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Can we talk about racism?

Providence Associate Bill Hughes

Let’s begin with a story from Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s journal. She was returning from a trip to France in 1844: “The most painful sight I saw in New Orleans was the selling of slaves. Every day in the streets at appointed places, negroes and negresses in holiday attire are exposed for this shameful traffic, like the meanest animals at our fairs. This spectacle oppressed my heart. Lo! I said to myself, these Americans, so proud of their liberty, thus make game of the liberty of others. Poor negroes! I would have wished to buy them all that I might say to them, ‘Go! Bless Providence. You are free!’”

We can easily understand why Mother Theodore’s heart was oppressed. We can share the pity she felt. Yet how quickly do we feel the need to point out that the status of black people in our country has improved in the 176 years since 1844? Perhaps too quickly, because work toward racial equality and healing is far from finished.

Fresh in our minds are media accounts of encounters with police and other armed citizens that resulted in the deaths of George Floyd and so many other unarmed black citizens. Do you, like me, feel anger, dismay and discouragement? Do you also wonder, “What can I do?”

Awakening

Here and abroad there seems to be a keener-than-ever wakening to the reality and effects of racism. People are declaring that it’s time to do more than just stand by saying, “That’s awful!” The time to become more actively anti-racist is here.

You may be feeling overwhelmed and ask, “What actions can I be part of?” May I offer some suggestions?

Know yourself and learn

Here’s a story I’m not proud to tell. Pittsburgh area, ca. 1950: I and 30 other white children — all in blackface — put on a Sunday school minstrel show at the church my father pastored. I was 5 or 6 years old, and my sister and I were in a short skit portraying unfair and cruel stereotypes of black people. The following week the church’s black custodian tearfully asked my father to please not ever do such a show again. Decades later, my compassionate dad confessed to me that he had come to wonder how he could have let that show happen. Today my answer would be, “We just hadn’t begun the waking up we all desperately need to do.” (That’s an explanation, not an excuse.)

That story was my first dose of awareness of the underlying racism pervading American life. As a teen I was what many would call a good, upstanding, white Christian boy — happy and well-intentioned, but not at all aware of the depth of the racism around me. In college and graduate school during the civil rights era I began an all-too-gradual awakening to the ways we all participate in structures and systems that have disadvantaged the black citizens of our beloved country, making their lives difficult, painful, fear-filled. At every stage of my awakening to my privileged status, I have felt a deep but vague discomfort bordering on guilt.

Taking a difficult look

In the book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,” author Robin DiAngelo writes that racism is not only found in those individuals who openly proclaim white supremacist beliefs and act on them. She broadens the definition of racism to include the ways all of us participate daily, usually unwittingly, in the myriad of inescapable structures and systems that originated in racism and that result in racist outcomes today.

It is indeed hard to hear someone say that you participate in racism. Pause here — can you name the discomfort you are feeling? … DiAngelo describes clearly the denials and defenses we all offer when we feel that discomfort. If we learn how to recognize those defenses and deal with them, we can converse about racism more honestly and productively.

Few of us know enough about the strengths and the resilience of Black cultures in the face of the subjugation they have experienced. Here you can find a list of resources that can help us learn more about Black history and racism. Writings by Black authors provide especially vivid images of the damaging effects of racism on the everyday lives of Black citizens today.

Become active

Create a small discussion group (two to eight persons) around a resource. Start with people you know and trust to be honest and accepting of your honesty.

Prepare to feel vulnerable; modeling such vulnerability gives others permission to talk more honestly. When ready, broaden your participant list to include people you know less well and people from a variety of racial and ethnic origins. Let them speak first if they are willing. Listen carefully, but don’t ask or expect them to do all the educating.

Saint Mother Theodore Guerin

Seek out local minority-run enterprises and find groups working toward racial understanding and healing. Support them as you discern you can.

Does this seem like a lot to incorporate into your life? Hear again from Mother Theodore: “We are not called upon to do all the good possible, but only that which we can do.” Will we humbly accept the fact that we have made mistakes, realize that we will continue to do so, but resolve to become more active anyway? Can we carve out time and seek the courage to leave our comfort zones and join those actively struggling to defeat racism? Hear Mother Theodore’s encouragement: “Have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us. The way is not yet clear. Grope along slowly. Do not press matters; be patient, be trustful.” It is time to get started!

(Originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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William Hughes

William Hughes is retired from a career as a professor of music at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is a member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Terre Haute. Bill has been a Providence Associate since 2012.

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