How One Unity Minister Broke the Silence and Started the Brave Conversation About Race
Wendy was restless. On the surface she had everything – a great marriage, a beautiful family, and a long, successful career as the senior and founding minister of The Unity Center in San Diego, California. And still, no matter how many lives were changed for the better by the Unity teachings she taught and by the beloved community she shepherded, it wasn’t enough. There was unfinished business. With every book she read, with every documentary she watched, with every deep and honest conversation she had with both her black and white congregants it became increasingly clear – there was a hidden wound we in the New Thought community weren’t doing enough about: the wound of racism.
She decided to do something about it. Her conviction to act came out of a bedrock Unity principle – that we create our life experiences through our way of thinking. If we in Unity and the larger New Thought community are serious about that principle, then it is of paramount importance that we examine our thinking in ways we never have before. Especially when it comes to hidden, unconscious bias.
Like a lot of Unity and New Thought ministers, Rev. Wendy Craig-Purcell’s lessons from the pulpit often centered on cognitive or psychological dynamics – how our thinking affects our lives. Drawing from a wide variety of sources – world scripture, scientific journals, and her own spiritual experience – Wendy built a case, Sunday by Sunday, for the rectitude of living the examined life; that if we really want to awaken and contribute meaningfully to an awakening world, we must be willing to exhume our deepest and most hidden thought-structures, drag them out into the light, and let go of any thinking that no longer serves our highest good.
Racism is the crisis that never seems to go away. No matter how much progress we make, and the progress is real, there are still dangerous undercurrents flowing through the American heart that threaten to drown us all. And the message Wendy received from the African American members of The Unity Center was clear. White people are the ones that have the best chance to change the whole game. Wendy got to work.
An Incomplete Education
My wife Lori and I jumped at the chance to join a white ally group that Wendy was forming. Twelve of us gathered in her home early last year. We sat in a circle and looked at each other, not knowing what would unfold over the next five months. But we were willing. And that’s the biggest piece.
In preparation for our first meeting Wendy had us read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving’s memoir does a remarkable job, largely through confession, of delineating the extent of both structural racism and white privilege. In the same way that fish do not know what water is, white people are generally unaware that they benefit from unearned privilege simply by virtue of the color of their skin. I began to see it everywhere. As a straight white male I’m treated differently on the car lot, at the bank, by the police, and at job interviews. But don’t take my word for it. There are decades of research documenting the unconscious bias we all have, and the devastating impact this has on people of color.
We also watched documentaries like 13th, Ava DuVernay’s essential film about the tenacity of racial inequity. When the Civil War and slavery ended, white supremacists simply changed their tactics, finding new, cruel, and innovative ways to keep African Americans oppressed. It’s disorienting and worse to realize how little you know about the real history of America. I kept thinking about that line from the Tao Te Ching: “The more you know, the less you understand.”
As we learned about black codes, work gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, inequities in the G.I. Bill, redlining, and racial disparities in arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates, it became painfully clear that many of the structures of American society were intentionally designed by white supremacists to benefit themselves and harm people of color. And that I and every other white person had unwittingly benefited from these structural advantages, even if we had no hand in creating them.
What Racism Is and Is Not
White allies are used to being angry about racism. Some of us even take comfort in a sense of moral superiority over those we consider less enlightened. So it was particularly transformative to begin to realize that racism is not so much a moral failing as it is a cognitive error. In a way that’s good news. We can drop the moral condescension and simply work to expand everyone’s understanding, including our own, about the pervasive and destructive nature of unexamined implicit bias.
That’s why Wendy introduced Dr. David Campt’s White AllyToolkit into the curriculum of our white ally work. Dr. Campt is a nationally-recognized leader in dialogue training with a long resume of ground breaking work in both the private and public sector. The underlying premise of the White Ally Toolkit is that the only thing that’s going to move us out of our centuries-long entrenchment in racist consciousness is honest, compassionate, and empathy-based dialogue with our “racism skeptic” white friends, relatives, and co-workers.
Racism skeptics run the gamut from explicit white supremacists to ordinary white people unaware of their implicit biases. Racism skeptics comprise 55% of white America. They believe that racism is no longer a significant problem. They express the view that talking about racism makes racism worse, and that we ought to “just move on.” They say things like “I don’t see color.” So this is where white allies must focus their work – on their racism skeptic friends, family members, and co-workers. If we could bring even a small percentage of these folks out of their skepticism and into racism awareness, real change would unfold.
The R.A.C.E. Method
It starts with conversations. Dr. Campt suggests a four step process called the R.A.C.E. method.
First, reflect. Make sure you’re emotionally ready to begin this challenging work. Come out of judgment, drop all your arguments, and don’t try to win. Bite your tongue, get ready to do some deep listening, and use your compassion and empathy to find common ground.
Second, ask. If your racism skeptic friend says something problematic like, “I don’t see color. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin just like MLK said,” then you might say something like, “O.K., that’s interesting, tell me more about that. Tell me an experience you had that leads to you think that.” (It’s key that you lead them away from their beliefs and toward a story about a specific experience that led them to have that belief.) They might tell you about a project they just completed with their black colleague at work, and about how well they get along
Third, connect. Mirror their story by describing a great relationship you have with a person of color at work. Now, your friend’s worldview is not under attack, so he has no need to get defensive. You’ve established an empathetic bond. When we talk about our beliefs and opinions, we argue. When we talk about our stories, we connect.
Fourth, expand. Now it’s time to gently lead your friend out of their racism skepticism, not by citing statistics or quoting studies, but with another personal story. Here you might tell them a story about a time when you caught yourself being biased. You might say something like, “So one time this black guy in a hoodie came into the store where I work, and for a second I got a little nervous. But then I saw that he had his baby in one of those slings around shoulders, and he was just buying some diapers and formula. Man did I feel like an idiot. Here I am this open-minded guy, or so I thought. I mean, I’m not a racist right? And still this unconscious bias leaped up out of nowhere.” And with any luck, your friend is nodding his head. He’ll probably share a similar story. By using self-disclosure, empathy, and compassion, you’ve enticed him to admit his own unconscious, implicit bias. He’ll take this with him. It is slow work, but it’s powerful, and when done properly, truly transformative.
What it Takes
What it takes is leadership. For years Reverend Wendy has been building programs at The Unity Center designed to draw her congregants from the inherently interior work of spiritual practice toward the challenging application of our insights and principles in the field of action. Her “Brave Conversations” initiative brought a large group of African American congregants into Wendy’s home to explore paths forward (an effort out of which the white allies groups were born). Her “Muslim Outreach” initiative built ongoing interfaith dialogue and joint activities with a neighboring mosque. Her “Bolder Together” initiative brings Unity, CSL, and other New Thought ministers into her home to form coalitions committed to meaningful social justice action and community service. With these programs and others, Wendy is teaching us how to wield our time-tested Unity and New Thought principles as tools of transformation.
If we are serious about both our own awakening and the awakening of the world, then it is time to come out of our privileged timidity, safety, and comfort and practice being bolder together with the fullness of our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. To no longer just witness suffering, but to be party to its diminishment and end. This is where our spiritual work has been leading us. It is time to finish the job. Our compassion demands it.