A Time to Speak — ‘I don’t know black’

Sister of Charity Tracy Kemme

Sister of Charity Tracy Kemme (Photo Courtesy of National Catholic Reporter)

By Sister of Charity Tracy Kemme, Global Sisters Report

In my house growing up, the answer to the question, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” was never “a black person.”

Our white, middle class, Catholic family didn’t consciously avoid eating with people of other races. Still, I went my whole young life surrounded almost exclusively by folks who look like me.

As a teenager, I ended up attending a racially diverse high school, where I spent time with black people. Nevertheless, my enduring social circles remained decidedly white. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I loved and cherished my black school friends, especially from choir, but it never went further than that. I suppose it happened organically. I had more in common with my white friends; my black friends generally came from different parts of town. It’s a tragedy to look back now and see how we all missed out on deeper interracial friendships. As Bishop Edward Braxton reminded us in a May article for America, societal structures make it all too easy for “birds of a feather to flock together.” I am evidence of that unfortunate truth. Now, I am a Catholic sister. Even as I have vowed my life to work toward a just society, I’m ashamed to confess that I have few friends that don’t share my skin color. I don’t really know many black people.

On Sept. 9, across the United States, Catholic communities gathered for the Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities, as called for by USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. The phrase “our communities” strikes me. This is a Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities. The trouble of it is, for people that come from backgrounds like I do, we don’t see the problem as ours. The glaring violence doesn’t happen in our neighborhoods. We’re far enough removed that we already have what we think is peace. This is part of white privilege — not having to see or experience the injustice that exists. Part of our work must be growing in ownership of the problem.

In last month’s column, I opined how important it is to be willing to see life through the eyes of another. Today, I admitted how limited my experience is of black life in the United States. It is my responsibility to grow in that understanding. Most of my life, I have been listening to white opinions about the black reality. It’s astounding when I consider how few of those opinionated people have spent any period of time building any kind of relationships with any black people.

I’m not advocating for a contrived effort in which every white person goes out to find a token black friend to “educate them.” That sounds silly and unjust. I’m saying that I must choose to put myself in places where I will get to know black people and have a chance to listen. I am called to open my heart and actively seek conversion the best way I know how.

My own journey to awareness started in a college sociology class, on the pages of Thomas Shapiro’s “The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality.” I’ll never forget slurping up the words of the first chapter, “The Color of the Safety Net,” as if I was reading for the first time. I was shocked as I realized how many structures were in place to help me succeed, just because I was born white. Yes, I had worked hard to get where I was, but many other people work just as hard and probably harder and never even get close to the comfort and security I’ve had all my life. Ironically, but consistent with what we were learning, there were no black students in our honors seminar of 30, so I never talked with a black person about what I read.

I have studied, yes, but even now, at 30, my life lacks encounter with those who are black.

I’ve seen the power of authentic encounter in my work as Latino Ministry Coordinator at a Catholic Cincinnati parish with a growing Guatemalan population. This traditionally white church’s potluck meals now include tamales next to sauerkraut. You can imagine that the demographic shift brings strife and misunderstanding, especially with the language barrier.

Similar efforts are a productive way to approach our country’s stinging brokenness around race. In Cincinnati, the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center and the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission are hosting a series of conversations called “Rethinking Racism.” The event I attended saw an almost equal number of black and white participants. I was admittedly uncomfortable as I walked in. Fear of my own latent racism bubbled up in the form of a dry throat and pattering heart. Would I unwittingly say something offensive? Would our conversations blow up the way online back-and-forths do? I quickly found out that this was a safe space. People could bring pain into the light and challenge with love. I’m convinced that those two hours did something, albeit small, for healing.

I understand that relationships do not bring about justice on their own. In her powerful piece, “I cannot speak of love to you today,” Regina Shands Stoltzfus says to people like me, “Beloved, yes, let us love one another. But today, my siblings, understand we cannot wait on your love if it is limited to feeling warmly about us.”

This is an important point. Awareness and concern will not change an oppressive system. On a smaller scale, suppose that I have witnessed my boss treating a co-worker in a way that could be sexual harassment. She files a report against him. Now, I don’t know much about sexual harassment in the workplace, and I don’t know my co-worker very well. So I begin to read up on sexual harassment in the workplace, and I approach my co-worker to get to know her better, understand how she feels and support her. Those could be good things, but they would seem ridiculous on their own. If I don’t stand up, then, and speak out with her, who cares about my heightened awareness?

Even so, I know that learning is a necessary part of my own conversion. As a white woman who knows very little of the reality for those who are black in my community and who has never felt the sting of racism myself, it’s my responsibility. I will go to Rethinking Racism and other events like it whenever I can. I will read books like “Waking up White” and “Between the World and Me.” I’ll ask what more I can do. I’ll probably feel uncomfortable. But if I don’t, I continue to be part of the problem.

It’s an important question for all of us to ask today as we gather and call out with one voice to Jesus, the liberator: How will I be a living answer to the Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities?

Sister of Charity of Cincinnati Tracy Kemme is author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training. She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a parish there.

This column was originally published on GlobalSistersReport.org, a project of the National Catholic Reporter.

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