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Andrew LykeNovember 30, 2020
A woman in Washington touches a Breonna Taylor mural at Black Lives Matter Plaza Sept. 24, 2020. (CNS photo/Cheriss May, Reuters)

To my white Catholic brothers and sisters:

As a Black “cradle Catholic” who is highly engaged in the church, I have been driven into deep reflection and prayer by the events of the past several months in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic: the taking of the innocent Black lives of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police.

As I reflect on the Catholic anti-racism efforts in which I have been involved since the 1980s, two conflicting currents of thought come to me. First, I am elated that so many white young people, many of whom are Catholics, have awakened from their slumber to recognize and take action against white supremacy. Second, I feel exhausted by the paucity and tepidity of white Catholic leadership in the ongoing cause for freedom for people of color in this country.

In the pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts,” there is little consideration given to racism’s purpose, its beneficiaries and its targeted casualties.

The pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts,” issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2018, was intended to be a message from the church hierarchy that would give substance to Catholic anti-racist activism. Yet the document has no direct references to white privilege and white supremacist ideology. It defines racism in general terms as what arises when “a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.” There is little consideration given to racism’s purpose, its beneficiaries and its targeted casualties.

[Voting Catholic: How can white Catholics become ‘actively anti-racist’?]

The recent rise of young white Catholic voices does not quell the din of the general indifference, denial, silence and willful ignorance of white Catholics regarding the systemic and institutional inequities of our society and our church. It is these inequities that relegate Black and brown people to second-class citizenship.

I am exhausted by white fragility. The phrase was introduced to the lexicon of anti-racist activism by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. White fragility is the discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice past and present. It is what makes white people insecure about race.

I am exhausted by white fragility.

Since the late 1980s, I have been involved in Catholic anti-racist activism, first in my parish in suburban Chicago, then as a campus minister in the 1990s at DePaul University and from 2001 to 2014 as a member of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Anti-Racism Task Force. More recently, my activism has been in the Joliet Diocese and the Anti-Racism Committee of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate.

In my experiences in organized Catholic anti-racist activism, I have found white fragility to be an inevitable speed bump, if not an obstruction to addressing the sin of racism in the church. White fragility tended to control the agenda and frame the narrative to meet white sensibilities.

As Catholics of color, we were strategic about how we framed the conversation, making sure that we addressed the issues of white privilege very carefully so as not to make white people uncomfortable or angry or cause them to feel guilt and shame. Doing so would jeopardize the continuation of our work. Our racially and culturally diverse teams had to be cautious about offending white people with “too much truth.” It was as though we did not want to challenge the white control of the narrative, a narrative that suggests racism is a thing of the past, something people of color need to get over.

Our racially and culturally diverse teams had to be cautious about offending white people with “too much truth.”

I believe that the cruel, brutal, immoral and monstrous havoc caused by white supremacist ideology needs to be presented with full intensity, without pulling punches. One aspect of white fragility is the delusion of superiority, if not on an individual basis, then categorically.

What white people and particularly white Catholics need in order to address the “original sin” of our nation is not “safe space” like that which we tried to provide them, but “brave space.” I experienced this firsthand in my suburban parish in the late 1980s. Our family moved to a community in the western suburbs of Chicago, a community that was experiencing an influx of African-American families, which itself sparked an outflux of white families.

Our parish sponsored a “diversity” program, in which small groups that were deliberately diverse would have frank conversations about racism and what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to be honest in our conversations. A young man in my small group, in which I was the only Black person, stated at the outset that if he were to be completely honest, given his upbringing and the racist attitudes of his father, he feared that I would be offended.

The wisdom of the Holy Spirit stirred me to respond: “I can’t guarantee that I won’t take offense to what you might say. But I promise not to leave.”

The cruel, brutal, immoral and monstrous havoc caused by white supremacist ideology needs to be presented with full intensity,

Since then, I have found that such a commitment gives the process room for error and grace for forgiveness. It demands patience and self-examination. It calls forth the power of human empathy that bonds people of good will.

Just as the Gospel should be disturbing to all Christians, so should Catholic anti-racist activism. It unsettles white Catholics out of their “colorblindness” and restores the historical memory that has been lost. Feelings of guilt, shame and bewilderment may be appropriate and need not be avoided. These feelings are important steps away from denial, a distancing from untruth that is necessary to awaken white people from generations of moral slumber and cultural delusion.

Being anti-racist does not require a bullhorn, microphone or podium. It means being an ally in the struggle for equal justice and an agent of racial healing. The first step is being an interrupter. Whether it is in the workplace, the grocery store or the family dinner table, when white supremacist thoughts are expressed, interrupt them, challenge them.

“I can’t guarantee that I won’t take offense to what you might say. But I promise not to leave."

Of course, it is better to be an informed interrupter. So, read. There is a wealth of resources from scholarly authors, such as the Rev. Bryan Massingale, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Daniel Hill and Peggy McIntosh, to name a few. Listen without defensiveness to what people of color say about their experiences of racism. And talk with other white people about what it means to be white.

James Baldwin, in a televised interview in 1963, characterized white Americans as “moral monsters.” To remain passive in the face of stark inequities based on race is a symptom of “colorblindness” that blindly, at best, participates in systemic racism. A failure to respond to this injustice is burying one’s head in the sand, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the plight of others based on their racial group.

When white supremacist thoughts are expressed, interrupt them, challenge them. 

Today, in the year 2020, 57 years after the Baldwin interview, the monstrosity endures and continues to undermine the morality of our nation. The cost of racism is evident in the life expectancy of people of color, in how we are policed, the way we are treated by the criminal justice system, in our economic wealth, health care, education, employment, mental stress and many other facets of life in the U.S.

It is up to each and every single person to root out the prevailing white supremacist ideas in the American conscience. We transform hate into love by way of honest examination of ourselves, correcting the ideations of our minds that harden our hearts and make us moral monsters. 

When white Catholics dehumanize people of color, it deludes those Catholics into still seeing themselves in a flattering light. They can continue to view themselves as people who show kindness, mercy and compassion to those viewed as subhuman beings, while remaining comfortable with white privilege and the subjugation of those in “lesser” categories of personhood. However, such dehumanization incapacitates their human empathy across racial lines and ironically makes them less human. This is the core of white Catholic fragility: living with the illusion of being a kind and merciful Christian while keeping up the racial status quo.

White Catholic fragility means living with the illusion of being a kind and merciful Christian while keeping up the racial status quo.

As Ibram X. Kendi puts it, “The language of colorblindness—like the language of ‘not racist’—is a mask to hide racism.”

However, Kendi goes on to say, being racist is not a fixed identity. It is a quality that can change in a person. Diane Nash, a noted Freedom Rider and one of the architects of the civil rights movement, said in a lecture at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., that in their training for nonviolent resistance they were instructed to remember, especially when faced with violence, that no human being is an enemy. Only their ideas are the enemy.

The purpose of Ms. Nash’s activism, and that of the movement as a whole, was not to defeat, defame or subdue those intending harm but to change their minds and thereby make them allies. Catholic anti-racist activism is about changing minds and hearts and forming alliances for creating the “Beloved Community” and bringing forth the reign of God.

As Christians, we know the power of the cross. We should not run away from it but face it, endure it and suffer through it. White fragility is a cross that Catholics must bear and suffer through. In transcending and defeating it, as the cross of Jesus did, there is salvation on the other side. Getting beyond white fragility is necessary for us to boldly stand on the social mission of our Catholic faith to recognize, honor and protect the life and dignity of every human person, from conception to natural death.

As necessary as the awakening of white Catholics is, so is the work of reconciliation for healing in the body of Christ.

Despite my fatigue with white fragility in Catholic chanceries, pulpits and pews, this moment, at the precipice of a social and moral revolution, has me hopeful and energized. I am still committed to the mission of lifting my church to live out the tenets of Catholic social teaching and become an anti-racist church.

My role in this effort is not to sit on the sidelines while white people address the original sin of our nation. No! Precisely because of the suffering wrought on the lives of both Black and indigenous peoples in this 400-year holocaust, people of color have a prophetic role to embrace in this work. As necessary as the awakening of white Catholics is, so is the work of reconciliation for healing in the body of Christ. This work depends on forgiveness. As your brother in Christ, I bear the cross with you.

Perhaps when that healing is done, we will be able to say with sincerity that “all lives matter.” Until then we must be emphatic in saying that Black lives matter, Black families are holy and that we are all endowed with God-given dignity and value. I am committed to doing my part in building the Beloved Community—the reign of God for the liberation of us all.

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