Kevin Tarsa: Intent behind ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
After seeing the Black Lives Matter banner on the wall of the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains, a banner since vandalized or stolen for the third time, Bob Williams asked in his Sept. 11 letter to The Union, “Does ‘Race Matter’ in Nevada County? Don’t we live in a color blind society? Isn’t this a racist sign?”
He is not the first to feel upset by the banner’s presence. Others have called the church to express discomfort or anger and to suggest instead the message “all lives matter.”
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious tradition anchored in an affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” “All lives matter” is one of its foundational teachings, and the struggle to live that ideal is what leads many UU congregations to hang Black Lives Matter banners.
I doubt that a “Women’s Lives Matter” or a “Children’s Lives Matter” banner would trouble people enough for them to voice concern, to vandalize or steal the banner, or think that the intended message was that only women’s or only children’s lives matter. The fact that Black Lives Matter banners do disturb people makes the point: race does indeed matter.
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Seeing oneself as color blind is an important threshold in learning to navigate racial and cultural difference. The idea that we are all the same is a vital move away from either demonizing or idolizing categories of people who are different from us. This is where most progressive people find themselves. It is not the end of the journey however.
If we do not see a person’s color and the ways that skin color affects a person’s experiences, then we are not really seeing the person. If black people are “blending in” and therefore essentially invisible to those of us who are white, then we will consciously and unconsciously assume that their experiences and perspectives are the same as ours, and, as black people are telling us, they are not.
The new challenge is to recognize and honor both similarity and difference.
For more than 200 years people in the American colonies and then the United States were allowed legally to enslave and “own” black persons. For 89 years black persons were considered legally but three-fifths of a person. Black lives have been less valued than white lives in our history. This has shaped our nation in ways that still permeate our institutions, economic realities, stories, and ways of seeing and being.
Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the sum total of all civil rights movements to date could possibly erase that legacy. The visible and conscious implications — what we recognize as overt racism — are but the tip of a much larger iceberg. The current national anxiety around young black persons and police officers is not the cause of tension, but rather the breaking through of a deeper pain that we as a nation are still struggling to address.
Because so much is yet submerged, believing that all lives matter is the reason to say explicitly that black lives matter. The particular events and stirrings of these times are the reason to say it now, though many other groups could well be named.
I can speak only for myself in this. I minister in a tradition wherein members must themselves grapple with the questions in order to arrive at truths. The theft of the third banner has invited the congregation to wrestle with its own questions: What does it mean to proclaim that black lives matter in a very white town? Is it dangerous? Should we engage the wider community in conversation? Put up yet another banner? Should it name “all lives,” “black lives” or a commitment to “racial justice?”
Members are in different places in their personal journeys and are not in agreement about what to do. The great gift of the banner thefts is their invitation to examine more deeply our own ideas, understandings and feelings. That’s where the initial work is. May they be such an invitation to you as well.
And as UUCM wrestles with its questions, I myself envision on the wall an orange construction sign banner that reads, “Congregation at work.”
May it be so.
Rev. Kevin Tarsa lives in Grass Valley.
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