By Myra Brown
Racism is race prejudice plus the use of power in systems and institutions. For those anticipating and working toward ordination it as well as those currently in pastoral leadership it is imperative to create dialogue about racism in the church and in the world. Leaders in every capacity should have a working knowledge and consciousness of racism in the church and the world systems that impact us. It is an oppressive evil in our worlds’ systems and institutions designed to re-enforce our socialized race prejudice. We are a highly racialized society. Racism is a moral sin that eats at the fiber of our souls, and when allowed to continue, it mis-shapes us all out of what we were created to be. This is true whether we talk about whites being mis-shaped in the concept of white superiority and supremacy, or people of color being mis-shaped into the concept of inferiority and acting out of internalized racial oppression within their own groups. As members of the body of Christ called to be faithful to Christ’s teachings, it is our social and moral responsibility to work toward dismantling it. Racism symbolizes a misunderstanding of the nature and reality of God.
Beginning the conversation can be challenging if you are in a predominately white parish or intentional community. The first step is to accept the reality that racism impacts the lives of both white people and people of color. In many cases, white people never feel the need to talk about what it means to be white in America or abroad. Whiteness has been so normalized that it has blended into the background of society. People of color have to talk about what it means to be a person of color all the time with their family and friends in attempts to figure out how to maneuver in a rigged system of privilege and preference. They often have to make all kinds of adjustments in behavior, identity, language, culture, and preferences in order to fit in with the unspoken expectation of whiteness. If they don’t make those adjustments, the result is often unemployment, underemployment, isolation, poverty, exploitation, and exercises of frustration trying to reach dreams that are delayed and denied.
Yet when people of color attempt to dialogue with whites about the multifaceted impact of racism, they are often made to feel that racism is a person of color issue that has little to do with white people. Nothing could be further from the truth, but they are often sent away feeling dismissed and minimized, labeled “over- reactors” and levied the charge of playing the race card. Maybe you’ve heard people say, “If they would just stop thinking that way,” “What does the legacy of slavery have to do with me,” “I have no connection to that.” Maybe you have found yourself thinking it. There are some who feel that once we all become members of the same church or denomination we should just pray harder, get our minds off of it and let Jesus take care of it. But in what other area in our lives can we say choosing to deny the reality in front of us makes the situation better? Of course not, real problems deserve real analysis and real solutions. If you deny the reality that your gas and electric has been cut off, you will stay in the dark.
Truthfully, everyone born or socialized in American ideologies and its experiences will find himself or herself tied to the psychological residuals of slavery. The legacy of slavery impacts the way in which we negotiate our relationships and respond to one another. One of the ways it plays out is the parent-child relationship whites have with people of color. When you are child, parents tend to come over the top of your idea and tell you what they think is best. Parents make decisions for children all the time without their input for many named and unnamed reasons. Parents discipline their children for unwanted behaviors and yet children have no recourse for unwanted parental behavior. When a child comes along who goes against the grain, they are quickly referred to as the black sheep or problem child. The parental perspective for much of a child’s life is seen as “the” unquestioned perspective. Perhaps that is why children across ethnic boundaries all seem to go through a rebellious stage trying to free themselves from the saturation of parent power. How many times have you said, “I can’t wait until I get grown, so I can…”
If you can finish that sentence, then you know what I am talking about.
White people relate to people of color in the same way in this country as a direct result of racism and the legacy of slavery. Listen to a barrage of statements I often hear people of color say, “They talk over me, steal my idea and present it as their own,” “They make new rules and regulations I’m supposed to follow and they don’t ask me what I think,” “They just keep telling me what to do and what is expected, I have expectations too. Anybody want to hear about those?” “I get disciplined for coming in late, my boss comes in late all the time and nobody seems to notice or hold her accountable because she’s white,” “They act like the only way to do something is the white way, I’m not white.”
If you find yourself still saying, “What does slavery have to do with me, I wasn’t back there then,” I urge you to evaluate the dynamics of your relationships with the people of color in your life and see if you come to different conclusions. It is not uncommon for white people to experience feelings of confusion, dismissal, guilt, fear, anger, denial or shame. I say to you be courageous, push through those feelings and get in on the conversation. Don’t allow any of these responses to hinder active engagement around the issue of racism altogether. These conversations can stir a fear of being attacked and demeaned if you are white. You must claim the benefit of having the discussion, not the fear of not having them. The benefit of having open, transparent and honest dialogues about race in the church and society is to inspire and encourage everyone to get in on the conversation and become enlightened. When we are enlightened, we are better prepared to actively work for racial justice and we are better prepared to be the way God created us to be. We are also more ready to more leaders in ministry. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”
What is it really about?
Racism is billed to be about the gripes of people of color. It’s much more than that. The oppression of people of color is only one dimension of the purpose of racism. We must be careful to not reduce it to just a matter of color. It really has to do with power and privilege.
Essentially it is about living in a world system that involves churches, municipalities, education systems, housing loan and post war recovery programs, hiring processes, corporate organizations and universities which are designed to maintain white power and privilege. Racism is a construct of our society that enables white people to not only affect material advantage over people of color but to create a universality—a feeling that white is “normal”—around their experiences and perspectives to be assumed by all people regardless of color and ethnicity.
Imagine, from a person of color standpoint, to have to live in a world in which the white perspective is held up as “Thee” perspective—a form of infallibility you might say—in church matters, politics, economics, foreign policy, legislation, media perspective, education and criminal justice.
In the church and in the world if you are white, you are given the ability to universalize “your” experience and “your” perspective on the world in the dominant discourse and have that perspective unquestioned. It has worked so well that we don’t even question together as a nation why the highest position in America, “the Presidency of the United States,” has been reserved for centuries for white males. Think for a minute of the implications of that and the societal message it sends. At some level we have bought into the belief that white males have the full gamut of experiences and know how to tell us all what to do. This practice of white supremacy and privilege not only exists in our governmental structures, but it has played out in our church for centuries.
Manifestations of racism
You may ask yourself “How does that perspective play out in the church?” One of the first ways it plays out is the assumption that we have a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus and that of course if Jesus is white. The natural next assumption is that God is also white. If God is white, then certainly white reigns supreme over all else. So our church worship experience is filled with white icons of spirituality, prayers from the white cultural experience and perspective. All the angels on the walls and the ceilings are white. All the office and staff positions of power are white. The priests, the popes, the cardinals are disproportionately white. The committees, the choral music reflect white culture saturating the whole religious experience with whiteness. Once during a black history month mass celebration at my church, I displayed a large portrait of a black Jesus carrying the cross. Parishioners loved the artistry of it but, one person came up to me and said, “This is beautiful but, we all know that Jesus wasn’t black.” Do we all know that or have we normalized the whiteness of Jesus to the extent that our parishioners are poorly prepared to embrace any other version of him in the worship experience?
Another way it’s manifested is in the way the church responds to its parishioners and priests of color. In many dioceses, people of color carry histories of oppression and are left with little support for the issues they are facing amid a sea of white male celibate priests. Ask yourself, “If the Roman Catholic church decided today to embrace women priests, how would that dynamic change?” Who would we consult to change that paradigm? How would we make the systemic change so priests and parishioners of color would feel just as at home as those who were white within every aspect of the church? What would we do to make sure the issues are relevant to where they live too? What would be the make up of the group that would be responsible for defining worship expectations and rules for change?
These are important questions to ponder as it relates to the future of our church—questions that have been inadequately addressed for the purposes of bringing about racial justice. If we don’t ask and answer these questions adequately, we will continue to work in cooperation to normalize whiteness in the church. Dr. King once said the 11:00 hour is the most segregated hour in the church. It’s when white people go to their churches and people of color go to theirs. While some gains have been made, we are still a segregated society when it comes to worship. There are some transparent truths waiting to be discovered.
Transparent preference for whiteness
The best-kept secret is that there is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our church and society. Nobody wants to talk about or deal with this reality but it’s true.
In a society that has a transparent preference for whiteness, people of color don’t stand a real chance for equality without the coming together of a barrage of people committed to the cause. The playing field is not level and all things are not equal. Our systems and institutions rely on the preference for whiteness and are programmed to seek it out.
Consequently, it is also programmed to bypass anything and anyone who does not fit that preference. Racial profiling is not a new term or experience. White people have been profiled for societal benefits and perks for centuries. It is only when people of color were targeted for harassment that we acknowledged it’s existence and accept the name. The church has not escaped the grasps of racial profiling whites for benefits and perks.
Our church is intrinsically set up to recognize when its preference of whiteness is not being met. It then begins aggressively pursuing its preference at all cost. It can be in the form of creating hiring processes, job descriptions, time commitments, financial compensations, content expectations, educational barriers that limit the ability of people of color to meet specified qualifications. At the same time these guidelines are designed to fit, accommodate, and match the cultural preference and ability of whites to meet the specified qualifications. People of color come from a culture where their people are naturally gifted. They had to be because societal structures that were set up to nurture formal training was not available to them as it was to whites. So they learned how to lead, manage, develop, write and communicate on their own and within their communities of support.
Yet when they interface with white powered structures, and expectations for leadership, management, development, education and communication, they meet a brick wall of inadequacy. If you raise the bar high enough for people of color to be unable to reach it, then the status quo is maintained isn’t it? As a church organization it becomes easy to assert that the effort to attract people of color was extended and they just didn’t come. How about, “we couldn’t find a qualified candidate of color”? Unfortunately, at the end of the day these practices create a win/win for white privilege and racism at the expense of people of color. I am not saying you should put people in positions because of their skin color. I am however saying that if you don’t recognize within your structures and systems the natural gifting of the people around you and find ways to work with it, we, as a church and society, all lose.
What is the cost?
If we continue in these modes of operation, we will forfeit developing authentic relationships with people of color and sacrifice the best ideas we’ve ever heard. If our relationships are not authentic, then we won’t have the levels of trust needed to make our world better. Our world is in a mess and it needs all of us. I think we all have a desire to find a relationship and a place where we can trust the deepest reflections of our heart without repercussions and ridicule. If we do not find it, the table of decision and resolution becomes absent of the gifts, perspective, culture and solution that people of color were created to bring to the table. Scripture was written for those at the bottom looking up. People of color have been pushed to the bottom.
Poor and oppressed people understand what it means to follow God and obey the teachings of Jesus. They understand the importance of liberation and life. They understand the devastation of war and violence. They have a natural vesting in a better way and yet they are the very group that is excluded from the table of decision. Kept out of the valley of perspective. Imagine the pain of continually walking into an atmosphere where you are always fighting to be heard or have your expressions of culture, significance or identity validated—to be met with the preference for whiteness that identifies itself as normal and renders you abnormal, outsider, and other. The repercussions of continuing in this unchallenged direction are far reaching.
Notions and beliefs
The tragedy of slavery taught us the notion that whiteness was the preferential intelligence to be in charge of all people of color at all levels which included matters of world affairs. These notions and beliefs born and nurtured during slavery and beyond gave rise to an elevated status for whites not only in America but also in the worldview. So on the world stage when our white global leaders said no to reparations for American slavery and that they didn’t even want to talk about it at the G8 summit. It was tabled or should I say taken off the table without so much as a rumble around the world or the Catholic Church.
In the church we believe in assigning appropriate space for ethnic groups to function in. For example, a black priest or gospel choir in a black catholic church is seen as a functional norm. Appropriately designated space for the matching ethnic group, right? As it relates to race, the difficulty arises when we have to imagine a gospel choir as an intricate part of a mainstream Catholic Church community that is predominantly white with a very small percentage or no people of color in the parish at all. When the space is perceived by whites as “ours,” tension will quickly begin to build. The temptation is to yield to the tension and allow whiteness to trump every other ethnic group’s experience, preference and perspective. The response to the temptation will determine the type of integrity you build as a leader. Black churches often incorporate praise and worship songs from the white community in their worship experience. The reciprocal is not nearly as common.
The role of the leadership in the church in these instances of tension is to recognize what is going on, get people talking and listening to each other, and help them make the connections to racism. Again it is important to resist perpetuating white privilege and racism at all cost and work aggressively to dismantle it, especially within the church.
In my previous parish, the leadership staff was confronted with this kind of dilemma. A small group of African American parishioners met with the staff to talk about what they needed from a Mass. One of the things they requested was a formation of a gospel choir in this mainstream predominately white Catholic Church community. Little be known to them, quite a stir ensued when it was announced that the request was being considered. White parishioners felt they shouldn’t have to listen to gospel music every weekend in a routine rotation with the traditional choir they had become accustomed too. There were some who felt there wasn’t enough of a critical mass of African Americans in the church to warrant such systemic change to the worship experience. Still others thought “if we do it for them, we will have to do it for all other ethnic groups in the church. Where will it end?”
The parish leadership gathered the parish community in a town meeting forum and opened dialogue about the issue listening to both sides. At the end of the day, the leadership staff made the unpopular decision to give gospel music the same power and value status as traditional white choral music in the church. There are times you will have to make decisions that are unpopular that will come with a cost attached to it. The challenge throughout ministry is to decide if your loyalties lie with the people on the margins or not. Jesus was constantly making this decision. Well, gospel music and the gospel choir became part of a regular rotation of music in the Masses and there was some fall out. Some members left the church, others avoided that Mass altogether. However, years later the gospel choir became a major draw and a key element in the renewal of that parish where attendance grew to over 3,000 members prior to the split in 1998. Today in our new community of Spiritus Christi over 50% of new parishioners site the gospel choir as the group that drew them to church and keeps them coming in addition to the wonderful homilies they hear.
Seeing what we need to see
Anti-racism work teaches us all to see what we need to see and do what we need to do to create a more just world for all to live from. Jesus put it this way, “He gave sight to the blind and the caused the lame to rise up and walk.” We have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging the true condition of race relations in our world. We need new vision to see what is and what can be if we work towards it!
Recognizing how racism plays out in the worship experience and in the church is one aspect of actively working against it. Where do you start? A first step for any parish leader is to claim an anti racist identity for your parish and for yourself. If you don’t name it, you won’t do it. Spiritus Christi Church took that step this past year and what a difference it has made. It makes a difference in what happens at the top levels of an organization in conjunction to what happens at the bottom levels.
Secondly, it is important to recognize and acknowledge we are working from structures and systems that are racist in nature, which need to be closely looked at. At my parish, we invited Dr. Ken Hardy to come and do a daylong workshop with the staff on racism and the impact of ongoing systemic devaluation. It was a hard meeting for both the staff of color and the white staff members. It was also crucial in helping us understand our different realities. We learned it was okay to challenge each other in hard and loving ways. We must love each other enough to hear the truth and speak the truth we have inside of us. Ken Hardy told us that dialogue isn’t about winning or losing but it’s about creating opportunities to state your position and have it considered.
Where do we go from here?
After claiming a new identity and creating honest dialogue around the issue of racism, it’s time to plan for making the biggest impact. Move toward forming a racial justice team within the parish that would train to do racial justice/dismantling racism work. A well-trained group to do thorough racial/power analysis of decision-making, committee formation, liturgy, parish issues, outreach, in reach, resource distribution, strategic planning, etc., would be key. There are lots of groups around the country that provide anti-racism and racial justice training. It will require fundraising to pay for the training, but it is an excellent and vital investment.
In the analysis work that your team will do within the parish, it will be important for the leadership to get behind them. The best scenario would be to participate in the training as well alongside your constituents. Your commitment will require incorporating changes in your preaching. Let the preaching reflect your commitment to the work of dismantling institutional and systemic racism. Don’t just let the staff person of color be the one always raising the issue. You must partner in this work. Creating ongoing opportunities to listen to the voices of people of color is essential. If you don’t have relationships with them, go and build intentional relationships. Create lines of accountability to people of color within your organizational structures and within your community. Support issues that are important to people of color. Support speakers, music, and perspectives that are important to them. This work is about building a movement toward racial justice.
Don’t let it die in the water
The biggest killer to making progress is if, as a leader, you have not addressed your own personal issues around race relations. If you have not developed enough inner peace to listen without being defensive or judgmental, the movement is dead before it begins. Leaders will be the first to be challenged in this work. You have to be ready to handle it and create opportunities to process feelings in productive, non-judgmental ways. Avoid triangaling; create pacts of agreement to work out the difficulties in conversation even if it feels risky.
None of us are perfect. We are all teachers and learners. If we stay in it, we may learn a little something from each other. Avoid the assertion that no news is good news. Frequently check in with your staff of color. It is important for white people to initiate those conversations and allow time to have exchange.
This is the work of transformation. Transformation work can be painful and beneficial at the same time. Anti-racism work requires lots of courage and willingness to be honest and vulnerable. It is sacred work and it is hard work. It calls on us to understand the difference between diversity work and racial justice work. There is a definite difference in the two. It calls on us to stay committed to changing the power differentials that whites and people of color have become accustomed to and have been socialized to believe are inevitable. It is a call for white people to talk to other white people and engage systems with the declaration, “White privilege, not in my name!”
It is a time to realize that it only takes 20 years to change a seemingly permanent culture. We have allowed racism to become a permanent part of our culture. Just as we did cigarette smoking and driving while intoxicated. We changed those cultural attitudes and practices within the last 20 years. We can change the practice of racism too. We must be intentional and steadfast in our work. It’s time to be agents of change. God wants to use us as agents of deep systemic and institutional change. At this point we have only scratched the surface. We can make these changes in our lifetime if we are in it for the long haul.
What does God require of us?
Micah 6:8 says, “God has shown you what is good.” And what does God require of you? The response comes in the next sentence that says, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” I hear incorporated in this passage the work of dismantling institutional and systemic racism within our lifetime. Don’t you? Racism gives permission to all other forms of oppression within church and society. People in our ancestry constructed racism and we, the people of God, can deconstruct and dismantle it. We can’t do anything about what happened in the past but we can do something about the direction of our future. The use of film and books are wonderful means of generating deep discussion on the issue. You will be surprised at how quickly people get it and how long they have carried a desire for change in their hearts. There is not a shortage of hearts in the church committed to justice. We must be willing to lead the way so those hearts find a place to exercise what they believe.
Together we can be the change we want to see in the world. We must embrace the truth that we live in a rigged system that benefits whites at the expense of everyone else. Hopefully we find the inspiration to be people of integrity and justice. Just because we’ve been duped for the last few hundred years and held captive in a cycle of oppression with one another doesn’t mean we are destined to keep repeating it. We have what we need now to break free from it. And the church should lead the way. So let’s get to work; time is ticking!
Myra Brown is the Hospitality Minister of Spiritus Christi Church, an inclusive Catholic church in Rochester, New York. Myra is also a nurse of 21 years and a member of CTA’s National Anti Racism team. Her commitment to racial justice is reflected in her work within the church as well as the greater Rochester community where she lives.