On Unearned Privilege

Something happened Thursday within Unitarian Universalism that has the potential to shake our foundations. The President of the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) resigned just three months before the end of his term of office. Now, this might appear to be no big deal. “So? The President of the UUA resigned a little early. So what?” The big deal is that this resignation is actually the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is an expression of something that has been a wound in our religious body politic I assume for as long as there have been Unitarian and Universalist churches, but certainly since 1961 when the two denominations merged to form the UUA.

The issue behind the visible issue is unearned privilege: unearned white, male, straight, cis-gendered privilege. Like so many institutions in America, especially churches, unearned privilege seethes in our ranks. It is usually barely noticed and unaddressed. The controversy that led to the President’s resignation centered on unearned privilege in hiring UUA staff. This, though, is only one expression of unearned privilege in our movement.

I have spent the past 10 years researching slavery and my family’s involvement in it, and in the course of that research, I have learned a lot about unearned privilege. Among other things, I have learned that unearned privilege is nearly invisible to the privileged but painfully obvious to unprivileged. As an example, unearned privilege is part of the sea we Euro-Americans swim in. As a result, it is very difficult for us to see this water. For some, it is impossible. But people of color swim in a different sea, and they see our privilege every day of their lives.

The typical reaction to being called out on unearned privilege is first to be defensive, denying any privilege and trying to point out why it can’t possibly be true. Then we try to explain everything we have done to counter the oppression in question. And finally, we start to attack the person calling us out, using increasingly aggressive language. And finally we walk away angry, mystified, feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

How do I know this is how people react when called out on unearned privilege? Because I have seen it in myself more often than I want to admit. This is how I have reacted over and over, and this is what I constantly struggle to overcome. And, struggling with it in myself, I have learned to see it in others.

So what happened at the UUA Thursday? Precisely this drama was acted out over a period a few weeks. A top leadership staff position came open, and the short list contained two fully qualified candidates. One was a white, male, minister; the other was a Latina, female, lay Director of Religious Education. The white male minister was hired. Reaction to this hiring was been loud, careful, and articulate.

It was clearly pointed out that the reaction was not at all about the person who was hired. He is fully qualified, and he will do a fine job. No one has any qualms about that. The reaction was about how this hire perpetuates a pattern of discriminatory hiring, especially at the upper levels of the UUA staff. The UUA was being called out on unearned privilege, and discussion swirled for a couple of weeks. And then the UUA President joined the fray and acted in exactly the manner I described above. The response to his behavior was quick and sure, and Thursday he resigned.

The reason that this has the potential to shake our foundations is that there is a pattern in our congregations when controversy arises. The pattern is quite simple. Someone is offended or hurt by something they see happening and speaks out. In response, there is a flurry of expressed concern, breast-beating and promises to deal with the issue. But then the flurry dies down; the breast-beating stops; and the promises are forgotten. And nothing happens. The congregation has managed to ignore the issue by pretending to address it.

Essentially the same thing happens at every level of our structure. But this time we have the opportunity to change that pattern. Our Bylaws state that when there is a vacancy in the Presidency, the Board will fill the vacancy until a new President is elected. The Board’s next regular meeting is in about three weeks. So a new President will be appointed by late this month. Since the next regularly scheduled election for President will occur this June, this appointed President, whoever it is, will be a caretaker. On July 1 we will have a newly elected President.

Both the appointed interim President and the new President have the opportunity to open a genuine conversation about how unearned privilege is expressed in our movement and to act to correct it. And that would shake our foundations to a fair-you-well. One of the Presidential candidates has already published what she would do about this were she elected. I call on the other two candidates to do the same.

We have an opportunity to make major changes in the ways that we Unitarian Universalists carry out our mission. Let us not simply fall back into to old patterns that do nothing to heal injustice within our own ranks.


2 thoughts on “On Unearned Privilege

  1. David

    Unearned privileged is relative. Each of us more readily notices the unearned privileges we don’t ourselves have. For me, as a white male who has fallen over my life span from middle class to lower class, from being considered well educated to sadly uneducated, from able to support a family on my income to not able to support myself on it – I see growing unearned privileges in the wealthy classes who take for granted all the power and choices and financial security they are born with and endow their offspring with.

    Inequality knows no gender or race, it also comes in white and to fit men.

    Expecting lower class white men like me to voluntarily surrender the tiny bit of unearned privilege we have left so that those who are even more unfairly disadvantaged can move not equal to us but ahead of us is an impossibly large ask. If we all gave up our meals next month all the starving might be fed except for us who would starve, too.

    This war against unearned privileges needs to be fought at the top of the heap first, where just one wall street banker’s Christmas bonus could affect us all for the better.

  2. Erinn

    👩‍💼👏 Ken, I’ve been watching you concerning these issues since I met you. There have been times I wondered where you would land, but always have trusted your heart. This time I am grateful for your words in this and have hopes you are heard by those of us who need to hear you now and remembered by us all in our ongoing relationships as a spiritual and religious community.


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