Waking up to White Responsibility

In the first half of the sermon, I shared the epic lives of three refugee families and asked all in attendance (and those reading) to consider the rewards and importance of establishing close relationships—friendships—with New American families. But I would like to say a little more about how I’ve been changed by my relationships over the past 11 years because I think the kind of deep friendships I am talking about woke up from The Dream and has clarified my white responsibility.

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I have just this year realized that my involvement with the refugee community here and abroad has woken me up from what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “The Dream.” In his award winning Between the World in Me, Coates says, “I have seen the dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. . . . The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies” (11). He challenges those of us who think we are white to wake up from this dream that is killing all of us, through environmental degradation, growing wealth inequality, and socio-economic structures that are still killing black and brown people around the world.

Getting to know—really know and not know about—refugees woke me up from the Dream I was living and struggling with: being successful at work, paying off the house by the time I was 50 and trying to get our messy yard cleaned up, being an A+ parent and gender-equity spouse. Those goals ignored the economic and racial inequalities around me because I was being played by the system set up for me to succeed. I was self-centered, or at best, nuclear-family centered in ways that were unnecessary for an individual and family that had been dealt a pretty good hand in life, work, and the economy.

No one event or episode jolted me out of the Dream, but within a 12-month span in 2008 and 2009, all three families we call family were served eviction notices, and this was quite a wake-up call. I had never been served an eviction notice; when I forgot to pay my rent as a young adult, the landlord asked, passively aggressively “going to pay up soon?” No one I knew before now had ever been served an eviction notice, but I was beginning to learn that almost all refugees dealt with eviction notices at least once in the resettlement process. If you read the recent ethnography Evicted, you will see in great detail the ways landlords and realtors get rich off the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities.

Joseph and his sisters would not allow Community Homes to come into their apartment and fumigate for an insect infestation problem they did not think they had, so Community Homes threatened to evict them. Deb Dawson intervened on Joseph’s behalf, getting each side to give a little and ultimately enabling Joseph and his family to stay. Not only was the socio-economic inequality on display when Community Homes tried to evict Joseph, but Deb’s social capital and economic clout could solve problems that the Makeer dignity and defiance could not.

Jacques and Brigitte were sent an eviction notice about 10 days after arriving in Fargo because LSS set up the apartment for them and paid the pro-rated days left in February but forgot to pay the March rent. After being informed of their mistake, LSS still didn’t act, and Jacques and Brigitte were sent a second notice. I shared the second notice with LSS and the payment was finally made; I received an apology, but Jacques and Brigitte never did.

Faizil and Ardo dutifully sent in Money Orders to their Minneapolis based landlords each month, but received an eviction notice telling them that they had missed January and March payments. I was able to intervene on their behalf, trace the money orders, and find out that the January Money Order had been cashed by the rental agency but not recorded and the March Money Order had simply gone missing. I had to talk my way up to a manager, pay $48 dollars to track the money orders, and navigate a complex and invisible system decidedly rigged in favor of the landlord.

As a Dreamer, I had not thought about the particularly precarious rental situations refugees regularly find themselves in: little or no savings, a limited network of support, and financial practices and laws new to many of them. Faizil told me, through a translator, that as a boy he could have slept outside, but as a 50-year old man in a wheelchair, he didn’t think he could do it again. Getting up close and personal with refugees opens one’s eyes to the many indignities and stresses they face; it has woken me from a comfortable family-centered blanket to a more informed, if frequently sobering, understanding of the way structural inequalities persist and are experienced throughout our community, everyday.

As I slowly awoke from the Dream, I became what Mary Pipher calls a cultural broker; others use the term “navigator” or ally. I did what I could for these families we call family, but I did not do much to address the systems of inequality I was beginning to see. But being so close to so many refugees / New Americans has helped me to understand the third major point I want to make: I needed to accept my white responsibility.

If we are going to achieve UU principle #6, a “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all” we need to accept what antiracist writer, speaker, and activist calls Tim Wise, in Between Barak and a Hard Place, calls “white responsibility.” This is not an updated “white man’s burden;” this is white people accepting responsibility for the fact that those who call ourselves white have been killing black and brown people around the world in the name of sugar, tobacco, cotton, and land for 500 years. “Confronting racism,” Wise says,

is white folks’ responsibility because even though we, in the present, are not to blame for the system we have inherited, the fact is, we have inherited it nonetheless, and continue to benefit, consciously or not, from the entrenched privileges that are the legacy of that system.  (119)

Our social welfare system expects people like refugees to come to America, work hard, be self-sufficient, but those of us who think we are white, Wise argues, we need to similarly work hard to dismantle the structural racism, or structural inequality, that shapes so many interactions and inequities between refugees and a host community in a place like Fargo that was still 94% white in the 2000 census, and remains 88-90% white in 2015.

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We need to take responsibility to educate ourselves on the ways that US foreign policies and actions played a hand in the global conflicts that resulted in Joseph, the Buhendwas, and Faizil and Ardo ending up in Fargo. The US is not an innocent receiver of the world’s poor, tired, and huddle masses, but instead an active player in African and global conflicts.

We need to educate those in power, and find ways to produce antiracist allies. We need to try and elect city officials who pay attention to issues of structural racism in all our almost all-white local government; we need to educate our educators on how to hire a more diverse teaching body and deliver an antiracist, not just multicultural curriculum.

I’m giving this important third step, accepting white responsibility, less attention than the first step—getting to know refugees up close and personal—because I think those personal relationships wake many people from their Dream, and that in turn leads to accepting white responsibility. I can’t provide any of you with a map for accepting your responsibilities, but I hope I have described a journey many of you might want to take.

Thank you for allowing me to mainly tell you what you already know. In my time with the UU, I have seen the organization run an English language tutoring for three years.  A lot of my current work has picked up where those efforts left off. I know that work was personal: I saw learners hugging tutors at every session, and I felt the sense of loss as the program wound down in the fall of 2013.  I know many of you shared more than just the classroom space with those learners: you shared stories, families, meals.  I’d love to reconnect any of you involved with that project with the Bhutanese community and ELL efforts around the metro.

I’m thrilled to see the congregation working with Growing Together, a tremendously successful community gardening effort. I encourage all of you doing that work to figure out how to go beyond the garden space. Do not assume that just because someone has been here five years, ten years, even twenty years that he or she would not like to extend their social network, make a new friend, or work to bring about change in the community—with your cooperation. Let’s challenge ourselves to go beyond friend and cultural broker, find a way to be a part of the New American led efforts to speak against the demeaning media coverage or use our privilege and responsibility to talk to those in power who might not otherwise listen to the diverse voices in our community.

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