Welcome to Day 1 of Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat. My name is Ángel Flores Fontánez, and I’m with The Jesuit Post. In this series, we are journeying together into a deeper awareness of how racism operates in our lives, and how we can start to eradicate it. Today, we will discuss white supremacy and one important obstacle to overcome it.
Let’s begin with a prayer. This is a traditional Jesuit prayer called the Prayer for Generosity.
God, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give and not to count the cost. To fight and not to heed the wounds. To toil and not to seek for rest. To labor and not to ask for any reward. Save that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.
In this first week, as in the first week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, we focus on sin and its consequences. In this case, the sin we focus on is racism. Racism is ultimately a set of policies, behaviors, and ideas that produce inequality based on race, and creates unjust advantages for a racial group at the expense of others. In the context of the U.S., racism has historically manifested as white supremacy.
We are proceeding with an understanding of white supremacy as a set of socio-political and economic policies, cultural practices, and ideas that ensure white domination and oppression of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities (BIPOC for short).1 People who contribute, intentionally or not, to this web of practices and policies are complicit in white supremacy.
White supremacy in the U.S. has a very long history. Some examples are: the stealing and territory occupation of lands belonging to Native Americans, their enslavement alongside African Americans, convict leasing of former slaves, segregation laws, lynching, immigration laws barring Asians and Latinos, colonialism against Pacific Islanders and Puerto Ricans, red lining of neighborhoods of Color in the Great Depression era, internment camps for Japanese American Citizens, mass incarceration, and police brutality, among many other policies. All of these have ensured the economic and social advantage of the white community. This advantage is what we call “white privilege,” and it manifests itself in that it is easier for a white person to: find a job and receive more pay while doing the same amount of work as BIPOC members, live in a good neighborhood, have access to generational wealth, and even the ease with which one can go jogging without fear. This is a privilege Ahmaud Arbery did not have in February of 2020.
While Arbery was jogging in a predominantly white neighborhood, a former white police officer and his son, stopped Arbery based on racially biased suspicion, forcibly tried to detain him, and shot him to death when he resisted. I ask you: when was the last time you heard about a white man being suspected, detained, and killed for jogging through a neighborhood by a civilian? Even more, when was the last time you went out to jog and felt afraid that a neighbor could arrest and kill you? Not having to worry about this is one example of white privilege.
One barrier to productive conversations about racism is something called “white fragility.” White fragility, refers to the defensiveness that white people practice when they are confronted with the topic of racism. Robin DiAngelo describes it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” A person exercising white fragility takes as a personal attack any suggestion that she, a loved one, or her racial group, participates or has participated in racism against BIPOC members.
The person displaces the authentic suffering of BIPOC members to put their feelings of discomfort as the priority. This behavior perpetuates white supremacy, for it impedes any sincere discussion of the problem and prioritizes the comfort of those in the dominant group at the expense of the pain of BIPOC members. White fragility manifests in phrases like “I am not racist… I have friends of Color, I believe in equality, people of Color are too sensitive,” etc. Ultimately, what is sought is the avoidance of accountability.
A few years ago, I was participating in an annual meeting of Jesuits in formation. As part of the group-reflection exercise, we were instructed to meditate about some of the pastoral challenges in places where we minister, which includes most states of the Deep South, the country of Belize, and the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico. When my turn to speak came, I talked about how, according to recent media reports, white nationalism was growing in the places we minister, especially among young people. I also mentioned that one of the current leaders of the Ku Klux Klan was originally from the state we were in. I closed my intervention by saying that because of this data, along with recent anti-immigrant laws and imperial treatment of Puerto Rico, racism should be a main pastoral concern of our Jesuit province. To my disappointment, one of my white brothers started making physical gestures of indignation as I talked, and told me that I was being offensive to him and that I hurt him. All I had done was name an injustice that I felt we needed to address. He dismissed my point because addressing the topic made him feel attacked.
As Christians, we are required by our faith to oppose racism in all its forms. In their 2018 Pastoral Letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops said that the Church’s work to fight racism was part of the Christian duty to call society toward conversion, which includes “affecting” and sometimes “upsetting” the way people think. To this day, many people believe racism is only an intentional belief in the superiority of the white race. But as Bishop Joseph Seitz of El Paso wrote in 2019, racism in the U.S. is “about advancing, shoring up, and failing to oppose a system of white privilege.” So as long as white privilege is sustained by policies and behaviors, and also supported by white fragility, little or no progress toward the liberation of BIPOC members will be made.
As you reflect more on these topics for the next 3 days, I recommend the following reflection questions:
- How have you contributed to white supremacy?
- How has white privilege made your life easier in comparison with BIPOC members?
- Is white fragility preventing you from growth? How so?
In addition to these reflection questions, you can pray with the following Bible verses:
- Mark 7:24-30: Jesus, who we believe is the true God, but also walked earth as a true man that needed to learn step by step, receives a correction from a Syrophoenician woman, a person without the racial and gender privilege that he had as a Jewish man. Notice how well he receives the correction, and notice her bravery.
- Finally, consider praying with Luke 10:25-37: This is the classic story of the Good Samaritan. But this time, contemplate how the most privileged people in Jesus’s society were the ones who refused to help the victim.
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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