White supremacy and me and you

1.

I am driving through the Northwoods of Wisconsin, talking to a friend, a man I know very well, on the phone. Tall, snow-covered pines line the ditches; gray overcast hovers. The man and I are catching up, chatting about our lives. The tone of his voice becomes shameful, reluctant. My gaze moves over the wide, open road ahead as I hear his story. His words come slowly as he admits that he is on a leave of absence from his job after he said a racial slur while in a casual conversation with his colleagues. He is not allowed to work or earn money; he is expected to apologize to every one of his co-workers personally. He is humbled, broken. And yet he remains surprised. “I don’t know why I said it … I’m not that kind of person …” I keep driving. I don’t know what to say.

2.

I am a newly professed sister teaching at a high school on Chicago’s South Side with a mission to serve African-American boys. I am learning to listen. I listen to my students when they explain why they need an extension on their assignments, when one says he spent the whole night in the ER with his cousin who was shot as they played ball in the park. I listen to my students when they come to class without…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

(Dreamstime / Ben Gingell)

Whitewashed Mary and White Supremacy

What image of Mary. the mother of God, do you remember seeing as a child? When you close your eyes and imagine Mary today, who do you see?

What color is her hair? Her eyes? Her skin? What type of clothes is she wearing in your imagination?

As a kid growing up in a tight-knit Catholic community in the 1990s, most, if not all, of the images that I remember seeing of Mary were with white skin and brown hair. I can’t remember if her eyes were blue or brown, but I definitely remember her skin being the same pale white as my own.

Admittedly, I hadn’t thought too much about those representations of Mary until last year when a friend reached out to me to request a commissioned painting.

He was working as a high school teacher at a Catholic school and was interested in commissioning a painting of a “historically accurate” Mary for his course on the New Testament and social justice.

He did some research into anthropological findings about historical Mary and sent me some reference photos of young Palestinian women from that time period. He made a point that her clothes should be un-dyed, a representation of the poverty in her native Galilee and the humble social status of Mary and her family.

I was amazed. I found myself staring into the deep, dark eyes of these young women, admiring their beautiful brown skin and gorgeous, thick, black hair. I saw nothing of the pearly white Mary that I once knew. Had I been duped?

The answer to that question cannot be reduced to scapegoating some imagined mastermind who managed to dupe Catholics worldwide for decades, but I do think the answer has a whole lot to do with white supremacy.

So I accepted the commission, eager to paint this historically accurate Mary and humbled by the opportunity to play a part in this image, which would reach the classroom of young and impressionable (and likely white) Catholic high school students.

Mary11x14OPT.jpg
Commissioned watercolor painting by Annemarie Barrett, AEB Art.

And I started thinking more about what I knew about this whitewashed version of Mary, which is so central to Catholic culture.

I remembered being taught in school about the Neave forensic anthropological reconstruction of Jesus, but how could that one lesson really compete with the whitewashed depictions of the Holy Family surrounding the rest of my Catholic upbringing?

And I realized that this is precisely how white supremacy works: whiteness dominates our everyday lives so completely that we almost don’t even notice it, much less question it.

Any historian, anthropologist, or high school religion teacher could tell us that the historical Mary was definitively not white. Yet how many whitewashed images of Mary go unnoticed and unquestioned in our parishes, homes and classrooms still today?

It is tempting as Catholic white people, I think, to reject any notion of white supremacy as other than us. We wish to associate white supremacy with the violence and hate that we see on the news and can hardly imagine that such violence has anything to do with us.

Many of us white people struggle to see white supremacy as an integral part of the culture we participate in daily.

But we don’t have to look any further than our white images of Mary to see the white supremacy alive in our communities today.

While it may be difficult to see the violence in a whitewashed depiction of Mary, maybe we can see the violence in the ways we outcast, punish and dehumanize the brown and black immigrants and refugees suffering at the hands of our countries’ domestic and foreign policies.

Maybe we can reflect on the ways that we admire and revere the white depictions of the Holy Family but struggle to empathize with people of color on the margins of our society.

Can we start by imagining how our concept of God and Spirit and community might have been transformed if we had grown up seeing the Mother of God as she really was, with beautiful brown skin, deep, dark eyes and thick, black hair?

Can we imagine how that transformation might have opened our hearts and minds to see God and Spirit in more than our white reflection?

What would it look like for each of us to start replacing the whitewashed Biblical images in our parishes, offices, classrooms and homes with historically accurate images? What other actions might we take to open up conversations within our white communities about the violence of whitewashing our faith and our history?

I believe that we have a lot of work to do as white people, and changing the whitewashed images of Mary in our midst is just one action we can take to dismantle the systemic problems of white supremacy and racism. Taking concrete actions in our faith communities and in our faith lives is one place to start.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie-Barrett


Annemarie 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.

Teilhard in the age of Trump

I was first introduced to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s cosmology at a bar in Wisconsin. I was a recently graduated senior out to eat with my parents, drinking a beer in public for the first time. I was still 18, but in western Wisconsin the legal drinking age is as obfuscated as Teilhard’s arduous writing.

The conversation turned to religion, as it often did in my family. I was raised in a household enmeshed in what Alice McDermott would call a “thick” Catholicism, with parents rooted in a liberal, post-Vatican II religious milieu. I was just beginning to seriously question my faith for the first time and its applicability to the postmodern, spiritual-but-not-religious world in which I was becoming an adult. While this questioning would ebb and flow for years, this conversation over pizza and beer was one of several very subtle and delicate moments that would, in the end, tether my heart to the chaos that is American Catholicism.

In response to my doubting a moral center to our universe and the uncertain state of our country amidst the final years of George Bush’s second term, my Dad pointed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,  Jesuit scientist and evolutionary theologian, as a source for hope. He explained that Teilhard was convinced that evolution was not a random process, and it did not solely point to a biological reality. Instead, it was a way of seeing the entire cosmos that applied to our faith. Since the beginning of time we have been on a collective journey, with the entirety of created matter, toward love, toward total unification with God, toward the Omega Point.

Pierre-Teilhard-de-Chardin
Image of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin courtesy of “Clarion: Journal of Spirituality and Justice”

My dad’s optimism, and subsequently Teilhard de Chardin’s, is now grafted into my worldview. Pierre’s positive understanding of creation and his undying hope in the coming Kingdom of God has proved to be especially important during this past year. Amidst the catastrophes of pending nuclear war and climate change, and the ever-growing wedge between the rich and poor, Americans have elected a white nationalist to the presidency.

Teilhard would understand the rise of Trump to be situated within, if not a culmination of, what he calls “an organic crisis in evolution.” In “The Human Phenomenon” Teilhard explains that, “There is a danger that the elements of the world should refuse to serve the world.” Usually ever-optimistic, he concedes that there is a possibility humans will not travel the course set for us through evolution, the path mapped out for us by God.

To avoid this catastrophe Teilhard argues that we must choose to surrender to the collectivization of consciousness, to fall into unification. Our proper participation in evolution and our arrival at the Omega Point is contingent on a new economic and social order; one that unifies, that eliminates economic and social differentiating and the privileging of certain categories of people. These divisions (facilitated by the interplay between capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy) are an impasse. They are a nonstarter, clogging our evolutionary journey and impeding our salvation. The establishment of a new order, which Teilhard’s work demands, must take on a new sense of urgency given the rise of Donald Trump and the divisions and violence he signifies. In the age of Trump, Teilhard reminds us that the evolutionary journey of the cosmos, which arches toward the unification of matter with God’s love, now lies in our hands.

About the Rabble Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia through the La Crosse, Wisconsin, community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse. Now he spends most of his time working at Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

MLK Day and choosing white discomfort

I don’t believe that remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that he represented is supposed to be comfortable for us white folks.

And I wonder what we might learn if, on this national holiday created in his honor, we were to sit with his speeches that most challenge — not affirm — our worldview today.

I wonder what it would mean for us white folks, in churches, Catholic schools and affluent communities, to collectively step out of our comfort zones today and every day in his honor.

What if us white folks dedicated more time to listening to black activists today? What if humility became the root of our attempts at solidarity with diverse communities of color who are fighting every day for their liberation?

Every autumn for the past four years, I have facilitated three, three-hour sessions on issues of white privilege and white supremacy as related to experiences of foreign volunteer work for Franciscan lay missioners in training with Franciscan Mission Service. These sessions were born out of my lived experiences as a Franciscan lay missioner in South America.

In these sessions, we start with the basics.

I explain how I opened my eyes to the realities of racism only when I stepped out of the white culture I grew up in; in other words, when I stepped out of my comfort zone.

sketching
Annemarie’s original sketch “You Stood With Me II”

And we connect that experience to concepts of white privilege and white fragility that help explain how a college educated adult, like myself, could be so ignorant about issues of racism.

We also focus on history in that first session; primarily, the history of colonization worldwide and how that history implicated white folks, particularly white Christian folks.

We talk about why it is so important for white folks who are confronted with their own ignorance to respond by choosing to educate ourselves. And we cover basics like how to respond to issues and experiences related to racism that are new to us — namely, by choosing to humbly listen and learn.

We also directly deal with the racist stereotypes surrounding Catholic volunteer work. I share about my experience of being characterized as a “saint” who was “sacrificing” myself by serving in a country economically poorer than the United States.

I explain to the lay missioners in training how different the ways in which I was being categorized were from the personal expectations that I had for living in another culture.

I knew for myself that I was choosing to live in Bolivia because I was interested in their vibrant indigenous cultures and inspired by the grassroots social movements thriving there. I was choosing to move to another country to humbly learn and collaborate, not pity and patronize.

But the reality was that most of the white Catholic folks supporting my life as a Franciscan lay missioner assumed the opposite and so I had to learn how to respond to those folks and look for opportunities to not only educate myself but to share what I was learning with other white folks too.

It was a terribly uncomfortable process.

While I was confronting similar, local stereotypes where I was living and working — a testament to the destructive effects of colonization still so very alive today — I was also simultaneously trying to navigate how to communicate what I was experiencing and learning with folks in my own country who were as steeped in white culture as I am.

watercolor-painting
Annemarie paints in watercolor

The whole process has been full of discomfort and yet I would not have it any other way.

Why?

Well, just this past autumn a lay missioner in training asked me in the final session of our time together, “How do you find the courage to confront these issues of racism?” She, like me, was working through dealing with how overwhelming the discomfort can feel at times.

And in my own process I had found two possible responses to this question.

One came from a wise friend of mine who aptly taught me that no matter how hard I think confronting racism is for me as a white person it is always, always, more challenging, traumatizing and even life threatening for people of color.

As a white person I have the privilege to choose to confront racism, but for people of color it’s not a choice but a daily lived reality. Choosing to engage in conversations about racism with a white person is often an exhausting and fraught experience for people of color.

What I shared with the lay missioner in training that day is that this reality ought to, at the very least, inspire humility in us white folks while also leading us to another response.

I told her that I find the courage to confront issues of racism as a white person, not because I am an expert on issues of racism and certainly not because I am some savior who benevolently decided to care about these issues.

I find the courage to keep learning and confronting these issues because I have formed intimate relationships with people of color whose life experiences are very different from my own, and I care about being accountable to them.

The answer is both that simple and the living into it that complex.

But what I have found is that at the very least it does require a willingness from white people to get uncomfortable.

For-I-Thought-painting
Original piece “For I Thought I Was Alone II” in its completion (by Annemarie Barrett)

Today of all days is a good time to practice that voluntary discomfort — to stretch beyond what we know and have experienced as white people to listen and learn from the experiences and wisdom of people of color.

Here are some resources to engage that discomfort today:

“White Supremacy (Overt & Covert)”

“White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism”

“White Fragility and the Rule of Engagement”

“The White-Savior Industrial Complex”

“#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism”

The Importance of Listening as a Privileged Person Fighting for Justice

“True Solidarity: Moving Past Privilege Guilt”

“Black America should stop forgiving white racists”

“If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself”

“The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”

——–

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie 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.

 

Praying with voices from Charlottesville and learning how I am racist

I have never been to Charlottesville. In fact, I have barely spent anytime in the American South.

Like most people, though, I am horrified and sickened by the ugliness of racism that has been expressed there recently, especially last weekend. I want to know what to do, how to help and am trying to discern what sort of reaction I can muster.

Today I’ve been mourning the death and praying with the family of Heather Heyer, the counter-protestor who was hit by a car driven by a white supremacist on Saturday. I have been feeling heartsick for the friends and family of the police officers who died in the helicopter crash, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, too. I went to a somber candlelight vigil with another Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration on Monday night to pray for peace, healing and to mourn the the lives lost last weekend. I am trying to study the truth carefully, prayerfully. I know I have a lot to learn.

I don’t know how to make sense of what is happening in the United States of America. I don’t know how to pray or move forward in the mess. I am not sure where God needs me to focus my energy and prayers to help transform society, contribute to the healing of racial wounds and stand for truth and justice. I feel lost.

I have been compelled this week, therefore, to pray with some of the voices I know from Charlottesville.

First,  I re-read this poignant essay from my friend Natasha Oladokun, “Why Are We Here if Not for Each Other?” before I got ready for Sunday Mass. I highly recommend that you read and pray with this essay, too, and allow yourself to consider the hard questions. Here’s an excerpt:

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you, said Jesus — the champion of the marginalized and poor, the so-called religious radical who was executed by the state, the God to whom I’ve offered my life. It is an injunction that rarely makes earthly sense, especially now: how can I bless when I have nothing left to say? And what should I pray for? A plague of locusts?

In her book-length lyric essay Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet Claudia Rankine asks, “Why are we here if not for each other?” This is the question I keep asking myself and whomever else will listen. Perhaps, in its own way, it’s the question. If our lives and work and words are not in the service of transformative devotion to and for our neighbors, then what, in heaven or hell, are we doing?

Secondly, I have been challenged and grateful for this message from another friend who calls Charlottesville her home, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. I have read this over and over, and am trying to take the challenge to heart:

My Dear, Beloved, White Brothers and Sisters,

I am seeing a lot of distancing, a lot of us stiff-arming the white nationalists, the Nazis and racists who marched in Charlottesville on Friday and Saturday. We are doing a lot of “them”ing about those folks, acting out our horror at their hatefulness. I get it. I want to do it, too, push those white people, those young white men especially, far away from myself. I want “them” to be “them,” too.

But they are us.

I say that with no hyperbolic force. I am speaking truth.

I am a racist. As a white woman who was raised in America, this is something I must own. It is part of what is taught to me as a white person in the United States – this belief that, somehow, white people are superior. I never got a lecture. No one ever told me that belief in so many words, but I was taught it nonetheless.

I know that I was taught this belief because sometimes I think and say things, racist things, that I didn’t know I believed. I won’t recount the list of those things for you here because I do not want to retraumatize our brothers and sisters of color who hear those things every day, but if you’d like examples, email me at andi@andilit.com, and I’ll share a few with you, as illustrations of my own brokenness.

So you, my beautiful, beloved, broken white brothers and sisters, you are racist, too. I know that’s hard to hear – I KNOW. But it’s true. You have been taught things about people of color, things that say they are inferior to you as a white person. If you consider carefully, you’ll find those things. I find more every day, and it breaks my heart.

We need to have our hearts broken.

But let me be clear – we don’t need to sit around feeling guilty, making this about us yet again. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said, “let’s be honest – white guilt does nothing. White guilt makes us look for exoneration. White guilt leads to changes of only optics in which people of color are the object and not the subject. Once again. White guilt leads to me trying to figure out how to relieve my white guilt and once again it’s all about me. So let’s let White Guilt go. It doesn’t work.” So no guilt here – it’s useless. Work is better. Honesty is better. Truth is better.

And for the love of Pete, don’t go around apologizing to all the people of color that you know – that, too, is asking them to do the work of exonerating you of your beliefs. Instead, do what my wise friend Nicole Morgan suggested – talk to other white people. Take your questions, your struggles outside the circle of people of color who have so long had to carry the burden of racism in every way. Write to me if you want. I”ll answer. We’ll talk it out.

But please, don’t make this about other people. Because it’s not. As you look at the people who marched on Friday and Saturday in Charlottesvile, in my city, don’t push them away with a stiff arm of safe distance. Pull them close. Look them in the eye. See them as your brothers, aunties, cousins, next-door neighbors, yes. But most importantly, see them as yourself.

Until we, the white people of America, can own the quiet racism in our own hearts AND the virulent armored racism that marches in our streets, we cannot change.

And we must change. WE, the white people of America, must change.

With all my love for all of us,

Andi

These two essays have been churning questions and agony within me,  haunting me. Over and over I wonder: Am I racist too?  

The insistence of this moment is that we all realize that our actions for racial reconciliation must be both internal and external. Internally, each of us must enter into the chasm of our hearts and minds and ask ourselves the most necessary and challenging questions such as: How am I racist?   

I majored in history in college. Doing so helped me understand that all of the “isms” are complex, systemic and sinful. Racism, especially, is one of the worst “isms” that we need to confront, especially in ourselves, as it can be subtle and unconscious, and likely to come out sideways in our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

That’s the way social sin works. Even if we are working against it, we still absorb some of the evil. We all are harmed. We must repent.

This tool is especially helpful to me as I work to see more of the truth of how I may be racist without realizing it:

Externally, we must work for racial reconciliation in every possible way. Prayer, education, protest, social action are great ways to start. (You can look here to see if there is #StandWithCharlottesville event happening near you.) Intentional conversation circles and dialogues are valuable. Also, the Episcopalian Bishops of Virginia offer great specific actions here in their list titled “Concrete actions in the face of white supremacists and others whose message is counter to Christ’s embracing love.”

No matter how we proceed through this mess, let us remember that every person is worthy of God’s love and mercy.  Let us not clump anyone into a group that we are against, but realize that even if they are acting in a way that goes against God, that they are also a child of God and need to be honored and loved as such.  Let us be clear that Christ’s love is for all people, every race, language and nation.

And, fortunately, God gets to take the lead through this struggle; it’s not all up to us. Step by step we struggle forward, letting Jesus take the lead and bring us closer to true peace, reconciliation, healing and freedom. Amen.

Photo credit: https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/