I've held back telling this story for five years, but now seems the appropriate time. Those who choose to read this, kindly come with me to Southern Ontario, Canada, in August of 2003.
At the time, I was a Unitarian Universalist. Proud of being a flaming liberal in a conservative state, I felt the very organic kind of paranoia, isolation, and the inevitable sensation of feeling misunderstood that characterizes any unapologetic leftist in a red state.
So it was that the Mid-South district, of which I was a member, needed a representative to visit the yearly young adult conference. I eagerly agreed to go. The annual meeting of the minds of young movers and shakers of the denomination seemed like an exciting prospect. I was twenty-two at the time and far more idealistic than I am now, and despite my youth, I was also blessed with an intensely pragmatic streak. The roots of this came directly from seeing my state turn a frustrating shade of red in every Presidential election I could remember.
What greeted me upon arrival was not peace, love, and understanding. Rather, I walked into the middle of a hornet's nest.
The hostility I was greeted with immediately upon arrival had been fostered by an unfortunate racial dynamic which had transpired a few days before my arrival. It had been introduced when a white female from somewhere up North (and rather open lesbian, as I recall)* had unfortunately automatically presumed that the leader of the Anti-Oppression/Anti-Racism training, an African-American female from Tennessee, was a bellhop. This incident, as it would be referred to later, had apparently occurred immediately after arrival, while in the process of loading up the car by which fellow con attendees would make the short trip from the Toronto airport to the campsite where the conference was to be held.
Pick up my bags, she'd said, unbelievably.
Well, suffice to say this kind of callous demand didn't go over very well and the results of it trickled over to every function. In doing so this tainted the entire conference.
At the time, I wasn't aware of what had transpired prior to my arrival, but when I heard of it weeks later, I shook my head in disgust. Being from the South, let it be known I know better than to say silly things like this. This kind of shockingly racist language is nothing that would even cross my mind, which is why it took me aback.
It's been beat into my head since birth that racism is simply not kosher. Since many Americans assume that racism only exists down here in the South, or at minimum, overtly racist acts happen down here and only here, I have a understandably large chip on my shoulder as a direct consequence of that presumption, which is rooted in stereotype, not fact.
At any rate, what had been initially intended to be a helpful discussion intending to bring submerged racism and oppressive viewpoints to the forefront very quickly became let's hate on whitey. So here I was with my white face, male, presumably heterosexual, and with a pronounced southern drawl. Suffice to say no one gave me the benefit of the doubt when I opened my mouth. Or if they listened, no one stood with me.
I saw minority-majority politics pushed the forefront. Affirmative Action on steroids is the best way I can describe the way the conference was led. White males were asked directly not to speak first when meetings were led. Almost every position of authority was granted to a minority, regardless of their skill or talent level. The intent was not malicious, but what transpired was, at minimum, deeply unfair.
I joked bitterly that if a person was a male to female transgender, half Asian, half African-American, then she would stand the best chance of winning elective office. The pecking order was flipped upside down, but the end result was the same. Instead of putting aside dynamics that had kept minorities in shackles, liberal guilt-complex politics came to the forefront, instead. Reverse racism and reverse discrimination is what resulted.
Needless to say I was the low person on the totem pole.
We were all so young, though. I can't forget that as I muse upon these observations. The oldest member of the group of 100 or so souls at the meeting was thirty five years old, which is an age that I once saw as ancient, yet now am only a few years away from attaining myself.
Recently, these conferences have been rescinded by the Unitarian Universalist powers that be, and for good reason, since problems like these were far too commonplace. The point of me making light of this conference is not to stick it to UUs, or to try to clear my name, or to be patently controversial but rather to remind all of us that church politics, radical activism, and a lack of irony spell doom for all religious liberals if we do not temper our desire for social reform with a kind of pragmatism and moderation not at all in evidence by the recent rantings of Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright.
From the distance of five years, the proceedings I experienced appear ridiculous rather than racist. The wounds wrought seem indicative of a kind of narcissistic, naive navel-gazing, rather than anything substantial or of much consequence. But by the mere fact that this happened, I feel as though I can understand the fear of many conservatives when the idea of Barack Obama as President crosses their minds.
They are afraid of this kind of response, which although it is extreme and not likely to occur on any large scale, is rooted in more than just paranoid delusions of the right.
So let's ensure that radical voices are kept at bay and we entertain sensible, rational notions. Let's not be painted into a corner by GOP scare tactics.
Here is their fear.
* meant to emphasize that even LGBT individuals can hold racist viewpoints. Believe it or not.
** I'm far too sedated to be eloquent, so pardon my inarticulate prose.