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The following is a sermon I wrote and shared at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse on the Sunday before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr day.
It seems that each time I stand at this pulpit, I am asking you to take just one more step on your personal path. Not today. While you are always important to me in these conversations, today will be about me. Me, and the journey I have undertaken to learn about privilege, my fears about it, and why it is SO important for me to change.
I have experience with what it is like to see another’s privilege, but I have also experienced what it is like to learn about privileges I have, that others do not. And I think most importantly, I am starting to see how my own participation, willing or no, perpetuates a culture that makes it acceptable.
When researching for this sermon, one of the papers I read was called, “White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible backpack” by Peggy McIntosh.” And one of the privileges she recognized that she had was, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”
I am not speaking to you for Hispanics, I am speaking to you for myself, Marco Cabrera. I speak to you as the entirety of who I am. And I would like to share with you some short glimpses into what helped me become who I am. At the time I felt the advantages others had, I was not yet an adult, I was not economically stable, I was not in the gifted program, and I was not of the prominent race in my class.
It was fall of 1996, I was sitting in class, doing my best to take notes, but realizing that I really didn’t understand this material. I started to doodle on the page, trying to concentrate, but not being able to take in any more of what she was saying. It was a few moments before I realized that the teacher had stopped speaking. I looked up to see that she had stopped and had been staring at me. “Marc, I don’t have time to waste speaking if no one will listen to me. What would your mother say, if I called her to let her know you weren’t paying attention in my class?” My mind flashed to 2 weeks prior, when I had had enough of the abuse, and I decided it was time to leave my mothers home. I realized that I was the only person in that class, who had never had the support of a parent when school-work was difficult. I thought hard about those last two days in my mothers home, when for the first and only time in my life I had seriously contemplated suicide. How my mother could stand by and watch what was going on, and not stand up for me. I thought about how I had no idea who this woman could be, as she wasn’t the woman I thought my mother should be. I thought about the moment that I realized that I wasn’t the problem and decided that I was leaving my mothers home forever. And I came up with the only response I could, that wouldn’t have me break down in tears before the class. “To be honest, I have no idea how my mother would respond to that.” I was asked to leave the room for being flippant.
In the winter of 1998, and after the third week in a row, where I had to make the daily decision to either eat, or put gas in my car. I realized I needed the ability to work more hours. As I was still in my senior year of high school, I learned about the work-study program through my school. So, I went to my counselor to have the conversation about how to make that happen. I had never met with this councilor before as my usual councilor had gone to West Senior high when the schools split. We sat down to discuss the schedule for my upcoming semester of school. He instantly approved of my choice to do work-study for half of my day. It was when he looked at the other aspects of my schedule he started to show his concern. “I see you have anthropology listed as your first hour class, are you sure that is what you want?” I responded, “Yes, sir.” He looked down at his paperwork, “You do realize, that there will be a fair amount of reading in that class. And homework…” I stared at him for a long moment. Then I asked, “Did you just infer that I can’t read?” He turned slightly away from me, and said more deeply into his paperwork, “No, no, not at all. I just wanted to make sure you knew that this course wouldn’t be one you could just stagger in and sleep through.”
It was 2001, my girlfriend (now my wife), and I were discussing our High School experiences. I would talk about how it was hard for me. Looking back, it was easy to see that I had challenges to overcome, and ones that some of my teachers really were unable to deal with. I was one student who could have really used some help. And there was none. My wife’s experience was quite the opposite, despite being at the same school, around the same time. She had teachers and councilors going out of their way to explain to her options she had, applications she should fill out for scholarships, information about events she might find stimulating.
Looking back, I was able to see a huge gap in the way I was treated from others. I asked myself, about all of the situations that came to mind:
Was this because I was Hispanic?
Was this because I was poor?
Was this some strange combination of effects built from either or both?
In Ms. McIntosh’s paper, another note she made was, “If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.” The fact that I cannot know for sure, makes it easier to sweep these incidences under the rug. Even in my own thoughts.
In my journey to who I am, at some point, I crossed a threshold. And I started to look for my privilege. It had been so easy to see where others had advantages that I didn’t have access to, but when I started to look at the advantages I had, and started to see how others were limited for things they could not control, it changed me.
There is no privilege that I have learned I carry, that I can unsee.
I would like to share with you some short glimpse into what helped me become who I am. At the time I felt the advantages I had over others, I was an adult, a male, had a comfortable paying job, a wonderful family, and my identity, attraction, expression, and sex, all align with the social norms for a male.
In front of this very room, I stated that in over 2 years of attendance, I hadn’t seen the sign indicating that we are a “Welcoming Congregation”, and how upsetting that was for me. I bring that up because it was an eye opening moment for me in understanding my privilege. I was one of the people in this congregation that assisted in making the 2014 Pride Event happen. When I went to my first meeting, I talked a little bit about this, and I saw the looks on the other member’s faces. I saw that every one of the members of the LGBTQA+ community had seen it. Every one of them, had experienced some level of concern in coming into our building. Concern that their physical and emotional safety could be at risk. They saw the sign because they were looking for a sign. And it eased their hearts. As I saw this expression, and heard their words almost in unison, “I saw it.” The only thing I could do was to respond with, “Wow, that must be my privilege.”
So, as I was unable to see it before, I wasn’t able to really appreciate the challenges they faced in walking into any and every building. I had to offer them an apology. And in my privilege, of not seeing this, I criticized you. So I would like to apologize to you as well. All of the efforts you put forward, have done their job. You have made those who need to see that sign, know that they are welcome, and they are safe. I am truly sorry that in my efforts to help, I made your efforts seem less.
In December of 2014, I reached out to speak with the director of my children’s school due to some concerns about the pervasive religious overtones that come so easily in December of each year. She said to me, “Yeah, I have to work with teachers to ensure they don’t get overly joyful or excited about the holiday season, as we have to remember that for some of our kids, the holiday break doesn’t ring with excitement or Joy. When they leave school, they leave the only place they know they can consistently get two meals a day.”
This gets me thinking of all the things I cannot see. Thinking about all of the things that are still buried in the depths of my invisible Misa.
How would I feel, in any of the situations I came up with?
- Each time I notice someone in their car as I walk by, and they quickly lock the doors when they notice me.
- If I knew that someone else made 20% more than I do in the same job, because of their gender.
- If I stood up to someone, and was informed that I was bossy and difficult to work with.
- If I took a job with an affirmative-action employer, and never knew for sure if I was hired due to my skills, or my color.
- If I were prohibited from flying because my size requires me to purchase two tickets – and that put it out of my price range.
- If I were carrying a bottle of wine down the hallway to our hotel room, and someone opened their door and told me to deliver a bottle to them around 10.
- If I wanted to marry the person I loved, and learned that I couldn’t due to someone else’s religion.
- If I was turned away from the death bed of that same loved one, because I had never been able to become their spouse.
- If I needed to use the restroom, saw that there was a Mens and a Womans, and wasn’t sure which was more appropriate.
- If I went to vote, and learned that I couldn’t because I didn’t have a valid drivers license.
- If I call 911 for help, what response should I expect when the policemen arrive and all I can say is: I CAN’T BREATH!
The subtlety of these things are what make them so dangerous. And this is so important because even the ones that aren’t so subtle, are happening. They are part of the ebbs-n-flows of this life we live. I fear that by not standing up, and by not saying No, I am allowing these things to infect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech. When I first heard this, I was unbelievably moved. And I foolishly carried the assumption that by now, in 2015, over 50 years later, this speech could be less relevant. Perhaps that too, was part of my privilege. But this speech is still every bit as relevant as the day he spoke it.
There are thousands of aspects of each one of us here. Good, bad, and everything in between. They are exactly as they are, to make us who we are right now. And we are wonderful. If I may say it, I, too, have a dream. I dream of the day when all of human kind can look at each other and not see all of the differences, but see the reality of who each person is, and realized that they are beautiful for the complexity that makes them who they are.