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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
Once a year at my predominately white college, one of the fraternities held a party that they called the “Back to Detroit” party. It should have been called the “what you think Black is party.” The students showed up dressed as rappers, with fake gold chains, sweat suits, sneakers, and baseball hats. The drink of choice for the night was beer in a 40-ounce bottle, malt liquor, or cheap wine. The music was more diverse than it ever was at any other party… but not really. They played rap music and R&B music and limited to those two categories.
The students walked around with a 40-ounce beer in one hand and gave their best impression of what they thought Black sounded like. This usually meant that they used words and phrases they felt were used and owned by the Black community. The accent used with the words made it unbearable, along with the body movements, hand gestures, and attempts at complicated handshakes that failed miserably. Afro wigs and dread lock wigs were popular and often treated like a big red nose on a clown, as a funny accessory. It was a party to mock and make fun of people who looked like me and my city. Thankfully, we didn’t have any incidents of students wearing Blackface. After all, the students drew the line somewhere.
I didn’t go to the party out of fear that I would be seen and treated as a mascot for the party. I also didn’t go because I didn’t want to co-sign this abhorrent behavior. I never considered complaining to those in charge because my past experience told me complaining would do no good. There would be no actions to resolve the behavior but I would be labeled as an angry Black student. So, I stayed away and stayed quiet.
I knew a few Black people who went to the party and participated in the characterizations and imitations. I was upset with them, but I also understood. Often as a Black student in a predominately white environment, you are given a difficult choice. You can go along to get along and be considered “in” with the crowd, yet still a part of the crowd. The other choice was to object, complain, and try to educate, which often ended in you being labeled as “angry,” which helped to justify the shunning that would come your way.
Some students didn’t think about the bigger meaning when it came this party. They saw it as an excuse to drink and have fun. Some students took it to the extreme and seemed to enjoy all parts of the degradation, appropriation, and mean-spiritedness that came so easy.
As a child, I loved dressing up for Halloween. I would try on my home-made costume weeks in advance. It was always home-made because home-made was always better than the plastic masks and matching plastic outfit that would dissolve when the October air hit it. I loved running through the dark pretending to be someone or something else. The candy was an amazing fringe benefit for sure.
The last quarter of the year was magical to me. It included Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Halloween kicked off the last three months in a big way. Halloween brings back great memories for me but today it makes me nervous. Dressing up for some means an easy opportunity to put people down and then claim ignorance.
So, I go into this year’s Halloween excited because everyone tells me what a big deal it is at Adrian Dominican Sisters. I look forward to the creativity and imagination we will get to see. I am anxious because dressing up can be problematic and hurtful, whether intended or not.
I have thought about this a lot over the last three to four weeks. I thought about how I would handle Halloween. I thought about what I would say or not say. I did fear what people may think about me if I add caution to a historically cherished event. I concluded it was necessary, as I thought back to my experience in college, and how it felt to have people imitate and make fun of my culture, my city, my being. I was concerned I would ruin someone’s fun. Then I thought, if the only way you can have fun is by tearing apart someone else, then maybe you should have less fun.
I still look forward to Halloween. I just hope socializing, showcasing creativity, and eating food you shouldn’t will be enough and as people decide how they will dress up they will take into account the hurt that can come from mocking someone’s culture. I hope we can have fun and no one person or group has to pay the bill for the fun. Proceed with caution… please.
When I worked at Nationwide Insurance, I had a co-worker who became a good friend. His name was Doug and we grew up so differently. He was from a small rural town in Ohio, and I grew up in Detroit. Doug was kind, a little naïve, and very curious. After we had known each other for a while Doug would occasionally stop by my office to tell me about how great his Buffalo Bills football team was, and I would remind him that the Bills are the only team to ever go to four straight Super Bowls and lose them all. He would remind me that my Detroit Lions will only go to the Super Bowl if they pay for tickets to sit in the stands. In between the joking, we would have deep conversations about race, racism, class, politics, religion, and life.
One afternoon, Doug stopped by and somehow we got into a conversation about schooling. Doug wanted to know why the Black students in the inner city struggled so much in school. He wanted to know why they didn’t take school as seriously as the white kids in the suburban school he went to growing up. I trusted Doug and he sincerely wanted to know the answer. So, I felt comfortable, not obligated, to give my thoughts.
I explained to Doug sometimes privilege means you get access to things others don’t. The resources available to him and his classmates were much different from the resources given to students in the inner city. Those resources make a huge difference in how children learn and what they learn. Doug pushed back a little and said that a book in the suburbs is the same as a book in the inner city. I agreed.
Then I asked Doug if he believed that the test scores of students in the suburbs were higher than those of students in the inner city. He agreed with that fact and so did I. The “why” behind that is where we differed. I then said, “If you believe that, then you must believe one of two scenarios is taking place. You either believe that the resources and opportunities between the two communities are vastly different and unequal, or you believe one group is simply naturally more gifted. Do you think children in the inner city aren’t as smart as the students in the suburbs?”
Doug sat still. He wasn’t sure how to answer and I think he thought I was luring him into a trap, so he sat still trying to figure a way out. He had to either admit there was inequality or admit that he felt children of color were inferior, lazy, or lacked the ability or drive to learn. Doug chose not to answer.
Then I asked Doug if he had a computer class when he was in school. He said he did. I asked him to describe the class to me. He began by stating the computer lab had a computer at each desk, a smart board at the front of the room, a teacher, and a teacher’s aide as well. He then explained that during his senior year of high school, students were entrusted with their own laptop for school.
I asked him if he thought it would make a difference in what the children learned if they only had 10 computers for a class of 20 students. I asked if he thought it would be more productive and efficient for teachers and students if the students all had their own computers instead of having to share. I asked him if he thought having an additional teacher in the room might help the students learn. He answered “yes” to all the above questions.
Privilege assumes everyone is on an even playing field. It assumes we all have equal access to the same resources, which isn’t true. This does not mean that students with laptops don’t have to study. They still must work hard to get the grades, but the environment in which they must learn is more conducive to learning. The tools they have access to help greatly.
Doug then stated that he had a Black friend who grew up in the inner city and his friend was very successful. His friend didn’t let this disadvantage stop him. I responded by asking if he played a sport in high school. He said he a pitcher on the high school’s varsity team. I asked him who his favorite pitcher in major league baseball is/was and he responded, “Nolan Ryan.” I asked him why he didn’t turn out to be as successful as Nolan Ryan as a pitcher. Doug explained Nolan Ryan was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He went on to explain Nolan had access to better facilities, better coaching, and better opportunities. I then asked Doug if he thought it was fair that I compared his success in high school to someone who was atypical when it came to athletic talent. I asked him if he thought it was fair that I judge his success in baseball based upon a “once-in-a-lifetime” talent. I asked him if it was fair to say that he must be lazy because he wasn’t able to rise out of his disadvantage. I asked him if it was fair to judge his ability based on someone who rose above his station to defy the odds.
Doug’s response was quiet. “I guess I hadn’t thought about all that.”
Over the past three weeks, I have written about the taboo subject of white privilege. I tried to point out that we all experience privilege. I benefited from my parents’ white privilege and was able to live in a wonderful neighborhood that was off-limits to my Black friends. What I didn’t share was that because my parents adopted a Black child, they gave up a lot of privilege. My father was blacklisted from the Lutheran Church in Michigan for decades because he adopted me. My parents were excommunicated from several communities because of their lack of whiteness. Privilege can be fickle, but I had to admit it gave me access to a better home and safer community than most.
Privilege can mean exclusive access to certain things. It gives the benefit of not having to worry about certain things. As a man I rarely worry about my safety when I am out alone. There is privilege in not having to worry about my safety often. There is privilege is not having to worry about dodging people in a public place to assure my safety.
Privilege can mean you get the benefit of the doubt. When Black children with fewer resources and fewer opportunities are outperformed by other communities, the assumption is they are lazy or less intelligent. Often, we blame those who are disadvantaged and write them off as the problem instead of assuming they have value and worth, looking to see what is broken and why, and taking the time and resources to fix the system. We need to think about that, too!
I appreciated Doug’s friendship. We were humble enough to learn from each other. He would occasionally ask questions that were offensive, but I understood his desire was to learn so I took the time to answer them. He did the same with me. Rarely did we agree, but we took the time to hear each other and I think we helped each other to see a world different than before we met.
It’s okay to admit we may have benefited from privilege. Once we understand that, it is up to us to use the privilege we have to make room for others to share in the same privilege.
When I was 10 years old, my favorite thing to do was go to the mall. I would spend the weekdays trying to be on my best behavior. If I could make it to Friday without any major infractions against the Hofmann family rules, I had a chance at talking my mother into dropping me and my friends off at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn, Michigan. Most of the time we would go to watch a movie and after the movie, we would play tag in the mall. I remember sprinting through the mall in and out of fellow shoppers, trying to avoid being caught by a friend just a few steps behind me. We would bump from one person to the next and the looks of disgust would rain down on us from disapproving adults. We didn’t care. My desire not to be “it” trumped any kind of look.
When I became a teenager, the mall was still my desired destination on the weekends. The mall and the games we played were slightly different. We requested to go to Northland Mall and the games of tag were no longer appealing. We went to the mall in hopes of meeting girls, but my shyness always got in the way. It is more accurate to say we went to the mall to look at girls because the courage to speak to a young lady I didn’t know was not in me.
The game we played was more low key. The game didn’t have a name. The object of the game was to walk through the crowded mall and not give up any of our space. We would walk through the mall and when we passed someone, we were not allowed to turn our shoulders, shrink ourselves, or move out of someone’s way. If you did, you would be ridiculed by your friends. They would shout, “Agghhh he punked you out!” The last thing in the world we wanted to be was an easy target or a punk.
My strategy was simple. I would walk casually until I saw someone heading toward me. I would then look down at the ground. As I approached the person my head and eyes would raise, and I would lock my eyes with theirs when I was about 5.2 feet away. I wanted to be sure they saw me. This strategy had a 35.7% success rate. Sometimes I would brace for impact and catch a shoulder to my cheek, or I would brace for impact and involuntarily my body would flinch, and I would turn my shoulders to avoid impact. Then I would brace myself for the insults from my friends. Honestly, at 14, the insults hurt much worse than a sharp shoulder to the temple.
It was a silly game that we created because that’s what testosterone does to teenagers. It makes them do nonsense with a purpose. The purpose was always the same: to create a way to compete with friends and beat them. You’d be amazed at what young boys will do to win a game.
A few years ago I read an article about Manslamming and I thought back to my mall days. In the article, a group of women got together and decided to try our game for a week. I doubt that they knew it was “our” game, but I am taking ownership of it. The women were sick and tired of men assuming that woman should yield to them. They noticed that in public men displayed the expectation that women should move out of their way. They wanted to test it to see if what they thought was actually a thing. The women agreed that for a week when they were walking in public, they would not yield to anyone.
After a week they reported back. All of them had become familiar with the sharp shoulders I knew so well as a teenager. A few women were knocked down or pushed out of the way. They spoke about how stressful it was to see someone coming and as the person approached there was a debate going on in the woman’s head. “I will not move; I will not move…” IMPACT!
Some spoke about the realization that too often as women they choose to shrink themselves or yield their space because not only did others expect them to move, but deep down some women felt they should give up their space. They were expected to be the kinder, gentler traveler. Many women were surprised at how easily they conceded their space.
When I talked to my wife about the article, we both agreed we would try it on an upcoming vacation. We decided we would try walking through Detroit Metro Airport and see who would yield and who wouldn’t. My wife found that men just plowed along their path expecting her to move and when she didn’t, they blamed her for running her over. What I found was that white men and white women expected me to move. The bigger lesson I learned solidified a pet peeve of mine.
I can remember back to when I started remembering things and I have always been very spatially aware. I am very cognizant of my surroundings because my safety depends on it. I have always been aware of when I should shrink myself, when I need to yield my space, and how I am perceived. I purposefully walk through life hypersensitive to my spacing and those around me. I have been trained to do so because my safety depends on it.
My frustration comes when white people aren’t as aware of the space they take up. Too often, I will be out, and someone will enter my space and I tense up. They are too close, too personal, too darn close. The alarms in my head are going off. I see red. My perimeter has been breached. I feel unsafe and vulnerable when people walk into my space unannounced.
I often feel like I am renting space temporarily. My frustration comes when I encounter those who feel they own the space. Their spatial awareness is turned off. They have no alarms going off because society has taught them they do own this space and certain people are required to yield to you.
These societal rules get heard by us all, so by the time I was five years old, I understood for my own safety that I would have to learn to pivot. I understood I would have to study and expend some mental energy surveying everywhere I go. I understood that if I am in the grocery store about to walk down an aisle and halfway down the aisle is an unattended cart with a purse in it, I must turn around and avoid the cart. I must reroute around a potentially dangerous situation where I could be accused of being a thief looking for an opportune moment. I understand my skin color will make we walk the extra distance.
Privilege has more to do with what you don’t have to do than what you can do. So often when privilege is brought up the automatic response is, “I don’t get anything handed to me, I work hard for all I have.” What many people miss is that with privilege comes the opportunity to just be. Privilege means you can walk through a crowded mall and not worry about sharp shoulders or confrontation. Privilege means you don’t have to spend the mental energy worrying about your Black children in a world where often they are targets. Privilege means you don’t have to worry about your children refusing to drive because the anxiety around what might happen if they are pulled over outweighs the freedom of a driver’s license.
I miss those days of running through the mall playing tag and not worrying about the impact of my skin. I should say I miss the days I was oblivious to the true power of my skin. I miss the naïve thoughts of adolescence. Those same challenges were still there, but I just hadn’t been trained yet to see them.
Over the next week, try the Manslamming challenge. Walk in a public space and pay attention to who concedes their space and who refuses to give up their space. How are you at holding your space?
I can’t wait to hear what you discovered.
“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.
“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.
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!”
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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