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In response to the proposal from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) that congregations focus on the dismantling of racism, the Adrian Dominican Sisters began by identifying resources that can assist us in raising our consciousness of white privilege and white supremacy, both personally and systematically.
Since January 2021, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters have collaborated on a project to provide information on prominent Black and Indigenous Catholics who have made significant contributions to the church and society, along with reflection questions and a prayer.
In May of 2022, Kevin D. Hofmann was named the founding Director of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion for the Congregation. With the goal of normalizing conversations about race and culture and discussing what it means to feel included and excluded, Kevin began contributing to this blog in June of 2022 and shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
“Do you think you benefitted from white privilege?” The young college student posed it as a question, but I could tell by his tone that he had the answer already in his head – he just wanted to hear me say it and I couldn’t. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. At best, it was a silver-plated spoon and never had I been confronted with this possibility.
Twelve years ago, after finishing the first edition of my book, I called the Sociology Department at Lourdes University in Toledo, Ohio. I spoke to Dr. Litton, the department head, and asked if we could meet. To my surprise, she agreed, and I presented my book and asked if I could come to speak on campus. Dr. Litton was gracious and seemed interested, but I have been to plenty of hopeful meetings that end up vaporizing and disappearing into nothing. I walked out of the meeting feeling good but realistic. Fortunately, what I asked for never came to be. Instead, Dr. Litton made my book part of her required reading for one of the university’s required classes. Every student that wanted to graduate from Lourdes had to take Dr. Litton’s Multicultural Class and was required to read and write about my book.
I was asked to come in once every semester to talk to the students about my multicultural life. During one of those classes, a student asked the question above and I ran from it. I didn’t want to admit that I had benefited from my white parent’s privilege. I pushed away the question. I side-stepped it like it had the power to kill me. No way did I benefit from privilege! I worked hard to get where I was. I could cite situation after situation when I felt slighted because of the melanin in my skin. No way! No way!
On my ride home, I remembered back to the beautiful neighborhood my family and I moved to when I was eight. In the summer of my eighth birthday, we moved from our lower middle-class Black neighborhood to one of Detroit’s best neighborhoods, Rosedale Park, an upper-middle class white neighborhood. A neighborhood where most of the deeds still had written in them that one condition of the loan was the buyer had to agree to not sell the home to Black people. On that ride home, I had to come to grips with the fact that I had benefited from my parent’s white privilege.
At eight years old I moved into a neighborhood that real estate agents didn’t show to Black families. I was able to “move on up” like the Jeffersons because my parent’s whiteness gave them access to nicer, safer neighborhoods. The realization of this fact sat askew just under my heart above my diaphragm. I had been given an easier road to travel then a lot of my Black friends. It wasn’t because I was better than them or because I hadn’t worked hard. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t struggle. If this home wasn’t in foreclosure, it is doubtful that we would have been able to afford it. So yes, we struggled, but we were given options others weren’t. Processing that thought in my mind made me flinch, lurch, and gag.
The young student was right. When I met with a different group of students the next semester, we talked about privilege, and for the first time publicly I admitted I benefited from privilege. It hurt to say it, but it was true.
When I first started speaking and training groups I would avoid talking about privilege because the response to it from my predominately white audience was explosive. If I just mentioned the word, I could see several in the audience flinch, lurch, gag, and then check out. They had no interest in hearing anything else I had to say because they assumed I was shortly going to say their lives were easy. I was going to tell them they didn’t work to get anything in life. They simply had to walk through life and things would be handed to them. I understood that line of thinking. I gave those same arguments when I was confronted with it.
In her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as, “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Access to a community some can’t access is privilege. Every day we drove into Rosedale Park we were cashing in on our privilege and we did nothing to earn this exclusive access.
Access to this community gave me access to community sports leagues that gave me something to keep me busy and out of trouble. Access to this community reset my expectations as to what I could do in life. It was easier to live in the new neighborhood. This had more to do with money than race. The lack of resources will force you to make decisions you wouldn’t normally make. The lack of resources creates a very intense environment where people feel like they must get others before others get them. I was on constant alert in the old neighborhood, and it was mentally exhausting. Fortunately, I walked away from the neighborhood hating poverty not Black people. I hated the struggle. I hated the feeling of lacking. I hated the inability to completely exhale. The stress of that type of environment eventually wins. People who grow up in this type of environment die earlier, have more chronic health problems, and struggle to stay afloat financially. There is privilege in not having to worry about those things. There is privilege is being able to exhale.
Over the next few weeks, I want to talk about privilege. I want to point out where I notice it, what it looks like, and the many ways we can use it to our advantage to help level the playing field.
A few years ago, my wife, Shilease, and I decided to mark our anniversary every year with a vacation. Last week we celebrated our 29th anniversary aboard Carnival’s cruise ship, The Horizon. It is hard to comprehend that on a Saturday almost 30 years ago, after the University of Michigan defeated Notre Dame, we got married. The wedding was by far the most important event that day. But a Michigan win is a Michigan win, and it too should be celebrated.
Soon after getting married, we bought a house, had two sons, and got swept away with our careers. In the flow of life, there wasn’t always time or resources for luxuries like a vacation. We took small vacations with the boys, but the real vacations went on hiatus for about 20 years. When my wife suggested we make sure to plan a vacation once a year around our anniversary I was all for it.
Last week we traveled to Detroit Metropolitan Airport to fly to Fort Lauderdale. Just after we cleared security, on our way to our gate, there was a new display sponsored by Delta Air Lines called the Delta Parallel Reality Board. It was a large electronic board that hung from the ceiling, measuring approximately 20 feet long and eight feet wide and looked like an oversized departure/arrival board you typically see at the airport. The only difference was this electronic board was blank. As we approached the large board a Delta employee motioned us over to her kiosk. She instructed us to scan our boarding passes and walk toward the display. My wife went first, and I followed. As my wife looked at the board, she could see filling up the entire board was her flight information, that followed a simple greeting that read, “Hello Shilease!”
I stood three feet away from my wife and when I looked up, I too had a warm greeting. It read, “Hello Kevin!” Below was my flight information stating my departure time, gate number, and destination. I assumed since my wife scanned her ticket first, the board would show her information for a few seconds and then switch to mine. I was wrong. We were seeing two different screens. When others walked by the board appeared blank to them. The Delta employee then instructed my wife to come and stand directly in front of me. When she did, she could see the board from my point of view and saw, “Hello Kevin!” When she moved one foot to the left or right, she again saw her information. I saw the future and the future was ours!
As I settled into my seat on the plane I thought about this magical board. It was interesting – unless my wife entered my space, she couldn’t see what I was seeing. Isn’t that what we talked about recently? Just last week I wrote about how true inclusion commands us to stand in the position of someone different from us.
We landed in Fort Lauderdale and stayed overnight in Miami. The next morning, we made the short trip to the docks to board the ship. As we sailed by Cuba the following day, there was an announcement over the PA system on the ship: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have rerouted the ship in response to a distress call from a small boat stranded in the middle of the ocean. Once we get close, we will send a team from our ship out to assist those on board the boat. Once this is done, we will resume our journey.” An hour later another announcement came over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, as you can tell we are turning the ship back to our original course. We were able to contact the small boat carrying five men. We offered to bring them on board, but they refused and simply asked for food and water which we gave them along with a radio. They requested we let them continue their journey and that is what we did.”
I sat in the dining room about to eat my pancakes and thought to myself, “Why would they risk so much? Why wouldn’t they accept our help?” The idea of Delta’s magical board came back to me. I was stuck looking at the world from how I would handle things. I had to force myself to step three feet over and view the world from their point of view. These five brave men decided their living conditions in Cuba we untenable. They decided the risk to find a better life was worth dying for. As I sat in comfort, I was ashamed of the judgement I had for these men earlier. As I sat in comfort, I clearly understood that not for the grace of God, there go I. I was afforded a privileged life and that made their decision incomprehensible for me if I choose to view it from where I stood.
Throughout the next week I thought a lot about these men. I wondered if they ever made it. I thought about their small rowboat that would not be fit for a fun Saturday on Lake Erie. I prayed that they made it to Florida safely, but odds were not in their favor.
As I wondered about the five men, I heard about the 50 immigrants flown to Martha’s Vineyard under the pretense that they would be given services and employment once they arrived. Instead they were used to make a political point, and they arrived in a community that didn’t know they were coming. Again, I was ashamed. I wished that the individuals that shipped off these immigrants like Amazon packages would have taken the time to step into the space of those seeking asylum to see the world from their point of view.
I pray that we as a community will always look to change the position from which we view the world. I pray that we will always challenge where we stand to view the world. I pray that we will find different angles to view the world. In doing so I think we can create a better view for others.
A recent article in the online newsletter Black Catholic Messenger recounts how when a Black Catholic Parish in Mobile Alabama tweeted a video of a teenage parishioner using her gift of dance to praise God during Mass "the reaction from Catholic Twitter was swift – and it was ugly." Most of these comments were decrying the violation of the beauty and sanctity of the Roman Liturgy, born in the Latin Mass of old. It would probably surprise many of the "tweeters" that the Roman Liturgy and the Latin Mass that they so revere is African in origin – brought to Rome by the early African popes.
While it can seem to the contemporary mind that the Roman Church and the papacy is a purely European institution, the early popes, in fact, reflected the diversity of the early Church – a Church that was born in the Middle East and spread around the Mediterranean basin, from Greece to Rome and the Iberian Peninsula and with great success to North Africa. "North Africa was the Bible belt of early Christianity," said Christopher Bellitto, a Church historian at Kean University in New Jersey, "and Carthage was the buckle," he added, referring to the city located in modern-day Tunisia (Religion News Service).
So it should be no surprise that three early popes hailed from that region: the 14th pope, Victor I (circa 189-198 A.D.); the 32nd pope, Miltiades (311-314 A.D.); and the 49th pope, Gelasius I (492-496 A.D.). All three of these popes are saints in the Roman Church.
The earliest known African to become pope was Victor I, who was born and raised in the Africa Proconsularis of Rome, which today includes Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria. Pope Victor is best known for setting the date of Easter on a Sunday. Prior to this, there had been disputes about whether to celebrate the feast on Passover — the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan — or on the Sunday closest to that date. And Pope Victor’s great innovation was encouraging the use of his native Latin as the language of worship in the city of Rome, as opposed to Greek, the language of the New Testament.
Pope Miltiades was born in Africa and was the first pope to have an official residence in Rome, thanks to the Emperor Constantine and his mother, St. Helen. Miltiades is said to have lived in the Lateran Palace, making it the first official papal residence. It remained so for 1,000 years and was the site of the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929. This treaty formed the Vatican City State. Miltiades is considered the founder of the Basilica of St. John Lateran and was the last pope to be buried in the catacombs in Rome.
Pope Gelasius was the 49th pope and is believed to have been either born in Rome or in Africa, but was definitely a Roman citizen of African descent. He was devoted to the Mass and wrote many hymns and prayers and even arranged a missal. He also ordered that the Eucharist be received under both species. The Gelasian Sacramentary from the eighth century is named in his honor. During a time of famine and unrest, Pope Gelasius showed distinct leadership in demanding the affluent Romans donate money for the relief of the poor of the city.
One last note for those inclined to dance in church:
In 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments approved the "Roman Missal for the Dioceses of Zaire." Today, the Congolese Rite is the only enculturated rite approved for use by the Catholic Church. Dancing, especially during the offertory, is a key part of this rite. Pope Francis said in Dec. 2020, "The experience of the Congolese rite of celebrating the Mass can serve as an example and model for other cultures."
So dance on happy feet and thank our African sisters and brothers for this rite of praise.
"African Popes," St. Benedict the Moor Parish, Milwaukee, WI
"Has there ever been a black or African pope?" Religion News Service, March 1, 2013
"PROFESSING FAITH: Catholic Church had three African popes in early centuries," by Redlands Daily Facts, September 24, 2014
"Were there any Black popes?" By Patricia Kasten, The Compass, February 2, 2022
"A tweet in time: Black Catholics in the age of liturgical shaming," by Nate Tinner-Williams, Black Catholic Messenger, August 12, 2022
"Explainer: What is the Zaire rite—and why is Pope Francis talking about it now?" America Magazine
"Pope Francis: The Zairean Rite is a 'promising model' for the Amazon," Vatican News
Video: "Holy Mass in the Zaire Rite, with Pope Francis on the 1st Sunday of Advent 1 December 2019"
Africa has given the Church more than popes, saints and the Latin language, Africa and Africans give the Church a deep heritage of the wholeness of mind, body and spirit; the goodness of creation; and the centrality of community.
Where do you treasure the influence of Africa in your life?
Please read the "Great Spirit!" prayer by Rozwi of South Africa, from An African Prayer Book by Desmond Tutu.
(After clicking the link, scroll halfway down the page to find this prayer.)
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou
On the corner of Greenfield and Outer Drive on Detroit’s Northwest side there sits a small school, now called Redford Academy, I think. When I was growing up It was called, Greenfield Peace Lutheran School. I went there from third to eighth grade. The student body was no more than 400 students, and I felt safe inside those walls.
Each grade level had only one class, so I went to school with the same students for six years; rarely did anyone leave, and rarely did we get new classmates. I learned with the same group of about 30 kids for those six years. Unfortunately, we didn’t all feel safe – I hate to admit.
The student body was about 90-95% Black. In my class, we had one white student, Jennifer. We treated her horribly. As insecure children, we justified it by saying, “At least they’re not picking on me.” We picked on her because she was different. She was a very creative student who liked to make things out of torn tissues and paper. She would often pour Elmer’s glue on her hand, and when it dried she would peel it off and create little animals and figures. To most of us, it looked like a mess, but to her it was art, something she had created.
We bullied her. Often one student would take what she made and destroy it just to see her scream and cry. I can’t recall a day she didn’t cry. Although I never directly participated in this torture, I never said anything to stop it. I never spoke up for her or did anything to protect her. My fear was if I did, the torture would be directed toward me. Selfishly I stayed quiet.
About 10 years ago I was flipping through Facebook and found Jennifer. She was interacting with several of our classmates, and she was pleasant, kind, and loving. I remembered the daily hell we put her through and I felt horrible! I was now an adult with children who were the target of some bullying and I had wished someone would have spoken up for them. I saw Jennifer and I was convicted. This idea chased me around for a few days. I tried ducking around corners, hiding in my mind, and nothing worked. My mind kept bringing me back to that small Lutheran school where we weren’t very Christ-like at times. Finally, I stopped and let those thoughts hit me square between the eyes. All along I knew what I needed to do. I was just hoping to outrun what I knew I was required to do.
I sent a private message to Jennifer. I apologized for the group and for the way we treated her. I was close, but more was required. I apologized for staying quiet. I apologized for not protecting her. I finished the message and hit send and I waited and waited. I went back several times to check the message thread, and still no response. About a day later, Jennifer responded. She had forgiven me and held no bad feelings toward me or any of our classmates. She considered herself part of our small family even through we didn’t treat her that way. I was relieved and humbled.
Part of me wonders why it took me 30 years to see what I did to Jennifer. I think because as a child you focus on yourself… a lot. I was probably more focused on myself than most because I was so self-conscious. I was so afraid of one of my Black classmates making fun of me because I was adopted. I was so afraid they would accuse me of not being truly Black because I was being raised by a white family. I lacked the desire and ability to see the world from Jennifer’s point of view. As an adult, I see it right away because I have developed the ability to empathize with others.
My job at Adrian Dominican Sisters may be karma. I am focused on and committed to helping us all have more empathy for others. I constantly ask myself questions like, “How might an Evangelical Christian see this,” or “How might a white woman hear what I just said?” I don’t always remember to do it, but when I do the answer is usually clear.
Working to create a better sense of belonging for everyone commands us to ALWAYS ask those questions. “How might a female co-worker feel about that last comment?” “How might a Black Sister feel about the joke?” It is not about us. It is about how we impact others. I wish I was aware of that at Greenfield Peace Lutheran School.
“I’m pregnant,” she said. I could sense the shame in her voice. “Yes, I know,” was my response.
I was 11 years old, and my sister was 16. She had a relationship with a high school classmate and was now pregnant. Because she was pregnant, she could no longer stay at our Catholic high school. My parents shipped her off to a “home for unwed mothers” (that’s a whole separate blog). My sister called me from her new home to break the news. I had heard my parents talking about it a few days prior, so I knew before she told me. I was eavesdropping on my parent’s conversation because suddenly my sister was gone from the house, and no one was telling me why.
My sister had a little girl who was immediately placed for adoption. She returned to high school as if nothing happened and graduated on time. It would be 30 years before anyone would talk about this again.
In 2009 when I was searching for my biological family (I am adopted), I shared the search details with my sister. She was excited to hear I had found my biological mother. During our conversation my sister got quiet. I was so excited about my search, and it didn’t occur to me this may be a very painful conversation for a birth mother to hear. Softly my sister asked me, “Do you think my daughter thinks about me?” This shot to the gut dropped me to my knees. “Of course, she does,” I stated plainly.
It was the first time after her daughter was born that we spoke about it. This was our family dynamic. We did not talk about the tough stuff. I think part of that was a result of the era we grew up in. This was pre-Dr. Phil and pre-Oprah. In the 1970s and 1980s we were taught to avoid the tough conversations and they will go away. Unfortunately, that was not true. The subject of those tough conversations, in many ways, grew bigger in each of our minds and we were left to reconcile that on our own. It is easy to see this was not the best way to handle it.
In Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility, she talks about intent versus impact. So often we concentrate on intent. My parent’s intentions were to give my sister and the new baby the best shot at being successful in life. My sister will admit that at 16 she was not ready to be a mother. So logically, our parent’s decision made sense. More importantly though was the impact this experience would have on a 16-year-old. The impact of not feeling safe enough to talk about this for more than 30 years would seem to far outweigh my parent’s intentions. We should have focused more on impact.
In the conversation – and delicate dance that comes with carving out space for everyone – intentions versus impact comes up a lot. It usually shows up when someone says the wrong thing out of ignorance or carelessness and another person gets offended by what was said. The one offended points it out and the casual offender explains their intentions. The impact is ignored.
When I first got married 29 years ago, in the first 5-10 years (I’m a slow learner), I would often say something to my wife that offended her. She would tell me how what I said hurt her, and she gave detailed points as to what I did and how I made her feel. Before she could finish her thoughts, I would jump in and plead my case. “No, no, no, that’s not what I intended,” I would enthusiastically say to her. She would then go quiet. I thought it was because I was great at proving my point. I was not. She fell quiet because she didn’t feel heard, and she didn’t think I was ever going to understand. I ignored the impact it had on her. Me latching on to my intentions compared to the impact it had on her, only made her feel worse.
As we begin this equity and inclusion work, be mindful that we all have the power to impact people in ways we don’t realize. We need to speak to the impact and take responsibility when we hurt someone by something we have done. We simply need to back up, and not try to explain our way out. Instead, we need to own up to our role in it, apologize, and learn from it.
My sister and I talk about her being pregnant and having her daughter occasionally. She has shared with me how painful it was to give her daughter away. The disruption between a mother and her child takes a lifetime to heal. As an adoptee, I know that firsthand. I have found that sitting still, listening to my sister, helping her process, and supporting her have brought us to a healthier place. Let us make it a practice to look outside ourselves, see the world from a different perspective, and consider the impact of our well-intended actions.
I sat in on a Zoom call a few weeks ago about creating a deeper conversation around race and racism in the Church. I was excited because I have a lot of ideas as to how we can create a better sense of belonging in the Church.
Early in the conversation, the leader was asked a very important question. “Since everyone comes to the conversation of race from a different vantage point and with varying degrees of experience, will this conversation include definitions and the acceptance of the existence of things like, white supremacy, institutional racism, and white privilege?”
I liked the question because this is always a struggle when talking about race. I think it is important to at least begin on the same page. The response we received floored me.
“I’ll be honest, I will not use any of those words as part of this conversation.” The way he said it, I heard the period at the end of the sentence. He left no room for negotiations.
I understand why someone might say something like this. There are words and phrases that can derail a conversation that already feels like it comes pre-installed with snares and pitfalls. I think the thought was that we don’t need to make the conversation any more hazardous than it needs to be.
I have been a part of many well-meaning conversations on race. The dance is the same for me each time. I come to the meeting anxious to see what their level of commitment is to dig in and do the work. I stand at the edge of the pool listening, wondering if the water is warm enough to get in.
The method of entry has changed. I used to dive right into the deep end willing to bare my soul for the benefit of the group and ended up flailing alone in the deep end. I am more cautious nowadays. Yet, I expect more. When I am brave enough to speak up, I expect to be heard. I expect to be given the grace to share my experiences, however that may present itself. This can be shocking to some because rarely do I, or others like me, get the opportunity to express the frustration and pain that comes with racism. The purge is not always clean and orderly, but it is necessary and not personal. To be safe to share in this way is invaluable. To be able to speak about the crushing weight of white supremacy is invaluable. To hear other acknowledge it is invaluable. To simply be heard – really heard – is invaluable.
To begin the conversation by saying that I can’t name the perpetrator who caused this pain means I won’t dip my smallest toe in that pool. We must talk about the bad, the uncomfortable, and the painful. We must give each other the space to talk about the tough things. If we don’t, I don’t see how the conversation can be productive for all involved.
Being a true ally means you’re willing to sit in the muck with me at the bottom of the pool. You don’t get to dictate how long I stay there, how I process it, or when I am done. I don’t need you to fix me, save me, or speak for me. I simply need you to sit with me. When I’m done, and we ascend to the surface to re-oxygenate our lungs, the oxygen is treasured in a way it never was.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters Motherhouse campus, and everywhere we touch, will be a safe place for all and diving into the deep end will be worth it. Who’s with me?
When my sons were little, we would sit in front of the TV each holding a video game controller. It was a great father and son moment… or so I thought. Once they grabbed the controller, we were no longer related. We were competitors! It was their chance to dominate their father, and they relished the opportunity. I must admit their competitiveness was transferred to them via DNA. I grew up constantly competing with siblings, friends, strangers… anyone who would play any kind of game.
Our playfields were different. I played football outside on our lawn and the lawns of the adjacent neighbors. I played basketball in the backyard where the hoop was installed on top of the garage. The rim was not adjustable, portable, and nowhere near the right height. My opponents were kids from the neighborhood or school.
My sons’ field was a 55” HD TV screen in a dark room with a controller that looked like it could launch nuclear weapons. Their opponents were connected through the internet, using wireless headphones with a microphone. Their opponents came from all over the world.
After a short tutorial from my sons about which button does what and a very brief explanation of the rules, we hit start and the game began. We were playing a racing game called Mario Kart. In the game, the little characters drove small vehicles around a track. The goal was to be in first place after three laps. When my son was going over the buttons, he tried to point out the button for the car’s brake. I told him I didn’t need to know that button because I didn’t plan on using it – I would be full throttle the entire race.
For the first lap my strategy was working: full speed ahead. I was in first place with room to spare. I was feeling good about myself. I thought I was a natural and made sure to let my son know how good I was by coating him in the most trash talk I could summon.
The second lap was going well, and I began to anticipate the upcoming turns and negotiated them even better. First place was mine and my lead was growing. I dispensed another helping of trash talk as I began the third lap still in the first place.
My muscle memory was firing and again I anticipated the left turn coming up and negotiated it better than A.J. Foyt or Dale Earnhardt. The finish line was close, so I eased off the gas to prevent a mistake. My lead was big enough that I could be cautious. I was also trying to see how I could turn my car around and flash across the finish line going backward. A move that would cement in my young child’s mind that Dad was the champ. As I approached the last turn and could see the checkered finish line, a flying turtle shell entered the screen and came right for my vehicle. The shell pushed my car off the track. As I tried to recover, everyone in the race passed me and I limped across the finish line in last place.
My quiet son erupted in non-stop, no-mercy three minutes of trash talk. I very passionately asked where the turtle shell came from and he proudly said, “I shot you with it!” Again, very passionately, I asked why I wasn’t told about this aspect of the game. “I forgot Dad. Next time you will know.” He said with absolutely no remorse.
I learned a few valuable lessons that day. To play the game, you must know all the rules. My son purposely withheld information from me knowing it would give him an advantage. I also learned not to trust my son when we are competing against each other. But that doesn’t mean I can’t trust him in other areas. Trust is foundational for any productive relationship. These two lessons have helped me whenever I conduct a conversation involving race and racism.
A Sister stopped by my office last week and we had a great conversation. At the end of the conversation, she asked me a question that had been bothering her. “How do we talk about race with people of color without offending them?”
The first rule is you can’t! Well, that’s how my son would explain the rule. The complete rule is, that you can’t have a very productive conversation on race with a person you are not in relationship with. If you are not in relationship, there is no desire to protect the relationship. If you don’t care to protect the relationship when the conversation gets difficult, the tongue has no incentive to be kind. This is why the conversations/arguments on social media with people you don’t know are futile. Debating with someone on the internet who doesn’t care about me on hot topics like race is tempting and dangerous. It is merely words without feelings on the internet, and feelings often get sacrificed when a stranger is telling you how wrong you are. Please do not have these deep conversations without first building a relationship with the person.
The second rule is to be generous with grace. The subject of race is often chaperoned by a lot of emotions. Some are very comfortable talking about race, some aren’t comfortable talking about it all, and the rest are somewhere in between. Give the person next to you the grace to say the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong way.
The third rule is simply listen. Everyone needs to be heard and validated. We all experience this world in different ways, and we can learn so much from each other if we take the time to listen. Most of the issues that come up with the conversation of race can be traced to this one issue. Truly listen as people share their experiences. Resist the urge to formulate an argument against how a person experiences something simply because you do not experience it the same way.
The last rule is without trust, this doesn’t work. This is tough work at times. It requires us to be vulnerable in front of each other. It requires a safe place to do this. We must trust that forgiveness is possible, enlightenment is possible, and we can share space even if we don’t agree.
This is an amazing opportunity for us all and I hope you will join me in this challenging journey. It is hard work, but the results that can come from putting in the work will feel better than beating your child at a video game.
Sister Cora Marie Billings has dedicated the past six decades of her life to rooting out racism, and she has no plans to slow down. She traces her roots in the church to her great-grandfather, who was a slave for the Jesuits at Georgetown University. He was raised in the Catholic faith and in accord with his wishes, Catholicism was retained through generations of her family. Eventually the family moved to Philadelphia where Sister Cora Marie was born and grew up.
Sister Cora Marie's upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church was at times very challenging due to the treatment she received within her white Catholic school and community as an African American Catholic. Withstanding these obstacles, her faith did not waiver; she responded to her call to religious life and in 1956 she became first African American woman accepted for membership within the Mercy Sisters of Philadelphia.
She had been encouraged to become a woman religious because of the example of two of her aunts who were already members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence of Baltimore, Maryland, a religious order established by, and for, women of African descent to teach enslaved children.
In 1968, Sister Cora Marie became a founding member of the National Black Sisters' Conference, which brought together Black nuns nationwide to assert their voices in the Catholic Church — and to urge it to confront more effectively "the sin of racism."
Serving as the campus minister of Virginia State University, she began working full time in the Diocese of Richmond under Bishop Walter F. Sullivan in the mid-80s. It was Bishop Sullivan who appointed her in 1990 to the pastoral position at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, a predominantly black parish that had lost its priest.
After 61 years, Sister Cora Marie remains active in the Sisters of Mercy’s reconciliation and social justice ministries. "If there is ever a chance for me to impact or help people to see what I feel is justice and the rights of people, then I will do whatever I can," she said. "I will always say 'yes' if I can, if I feel I can effect change."
“First African-American nun to serve as a pastoral coordinator, Sister Cora Marie Billings continues to serve,” by Mark Robinson, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 25, 2017.
“Challenging and Healing Racism: Two Black Sisters of Mercy Share Their Stories,” by Catherine Walsh, Features Writer, November 16, 2021.
“Q & A with Sr. Cora Marie Billings on Black Catholicism and her life of 'firsts’,” by Sydney Clark, Global Sisters Report, November 30, 2021.
“Nonviolence Critical Concern Community Feature: Sr. Cora Marie Billings,” by Kelsey Steines, Catherine McAuley Center, March 21, 2021.
“An Evening Conversation with Sister Cora Marie Billings, R.S.M.,” Villanova University, February 12, 2019 - A "fireside chat" with Sister Cora Marie Billings, who received her B.A. in Humanities from Villanova in 1967.
“Sister Cora Mare Billings - Finding Tomorrow: Experiences in Black Leadership,” Finding Tomorrow Project (FindingRVA), June 15, 2014. Interview directed by Marc Cheatham and Darrian P. Mack.
“Sister Cora Marie Billings' reflection for Black Catholic History Month,” Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, November 25, 2019.
Cora Marie Billings speaks of her experience of racism in church and society.
1. Have any of your cultural-racial ancestors been the targets of bigotry or discrimination?
2. What forms of institutional racism have you witnessed and/or participated in?
3. What have you done to root out anti-Black, anti-Hispanic/Latino, anti-Asian racism in your interpersonal and institutional experiences?
"Shake Us From Our Slumber"
Prayer adapted from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When our eyes do not see the gravity of racial justice, shake us from our slumber and open our eyes, O Lord.
When out of fear we are frozen into inaction, give us a spirit of bravery, O Lord.
When we try our best but say the wrong things, give us a spirit of humility, O Lord.
When the chaos of this dies down, give us a lasting spirit of solidarity, O Lord.
When it becomes easier to point fingers outwards, help us to examine our own hearts, O Lord.
God of truth, in your wisdom, enlighten Us. God of hope in your kindness, heal Us. Creator of All People, in your generosity, guide Us.
Racism breaks your heart; break our hearts for what breaks yours, O Lord.
Ever present God, you called us to be in relationship with one another and promised to dwell wherever two or three are gathered. In our community, we are many different people; we come from many different places, have many different cultures. Open our hearts that we may be bold in finding the riches of inclusion and the treasures of diversity among us.
We pray in faith.
Approximately one year and nine months ago, on the night after the presidential election, President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris took the stage to give their acceptance speeches. To be honest, I do not remember a thing they said over the two hours they roamed the stage. What I do remember is seeing a very diverse group of people smiling and celebrating.
Vice President-Elect Harris wore a cream-colored pant suit that broadcasted approachable power. Her smile cast light on this night and after the previous four years, we needed light. She stood on stage with her husband and her children, and they danced and laughed. For the first time in a long while, I could breathe. When I finally exhaled, it gave my eyes permission to drain. I cried because I thought of the little Black girls who, up until this night, were not able to ascend the steps to take their rightful place on a stage of this magnitude. It was not that they were not capable, it was simply the fact that the stairs to this stage had been roped off with yellow caution tape and guarded by Cerberus.
Vice President-Elect Harris addressed this historic day and said, “Ladies, be sure to wear your shoes because there is glass everywhere.” Within 24 hours this quote was on t-shirts, glasses, coffee mugs, and other souvenirs. Long after the t-shirts faded and the coffee mugs are discarded (because the coffee has stained the ceramic), the effects of this promotion continue to echo. The echo will whisper to little girls throughout the world that they have value, and no ceiling will limit their trajectory.
In childhood development, children between the ages of two and six are egocentric thinkers. They experience the world only through their eyes. They lack the ability to see another point of view. The world is limited to what they see and experience. It is during this stage of development where a child may say something like, “Women can’t be doctors,” if they have never seen a female doctor. After the 2020 presidential election, there is a generation of children that will never know a time when there wasn’t a female Vice President. They will see a world of new possibilities.
An interesting question for us to ask is, what would a child during this stage of development say about the Adrian Dominican Sisters? What would they say about leadership and who occupies those positions? What would they say about who can lead Co-workers? What would they say about who is welcome on the Motherhouse campus?
Representation matters and part of my job is to make sure we are promoting, hiring, and acknowledging a wide range of folks because their presence makes us stronger. My hope is to create a community that has lofted ceilings with sky lights that say to the everyone, “Here your trajectory is limitless!”
By Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
“The trouble is that once people develop an implicit theory,
the confirmation bias kicks in and they stop seeing evidence that doesn’t fit it.”
- Carol Tavris, Author and Social Psychologist
“Well, so we did the audit as you asked, and we found that 90% of the students that were suspended this past year were Black.”
Ninety percent! My mind was moving quickly, very quickly in many directions, and the group was looking for me to respond. We were sitting in the administration building for the school district trying to bring understanding to a school district that for decades chose to ignore color. We were less than 500 yards away from one of the elementary schools in the district, a building in which children were taught how to properly use different colors of crayons. They were taught that zebras are black and white, bears are brown, frogs are green, but we do not see people in color. Color magically leaps over humans and lands on animals… I suppose.
This illogical approach to community was now coming home to roost and nest. The school district sits on the edge of a mid-sized city and over the past few decades white flight had caused the district to “tan.” As white families moved further away from the city, many were replaced with families of color. A district that has historically been 95% white or more had evolved and changed. At this time, about 70% of the student body was white, 20% Black, 7% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. The tanning of a community had begun, and the district failed to assure the teachers, administration, and staff reflected the community. Instead, they chose not to see color. I guess they thought if they ignored it, it would go away and never come back. Wishful thinking for some.
In a perfect school district, the teachers, administration, and staff should reflect the community where they live. In this example, if 20% of the district’s student body is Black, the hope is that those employed by the district match the student body. This district had 300 teachers, faculty, and staff. This meant about 60 employees should be Black. They had two! Their Black representation was less than 3% and a suburban mile from the 20% expected.
As the district was struggling with this issue, my two sons were feeling the effects of the district’s neglect. It all came to a head for us after years of bias. In the span of three days my boys were both called the “n” word and no one at the school did anything to protect them. When I went to complain, I was rerouted to the Diversity Committee. I would later find out the Diversity Committee was made up of parents of color who had lodged complaints against the district for some insensitive actions directed towards their children. The Diversity Committee was purgatory: a place complaining folks go to complain but never resolve their issues. We were exiled to a classroom once a month where our concerns never made it past the threshold of the classroom.
When that did not work for my family, I offered to get more involved. I offered to train the district in the area of Diversity and Inclusion for FREE!
The superintendent liked “Free!” I held several meetings with teachers, faculty, and staff to help them see the world from a different angle. Many were very skeptical and, although polite, didn’t really see the need for such training. At the end of one meeting, I assigned homework, hoping this would bring clarity to some things. I asked each school to do a “diversity audit.” I asked them to go back to their schools and record how many children had been suspended over the school year or sent to detention. I asked them to also record the race of the individual as well. Logically, if we have a district that is 20% Black then only 20% of those being disciplined should be Black. Anything over a 20% representation would mean we have some work to do. I was anxious to see how the district faired.
The meeting began and I asked each school to present their findings. When I asked the high school to report, they responded with 90%. They were suspending and disciplining the Black students 4.5 times what was expected. 90%! As I sat in the meeting wrestling with 90% in the silence, a teacher stood up. “Those numbers are due primarily to the fact that the Black students are consistently late, so they are sent to detention and after being sent to detention three times they are suspended,” the teacher responded confidently. Many nodded in support of his statement.
He was defending the indefensible and suddenly my thoughts came back to me. “So, are you telling me that there is something about Black students that makes them susceptible to being late, much more so than the white students?” I asked.
“The Black students encourage each other to be late,” another teacher fired back. I could not believe I was arguing with a group of teachers about objective information that was painting a very clear picture of their district. The numbers were crystal clear, yet the district chose to ignore this picture being painted.
What was going on in the district could have made a great case study for implicit bias. Implicit bias starts as a stereotype, and then our minds search for information that supports the stereotype to reconcile the stereotype in our minds. The two stereotypes that were causing this issue were the stereotypes that Black people are always late and Black children lack discipline. These stereotypes caused some teachers to be hyper vigilant towards one group when it came to noticing when they arrived at class. The Black students stood out more than the white students they walked into class with. The Black students did not have DNA that encoded them to be late more than white students. Simply, the mind likes to be right, so when it finds information to support its beliefs, that information becomes more important, more noticeable. The aligning of stereotypes with supporting information melded into fact.
When combined with the stereotype that Black students lack discipline, this ushers in an unconscious need to correct and discipline students more severely. The research of race and discipline in schools has been very clear. Children of color are disciplined more harshly than white students committing the same offense (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/research-highlights/2022/study-furthers-understanding-of-disparities-in-school-discipline), yet this district was afraid to admit they might be in line with the research. Instead, they listened politely, pushed back when I got too close, and walked me to the door and never asked me back.
My eldest son graduated from the district, and he would agree this was one of the most difficult times of his life. Every day there was a possibility that someone would say something offensive to him and he knew the school would not protect him. We transferred our youngest to a more racially diverse school for high school. The school celebrated their differences instead of ignoring them, and it was a great four years for him. His school was safe and he felt protected.
The most difficult challenge in working with diversity and inclusion is the invisible monster we are fighting. When I was young, I remember having a tough time sleeping and my mind began to wonder. I began to hear what was not there and see shadows that weren’t. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was convinced something was in the room with me and would soon come to draw all the life out of me. As I got older, I learned to control my thoughts before they created a reality that was not there. It was a much better way to deal with my monster – I refused to give him energy to grow.
We all have biases. They will try to paint a reality that isn’t real. Be open to the fact that others may experience life differently… and that’s okay. Be diligent, guard your mind, and don’t let it play tricks on you.
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Black Catholic Project posts
Hofmann's Equity & Inclusion posts
All blog posts
Printable bookmark of African Americans on their Way to Sainthood (PDF)
Black Catholic History page by Seattle University
Timeline from the National Black Catholic Congress
Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP, discusses Black Catholics in America with Dr. Paul Lakeland for Fairfield University's "Voices of Others" video series
News report on one of the oldest Black Catholic parishes in the U.S., St. Elizabeth Catholic Church (formerly St. Monica) in Chicago, Illinois