Lamenting privilege: A mother's lesson remembered

by Susan Rose Francois

NCR Contributor

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"Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church." Thirty-seven years after the U.S. bishops opened their 1979 pastoral letter, Brothers and Sisters to Us, with those powerful words, racism continues to be an enduring and embedded reality in both church and society.

While racism seems to get little air time in most churches, church doctrine is crystal clear on the matter. God created human kind, female and male, in God's own image and likeness. We are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God. Each of us is granted human dignity and inalienable rights by our creator God.

If somehow the creation story is not clear enough for us humans to get the point, there is also the power of the Incarnation. As we say in the creed, for our salvation Jesus "came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary," becoming a human person. We repeat these words every Sunday, but I wonder how often we consider what they truly mean. Jesus became a human person through this act of love, Emmanuel, God-with-us, pitching his tent with the human family and in so doing declaring every human life sacred. This we say we believe, and yet racism and other "isms" persist to the contrary.

Human beings seem to be slow learners, and Christians are no exception. We are plagued by the sin of racism which, as the U.S. bishops observed, "blots out the image of God among specific members of the human family and violates human dignity." We are socialized to see God's family not as intended by our creator, but through the obscured lenses of a hyper-racialized society which denies the truth of human dignity and assigns privileges or burdens depending on skin color or ethnic identity.

I write these words with a little trepidation. While I have an intellectual understanding of racism and its many duplicitous forms — personal, institutional, and systemic — I stand on the privileged side of the equation.

I am a light skinned descendent of Irish and German ancestors who immigrated to this country in the 19th and 20th centuries. I was born after the civil rights movement and was raised to treat all people with respect, no matter the color of their skin.

My mother had a particularly informed conscience and made choices that confronted systems of oppression. While I grew up in a mostly-white suburb, my mother would take me shopping at the mall located in a neighboring suburb where most residents were people of color. This was not only to expose her children to diverse groupings of people, but also because she knew that the major department stores intentionally sent lower quality goods and a lesser product selection to stores in communities of color. She was sending a message by choosing to spend her money in those stores, hoping to contribute the strength of her purchasing power to changing what she understood to be an unjust and racist system.

As a child of course, I was just annoyed that I couldn't shop at the same high-end (white) stores as my friends. Looking back, I realize that my mother was teaching me a powerful lesson about privilege. We cannot ignore it. In fact, if we are to have any hope of changing systems of oppression, then we must name privilege for what it is and use whatever power we have for justice and the common good. My mother passed away almost 13 years ago, but her lesson and example continue to challenge me.

I found myself thinking of my pre-teen shopping angst when I read Bryan Massingale's Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, a book I often recommend to folks who want to engage more intentionally in the struggle for racial justice. Massingale writes that those who benefit from "injustice can also lament, grieve, and protest." Lament is an entry point to confronting racial injustice. Beneficiaries of white privilege can lament both by acknowledging individual and communal complicity in present and past injustice and recognizing that one's benefits, privilege, and advantage has "been purchased at a high cost" and resulted in the corresponding burdens of others (p. 111). My mother seemed to understand this instinctively.

Massingale elaborates on lament as a response to racism in a chapter he contributed to Catholic Theological Ethics, Past, Present, and Future: the Trento Conference edited by James F. Keenan. Racism is not a subject we can engage purely on the rational level, but must be engaged on the visceral or "gut" level.

We need to lament, mourn, and grieve our history. . . . Lamenting holds together both sorrow and hope in ways that defy easy rational understanding. Laments honestly name and forthrightly acknowledge painfully wrenching circumstances, and yet proclaim that in the midst of the pain there is another word to be heard from God — a message of compassion and deliverance. Lament thus facilitates the emergence of something new, whether a changed consciousness or a renewed engagement with external events. It is indeed a paradox of protest and praise that leads to new life. (p. 121)

There is a deep truth in these words. Lament can indeed be transformative. Think of the ongoing transformative power of the Psalms.

I find it fitting that I am remembering my mother's lessons about privilege and pondering the transformative power of lament as we approach our country's annual Mother's Day celebration.

While the holiday has been domesticated by the purveyors of cards and flowers, the intention behind Julia Ward Howe's 1870 Mother's Day Proclamation was to call women together to lament the ravages of war and work for peace. "Arise, then, women of this day. Arise all women who have hearts . . . "

This Mother's Day weekend, I choose to remember and honor my mother by lamenting the ways I am connected to and benefit from systems of oppression and exclusion. As my mother's daughter, I commit myself, once again, to work for justice and the common good.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]