I don't know black

by Tracy Kemme


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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.

I do know that we lived next to a black family when I was a toddler. I have a clear memory of playing in the backyard with one of the girls. We were sitting in the grass, looking at the bottom of our feet, which we discovered were a similar pink-ish color on both of our bodies. We figured we must be the same color underneath the other "paint" on the rest of our skin. A lovely and actually profound encounter, but it's the only recollection I have of playing with a black child. We moved away a few years later.

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.

Today, across the United States, Catholic communities will gather for the Day of Prayer for Peace in Our Communities, as mandated by USCCB president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. The phrase "our communities" strikes me. This is the 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.

This push for prayer takes place on the feast of St. Peter Claver, who ministered within communities of slaves in modern-day Cartagena. He committed his entire life to solidarity, service, and speaking out. When traveling, he declined offers for hospitality in plantation houses and opted for sleeping in slaves' quarters instead. This was a man who, within the limitations of the consciousness of his times, chose to say no to injustice and evil. As we gather to pray throughout the nation today, we need St. Peter Claver's inspiration. This could easily remain a vague, one-calendar-day effort. For it to be worth anything, it must generate passion and commitment for the long haul, as we work toward healing and justice. As we pray, each of us needs to ask how we can be part of the answer to our prayer.

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.

In an effort to build relationships that span the seemingly cavernous cultural divide, we host monthly bilingual story-sharing meals. Spanish-speakers, English-speakers, and bilingual interpreters sit down at table together and talk. For some white folks, it is their first long conversation with a Guatemalan. Initial nervous silence gives way to hesitant small talk and finally to real sharing. Migrants share their stories of treacherous journeys, separated families and deep faith. Meals end with the beginnings of understanding and friendship. Amy now crosses the aisle to share the sign of peace with Luis at the bilingual Mass. Terry acknowledges a shift in his long-held views about "illegals" after hearing about Rosa's outrageously long wait in "line" for a visa to come legally. Jack realizes that Maribel's story is shockingly similar to that of his great grandmother who herself migrated from Germany. Natalie, who wasn't sure how she felt about immigration policy, now chooses to march in the Justice for Immigrants rally.

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?

[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]