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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.
From January 2021 through June of 2023, our Toward Communion: Undoing Racism and Embracing Diversity Committee and our Justice Promoters 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. He shares his unique experience of growing up Black in a white family in Detroit and educates on topics of equity and inclusion.
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.
Now, 24 historic and contemporary influential Black Catholics have been profiled on this page. Have you been introduced to people you never knew were Catholic? Have you been introduced to people who have inspired you? Have these profiles motivated you to learn more?
Our group of writers wants to hear from you about the impact of this series and they invite your feedback through this short survey. Click on the link below to participate in the survey, which should take about 6 minutes to complete. We thank you in advance for your feedback.
The survey is open until December 16, 2022.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
Yesterday while watching the Detroit Lion’s third victory in a row, I began prep work for Thursday’s guest of honor. My responsibilities are minimal but vital to the success of Thanksgiving. I began the process of making the bacon butter that will be slid under the bird’s skin to create a soft supple bird that begs to be eaten. The rub that will be spread on the bird’s skin has been made and is ready to dissolve and infuse itself to the skin and meat. Tonight, and tomorrow, I will begin the buttermilk brine to soak the bird for 12 hours before I put the bird in the smoker. The bird will sit for about 6 hours in the smoker before arriving for a full meal that will honor his presence. I plan to sit, admire my work, and watch the Lions win their fourth in a row. Please, Lord! A Lions win makes the food taste better.
My wife will be handling the sweet potatoes, Cornish hens, curried chicken, potato salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, rolls, ham, collard and turnip greens, green beans, mac and cheese, and cornbread dressing. She will also be handling the sweet potato pie, the Almost-Better-Than-Sex Cake, yellow and chocolate cupcakes, banana pudding, peach cobbler, and pumpkin pie. The pumpkin pie is for me and my Caucasian tendencies. Pumpkin pie is frowned upon in the Black community, but I don’t care. I like it and that doesn’t make me less Black… right?
Some will review what I am doing compared to what my wife is doing, and they will try to judge me for not doing enough. To those blinded by the smoke and mirrors please let me remind you I am escorting the guest of honor. If my portion isn’t prepared, smoked, and cut to perfection the day will be ruined. I would gladly take on my wife’s list but no one else can smoke Turkey. So, the overwhelming weight of presenting the reason for the season falls to me and I humbly accept. I also understand it is about quality, NOT quantity. I realize without me there is no dinner. For some, this responsibility would be too heavy. For me, my broad shoulders were chiseled for this one job.
I look forward to this holiday for the food and family. My mother and sister will join us, along with my niece and her family. My wife’s mother, father, and brother will join us with a cousin and his family of three, soon to be four. My neighbor, Jonathan, will stop by to share a beverage or two before his extended family arrives at his home. His gathering will start later than ours and I will have the option to return his empty glasses full of more drinks later in the evening.
This day I’m sure is far from the original Thanksgiving. This past summer I sat down with Rose, a local Native American, who shared her thoughts about Thanksgiving. She explained she doesn’t celebrate it as most do. She told me that the original Thanksgiving was, more accurately, a celebration dinner the Pilgrims had celebrating the massacre of many Natives. I will look differently at my mashed potatoes this year. I also thought about the fact that Native American Heritage month is celebrated this month — and every November for that matter. I’m conflicted because for some Thanksgiving could be considered trauma-inducing. It is for some a yearly reminder of genocide enacted upon innocents. I wonder why we had to combine the month of Thanksgiving with Native American Heritage month. It seems as if it was done to antagonize. I also wonder if that is why February is Black History Month. February is the shortest month of the year and seems like that was done to antagonize as well.
Therefore, during the summer I suggested we celebrate Native American Heritage month in a different way. I wanted to honor a truer representation of what Native Culture and traditions are instead of Thanksgiving. It was suggested we participate in a Ghost Supper celebration last week. I wanted something more specific, more accurate and a better way to celebrate a people who we owe so much to.
It is assumed that we only claimed land that was already owned, but what doesn’t get much attention is the knowledge stolen from Natives. The Native Americans had a far superior knowledge of farming, hunting, and surviving and their knowledge was taken along with land and traditions.
One thing we got right was the name of the day, Thanksgiving. I would just hope we would make a bigger effort to apologize for how we treated a group of people who were hospitable at the very least. To begin it would help if we clarified what exactly we are and should be thankful for on Thursday.
We should thank Native Americans for their kindness. We should thank them for not treating us like we treated them. We should thank them for sharing their knowledge on raising crops, hunting, and building community, and for not burying their knives in our backs as we did to them after we used them for their knowledge.
When I drive my fork into my wife’s mac and cheese made with seven kinds of cheese, I will say a prayer of thanks for family, friends, and life, and most importantly I will give thanks to a group who help shape a country and didn’t get much thanks in return.
Seen as a legend and hero in the sports world, Kobe Bryant is not projected as the devout Catholic that he was. His great success, through discipline and hard work, inspired many. At his core, he was about faith and family.
Kobe was born in Philadelphia in 1978 in a sports-minded family. Both his father and uncle were NBA athletes. Kobe’s involvement in the sport began at age 3.
His father retired from the NBA when Kobe was 6 years old and the family moved to Italy, where his father played on different Italian teams. Kobe reported that the first of those seven years in Italy were difficult for him. Initially, he didn’t speak Italian so had no friends. It was lonely. It was through basketball he was able to make friends and make connections.
He worked to improve his basketball skills through constant practice and hard work. This developed the character and discipline that were part of his outlook and motivation in life.
The Bryant family returned to Pennsylvania, when Kobe was a junior in high school. He continued his devotion to basketball training and his disciplined practice brought great success to his school, whose team became state champions.
Although Kobe was religious, he was not known for making religious statements. His faith was his guiding light that was revealed extensively after his death. He was not "known for wearing his religion on his sleeve," but he did wear his religion on his arm and body through his tattoos, many of which were religious symbols.
His devotion to the Rosary was primary in his life. Before the helicopter crash that killed him and his 14-year-old daughter, Gianna, he talked about adding a tattoo of the rosary. He didn’t live to fulfill that wish. Two hours before Kobe and his daughter took that fatal flight they both attended Mass.
After his tragic death on January 26, 2020, a Catholic parish neighbor to his made multiple rosaries for parishioners of Kobe’s home parish – Our Lady Queen of Angels – in hopes that they would bring healing and help the grieving process.
But the story doesn’t end there. During his career he accumulated great wealth. Kobe believed in the statement, "To whom much is given, much is expected." Kobe supported many charitable causes including his own family foundation dedicated to improving lives of youth and families in need.
Painting by Archie McPherson, age 13 - Part of the 2020 Black Catholic Heroes Project
Images of Black Catholics painted by students employed by the College for Creative Studies’ Detroit Neighborhood Arts Corps
(used with permission)
"Religion in the Life of Kobe Bryant" by Michal Mazurkiewicz, Journal of African American Studies, volume 25, pages 324-338 (2021).
Kobe Bryant - Inspirational Video by Mateusz M
"Once Upon a Time..." | Kobe Bryant by NBA
1. What most impressed you about Kobe Bryant?
2. What was your reaction to the facts that he was a devout Catholic and committed to charitable works?
3. What other professional athletes can we admire for their character and inspiration?
4. Kobe was motivated by discipline and hard work. What motivates you in your life?
Giver of all gifts, we praise and thank you for all the talents given to each of us.
May we be inspired by Kobe’s determination to use his athletic talent to the best of his ability.
May we have generous hearts and remember and help those in need.
My grandmother was an amazing German immigrant. She was raised in Bad Herenalb, Germany, and came to settle in a German neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. She became a mother to three boys and a stay-at-home mother. My father, Richard, was her oldest. Then there was Norman and the youngest was Gordon.
When Norman was about 7 years old, he passed away from spinal meningitis. My father was about 9 years old when Norman passed and occasionally Dad would tell me about Norman. Dad would recount the sadness that filled the room he shared with his brother. Dad spoke of the crib that Norman died in that was only feet from my father’s bed. I wondered how scary that must have been to see your young brother just waste away and die.
When I was a teenager, my father shared the story of Norman with me. To that point, I didn’t know Dad had another brother. The pain of losing a child was unspeakable for my grandmother. She never spoke about Norman, and no one ever brought him up out of respect for Grandma’s heart and sanity.
I remember when I first heard about Norman and his untimely death. I looked at my grandmother. I had never met a mother who lost a child. I assumed mourning had a certain look; it weighed on you I was sure. I never saw it on Grandma. She hid her emotions as well as she hid her homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Grandma was my safe place to land. I was the only adopted child in our home. I was the only Black person in our family, and I was self-conscious about that and very untrusting of people. When I was with my grandmother, I knew I was safe. She and I would spend hours sitting on her davenport (the couch) with the white doilies draped over the back of the couch and we would watch the news or cartoons if we could get a clear signal.
When I was a freshman in high school, Grandma wasn’t feeling good and after several months and plenty of begging by family members, Grandma went to her doctor to get checked out. She was diagnosed with cancer. Dad would travel back and forth to Cleveland from Detroit over the next couple of weeks as Grandma’s health deteriorated. While Dad was in Cleveland with Grandma early one morning before I went to deliver the morning paper to my customers, Dad called. Grandma had passed away. I never went to visit her in the hospital before she died because death scared me. I was afraid to see death in my grandmother. I was sure once I saw grandma with cancer, death would be revealed and it would only be a matter of time before death won. I wanted to remember my short, German grandmother with her incredible German accent and pure white hair who didn’t have cancer. I wanted to preserve the healthy picture I had of my grandmother.
We treated grandma’s death like grandma treated Norman’s death. The memories attached to that person were never spoken of again. Grandma died and after the funeral, it was like she was never there. She was gone and forgotten publicly but quietly I missed her. I missed our cartoon-filled afternoons on the davenport.
This past Sunday I got to participate in a Ghost Supper, a native American tradition that honors those that have passed. It was held by a small group of Catholic Sisters and a local group of Native Americans. Each person at the supper arrived with their plate settings and food that reminded them of their loved one. I brought with me small chocolate candies called Melt-Aways. My grandmother was an amazing baker and every Christmas she would make all kinds of holiday loveliness and the Melt- Aways were my favorite. It felt good to think about and tell others about my beloved grandmother.
Just prior to us sharing the food we brought we were directed by a native elder to come outside. One of the leaders of the Ghost Supper had gathered a sample of all the food that was brought. Then we put a paper plate full of food on the fire to feed our loved ones who have passed and now watch over us. We gave them food to keep them strong as they look out for us.
All of us present were given a pinch of tobacco and one by one we approached the fire, said a prayer for our loved one, and added the tobacco to the fire. It was nice to think about my grandmother and remember her. It felt good to let her know I missed her. I wished she would have been able to see me date, get married, and have children. She would have loved them.
I was honored to be a part of such a great experience and so humbled to be asked to join the Ghost Supper.
We sat in a circle in the lobby of a dorm hall. About 15 of us were new to Alma College’s campus, all white except for me with my toasted almond skin. It was orientation week, and we were sitting together getting to know each other. The leader of my group pulled from their backpack a roll of toilet paper. She instructed us to take as much as we needed and those were her only instructions. She passed the roll around and students varied in how much toilet paper they took. Some took one square and others took a large portion of the roll.
The one very self-confident kid from St. Johns, Michigan took an obnoxious amount of toilet paper. He was the kind of student that loved attention, and he understood the weight of his charismatic personality. Everything was a performance for him and in every activity he strived to draw more people to his side. I would guess his approval rating would hover around 50%. His personality was attractive to some and repulsive to others, there was no place to land in between.
Immediately, I didn’t care for him because he moved freely in this new environment. He walked into the room as if he owned it. I slid into the room most times hoping no one would see me and when they didn’t acknowledge me, I got even more frustrated. The voice and confidence I had in high school disappeared when I set foot on the campus of this predominately White institution.
The toilet paper made its way around the circle and back to the leader. She then instructed us that we would go around the circle and each person would have to share one piece of information about themselves for every square of toilet paper they took. We began and student by student shared who they were. Some shared they were athletes, some shared they were valedictorians, and some shared they lived on a farm.
When we came to the self-confident student, we knew we were going to be there for a while because he had taken so much toilet paper. He shared he was an athlete, homecoming king, a political science major, and a member of Future Farmers of America (we didn’t have that in Detroit). Then as he was struggling for things to say, he looked at me and proudly stated, “I have never met a Black person in real life.” Without pausing, he went on to his next fact, which I never heard. Everything slowed like it was moving through Jell-O. I felt my blood pressure increase with my heart rate. I was trying to control my skin tone. I knew when I got upset that my skin can turn noticeably red. It was my physiological response to what I saw as a threat. I tried to combat the response by breathing deeply, slowing down my heart and looking away. I felt all eyes in the circle were on me waiting for my response and I refused to give it both verbally and physiologically.
The activity ended and we took a break for lunch. As I walked to lunch, that statement rang in my head like the bell at Notre Dame. Then the thought occurred to me. I grew up in Detroit, one of the blackest cities in the country, yet I never remember a day where I didn’t see white people. I understood I could not successfully navigate life in this country without having daily interactions with white people. It wasn’t that I didn’t like white people, it was that I didn’t have the privilege this student had, and that made me angry. Anger rose in me that took up residence in me for the next four years. In 1985 on that campus, I lived the experience that Black Lives DID NOT Matter and it hurt deeply.
In July 2013 the Black Lives Matter movement was born. It was in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who stalked, confronted, and killed Trayvon Martin. It was obvious to Mr. Zimmerman and the jury that Black Lives DID NOT Matter, and it hurt deeply. I can still picture the courtyard where young Trayvon took his last breath in the dark, alone with a stranger holding a gun over him.
Trayvon was walking through his father’s neighborhood, on his way home from the store carrying an iced tea and Skittles. My heart broke imagining what his last moments must have been like and I chased away thoughts that Trayvon could easily have been one of my sons.
Soon after Black Lives Matter gained attention, it became impossible to hear Black Lives Matter without "All Lives Matter" sneaking up behind it. A few weeks ago, Kanye West, who is an amazing musician who likes controversy and attention, showed up at a fashion show with conservative instigator Candace Owens wearing White Lives Matter shirts, and that cut even deeper. Those three words were heard as "Black Lives Do Not Matter but White Lives Do." It was even more painful coming from two people who look like me. Now, to be honest, many of us in the Black community have asked to trade Candace Owens to another team long ago. We understand her loyalty lies with her bank account so she pushes whatever agenda will get her the most zeros. What upsets me the most is how some will take what these two attention-craving individuals say and use it to prove and prop up their exclusionary agenda.
What I have learned is that this simple statement, Black Lives Matter, can be read two different ways. I think those who object to the slogan read it as, “ONLY Black Lives Matter.” Others read it as “Black Lives Matter, TOO!” The initial push behind Black Lives Matter was to draw attention to a problem that needed addressing, the taking of innocent Black lives — that was it! Our community was shouting that we were, and remain, in crisis and need help.
The response to our S.O.S. cry was a lot like that student in the dorm lobby. “Well, we got along fine without any help from the Black community, why can’t you get along without us?” Instead of responding to a request for help, many heard the devaluing of white lives is the only way to bring more value to Black lives. Why can’t we understand that we are not cutting up apple pie? One doesn’t have to suffer so the other can get more — justice should have an unlimited supply, enough for all to benefit.
I read the slogan Black Lives Matter too, and the only helpful response is, “YES, THEY DO!”
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.
Sister Jamie Phelps, OP, is the pioneer African American woman who felt a deep call to join the Adrian Dominican Sisters — an all-white Catholic congregation of religious sisters. Her decision resulted in many blessings as well as challenges. This story of a Black woman joining a white congregation reveals the unwavering strength, the deep faith, and the power of a soul firmly committed to her God.
In her own words, the paragraphs below share some of Jamie’s life. A fuller version of her story was published in the Congregation’s 2021 publication for members, Reckoning with Racism: A Lenten Journey.
I was born a “Free Negro” in 1941, the youngest child of six born to Alfred and Emma Phelps in Pritchard, Alabama, near Mobile. I am an African American religious woman who as a child had to be taught by her parents to overcome the interpersonal and structural racism she would encounter in her life journey.
I am not sure when, or if, my great grandparents had been enslaved. My ancestry traces predominantly to Africa with vestiges of Northwestern European ancestors, including Irish. My grandparents on both sides of the family believed that owning property and providing their children with a college education would guarantee our freedom.
My parents were both born free in 1911 and met as students attending Alabama A&M College (now University), in Huntsville. They married after graduation and began their family of six children, William, Alfreda, Marionette, Julius, Alfred Jr., and me, Jamie.
About a year after my birth and baptism, my parents migrated to Chicago. There, my father established a moving company, bought our first home on the West Side, and invested in rental real estate. My father and his siblings all started their own businesses; it was both a family tradition and a way to deal with the racism that strictly limited opportunities for African Americans. My siblings and I were enrolled in St. Matthew’s, a Roman Catholic parish and school staffed by Irish Catholic priests and the Adrian Dominican Sisters.
We were encouraged to go to college and pursue whatever field interested us. My parents told us that God had gifted us with talent and intelligence and we were to develop these gifts for the benefit of the community. I remember, as a 4-year-old, noticing there were three “helping” professions: Teachers, nurses, and telephone operators! (This was before cell phones.)
After making first confession and communion as a 7-year-old at St. Matthew’s, I began to go to daily Mass and went to confession weekly. I used the occasion to talk with the priest about my relationship to God and how I could serve God. I decided that while a telephone operator could help with emergencies, a “Sister” was concerned about God and the souls of people. To me this was a higher calling – and it had nothing to do with blood, like nursing! I was attentive to the joy and excellent teaching the Adrian Dominicans embodied.
I thought I should answer God’s call to the sisterhood by writing to Mother Gerald Barry, OP, to ask if I could enter the Adrian Dominicans when I graduated from eighth grade. I recall that her first inquiry was, “Are you Catholic?” She suggested that I might want to go to two years of high school before coming to join the Adrian Dominicans. She let me know that the congregation was “all white” and suggested that I might need to be more mature to adjust to living in an “all-white congregation.” I was disturbed and disappointed by what seemed like a racially prejudiced response.
As I approached high school graduation, I again applied to the Adrian Dominican Sisters. I prayed to God: “I’m trying to do your will, but if they say ‘no’ a second time, you know it is the Sisters who are blocking your will. I can only say, ‘I tried.’ We will simply have to seek another way for me to serve you.” The second time, I received a “yes” from Mother Gerald.
My Postulant Mistress welcomed me and treated me the way she treated the other women: when she was tough on the others, she was tough on me and this “equality of treatment” was welcomed. At my first mission it was soon noticed that the superior there had no use for African Americans. I was called to the Motherhouse to discuss the situation and I was reassigned to my second mission, a community where we enjoyed working as an educational team together. A spirit of comradery prevailed.
As an Adrian Dominican religious woman, by the power of God acting in and through me, I have served the Church and larger human community as an educator teaching at all levels or education: elementary to doctoral. I have participated in God’s healing and empowering ministries as a psychiatric social worker and community organizer, helping my clients discover and use their God-given power and gifts.
As a theologian and spiritual director, I have mediated God’s presence sacramentally and helped my students, who in their theological research sought to use their God-given power and gifts for the well-being of all the People of God, in our rich racial, gender, economic, geographic, and social diversity.
I give thanks to my family, those Adrian Dominican Sisters who guided me through my early years, my formation directors, and all those who befriended and accompanied me in our mutual intellectual and spiritual journey as members of the Dominican Order and the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference and other Black Catholic and Catholic institutions and organizations.
I praise God who did not abandon me and my call to the Adrian Dominican religious congregation because of these initial rejections. The racism we have encountered in the Catholic Church and society has not triumphed because the God who dwells in us helps us “do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!”
We Adrian Dominican Sisters have been blessed by Jamie’s spirit, hope, humor, and faith for nearly 60 years. Over and over she has risen; over and over she has graced our lives and enriched our vision. Jamie, we love you and thank you profoundly for all the ways you have shared this journey of faith and diversity with us.
- Sister Nancyann Turner, OP
Sister Jamie Phelps
Painting by Archie McPherson, age 13 - Part of the 2020 Black Catholic Heroes Project
Images of Black Catholics painted by students employed by the College for Creative Studies’ Detroit Neighborhood Arts Corps
(used with permission)
Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Press, 2010).
Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African American Freedom Struggle by Shannon Dee Williams (Duke University Press Books, 2022).
A Sister's Story: Sister Jamie T. Phelps, OP - Adrian Dominican Sisters
In the October 30, 2020 issue of America Magazine, Bryan Massingale wrote, “Every Black Catholic priest, sister, brother, deacon and lay pastoral leader can relate experiences of how our presence in the church was met with wariness, hostility or incredulity ('You’re Catholic?'); our leadership abilities were doubted or dismissed; our vocations were denied or challenged; and our Catholicism was deemed suspect."
1. Was there a time in your life when you failed to relate to others because of their race or culture?
2. Have you grown in your appreciation of racial, cultural, and gender diversity?
3. How does racial/cultural marginalization contradict God’s universal and unconditional love for all — and the church’s call to community?
God our Father and Mother, imbued by the power of your spirit and liberated by the redemptive life and death of Jesus, help us welcome into our community and church all peoples, regardless of race, gender, class, culture or nationality.
You have enriched each person and each culture with gifts and talents to be shared for the common good.
Help us to recognize your presence and action in all your sons and daughters.
Help us continue as a people of faith, hope, and love as we prepare to receive the gift of your Reign.
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.
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Black Catholic Project posts
Hofmann's Equity & Inclusion posts
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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