By Sheri Bartlett Browne
I recently listened to a white Catholic deacon sermonizing on today’s evils — but he never named any of them. Without guidance, what were the white parishioners thinking? Given the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, I hoped everyone was thinking about the scourge of racism. But for most of us, it will take conscious awareness to begin to face this evil. If you are white like me, I pray that such contemplation will lead you to self-awareness, commitment to antiracism, and advocacy for justice.
One place to begin is the concept of implicit bias. Studies suggest that we bring to human interactions an array of unconscious messages about others. Implicit biases about race have a momentous impact on us. Unsurprisingly, individuals who took a visual sorting test on race from Harvard’s Project Implicit overwhelmingly linked images of white people to positive words (joyous, excitement) while associating images of Black people to negative ones (bothersome, selfish). These linkages held true regardless of the test taker’s race.
What should we do with this troubling information? Once we are aware of our unconscious prejudices, I suggest that a white person’s next step is to come to grips with white privilege.
The term may seem like amorphous academic-speak – a way to label good people as racist, when they believe they are not. But two things come to mind. One is the writing of journalist Isabel Wilkerson, who asks us to envision an old house that we’ve inherited. We might not have been around when it was constructed, but it’s ours now. We are responsible for repairs, from the plumbing to the roof. If we don’t fix the broken-down house that racism built, who will?
Second is a reminder from historian Ibram X. Kendi: “The heartbeat of racism is denial.” If your first inclination is to deny your prejudices and the effect they have on our social systems, then I urge you to look again. After taking the implicit bias test for race and not liking the results, I dove deeper into white privilege, and what I found has made me think differently about every interaction.
White privilege, according to antiracist advocate Peggy McIntosh, is like a knapsack full of items for life’s journey. If you are white, yours is filled with unearned assets. They are keys that you did not ask for, but they unlock privileges solely because of your race. Here are a few assets that I found in my white healthcare chaplain knapsack:
- Responding to on-call crises at night, I never fear being stopped by the police when driving to the hospital.
- Confused in the parking garage, I will seek out, rather than avoid, hospital security. The guard has never asked, “What are you doing here?”
- Entering the hospital, I feel I belong. Art, background music, and quiet spaces reflect positively on my Anglo-European heritage.
- The medical teams look like me. I am welcomed into the unit and feel comfortable working there.
- Praying in an empty chapel at 3 a.m., my presence is not a matter of concern.
If you are a white chaplain, you could probably make a similar list. These privileges are not easy to name or discard, but awareness brings new opportunities for antiracist advocacy. Here are some ideas:
- Collaborate with your colleagues to organize an implicit bias training.
- Put racism on your meeting agenda and lead a conversation about it.
- Work together to develop an antiracist covenant and share it with other units.
- Envision a more inclusive and welcoming chapel. How can you help make these changes?
- Join a community forum about systemic racism and listen to the voices of your Black neighbors.
As Catholic Christians we are called to antiracist praxis. Antiracism is embedded in Catholic social teaching, offering a roadmap for our journey. Make room in your knapsack for those commitments, such as:
- The preferential option for the marginalized. Listen to and advocate for those who have been marginalized by racist thinking, violence, and disenfranchisement.
- Human dignity. How has historical, structural racism impacted this person, their relationships with others, and our communities?
- Reverence. The sin of racism perverts the belief that all people are created in the image of God. Do your actions attest to the sacredness of others?
- Solidarity. Stand unwaveringly with others to eradicate structural inequalities in healthcare, housing, education, and employment.
These changes are not easy, but that is really the point. If they were easy, we would have eradicated racist thinking and actions decades ago. Now, it’s time to repack our knapsacks with these commitments to justice. May they challenge and inspire you, open new doors, create bridges, and heal deep wounds on your anti-racist journey.
Sheri Bartlett Browne, PhD, BCC, is professor of history at Tennessee State University in Nashville, TN.