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. 

sketching watercolor
“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.

 

adventures in the Spirit, part 4

Living by the Spirit that is Truth is not comfortable.  We can feel crammed into corners, we have to give up control, we have to trust others.  Sometimes we are exhausted but still have to keep pushing ourselves.  Our bodies can hurt, but we still have to carry heavy loads and keep moving onward.  When we’re dedicated to God’s Truth-seeking missions, however, it’s all worth it.

The service trip that my students took to Iowa during Holy Week ended on Good Friday.  The meaning of the day hummed in the background of our spirited movement.

Day Five: Crossing Over

Friday.

We have to say goodbye and head down the road.  First, some of the people who helped us have an incredible experience come to say goodbye and see us off.

Just like it was for Jesus on his way to the cross, our journey back to Chicago is full of surprise stops.  Before we get too far away from Gunder, we get to see one more farm.

Farmer Amanda raises chickens, ducks and turkeys and sells the eggs and meat.  We are surprised to learn that some of the eggs we ate earlier in the week were actually duck eggs. And, we enjoy learning how it works to farm poultry and playing with the animals.  Plus, she had a sheep on her farm, so it was fun to get to meet him too!   To me, it seemed like the perfect farm to visit to kick-off Easter weekend.

We say more goodbyes and thank you’s and we continue on down the road.  After a while, we arrive at the Field of Dreams near Dyersville for a visit and a little baseball.

Some of the students are part of our school’s top-rated baseball team, so it was a special thrill for them to see the site.

In the car we pray the stations of the cross together.  We had intended to stop and pray them but we would have arrived in Chicago too late.  That’s one of things about seeking the Truth and following Jesus as we cross over boundaries: we must remain flexible and willing to make-do with the time and resources provided.  The good news is that we can still experience God’s mystery everywhere we go!

We stop again in Dubuque and near Rockford to eat and take a break before we finally arrive back at the school around 6 p.m. It’s Good Friday.  Like Jesus was when he went to the cross, we’re weary, tired and overwhelmed. We have experienced and learned a lot in a brief amount of time.  We have tried to learn the Truth and relate over boundaries. Our reunions with our families are joyous, but our new service-trip family says goodbye to each other with new appreciation and awareness.

After Easter weekend and spring break are over and school is back in session, the students gather in my classroom for a final meeting.  I show them this movie:

And, I ask them what they learned about the Truth during the trip.  I hear:

People are good and people are people no matter where they are and what they do. 

I love Iowa and I want to go back.

Even though people are different than us, they really care about us.

I also ask the students how the experience changed them and helped them grow.  I hear:

I learned service is fun and it’s really nice to help people.

I learned how to communicate better with my family and other people, and the importance of good communication.

I learned to be more grateful for what I have. 

I learned to keep an open mind about people and places that are different than what I know.

Indeed, when we enter into adventures with the Spirit we learn the importance of opening our minds.  With open minds the Spirit shows us Truth, we get to cross boundaries and relate to people who are different then us, and we become changed.

Along the way, we cooperate with God without even realizing it and experience the reign of God come.  Just by us being who we are, the Spirit of Truth does great work.  We are blessed and renewed and the world and Church radiate with fire of God’s glory and goodness. You don’t have to take my word for it:

“The renewal of the Church is … achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei

Indeed we are called and indeed we have responded.  By the grace of God, through great adventures in the Spirit, awesome things happen.  Amen, Amen, Alleluia and Thanks be God!

love upon my heart for teens like Trayvon

A teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, was killed a month ago in Florida. Since then his death has heated up the national news and sparked highly emotional questions, comments, protests, prayer, rallies and vigils.  We’re angry, lamenting and mourning.  In our hearts we know something is wrong and we are acting for peace.

Last week a teenage boy (my student’s good friend) was shot in the park near our school.  He was playing basketball on a beautiful sunny day.  Just like Trayvon’s story, there have been no arrests, no explanations, and he isn’t known to have been doing anything wrong.  The innocent victim, 15 years old, died later that night in the hospital.  Unlike the story of Trayvon, no national outrage erupted.  This mindless death happened quietly and has caught little attention.  I can’t find any news stories about what happened and my student casually shared the news with the class.  His casual manner alarmed me but it made total sense to him.  “We’re used to it, Sister,” he said.

It is dangerous to be a teenage boy. It is hard to cope with violence and injustice. It’s not surprising that young people turn numb.

Our school serves all African-American teenage boys, one of the most vulnerable populations in our country. It is one of three schools in the nation founded particularly for that purpose.   My students are teens, just like Trayvon.  They eat skittles and drink ice tea, wear hoodies and talk on their cell phones to girls.  They love playing basketball in the park on beautiful days and avoiding homework.  They’re typical teenage boys.

My students know that they are vulnerable to being misjudged simply because they are black teenage boys.  They have to be careful about where they go and what they do.  They know that their appearance causes people to be suspicious of them for no right reason.  Their parents warn them about this and it is something that they have to learn how to deal with as they become more independent.

My students should not be in danger for being who they are.  No one’s safety should be at risk because of where they are and what they look like.  Even though humanity keeps messing things up, our hearts know that this is not OK.

…For they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master, says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD.
I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.   -Jeremiah 31:32b-34

I love my students dearly. They impress me daily by their brilliance, hard work and strong faith. They have taught me much about the realities of inner-city life, African-American urban culture, hip-hop, sports, slang and social justice.  I have learned about life on the margins from my students and this has brought me closer to Jesus.  My students have taught me new dance moves and beautiful new songs.

It is somewhat ironic that I teach all African-American boys in a big city like Chicago.  I am a white woman from the farming hills of Northeast Iowa.  I don’t think I spoke to a black man until I went to college, only because I didn’t have the opportunity.  I dreamed of being a missionary in Africa when I was a little girl but people kept telling me that I didn’t need to go so far away to do God’s work.  To my surprise I ended up teaching on the south side of Chicago and still feel like I am half a world a way from home. (But I am only a five hours drive away from where I grew up!)

It’s not easy serving in a culture not my own. I don’t always understand the things my students say and do, and they don’t always understand me.  Although the diversity is a challenge, it is more of a blessing.  When we unite across difference in action, learning, and peacemaking we build the kingdom of God.

Next week I will embark on one of the greatest experiments in my career as an educator.  I am leading a service-learning trip to my home.  I will bring eight of my students to Northeast Iowa and they’ll spend a week learning about rural life and social problems by visiting and helping at places like farms, parks, schools and food pantries.  We’ll pray through Holy Week as we journey together.  They’ll get to meet teens who are very different than them and understand more about humanity.

The service trip will be interesting and amazing.  We’re really excited about the inevitable adventures and fun.  I am thrilled and honored to be able to do the work of bridging cultures and opening others to Truth.  I have faith that God will be doing great things in our hearts and we’ll all grow in our knowledge about the law of Love and peace.  God will do the teaching and I’ll get to witness.

It’s true that teenage boys don’t enjoy the same freedoms that I do and they aren’t always safe.   Yet, I have hope.  They’re willing to be brave and go new places to grow in the truth.  Together, all humanity is learning the truth.

The truth is, God’s Law is about love, peace and justice.  God’s law is written on all of our hearts.

This is one of my favorite songs that I learned from my students.

Rebuilding New Orleans

By guest blogger Jayne Pickett  

This past week I journeyed with a group of women discerning a call to religious life. We traveled to New Orleans for a week of service at a ministry called The Rebuild Center, a collaborate effort by the Presentation Sisters, Jesuits and Vincentians.   No, our ministry was not carpentry or plumbing, but rather helping rebuild lives by serving some of the most neglected on the streets of New Orleans—the homeless.

Several in our group were nurses and some were trained in healing touch. These women set up a massage and foot washing area for The RebuildCenter’s guests.  Those of us in the group, like me, not trained in the medical field were given a crash course on healing touch and were invited to partake.   

Honestly I was feeling uncomfortable with this invitation.  Massaging another person is rather intimate and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of intimacy with a homeless person.  And just the thought of touching another’s dirty feet made me feel nauseated.  I avoided the invitation by sticking in the kitchen to help prepare the meals.  However, every day I heard this nagging voice inside me say, “You should try it, look at the other women who are courageous enough to try it.”  I would go peek in on the stations, but fear and the waves of nausea stopped me.  I told the inner voice, “I can’t do it.” 

Being in the Lenten season, the symbolic nature of the foot washing was not lost on me, and I was plagued with guilt of not being able to muster enough courage to serve these vulnerable men and women in this way.  I felt like the rich young men of scripture whom Jesus told to sell their possessions and follow him.  I walked away sad, feeling as though I was failing Jesus. 

I wanted the courage to lovingly be able to enter into the foot washing ministry. I kept praying during the week that I would feel called and would have the courage to respond yes.  On our final day in New Orleans Molly, one of my companions, asked if I was ready.  Surprisingly, I said “Yes I think I can do it.”   I suggested I watch her technique with one guest first and then jump in (I was really stalling for time).  My face was hot and flush when I said this and she suggested I sit down and breathe deep. I watched Molly pray over her guest’s feet then gently and tenderly wash, massage and slip on new socks. Molly and the guest engaged in personal conversation all the while the man was getting his feet massaged, at one point he stopped in mid conversation, lost his train of thought and was swept away by the loving touch of Molly.  I was witnessing a sacramental encounter. 

After watching Molly I had enough courage to serve the next guest on the list who wanted a foot washing.  I followed Molly’s example and with the grace of God was able to enter as deeply into the experience as Molly. 

Jayne washing a guest's feet
Here I am, embracing the washing of the feet.

I was humbled and blessed in this simple act of love.  I understand the profound message of Jesus in the scriptures as he washed the disciples’ feet, “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet… Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:14-17)  In the voice of the Spirit that came through Molly, and in the reciprocated love and trust of the homeless of the Rebuild Center, I know I am blessed.