August 21, 2020

Participants learn ‘to listen, learn, ask questions’ in anti-racism workshop

Father Michael O’Mara, then pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, speaks to participants opposing the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals federal immigration policy at a rally outside of the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 27, 2018. (Criterion file photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Father Michael O’Mara, then pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis, speaks to participants opposing the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals federal immigration policy at a rally outside of the Statehouse in Indianapolis on Feb. 27, 2018. (Criterion file photo by Natalie Hoefer)

(Editor’s note: The following article is the second in a series called “Racism and Religion” that will run periodically in The Criterion regarding methods to address and eradicate all forms of racism in light of Catholic teaching, and efforts underway in parishes, through archdiocesan offices and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to move toward a society without the sin of racism.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Theresa Chamblee always felt her “conscience was clean” when it came to racism.

But as the sin of racism in the world continued, she began to realize that she, too, was guilty—not of racist acts, but of the sin of omission.

“I failed to educate myself on the systemic impacts racism and prejudice continue to have on our society,” she said. “Through my sin of omission, I realized that I was not fully loving God because I was not fully loving my neighbor.”

So she decided to learn. Chamblee, director of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities’ Social Concerns ministries, was one of 40 people who registered for “Abolishing Racism,” an online workshop sponsored by the Race and Culture Committee of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis.

She learned that “systemic racism … continues to take place in how we zone neighborhoods, what schools get funding, how accessible transportation is, what opportunities are accessible to people.”

But most impactful for Chamblee was realizing “how important it is to listen—really listen—to another person and their story.”

‘An emotionally charged question’

The workshop presenters began by posing a question to the participants: “Why is racism such a difficult topic to talk about?”

Several answers centered around fear—fear of saying something wrong, fear of confrontation, fear of being judged.

“It’s an emotionally-charged question, and you don’t know how they’ll react,” one person noted.

To define racism, co-presenter Pearlette Springer referred to a definition she learned in a training through Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing & Training, an organization based in Matteson, Ill.

That organization defines racism as “racial prejudice, plus misuses of power by systems and institutions.”

Springer, archdiocesan coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry and an anti-racism trainer, offered an example.

If a Caucasian restaurant owner refuses to serve a person of color, that is prejudice, she explained, “because the owner has no power to do harm.”

Say the owner then calls the police, she continued. “The officer could say this is not a problem, or he … can challenge the person and their right to be there because the power of the police system is behind him. The law enforcement system … allows racial prejudice to move to the next level,” hence the term “systemic racism.”

Systems with built-in racism “were created to ensure that power and control remained in the hands of white males,” Springer noted.

With that term defined, Springer’s co-presenter Tim Nation explained a hot-button term: white supremacy.

‘A complex, multi-generational process’

“Most people are unaware of their supremacist attitudes because they’ve been so subtly ingrained in them by society,” said Nation, executive director of the Peace Learning Center in Indianapolis and a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish’s Race and Culture Committee.

Internalized racist superiority, or “white supremacy,” is defined by Crossroads as “a complex, multi-generational socialization process that teaches white people to believe, accept, and/or live out superior societal definitions of self and to fit into and live out superior societal roles.”

Nation noted that, “having been racialized as whites … , each [Caucasian] lives out manifestations of internalized superiority in our daily lives.”

For instance, he said, “Our history books mainly focus on accomplishments of white people while we isolate the history of Black people to Black History Month. …

“Most Black people were left out of the GI Bill, Federal Housing Administration redlined their neighborhoods, and they were discriminated against for middle-class jobs. Today a typical Black family only has a dime of wealth for every dollar a White family possesses.” (See sidebar.)

Sometimes internalized white superiority is as blatant as involvement in a white supremacist group. Sometimes it’s expressed through silence or inaction.

And sometimes it’s expressed in phrases that prove a lack of understanding the reality of systemic racism.

‘Like Chutes and Ladders’

“You hear phrases like ‘Slavery ended a long time ago—they just need to get over it,’ or ‘They just need to work harder,’ ” Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) executive director Angela Espada noted in a separate interview with The Criterion. She was also a participant in the workshop.

“But systems have constantly put measures in place to prevent Black progress ever since slavery was abolished.”

Springer broke those systems into categories: educational, legal (including law enforcement and the judicial and prison systems), economic, social, military, health care, banking and housing systems.

“Speaking from experience, the price and quality of food in Black neighborhoods is poorer in quality and higher in price,” Springer said as an example of racism in the economic system.

The proof of racism built into systems is overwhelming. (Related: Examples show how systemic racism is a reality in our society)

“It is very eye-opening when you see how the lack of even one opportunity can have a ripple effect that will affect a person for a lifetime, even several lifetimes through future generations,” Chamblee noted.

“I think of it as [the game] Chutes and Ladders,” said Nation. “When some people are born, they get a chute or ladder.”

A dance through history

Nation also likened systemic racism and resistance to “a dance—one moves when the other one moves.”

This “dance” can be seen throughout history. In the United States, the pattern has played out between systems and those of varying races and nationalities, including Native Americans, Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Germans, Irish, Pacific Islanders and those from Asian countries.

The cause/effect pattern has even played out recently within the archdiocese.

In 2017, President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, one of tremendous help to “Dreamers”—those brought to the country as children of undocumented immigrants.

As the March 5, 2018, end-date approached, the archdiocese’s Office of Intercultural Ministry coordinated a Mass, march and rally in opposition on Feb. 27, 2018, in Indianapolis.

The most recent example of “oppression through systemic racism” was the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, said Springer. “The resistance has been the ongoing marches and protests since then.”

The impact of these protests stirred in some a desire to learn more about the reality of racism and how to abolish it. The online workshop met that need.

‘Pray for conversion of heart’

Chamblee acknowledges she learned information and gained knowledge from the workshop.

Still, it was the impact of the simple act of listening that stood out for her.

“I learned that it can be easy for me to take for granted the opportunities that I’ve been given until I listen to someone who wasn’t granted the same opportunities,” she said.

The importance of listening in the effort to end racism also impacted Alexander Mingus, associate director of the ICC.

“The workshop gave me a chance to hear the stories of members of our Catholic community who have experienced this evil in their lives,” he said. “If I don’t know someone who has experienced racism to this day, I will probably be tempted to believe it does not exist.”

The workshop left Simona Reising, coordinator of the archdiocesan Catholic Accompaniment and Reflection Experience program, inspired “to listen, to learn with empathy and curiosity without judgment, assumptions or defensiveness.”

She said she also learned “to speak up, challenge assumptions, ask questions and be responsible for my own learning.”

Such actions are just what is needed to abolish racism, said Springer.

“That’s the work we’re called to do is challenge the system,” she said. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s just how we do it,’ and ‘I can’t do anything about it.’ ”

During the workshop, Mingus offered a simple step for how to begin: “We have to pray for conversion of heart and the movement of the Holy Spirit to accompany the knowledge we’re seeking.”

(For those interested in the possibility of having the Abolishing Racism virtual workshop offered for a parish or group, contact Pearlette Springer at, 317-236-1474 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1474). †

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