Sunday, May 3, 2009

Describing the South Americans

Fifth in a series of posts about the April 2009 UUA Board meeting

I finally understood some of the undercurrents connected with the UUA's AR/AO/MC (anti-racist, anti-oppression, multiculturalism) efforts after I saw Wilderness Journey, a video that gives the history behind the loss of hundreds of Afro-American Unitarian Universalists in the early 1970s, as part of my UUA Board training two years ago: why did we appear to be so stuck on Black/White relationships?

Though the training I got included concepts (such as race identity) that were applicable to any group, it still felt very much geared to righting old wrongs, focusing on the "AR" with some "AO" but not much "MC". The Board committed to addressing this when it came up in the second report from the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee: "it is important to note that when we talk about responding to racism and a host of other oppressions, the concept of multiculturalism is often an afterthought" (page 17). Led by Trustee-at-large Jose Ballester, the April Board training included education on basic definitions ("culture" and "ethnic") and concepts such as assimilation and acculturation -- not to mention photos of 18 members of the French national soccer team, none of whom "looked" French. We then broke into small groups to discuss situations faced by "our" congregation in a set of disguised scenarios.

My group was given a scenario around a suburban UU church in Southern California, mostly white but surrounded by a population 35% Hispanic/Latino, 33% White, 18% African American, and 12% Asian. The suburb had grown up around a hospital and migration from South America, but a clinic serving low income families in the area had recently closed. The scenario got more complicated, but one of the questions involved describing the needs of the South Americans.

We were smart enough to say we didn't really have enough information to do so (a key learning in anything multicultural -- don't assume!) but managed anyway to described the recent immigrants from South America as needing housing, support in Spanish and in learning the English language, as well as job-training skills.

At the end Jose described what really happened in each scenario. Somewhat to my group's discomfort, the "real" South Americans had migrated in order to fill key spots for medical personnel: doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and administrators. They were nearly all professionals and doing quite well, gracias. The service workers who needed the support -- and the clinic -- were mostly new immigrants from Southeast Asia. The neighborhood had shifted demographically, and one of the reasons the clinic closed was because it was focused on serving the needs of an Hispanic/Latino population that didn't really use it anymore.

Hmm... don't assume. I remember the old joke about the surgeon who would not operate on an accident victim by saying "this is my son", yet the surgeon was not the boy's father -- and how few people figured it out. I felt like I had done the same thing.

Next post: "We get to decide"


Tom Wilson said...

I think even the multi-cultural lens misses one of the big blinders of most UUs - class. What about the composition of the 33% white in the example? The case study could also have been constructed around a case where lower-income whites had moved out because of gentrification.

This may be less a focus for AR/AO work (although a Marxist analysis would certainly include intra-culture oppression) but I think it's definitely important in thinking about broadening our movement and who we welcome into our congregation. Explicit or implicit classism is far more socially acceptable within a Unitarian congregation in words that would be horrifying if they were about race.

Tom Wilson said...

Linda - this is Tom Wilson, from the previous comment. I'm Mary MacKay's husband. Just to let you know who the comment was from, or in case you wanted to respond, I'm