The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples




Two or three weeks ago when I talked about David Bumbaugh’s three questions, I didn’t go into one of the issues that he mentioned, our use of a commitment to diversity as a marketing tool. I think it’s important enough for a whole sermon to itself, because much of our talk about growth talks about expanding our reach to underrepresented demographics. So I want to spend some time on what seems to be our understanding of diversity and why I think making it a goal for us rather than the natural consequence of our freedom of thought and our respect for difference is damaging to us, as I believe it is to our society as a whole. Diversity is, after all, clearly a good and valuable thing.

In Massachusetts I lived in the primarily Jewish town of Sharon. I had known many Jews, friends of my parents and of my own, and I had never understood the prejudice against them or recognized any of the stereotypes by which they were often described. No one I knew fit them at all. It was a very short time, however, before many of them were screaming at me. I couldn’t understand it until I began to think about the consequences even of voluntary ghettos. Their attrac­tion, of course, is that living there you don’t need to worry about being disliked or mistrusted because of negative stereo­types about your ethnic background or creed or economic status, so there is an obvious comfort to it. However, they not only limit your understanding of those who are different from you, impoverish­ing your environment by keeping you from such contacts, but they reinforce any nega­tive stereotype that may exist. After all, no matter how unfair or how particular such stereotypes are, there is usually some basis for them, or they would not endure. I had never believed in a basis for Jewish stereotypes, and now that I’m no longer liv­ing in Sharon I never see them or have to become aware of them, but any that had any small reality became magnified and hurtful both to those who fit them and those who did not. With our contemporary worship of diversity, oddly, we are rele­gating more and more people, and often even ourselves, to ghettos, both voluntary and involuntary.

There are ethnic ghettos, genera­tional ghettos, gender ghettos, economic ghettos, and each one reinforces negative stereotypes not only among outsiders but within the group, often even encouraging people to take on stereotypes that they would otherwise eschew. The big thing now is the “gated community.” You can hardly find an apartment complex or a development in Naples that is not cut off from others by gates. I lived for fifteen years in a ground-floor apart­ment in a very mixed neighborhood in New Orleans, and I do think that a burglar consid­ered entering it once. The screen was off the window and it was open, but nothing was disturbed. It’s a little humiliating to realize that someone would break into your apartment and find nothing worth stealing and leave again, but it was certainly wide open to the possibility of recurring entry. In my gated community in Naples that I lived in for four years, someone broke into my garage and stole some tools and there was a notorious and bloody murder in the one I am living in now. But we love our gated communities — seemingly secure enclaves of the well-to-do and the law-abid­ing — excluding anyone not-like-us. 

It seems like a peculiar consequence of an appreciation of the value of diver­sity that instead of making us more un­derstanding and accepting of one another it should be driving us apart, but I think we can figure out how it has happened. If we’re going to celebrate differences we need to have differences to celebrate, and if they don’t exist naturally we have to create them. They do exist naturally, of course, as differences in temperament and environment, but instead of being individual we have decided that they need to be cultural, stereotypical, almost lock-step within a defined group. Diver­sity is wonderful, but this is a mockery of true diversity. Everyone in a par­ticular group is somehow representative of everyone else.

I have friends who adopted a child of another race. It’s not quite so prob­lematic yet for those who go to Asian countries for a baby, but this was a white couple who wanted to adopt a black child. They were only given permission to adopt him if they promised to bring him up as much as possible in his own culture. Well, they wanted this baby, and they weren’t about to argue the philoso­phy of the thing, but let me tell you something: Babies ain’t got no culchuh! I mean, that’s the whole point of child-rearing: to instill the culture of the family. One’s culture is not part of the genetic code. Asian babies brought up in western families don’t speak Chinese or Japanese just because they were born of Chinese or Japanese parents. They don’t have an inborn penchant for Buddhism, and they have no trouble whatsoever pro­nouncing R’s and L’s. Nor is a black child automati­cally going to want to sing gospel music. Let me admit right up front that in our society at this particular time it could be very difficult for a person with physical characteristics from African ancestors to be accepted, or even to accept him or herself, as an individual with an individ­ual upbringing rather than as a represen­tative of that particular ethnic group. However, just because something is real doesn’t make it right, and to insist on continuing it and calling it good will simply reinforce our separateness.

Well-intentioned organizations, schools, boards, churches, have diversity as a goal. To be really a proper group you have to have representatives from all the groups that you can think of and de­fine — blacks and whites, women and men, old and young, handicapped (or is it disabled? No, I think it’s challenged), American Indi­ans, Asians, people from Spanish-speaking countries for whom they have invented the term Hispanics to include everyone from Mexico to Ar­gentina and all the Caribbean islands except Haiti. Oh, and if you’re really into it you need to have Christians, Jews, Moslems, Bud­dhists, and maybe even a Unitarian Uni­versalist. The thing is, that it doesn’t matter what kind of people they are, what their interests and talents or training are, be­cause now we seem to think that all women think alike, all men think alike, all senior citizens, all baby-boomers or generation x-ers or millennials, all Ameri­can Indians, all Hispanics, all Jews, all, all think exactly like everyone else in the group they’re repre­senting. Don’t they? Isn’t that the point? We’re not people any more, we’re repre­sentative samples. That means, of course, that we need to be part of a group with a well-defined and well-understood culture so we’ll be able to represent it properly. The only way to guarantee that is with ghettoization, because the only way to be sure that people are true examples of their own culture is not to rub up against another. Then they may become traitors to their race, their gender, their age group, by adopt­ing another’s customs and values. Oh, the horror of it! Multi-culturalism, this cele­bration of diversity, is just a way to put a pretty face on segre­gation, but the ugliness of it can’t help but show through.

I was listening to a colleague, whom I admire and respect, talk about the im­portance of understanding and celebrat­ing your own culture. He defined himself as African-American, and suggested that European-Americans are culturally im­poverished. They don’t have their special culture to become imbued with. It is interesting that majority culture becomes completely invisible and is seen as non-existent. When it is the air you breathe, it’s hard to recognize it. I thought also as I looked at him, that he was denying at least three-fourths of his own genetic background. For him to be black was a matter of faith, not color. I real­ize that that has been forced on many people whether or not it is their preference. I also think it is great to be proud of your ancestry, to celebrate it, to honor it and to maintain its tradi­tions, but it is too often used in ways that separate us from one an­other and rele­gate us to our ghettos. It can be used to oppress others and often has been, but it is now being used, I think quite inno­cently, in the name of self-esteem and racial pride to maintain our distrust of one another.

Unitarian Universalists used to be on the cutting edge of social change. Nowa­days, it seems to me, we are in the fore­front of trendiness. That being the case we are focus­ing on diversity as our pri­mary religious mission. The natural con­sequence of the freedom of conscience that is our pride and the uniqueness of our heritage is a di­versity of belief within our congregations. The respect that we must exhibit (and truly feel) for differing opinions if we are to maintain our in­tegrity as honest searchers after truth, and our absolute understanding that race or religious belief or color can have no bearing on the value of a thought or deed, must naturally pro­duce an affirma­tion of difference. The problem comes when we forget that this is the conse­quence of our freedom rather than the goal of our existence. This is hap­pening more and more.

A few years ago what was being called a “diverse” church was to be established near Raleigh. It was called that, but in fact, the church itself was to be anything but diverse. Like the diversity we celebrate in other places, it was to be consciously homogeneous in race and theology. What made it diverse was that neither the race nor the theology was very prevalent in our associa­tion. We have few black members and compara­tively few self-described Christians. This church was to be both, in part because of a peculiar but very prevalent stereotype that we hold that all black people are traditional Christians, so to get more black Unitarian Universalists we were to betray our theology. Its intentional ho­mogeneity seems to me to go against our commitment to the freedom of con­science which transcends theological or ethnic differences, but I sometimes fear that in our idolatry of diversity we have forgotten our tradition of freedom, and we have forgotten as well the damage to understand­ing and to wholeness that ghettos do.

  We are ghettoizing ourselves in many ways. There has been a terrible outbreak of hyphens among us, and our loyalty seems to be more to the first half of the hyphen than to the part that says Unitarian Universalist. I was recently sent a survey for a program on the effect the large number of women entering our ministry has had on our association, and one of the demographic questions was on my theological iden­tity. There were eleven choices, some of which I didn’t even understand (I guess I’m none of those) and no choice just of Unitarian Universalist. We are supposed to put our­selves into boxes and identify with those boxes rather than with the shared val­ues that transcend — or used to transcend — our differences. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we have preached diversity as the center and end of our religious faith and our social conscience to the point that the only way to be a Unitarian Universalist in the wider movement is to have that as your highest value. We must identify our­selves as certain accepted kinds of Unitarian Universalists so that we can maintain an identity in our tiny theological ghettos. I have asked the preachers of diversity what our transcendent values are, what holds us together as a religious move­ment, what our mission is, and the an­swer too often is simply, without addition or limita­tion, the affirmation of diversity. True diversity that enables us to learn from one another, that allows and en­courages the search for truth in freedom and the speak­ing of truth in love, is a wonderful and necessary thing, but as a single mission it has neither center nor purpose. It divides us rather than uniting us, and we find ourselves less rather than more able to trust and understand one another. We are relegating ourselves to voluntary ghettos and seeing the conse­quences in division and suspicion.

We need to look at ourselves in the forefront of the trendiness both in religion and in society and see what the conse­quences really are to our rejection of common bonds in the interest of not just celebrating but creating diversity. Throughout our history, whatever our differences, both in our free faith and in our society, although we have used our differences to enrich us, we have known that what we share is more important still. We have shared an ideal of freedom and a commitment to love and trust one another without regard to race or sexual preference or theological position. In our free faith the search for truth was informed by our differences but transcended them. It seems that we have of late been so in love with difference we have rejected the understanding that we are first of all citizens of one nation indi­visible, first of all part of the venture to seek and practice truth and meaning in our free faith, first of all members of one community of faith and free­dom.