Recognizing racism: my own journey

A man and a woman hold hands in prayer during a "Together Baton Rouge" news conference in Baton Rouge, La., on July 19, 2016. (RNS/Courtesy of Reuters / Jonathan Bachman)

Like Dante I am lost in "a dark wood of error," reflecting on my experiences in racism.

Going to high school in a small, mostly Catholic town east of St. Louis, I realized only later that the old so-called "Sunshine Laws" kept people of color from spending the night in my hometown. This was one phrase in the language of racism that told people of color that they were not welcome in our Catholic town.

After becoming a sister I learned how the language of racism was/is taught. Like the song in "South Pacific" reminds us:

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.

One experience that still haunts me happened in 1970. One of our sisters, a classmate, had become involved in a cult. Since both her family and our congregation were concerned, two of us were sent to try to talk her into leaving the cult and returning to St. Louis.

Our destination was a private "colony," located near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. To make a long story short, the two of us were allowed to meet with our sister, only because the "colony" thought we might be interested in joining them. We arrived at the designated street at 9 p.m. A pickup truck was parked nearby, driven by a man from the colony. Our sister got out of the truck, dressed in full habit, and handed us each a habit to wear into the colony. We were instructed to follow the pickup truck down a very dark road.

We arrived at a house, and after a brief welcome were invited to join a discussion group. We listened to a tape with some cult members. It was a speaker whose topic was "Martin Lucifer King."

I remember listening for the first few minutes, looking at my friend, and feeling like I was going to be sick.

The other participants were white "Catholics" whose rigid ideas on women, hatred of Pope John XXIII — they called him the Antichrist — and their obvious obsession with "correctness" in liturgy, shocked me.

I realized only later that white nationalism was the foundation of their way of life. This was my first experience of meeting the far right in person. The all-white community of well-educated "Catholics" were devout in their worship (all in Latin), encouraging young women to become members of a new religious community, and supporting the teachings of Pope Pius XII, while repudiating Vatican II.

Our very long three days and four nights with them still evoke feelings of deep sadness and a sickening feeling of the consequences of unquestioning obedience. The "priest-founder" used his supposed mystical experiences and fear of hell to foster compliance.

In the course of our visit, we had almost no time alone with our sister. She was even followed into the community bathroom by a member of the cult, lest we try to talk to her about coming home.

As we were leaving after no success in helping our sister see the need to leave, one cult member shouted at me in the parking lot: "You are going to hell. You've seen the truth and have walked away from us!"

When we joined our sisters living in Spokane, where we spent the night before returning home, we enjoyed a stiff drink!

As the years passed, the priest — who had become a bishop — left the colony, married one of the nuns, and absconded with the money.

Eventually, our sister did leave the cult and the congregation, but carries deep emotional scars.

This experience continues to haunt me as I see signs of deepening racism in our politics, laws, and so much more.

I believe that just as racism is taught, it can also be recognized and repudiated, and I hope systems will be changed which keep racist attitudes in place.

Today I realize that the area of Coeur d'Alene is home of the Aryan Nations.

In a desire to recognize and repudiate my racist tendencies I decided to check out "hate groups" in Missouri; I went to the Southern Poverty Law Center and checked out their Hate Map.

After reading what is happening in my state, I felt the same sick feeling that reminds me that well-organized groups are reinforcing racist patterns, even as I write this.

Recognizing that racism has got to be carefully taught, I was reminded of an ordinary moment of shopping for school supplies at a local teacher's store. Standing for a moment by my car in the parking lot, I noticed an African-American mother with two small children walking toward the store. She had her purse and a child on one hand, and another child held her other hand. All at once I noticed a car driven by an older white man, his wife seated next to him, pulling out of his parking spot and pulling up dangerously close to the woman and her children. He stopped and gave her "the finger" and then squealed out of the parking lot! I stood by my car shocked at what I had seen.

To this day I am sorry I did not express any support to the woman and her children, but instead went into the store as if nothing had happened. I am ashamed and humiliated by my lack of empathy and support.

And there are so many other moments of my blindness and racist behavior.

What makes me realize my racist remark, attitude, or neglect only after my action? Am I so totally unaware of the dignity of another that my conscience is deadened to the weight of my own "tribalism," where I revert to a former evolutionary state where difference is seen as a threat?

As I renew love for my country this Thanksgiving, I want to dedicate my energies to building community, as described by Rabbi Abraham Heschel:

To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God's beloved child. Racism is worse than idolatry. Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil, racism is. Few of us realize that racism is the gravest threat to humankind. 

[Judith Best is a School Sister of Notre Dame and coordinator of SturdyRoots.org. She gives presentations on the heritage of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and is also exploring evolution as the bridge between science and religion.]

Related - A sisters' community apologizes to one woman whose vocation was denied
and Reckoning: White sisters respond to their own racism, to one historian's call for justice

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections from younger sisters.