US Catholic Faith in Real Life

From a white person to white people: We’re complicit

We need to talk about something uncomfortable that our brothers and sisters of color have been shouldering for far too long.

By Sarah Margaret Babbs | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice

Dear white friends, family, and church family,

We need to talk. About Charlottesville and what happened there. We need to talk about something uncomfortable that our brothers and sisters of color have been shouldering for far too long. We need to talk about race, and we need to talk about sin: the sin of racism.

But first, can I tell you a story?

I grew up in a very small town outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania in a working and middle class community. TV made me vaguely aware that there were people who weren’t white but who were still just like me, but almost everyone I knew was white. Everyone was white at church. Everyone was white at school.

In sixth grade, boys and girls become hormone-crazed squirrels, whispering and giggling about things like holding hands and “dating.” One day I made an offhand remark to the only black boy in my class that he should really date S., who was the only black girl in my class.

Looking me straight in the eyes he said, “Why? Because we’re both black?”

I grew up in a place and was raised by people who taught me that you tolerate and are friendly to people of other races. But you do not befriend them, and you certainly do not date them.

I knew that day I’d said something wrong, but I wasn’t sure exactly what and I had no one to ask. It made me think: Perhaps what I’d implicitly been taught about race wasn’t all correct.

I share this story because I think a lot of white people have a story like this—the first time when what we had learned about race came into conflict with the words or experiences of a person of color.

At the time, I felt ashamed and confused. Now I know these moments are opportunities for white people to stop and listen to what people of color are trying to say. Those moments are invitations for us to unlearn some of our damaging ideas about race and the privilege we experience because we are white.

Can I tell you another story?

Ten years later, I moved from a college town with more cows than people to Chicago to be a middle school teacher in a predominately black school on the city’s South Side.

I got involved in anti-death penalty activism. That’s when the veil was lifted from my eyes and the true ugliness of racism bared its rotten teeth.

When I moved to Chicago, I was a clueless fool. I thought because I knew about racism and a bit about black history that I would come in and teach, help, and influence these black and brown teens, many of who had known more suffering in their short lives than I had. I thought that because I grew up poor I would be able to relate, teaching in a school where 100 percent of the students received free or reduced lunch. Only after I had been there for a short time did I realize that I had never been poor at all.

Let me tell you another story.

I had four roommates in my apartment in Chicago. Within the first month we lived there, we were robbed. Someone broke in while we were all home and stole a laptop and stereo from a bedroom. I was 22 years old and it was the first time somewhere I lived had been robbed. It was the first time I ever felt unsafe at home.

The next day I went into school and during prayer intentions asked for prayers for whoever committed the crime. We began to talk about it and these beautiful 12- and 13-year-olds told me story after story about the homes and apartments of their families being robbed. One recalled how last Christmas someone stole all their presents from under the tree.

When I came to Chicago to teach, I knew everything about history. But I knew nothing about life.

If I could go back in time to 22-year-old me, I would shake her hard. She thought that if my students could just leave their “street talk” and false bravado at the door, she could accomplish so much. I would tell her that there is almost nothing I could teach my students of color that they couldn’t learn from someone else. But I could learn from them what it means to be a person of color in America, and maybe they could learn from me that some white people do care about them.

If I had to do over again, I would walk into those social studies classes and give them each a notebook and a pen. And I would tell them: We are not going to open a textbook this year. Instead we are going to read the book of your life, and we are going to explore what America means together.

I would ask them to write their stories, and to teach me what America means to them. We would learn and grow together.

But I didn’t do that. I floundered. I tried, but I knew it wasn’t enough. I failed to gain the respect of my students because we both knew I had no idea what I had stumbled into and that teaching these beautiful, brilliant minds required much more than just teaching skills. In my weaker moments I let myself believe they didn’t respect me because I was white, when deep down I knew it wasn’t true.

Why am I telling you all of this? What does it have to do with Charlottesville?

Nothing. Everything. Racism is America’s original sin, and we can never be cleansed of it if we never talk about it. We white people need to talk about it. Our brothers and sisters of color are literally dying for us to talk about race in America in an open, non-defensive manner. We are Christian, but we are also American, and the blood of racism pulses through every vein in this country’s past and present.

I have been actively working for years to root out racism from my soul and still it continues to be work. It requires the profound humility of Christ to close our mouths, open our ears, and hear the stories people of color are telling. When we hear them we need to believe them. Even if the ground shakes beneath our feet as everything we believed about America is shaken.

Believe it or not, that’s the easy part. The hard part comes next.

After we hear the stories and believe them, we take what we have learned and bring it home. First, into the stillness and silence of prayer where Christ shows us the seeds of racism in our own hearts. Our work is to root these seeds out with repentance and conversion, receiving the sacrament of reconciliation if needed.

Racism is a two-fold sin. Firstly, it is a personal sin; whenever we hold a conscious belief about other human beings that they are deficient in some way due to race, we have sinned against charity and against the dignity of the human person. And racism is also a social sin, since so many of the structures and institutions of American life are built upon and benefit from the stolen labor or inferior treatment of people of color. Whether we consciously hold these beliefs or not, we as white people benefit from these structures and institutions and thus we must repent of the social sin of racism and work to dismantle those structures that keep racism firmly rooted in place.

Racism isn’t just for hateful men with torches. Racism and its roots live within us all.

Racism isn’t just about hating black or brown people or thinking they are worth less than you. It’s about being born and socialized into a culture where the work, voices, and lives of people of color are consistently treated as worth less than white work, voices, and lives.

It doesn’t make us evil to admit that and speak openly. It makes us complicit in evil if we refuse this work.

Image: Unsplash

Published: 
Tuesday, August 15, 2017