Humility and Anti-Racism | Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat

Podcast episode:

Welcome again to Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracist Retreat. My name is Sullivan McCormick. We are now at the final day of Week 2 which is focused on the call to anti-racism and the challenge of responding personally and communally. 

Let’s start with a prayer, this is a short excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 11:25-27):

“At that time, Jesus said in reply, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” Amen. 

In the past two talks Kevin and Billy presented two critical aspects of engaging in anti-racism: solidarity and accountability. This talk will focus on another key aspect of anti-racism: humility, which Kevin introduced. We’ll now take an in-depth look at the critical role it plays in anti-racism. 

But first, let’s look at the word itself. Humility involves “showing you do not think that you are as important as other people.” Humble people are modest and meek. The word comes from the Latin words humilis meaning “low, lowly” and humus, meaning “ground.” In relation to anti-racism, I will emphasize two specific applications of humility: moral humility and intellectual humility.

By moral humility I mean the disposition of figures like Peter in the Gospel who after encountering Christ, proclaim “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). These people know they are fallible and not morally superior beings. These people accept the reality that they are sinners who are loved by God and need God.

By intellectual humility I’m thinking about the disposition of the “childlike,” those referenced in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 11:25-27) who receive “these things” “hidden” from the “wise and learned.” The “childlike” are curious, truly open-minded, seeking what they lack. As an example, we can look to Mary in the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of Luke. Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Mary literally lowers herself, positioning herself to listen, learn, and receive from the Lord. 

Before I tell a quick story, I want to provide clarity on what I mean by “racism.” I’m referring to a culture in the U.S. that equates white with being superior and has structures and policies in place that benefit white people over non-white people. So, when I refer to myself as being racist, I mean that I’ve been shaped by the cultural forces of racism.  I’m not referring to what we might consider individual or blatant acts of racism, manifesting itself as discrimination and prejudice. 

I recently encountered an event that revealed my need for moral and intellectual humility as an anti-racist. I attended a Zoom meeting where a presenter and activist educated the audience on police brutality in the U.S. The presenter began the Zoom meeting with a land rights acknowledgment, recognizing the land she was on as stolen land and asking us to do the same. We commemorated the original occupants of the land, the indigenous peoples who were here first. 

Suddenly, I unexpectedly experienced a surge of defensiveness and anger. I felt accused and unsettled. A reactionary and unconscious inner monologue shot forth: “Well that’s just what happens throughout history. Land gets stolen. How else do countries get started?” 

As I later reflected on my reaction, I was baffled. My reaction did not correlate with my belief system. I’ve been in public spaces where I’ve argued for giving land back to Native Americans (decolonization) while condemning the U.S. for its heinous treatment and genocide of indigenous peoples. I consider myself well-educated when it comes to ongoing mistreatment and subjugation of Native Americans. And since my visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota last year, I’ve gained a deep appreciation for Lakota culture and spirituality.  

Yet, despite thinking that I had achieved a state of “racial enlightenment” about Native Americans, I still harbored racist ideas and assumptions. Whatever I had done and learned wasn’t enough. Whatever I thought was “sufficient” paled in comparison to a culture I’ve been socialized in, a culture that let 87 years pass before it decided it was unacceptable to have an NFL team named after a racial slur for Native Americans. My exposure to this culture left me with assumptions that needed challenging, such as these: that the U.S. is somehow justified in its colonization, that I’m entitled to the land I live on, and that I am not complicit in colonization.

And what I’ve learned from the sociologist Robin DiAngelo, is that my reaction to the land rights acknowledgment wasn’t just racist, it was an example of “white fragility,” a concept Ángel Flores introduced us to in his talk. I exemplified “white fragility” by reacting to the land rights acknowledgment with defensiveness and anger. I lacked the necessary “stamina” to sit with being uncomfortable. And I felt the need to defend my white identity and the goodness of my own cultural heritage. 

Now, that being said, where does moral and intellectual humility come in? Without moral humility I will never accept my complicity in our racist culture and become less fragile. Without moral humility, I will think I am somehow exempt or above the culture I’ve been formed in and continue to live in. If I think I’m innocent, I won’t feel the need to interrogate my fundamental assumptions about race. Instead I will turn to defensiveness, anger, intellectualizing, silence, or withdrawal. Thus, I won’t grow in awareness of my unconscious racial attitudes. And I won’t consider how I can be anti-racist or a better anti-racist.

The question that DiAngelo insists I ask myself is not whether I am racist. The question I must ask myself is “how have I, Sullivan McCormick, a white male, born and raised in the U.S., been shaped by the cultural forces of racism?” Notice that during the Call of Simon Peter in Luke (Lk 5:1-11), Peter does not receive his call from Jesus to be a fisher of men until after he confesses his sinfulness. When we confess and acknowledge our sins we recognize our need for healing, our need for Jesus. Then we grow, become more aware, and become disciples that can transform the world. Just as I cannot be an effective disciple of Jesus without accepting my sinfulness, I cannot be an effective anti-racist without accepting my involvement in racism. 

Furthermore, without intellectual humility, I will think I don’t need self-education or that I’ve done enough self-education. To be childlike is to not be haughty or think I’m sufficiently wise or educated. To be childlike is to be open to receiving, to constantly seek and ask why. About a year ago, I asked a good friend of mine, a “white, well-meaning progressive” whether he wanted to go with me again to the Equal Justice Initiative’s history museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. He told me that he didn’t want to go because he didn’t think he “would learn anything new.” 

The reality is that becoming truly anti-racist means an invested commitment to an ongoing process of de-socialization. This includes education, conversion, self-interrogation, growing self-awareness of unconscious racist ideas and assumptions, relationship building, and the dismantling of racist policies and structures. 

Pride tells me I’ve got it, I’m good, I’m sufficiently educated, I’m innocent. That’s why DiAngelo says that “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” These white progressives think they are innocent and enlightened; thus, they devote their energy to proving their enlightenment instead of committing themselves to the ongoing work of anti-racism. As James Baldwin says, “It is their innocence that constitutes the crime.”

Humility, on the other hand, tells me I always have more to learn. Humility tells me I am culpable and responsible. Humility tells me the journey of conversion continues. Humility tells me I need, like Mary in the story of Martha and Mary, to continually sit at the feet of others to learn and listen, especially at the feet of victims of racism, people of color, and anti-racism scholars. 

When it comes to prayer, this is the grace I recommend asking for: the grace for humility in anti-racism work. An overarching reflection question can follow as such, where do I need more humility (intellectual and/or moral) in my life as an anti-racist?

Furthermore, here are some passages for prayer with more reflection questions.

  1. First, you can look at Call of Simon the Fisherman (Luke 5: 1-11) and ask how is Peter a model for moral humility in anti-racism work? How can I learn from Peter?
  2. Next, you can pray over The Praise of the Father (Matthew 11:25-27) and ask what does it mean to be a “childlike” anti-racist?
  3. Lastly, you can take to prayer the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) and ask how can I look to Mary as a model of intellectual humility in anti-racism work? 

Let’s end with a prayer. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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