What’s whiteness got to do with it?

“You don’t dismantle white supremacy by ‘learning about other cultures.’ You dismantle white supremacy by deconstructing whiteness.Benita Grace Joy

benitagracejoy-meme
This meme, shares Annemarie, “… deeply resonates with my own experience.”

I saw this quote the other day. As any good meme does, it deeply resonates with my own experience.

As a white woman who chose to move to South America, originally serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, the temptation for years has been to reconcile my whiteness by learning about other cultures different from my own.

But the trouble is that although it may be less complicated to dabble in other cultures instead of deconstructing my own, it would do little in the way of addressing my own internalized racial superiority and the racist systems I participate in daily.

I have seen this dynamic in the experiences of short-term mission trips (domestic and abroad) so common in white Catholic culture. 

When observing another culture, rarely do we slow down enough to reflect on our judgments and assumptions and what they have to do with race.

It adds a whole other layer of reflection when we start to consider how our judgments and assumptions are influenced by our own internalized racial superiority as white people.

“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

While serving as a Franciscan lay missioner, I visited one of the Catholic communities in the United States that was financially supporting me. After listening to my brief explanation of our work and an expression of gratitude for their financial support, one womanCatholic, whiteapproached me and said, “I am just so glad that you are down there teaching those people how to share.”

I was stunned. Absolutely stunned. The kind of shock that comes with hearing an assumption made about your own experience that is so inaccurate it causes both rage and grief at the same time.

I let this woman know that, in fact, collectivity and sharing are much more integral elements of Andean culture in South America than they are in individualistic white culture in the United States. I let her know that I was learning how to share from the Quechua women I was accompanying in a way that I had never learned in my white Catholic upbringing.

And yet I have never forgotten that exchange, perhaps because it demonstrates how our internalized racial superiority as white people works. We as white people often make racist assumptions about people different from us, and it is so common to make these assumptions in our white Catholic communities that we don’t even realize that we do it. 

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

We may travel to another culture and bring back souvenirs and anecdotes about the intercultural experiences that we had, but do we also bring back a reflection of our own whiteness? Are we simply trying on other cultures during these service experiences or are we also deconstructing how the paternalism in our service is rooted in racism?

When I decided to continue to live in South America after finishing my formal service as a Franciscan lay missioner, one person’s reaction to my decision was, “I understood why you were there when you were helping people, but I don’t understand why you would stay.”

I have since wondered to myself, is it really that hard for white people to imagine that there is more to culture than our racist standards in the so-called “developed world”? How can we challenge the racist belief that living in another non-white culture is inherently a sacrifice?

How might we learn to stop centering our experience as white people as the only way to effectively live in this world? In our white Catholic communities, how might we confront the sinfulness in our own habits and lifestyles instead of scapegoating other communities and cultures?

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

As white people in the so-called “developed world,” we are the worldwide leaders in materialism, consumption, production of food waste and pollution. 

So when our white Catholic communities travel to other cultures and observe pollution and environmental decay, how might we flip the script? Instead of making racist assumptions about the failures of the communities receiving us, how might we reflect on the dire effects of the globalization of our materialistic lifestyles? 

When our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and observe material poverty and violence, how might we flip the script? Instead of raising money for a charitable cause invested in paternalistic solutions, how might we reflect on the history of colonialism and ongoing cultural genocide that has attempted to destroy so many communities of color around the world while ensuring the privilege and power we experience as white people today? How might we redirect our financial resources to organizations invested in social justice work founded and led by professionals born and raised in the communities they serve?

And when our white Catholic communities visit other cultures and only see suffering and despair, how might we flip the script? Instead of assuming incompetence and neediness, how might we open ourselves to hear the testimonies of resilience? How might we genuinely learn from different cultural values and practices instead of trivializing them? How might we allow the wisdom in cultures different from our own to challenge our own preconceived notions and way of doing things? 

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“Siembra Resistencia,” original watercolor by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art

Interacting with people of color and learning about cultures different from our own is not enough to absolve us of racism. Donating money to charities working in communities of color is not enough to absolve us of racism. 

In our white Catholic communities, our anti-racism work needs to also include reckoning with our whiteness, deconstructing our power and privilege and paternalism and our colonial history. In order to deconstruct white supremacy, we need to reflect on the assumptions and judgments we hold that are rooted in our own internalized racial superiority. How are you addressing these issues in your Catholic communities?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

Finding St. Francis and choosing to stand on the margins

It was early 2013 and I was fresh from three months of formation with Franciscan Mission Service. I had just arrived in Bolivia, South America, to live and serve for at least the next two years as a Franciscan lay missioner.

I had spent the autumn months of 2012 in daily classes learning about Franciscan spirituality and the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In those sessions, I learned about Francis’ example of living as “minority,” a spiritual posture in a “downward direction” always drawing closer to those on the margins.

St-Clare-St-Francis

I learned how Francis’ example of living as “minority” challenged his followers to live “without power over others.” They were taught to resist positions of power and instead encouraged to be “subject to all.”

He was directly challenging folks with the privileges of wealth and social status to reject their power over others and instead grow in humility and service.

As a white woman from an upper middle class family recently graduated from a large Catholic university, the challenge to live as “minority” seemed to deeply contradict the many privileges that were such integral parts of my identity: white, wealthy, over-educated and formed for years as a leader among my peers.

Yet my spiritual journey was already moving in that downward direction towards accompaniment of those most marginalized in our communities. And the example of humility in the life of St. Francis of Assisi deeply resonated with the spiritual growth I most desired.

In those first few months of transition, I had the opportunity to hear a North American friar speak about his 40-plus years of life as a Franciscan. And I will never forget the main message from his talk that day.

He said, “What is essential as a Franciscan is that every day you look at our reality from the perspective of the poor.”

I had to let that message sink in and each time I revisited it I was invited to let it go deeper, called again and again to ongoing conversion. It is a message that has since become central to my spiritual journey.

I had also recently finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and was immersed in reflections on my own spiritual journey as a woman as well as the experiences of the women in my life — particularly the diverse experiences of marginalization so common to women across the world.

by-Annemarie-Barrett
Annemarie’s original watercolor “You Stood With Me”

And the Church was at the forefront of my mind. I was grieving the many ways that I have witnessed women marginalized in the Catholic Church. I thought of the women who were staying in abusive relationships for fear of judgment in the face of divorce, the women sexually assaulted and/or abused who were isolated by the silence of their faith communities, the women abandoned out of the shame of an unplanned pregnancy, and the countless stories of women that constantly go unheard and overshadowed by the privileged voices of their male peers.

Whenever I gathered with other women, I was touched by the experiences of marginalization that seemed to define each of our journeys. And I was particularly enraged by the disproportionate suffering that I was witnessing among the migrant campesina women I was just recently forming relationships with in that first year in Bolivia — so different from my experience as a white women from North America.

In the midst of these reflections I began to paint what I now call “You Stood With Me,” a watercolor piece that I did not know at the time would eventually turn into a series of paintings reflecting on marginalization, solidarity and love in action.

Five years since I was in formation with Franciscan Mission Service (for which I served as a blogger), I am still living in Bolivia and the marginalization of women I witness in the United States, South America and throughout the world still devastates. And I believe that the Church’s complicity in that marginalization is a crisis worth our attention.

In following the example of St. Francis of Assisi, I believe that we too are called everyday to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

Today — the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi — we are reminded of his example of humility and solidarity and I believe that we are called to examine our own call to conversion, learning to look at our reality from the perspective of those most marginalized among us.

But what does that look like in action?

Meinrad-Craighead-piece
The composition of Annemarie’s watercolor series “You Stood With Me” was inspired by this original art from Meinrad Craighead.

In my experience, it has meant first and foremost learning to listen. When I choose to listen first instead of speaking I resist the temptation to express power over others, instead drawing closer to the lived experiences and expressed needs of those facing the suffering firsthand.

When we choose to humbly listen to those who are suffering we are invited towards empathy instead of judgment, accountability in place of denial, and community and connection over fear and marginalization.

When we choose to join with those on the margins, none of us are alone. And in the face of ongoing marginalization, we are empowered to stand together.

 

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie (who also served as a blogger for Franciscan Mission Service) grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.