placed multiculturalism way down the list – at No. 10. By 2006, it was in second place – above hockey. Somehow multiculturalism had evolved into a shared identity – a loose identity – Canadian style.

Look at headlines about defaced or attacked mosques and synagogues and it’s obvious we have a long way to go. Look at the social ills plaguing northern communities and we know we have far to go.  But, we have come a long way.  

Through education, discussion and exposure to other cultures, through the efforts of people of good will who are willing to learn about cultural differences and build bridges, we are having some demonstrable success.  Just look at the diverse bunch of volunteers who go to clean up those attacked synagogues and mosques.  There is a ray of hope. But we also have a long way to go.

The social psychology text I quoted in the reading, by authors Kassin, Fein, Markus and Burke also speaks of strategies for reducing stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination.  They lay out four commonly accepted theories:

*Intergroup Contact: It’s not enough to put diverse groups in a room.  That can be as awkward as a junior high mixer.  The authors suggest there are key conditions needed: equal status, personal interactions, the need to achieve a common goal, and social norms.  “When these conditions are met, intergroup contact tends to be much more successful in reducing prejudice.”  

In other words, when each member of the combined group is perceived as having worth and dignity, and when the group creates a new identity around a shared goal, like cleaning up a defaced religious institution, there is a better chance for success. 

*The Jigsaw Classroom:  Social scientists have long known that addressing racial and other stereotypes at a young age has far better outcomes.  But they also know that the lessons are better learned by interaction with peers than through lessons by teachers.  Traditionally,  classrooms are competitive places, which is not conducive to developing the kinds of cooperation and goal sharing that lessen prejudice and racism. So a new cooperative model was introduced into schools, including here in Edmonton. Curriculum is broken into chunks like pieces of a jigsaw.  Students in a small group each learn about their piece and teach it to the others in the group.  The early results suggest the developing of compassion, reduction in prejudice and increase in self-esteem.

As a parent from a different time I wonder if they are actually learning enough of the basics that were drilled into me, but time will tell.  Cultural shifts are seldom easy to accept when you have lived all of your life with one style.  What’s more important?  High achievement in grades or more fully rounded citizenship. Hmm.

*Shared Identities: Recent research has demonstrated that changing how group members categorize each other can reduce prejudice and discrimination; for example, by putting groups together with shared common goals.  This starts the process of decategorization.  We rebuild the group around common goals.  Sports teams and military units are good examples where diverse individuals become a new recategorized group because of shared goals.

*Changing Cultures and Motivations: By changing the kinds of information perpetuated in one’s culture, we alter how we perceive other social groups.  Truth and Reconciliation is teaching us to learn a different way.  The Blanket exercise many of us did a year ago showed us a non colonizer view of history.  Each new cross cultural experience holds an opportunity for us to learn something new.  

And on the wider scale as the general culture and norms change, we begin to promote values that are consistent with fairness and diversity and that are not consistent with prejudice and discrimination.  We teach ourselves to see the world differently.  For example, each Sunday we acknowledge that we meet on Treaty Six lands.  I am sure many people think this is faddish or tiresome as it happens at City Hall, in theatres, in the Leg.  But it is a spoken reminder that we are in a time of relearning about First Nations.  One day we may not need to do it anymore, but that day is not yet here.

As Unitarian Universalists we are well situated to be leaders in this cultural shift.  Why?  For decades we have had our Principles to guide us.

The first of them offers a simple and incredibly complicated bit of guidance: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  They have changed us.

Parse that for a moment.  We don’t just accept this idea of worthiness, we agree to promote it…to spread the word about each person’s worthiness.  And not just worthiness, but inherent worthiness. It is not earned.  It’s in you, and that homeless guy on the street, and the woman of colour and the recent immigrants from Syria and Somalia and yeah, even in the premiers who won’t let our oil go to market and the party leader we don’t like.

If we truly respect the words in that Principle, then we are obligated to break down the walls between us.  We are obligated to learn the stories of the other, their interests, their concerns.  We don’t have to agree, but we are urged to see them as fully formed people, intrinsically not different from us, no better or worse than us.

Racism cannot exist when we acknowledge worth and dignity.  Otherness fades into insignificance when we lift up this Principle.

But there is one piece left to consider.  Remember the reading?  About institutional and implicit racism?  The core of this Principle implies we have a further obligation to explore and confront how we may participate in those often unnoticed forms of racism.  I mentioned last week that I cannot deny seeing the colour of a person’s skin.  It’s not a point of pride.  But my Unitarian Principles mean I have to do the work of getting past that flaw.  I have to find the way to reach out, to learn more about my biases, more about the racism inherent in Canadian culture that I have absorbed.  And then I have to figure out how to get past it.  

I have to learn how to be truly multicultural, and so do you.