Racism is Subtle, Insidious and Too Easy to Ignore

There is no room for hatred in the Catholic heart.

U.S. Marshals protect Ruby Bridges as she leaves her New Orleans school in 1960.
U.S. Marshals protect Ruby Bridges as she leaves her New Orleans school in 1960. (photo: Register Files)

So, Charlottesville. It is troubling, on the one hand, to consider that so much hate, fear, and distrust exists among Americans in 2017. (Almost just as worrisome is the media that seems to thrive on it, but that’s another story.) On the other hand we know, as Catholics, that sin has plagued the human condition since (almost) the beginning. And will continue to do so, until Jesus’ triumphant return. I suppose that regardless what your personal feelings are regarding debates over statues or ESPN announcers sharing a name with famous Civil War generals, it can be said without question that people are hurting, and that racial tensions run high.

Personally, I don’t believe that the white supremacy and neo-Nazism we witnessed earlier this month are typical of the average white American. The sorts of activists attracted to such twisted (and, frankly, stupid) ideologies most likely comprise a fairly small percentage of the general population. The media might have you believe otherwise, but I just refuse to buy the narrative that this stuff is run-of-the-mill, typical behavior. Part of me wishes the media would refrain from covering their activities, and therefore take away their platform. No more tiki torches or swastika-laden photo ops dominating the news, please. Let these guys languish in obscurity instead.

But even if they do represent a small minority, the worst of the worst, that doesn’t mean that America doesn’t have real, more common racial issues worth addressing. And it doesn’t mean that Catholics in particular should not be concerned with the subject of racial justice.

This issue is, I confess, personal for me. Four of my children are adopted. My adopted children are black. I know in my head that racism is real, but anytime I actually see it manifest itself, directed towards my children, it surprises me. And it stings. As their white mother I don’t get to tell them I know how it feels, or explain how I deal with it when it happens to me. Because, well, it doesn’t. So I do my best to walk the line of dismissing it as utterly ridiculous (“just blow it off, because obviously they’re just wanting to be mean and have no idea what they’re talking about”), and validating their concerns (“I know it hurts, and that is a horrible way to treat someone”). I always make sure to tell them that I love the color of their skin, and that I hope they’re always confident and proud of who God made them to be.

No matter what, it’s hard. I’ve wondered if the media’s focus on neo-Nazis somehow obscures the sort of racism my black children are much more likely to encounter. It doesn’t really look like what we saw in Charlottesville. In some ways it seems worse, because it’s much more subtle and insidious, and therefore far easier for people to ignore.

Last summer, my black sons were at a friend’s house. I found out from a parent, upon picking them up, that another child there had been unkind to them throughout their visit. At one point, the host told me, he even made some explicit and unkind remarks about black people. My husband and I spoke at length and made the decision that our sons would no longer spend time at social events where this boy was present, because hello, that’s not okay. Our boys are pretty tough and didn’t really seem to care, and so we hoped that would be the end of things.

Unfortunately though, the harassment continued at school, and involved at least two different kids, including the original boy. It happened multiple times face-to-face, and once over email. One of my sons even told me he didn’t want to return to school after Christmas break, but I told him that we needed to contact the principal and see this through, to ensure that this would not happen to any other minority students.

But sadly, the administration wouldn’t really acknowledge the racial nature of the bullying—“We just don’t have those kinds of problems here, and we used to have two black teachers on staff, and your son is a better soccer player than _______ so, I don’t think he’s too bothered by it.” It was that afternoon, sitting dumbfounded across the desk from the school’s executive director as he told me why this couldn’t possibly be racism (even though most of the comments were explicitly about race), when I realized that the adults to whom I’d entrusted my kids for forty hours a week were no longer looking out for their best interests. These grownups were uncomfortable with the very idea of racism. At the very least, they believed it to be overblown, and so they wrote off the remarks made on campus (some of which had been overheard by other students). Instead of addressing the problem head-on, they tried to explain it away. At one point they even attempted to blame my son, questioning him in the office (without my permission) and implying that he must be a target for some other reason, although there was no real reason, beyond the fact that he is black. He is a good kid, with good grades and no behavior incidents on record whatsoever.

Needless to say, my children are no longer at that school. We left for several reasons, but what happened to my black children loomed large in that decision. Enough was enough. And the bullying was bad, but what astonished us the most was the general attitude of the administration. To deny that racism played a role in the face of cruel comments about black people, racial name-calling, and an email with the subject line “you people” was complete and utter nonsense. For whatever reason, no one wanted to believe that an eleven-year-old white kid from the suburbs could be a racist, or that an eleven-year-old black kid could be the victim of injustice in a small, classical charter school where he excelled as an athlete.

At some point though, in the midst of all of it, I received an email from a Catholic community member, who also happens to attend our parish. He’d heard about what was happening, and wanted to offer his support. He said he’d be more than happy to accompany us to meet with administrators, to speak out on behalf of our situation, and basically do whatever it took so that our son felt safe attending school. He said he was, ultimately, deeply concerned about justice, and wanted to reach out.

To say this meant the world to us would be an understatement. Knowing that someone saw what was happening to my child and cared—really, truly cared—spoke volumes about this man’s character and his faith. I was also blessed during that time to meet (on more than one occasion) for coffee with some Catholic women who also had children at our school, and who voiced their support for what we were going through. Then another Catholic mom called one morning to tell me about how her daughter had come home upset the day before, because she’d witnessed my son being horribly bullied. During the last week of school, yet another mom contacted me to say she was so sad my kids were not returning, and that she was upset by the things that she (and her kids) saw happening. These caring and compassionate adults (and their equally caring and compassionate kids!) made all the difference during what turned out to be a very difficult year.

It’s a politically loaded term (and one I never use, for that very reason!), but I want to say that the people who reached out and supported my sons are absolutely social justice warriors—in the truest sense of the word. You don’t have to carry a banner or have a loud, angry voice to fight for racial justice. You don’t have to vote a certain way or identify with a particular group. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to call up or invite a friend for coffee, and say that racial harassment is 100% not okay. That there is NO excuse for administrators and teachers minimizing such a thing when it happens to a black student. That, simply, you want to help.

Why am I sharing this personal story with you today? I went back and forth about it, because it’s vulnerable. If I’m honest, I have to admit that what happened still really bothers me. It was an isolating experience for our family and as recently as a week ago, another cruel student told one of my other children that my one son deserved it, before calling him more names. But I’m telling you because I want people to know that underneath the media frenzy and the politicking, the yelling and the shouting, there exists the simple truth that racism does indeed affect people every single day. Perhaps those of us in the racial majority don’t see it much, but it’s there. I know I’ve only caught a small glimpse, but I know enough to know it’s ugly. And so regardless what we may think about statues honoring long-dead Confederate soldiers, we can also acknowledge the truth that people are intentionally inflicting pain upon other people, because of their skin color. This is a horrible injustice. It is wrong.

But we are not helpless, because we can make a difference. We can choose love. And healing. And hope.

There is no room for hatred in the Catholic heart, and we must work to pursue justice and uphold the dignity of every human person. In the face of racism, our simple acts of love and service will surely speak volumes. And I can assure you, from personal experience, that they will be heard long after the din of the media storm has quieted down.    

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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