“When You’re the Only White Person in the Room”

There’s a very fine new article posted at CNN.com this morning, called “When You’re the Only White Person in the Room.” Written by John Blake, it’s about the experiences of white people who have spent significant time as the minority race among mostly black people — what it felt like, what they learned. I read the first paragraph as I was flipping quickly through my daily routine of websites with my morning tea in front of me, intending just to do a quick scan, and then found I had to keep on going. Every time I figured I’d gone far enough, time to click elsewhere, another insightful paragraph kept my attention.

What a complicated business is race and striving to live with justice and compassion — at least, I suppose, to this Catholic white guy who grew up in rural western Pennsylvania and now lives in rural central Minnesota. That background and present experience set the stage for a pang of anxiety and guilt when I read this in Blake’s article:

The Public Religion Research Institute recently caused a stir when it released a poll that said three-quarters of white Americans have no nonwhite friends. Some commentators invoked the survey to explain why some whites seem clueless about racial sensitivities: They know no people of color to give them a different perspective.

Easy to comfort myself by saying race doesn’t matter to me, I can treat a black person the same as I treat a white person, think of her and respect him the same as I think of and respect all the white people who fill my life and consciousness. And then comes this passage from Blake about “declar[ing] as a white person that you don’t see race”:

DeYoung says that’s actually a subtle way of insulting people of color.

“It diminishes people to not see their race and their culture,” says DeYoung, who wrote a memoir about his racial journey entitled “Homecoming: A White Man’s Journey through Harlem to Jerusalem.”

“The reality is that race affects people’s lives, and if you can’t see race, you can’t see the life they’ve lived.”

Plenty more there to think through. Thanks to John Blake for the good read.


“We may not be murderers, but we are inheritors.”

“To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown,” a new piece by columnist Courtney E. Martin at the On Being website, is a fine one. It all leads up to a powerful closing paragraph:

The only way to honor Michael Brown and his family, to honor all Americans who reckon with the scourges of racism every single day, is to own that we may not be murderers, but we are inheritors. We must talk to our ugliest ghosts. We must work on strategies to dismantle structural racism. We must express our outrage at what is happening out there — in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Oakland. But, we must also investigate what is happening in here, inside every one of us — our own unexamined privilege, our own patronizing cure-alls, our own fears. We are not bad. We are not good. We are part of the tragic story and the opportunity for transformation.

500 years ago this week: the conversion of Bartolomeo de las Casas

Here’s an anniversary worth noting. This week marks the 500th anniversary of the conversion of Fr. Bartolomeo de las Casas. Las Casas was the 16th century Spanish Dominican friar who came to “the New World,” participated in the atrocities committed by the Spanish against the native Americans, and later opposed these atrocities vehemently.

Las Casas came to the Americas as a lay man. He was 18 years old in 1502, when he arrived with his father, who was a merchant, in what is today Cuba. They were among the first European settlers in the Americas. He obtained a plantation and bought slaves. But he soon decided to become a priest, and in 1510, he became the first European to be ordained a priest in the Americas. In 1513, he served as chaplain to Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, the Spanish conquistador, in his mission to take control of the island of Cuba from its natives. In this role, he witnessed even crueler treatment of native Americans than he had seen (and committed) previously.

It was in August 1514 — precisely 500 years ago — that the most significant conversion of Las Casas’s life occurred. He was studying a passage from the book of Sirach in preparation for a homily. It was Sirach 34: 18-22 (here is today’s New American Bible translation):

Tainted his gifts who offers in sacrifice ill-gotten goods!

Mock presents from the lawless win not God’s favor.

The Most High approves not the gifts of the godless,

nor for their many sacrifices does he forgive their sins.

Like the man who slays a son in his father’s presence

is he who offers sacrifice from the possessions of the poor.

The bread of charity is life itself for the needy;

he who withholds it is a man of blood.

He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living;

he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages.

The words dug into his conscience. He prepared a special sermon about the treatment of the Indians for the feast of the Assumption, August 15. He set free his slaves and began preaching frequently that the other colonists should do the same. Las Casas went on to become one of the foremost voices in defense of the human dignity of the native American peoples — which was mostly, unfortunately, ignored.

Five hundred years ago: the conversion of Fr. Bartolomeo de las Casas, who raised his voice with courage in opposition to what would become one of the most tragic offenses against human dignity in history.

“The solution is solidarity”: Mary Elizabeth Hobgood’s Dismantling Privilege

dismantling-privilege-ethics-accountability-mary-elizabeth-hobgood-paperback-cover-artWorking through an engaging and challenging book is a great way to wrap up a year. At the close of 2013, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood’s Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability has been a pleasure. Though there is plenty in the book that I will not mention here, three of its major themes are race, economics, and sexuality, and Hobgood left me thinking about all three more deeply.

For Hobsgood (who teaches theology at the College of the Holy Cross), whiteness is about far more than skin color. On a cultural level, it’s about denying our own relationality and our connectednesss to one another and to community. Hobgood says we who are white deny ourselves of these as the price of maintaining the competitive, efficient, and technologically advanced capitalist society that we have built for ourselves. Having bought into such a society, all of the unearned privileges that come with whiteness are, unconsciously, what we think we deserve for our willingness to forgo things that are so basic to being human. The unearned privileges of whiteness are our “emotional compensation for the suffering involved in being faithful to industrial morality” (49). And our fear and distrust of non-whites are rooted in our resentfulness that they have managed to hold onto those things better than we have.

The damage we’ve inflicted on non-white people through the social structures that support our whiteness is, of course, obvious, both in our history and in our present. But Hobgood points out that we have also hurt ourselves, through the emotional and moral damage that have come with all this self-denial. By forsaking relationships with the earth and the people around us, we have denied our own relational nature. “The system of white racial identity is constructed to diminish the relational capacity of whites” (61).

Hobgood also offers a compelling look at economic structures. With our concepts and systems of markets and money, we ignore the relational and historical aspects of our economy. We keep ourselves ignorant of our connections to the people who make our clothes and provide our food. We find ways to talk about poverty in terms of the failures or weaknesses or bad luck of people who are poor, ignoring history and social structures that, as contributing factors, loom high above such minor considerations. Hobgood points out that we rationalize shipping jobs overseas for the drastically lower costs involved, and congratulate ourselves at how appreciative these workers are for the jobs and the wages that are so much higher than they would be without us there, “never mind the centuries of colonial and neocolonial impoverishment by the West, which robbed them of control over their land, labor, and resources” (94).

All of this is profoundly non-Christian and anti-Christian. “Though largely ignored by First World Christians, biblical tradition is clear that poverty is not a mark of having sinned [or of personal failures], but a result of being sinned against” (68). She’s right that “beyond diffuse sentiment and generalized moral challenge … none of the official churches assists people in analyzing the roots of poverty and other forms of economic injustice” (70). As with whiteness, the damage done extends to the privileged elites whom the system supports, as well as to the poor who are hurt by it. “Everyone’s sense of virtue is degraded” (84). Capitalism robs us of our capacity to trust others, and “trust is essential for human flourishing and the development of empathy, cognition, and creativity” (100).

Less compelling and harder for me to agree with was Hobgood’s chapter on sexuality, which is so radical as to seem disconnected with reality. “Human beings,” she writes, “are socially constructed, not necessarily biologically constructed, as male or female” (108). There’s far more here than a call for greater respect and acceptance of gay people or acknowledgement by the churches of gay marriage. Hobgood argues, “‘Properly gendered’ (heterogendered) makes and females, heterosexuality, monogamy, or even biological maleness and femaleness is not a natural or universal human condition” (122). Following through on these principles, she advocates “freedom in gender and sexual expression” and “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” (124).

While I realize that these currents of thought exist out there, it’s hard to see how they are compatible with the Christian moral tradition and Catholic teaching. It’s one thing to criticize the patriarchal structures of the church or advocate opening the sacrament of marriage to gay couples; it’s a whole other thing to discard the value or normativity of monogamous marriage. I had a sense that Hobsgood’s positions here might sound fascinating in the context of academia, but would wreck havoc in real life. (Indeed, we’ve been inching closer to “gender fluidity and fluidity in sexual practice” for decades and are worse off for it.)

Also pushing Hobgood from the realms of credibility are seemingly wild-eyed assertions such as: “Catholic women have learned that without their intact hymens or multiple experiences of married motherhood, they have no right to exist” (132); and “This belief [that sexual desire is beyond the control of men] is supported by traditional moral theology that defined birth control as more sinful than rape because with rape procreation, the only legitimate purpose of sexual desire, was at least possible” (132-133). (I have a fairly thorough familiarity with “traditional moral theology” and have yet to stumble across even an obscure suggestion of this latter kind, much less its strong presence in anything close to formally endorsed doctrine or theology.)

In all of the above aspects of life, Hobsgood says, the solution is solidarity, and on this point she is surely right. By our rejection of solidarity and relationality, we have damaged people, society, and our very selves in myriad ways. Dismantling Privilege has challenged me in new ways to stand against this powerful cultural current and become more truly the person — and the person in community — that God created me to be.

[I should note that the copy I read is the first edition of the book, published in 2000. I see the publisher, Pilgrim Press, released a revised and updated edition in 2009, and I’m not sure what differences it may include.]

“I want to live and die for God”: Henriette Delille

henriette-delilleThis week marks the 150th anniversary of the death of an important and fascinating figure in American Catholic history. Henriette Delille, who died on November 17, 1862, was declared “venerable” two years ago by Pope Benedict XVI. That’s a recognition that she lived a life of heroic virtue, two steps removed from canonization. Though her birthdate is uncertain, she was probably born in 1812 or 1813, and so we stand at the 200th anniversary of her birth as well.

Henriette’s background, life, and ministry are marked dramatically by the distinctive era and place in which she lived her life. They are alsoMother Henriette Delille, found of the Catholic order, Sisters of the Holy Family in many ways a monument to Catholic social teaching on human dignity.

Henriette was a Creole woman — free, mixed race, and light-skinned — of New Orleans. Her mother was of one-quarter black ancestry (known at the time as a “quadroon”),  as well as French and Spanish ancestry. Henriette’s great-great grandmother had been  brought from Africa as a slave, freed after the death of her owner, and later saved enough money to buy her own children out of slavery. (Here’s a jarring fact, and a sign of the moral blind spot that so many of the time lived with: one of the daughters she bought out of slavery went on to become a business owner and also slave-owner herself.)

Henriette’s father was an aristocratic white man, born in France, who took her mother as a mistress. In the New Orleans of the day, under the cultural system known as placage, a mixed race woman was expected to play the role of mistress to a wealthy white man, forming with him a second family alongside the one he raised with his real wife. They were “kept women” who lived comfortable and luxurious lives. (The painting at the left, of “Creole women of color out taking the air,” is by Édouard Marquis, a New Orleans artist of the mid-nineteenth century.)  As such, Henriette’s parents were never married.

This is exactly the life that Henriette’s sister lived, and it was the one Henriette was expected by all around her to live, too. As a teen, she attended balls, the point of which were to introduce her to the businessmen of town.  At one of these balls, she met Sister St. Marthe Fontier, a religious sister whose lifestyle impressed her and fired her own spiritual imagination.

She wanted to become a religious sister but was unable to join the Ursuline or Carmelite sisters in New Orleans, because they only accepted white women. During the 1840’s, with a group of friends, also mixed race young women, she began serving the elderly and the poor of New Orleans — both slaves and free people — and sharing the Catholic faith with them. They would become the Sisters of the Holy Family.

New Orleans church records indicate that Mother Henriette, as she came to be known, stood frequently in the role of godmother at baptisms. She openly criticized the placage system as a violation of the sacrament of marriage.

When she died in 1862, around the age of 50, there were 12 members of the community. Another jarring sign of the moral blind spots that seem to be inherent in human nature, even among those in whom we see moral greatness: Henriette’s will indicates that upon her death the slave she owned was to be freed. Are there other canonized saints who were slave-owners? I don’t know. But if she is canonized, there will be one.

Her community continued to grow for the next century, eventually to over 400 members. The order still exists today, with over 100 sisters, in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina devastated much of their property, including a nursing home for the elderly they run, and damaged or destroyed some of the already sparse written records related to Mother Henriette’s life.

One of the items that remains, though badly damaged by the storm, is a prayerbook that was owned by Henriette. One of the notes written in her own handwriting, in French, on the margins of its pages is: “I believe in God. I hope in God. I love. I want to live and die for God.”

(I did some preliminary work for an article on Henriette Delille for a Catholic publication, which ultimately was not published. But an interview I did with the current congregational leader of the Sisters of the Holy Family, Sister Eva Regina Martin, SSF, was helpful for this post, and I offer her my thanks for her time. Other sources for the above material include this, this, this, and this.)