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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.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
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!”
By Kevin Hofmann, Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
“The trouble is that once people develop an implicit theory,
the confirmation bias kicks in and they stop seeing evidence that doesn’t fit it.”
- Carol Tavris, Author and Social Psychologist
“Well, so we did the audit as you asked, and we found that 90% of the students that were suspended this past year were Black.”
Ninety percent! My mind was moving quickly, very quickly in many directions, and the group was looking for me to respond. We were sitting in the administration building for the school district trying to bring understanding to a school district that for decades chose to ignore color. We were less than 500 yards away from one of the elementary schools in the district, a building in which children were taught how to properly use different colors of crayons. They were taught that zebras are black and white, bears are brown, frogs are green, but we do not see people in color. Color magically leaps over humans and lands on animals… I suppose.
This illogical approach to community was now coming home to roost and nest. The school district sits on the edge of a mid-sized city and over the past few decades white flight had caused the district to “tan.” As white families moved further away from the city, many were replaced with families of color. A district that has historically been 95% white or more had evolved and changed. At this time, about 70% of the student body was white, 20% Black, 7% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. The tanning of a community had begun, and the district failed to assure the teachers, administration, and staff reflected the community. Instead, they chose not to see color. I guess they thought if they ignored it, it would go away and never come back. Wishful thinking for some.
In a perfect school district, the teachers, administration, and staff should reflect the community where they live. In this example, if 20% of the district’s student body is Black, the hope is that those employed by the district match the student body. This district had 300 teachers, faculty, and staff. This meant about 60 employees should be Black. They had two! Their Black representation was less than 3% and a suburban mile from the 20% expected.
As the district was struggling with this issue, my two sons were feeling the effects of the district’s neglect. It all came to a head for us after years of bias. In the span of three days my boys were both called the “n” word and no one at the school did anything to protect them. When I went to complain, I was rerouted to the Diversity Committee. I would later find out the Diversity Committee was made up of parents of color who had lodged complaints against the district for some insensitive actions directed towards their children. The Diversity Committee was purgatory: a place complaining folks go to complain but never resolve their issues. We were exiled to a classroom once a month where our concerns never made it past the threshold of the classroom.
When that did not work for my family, I offered to get more involved. I offered to train the district in the area of Diversity and Inclusion for FREE!
The superintendent liked “Free!” I held several meetings with teachers, faculty, and staff to help them see the world from a different angle. Many were very skeptical and, although polite, didn’t really see the need for such training. At the end of one meeting, I assigned homework, hoping this would bring clarity to some things. I asked each school to do a “diversity audit.” I asked them to go back to their schools and record how many children had been suspended over the school year or sent to detention. I asked them to also record the race of the individual as well. Logically, if we have a district that is 20% Black then only 20% of those being disciplined should be Black. Anything over a 20% representation would mean we have some work to do. I was anxious to see how the district faired.
The meeting began and I asked each school to present their findings. When I asked the high school to report, they responded with 90%. They were suspending and disciplining the Black students 4.5 times what was expected. 90%! As I sat in the meeting wrestling with 90% in the silence, a teacher stood up. “Those numbers are due primarily to the fact that the Black students are consistently late, so they are sent to detention and after being sent to detention three times they are suspended,” the teacher responded confidently. Many nodded in support of his statement.
He was defending the indefensible and suddenly my thoughts came back to me. “So, are you telling me that there is something about Black students that makes them susceptible to being late, much more so than the white students?” I asked.
“The Black students encourage each other to be late,” another teacher fired back. I could not believe I was arguing with a group of teachers about objective information that was painting a very clear picture of their district. The numbers were crystal clear, yet the district chose to ignore this picture being painted.
What was going on in the district could have made a great case study for implicit bias. Implicit bias starts as a stereotype, and then our minds search for information that supports the stereotype to reconcile the stereotype in our minds. The two stereotypes that were causing this issue were the stereotypes that Black people are always late and Black children lack discipline. These stereotypes caused some teachers to be hyper vigilant towards one group when it came to noticing when they arrived at class. The Black students stood out more than the white students they walked into class with. The Black students did not have DNA that encoded them to be late more than white students. Simply, the mind likes to be right, so when it finds information to support its beliefs, that information becomes more important, more noticeable. The aligning of stereotypes with supporting information melded into fact.
When combined with the stereotype that Black students lack discipline, this ushers in an unconscious need to correct and discipline students more severely. The research of race and discipline in schools has been very clear. Children of color are disciplined more harshly than white students committing the same offense (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/research-highlights/2022/study-furthers-understanding-of-disparities-in-school-discipline), yet this district was afraid to admit they might be in line with the research. Instead, they listened politely, pushed back when I got too close, and walked me to the door and never asked me back.
My eldest son graduated from the district, and he would agree this was one of the most difficult times of his life. Every day there was a possibility that someone would say something offensive to him and he knew the school would not protect him. We transferred our youngest to a more racially diverse school for high school. The school celebrated their differences instead of ignoring them, and it was a great four years for him. His school was safe and he felt protected.
The most difficult challenge in working with diversity and inclusion is the invisible monster we are fighting. When I was young, I remember having a tough time sleeping and my mind began to wonder. I began to hear what was not there and see shadows that weren’t. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was convinced something was in the room with me and would soon come to draw all the life out of me. As I got older, I learned to control my thoughts before they created a reality that was not there. It was a much better way to deal with my monster – I refused to give him energy to grow.
We all have biases. They will try to paint a reality that isn’t real. Be open to the fact that others may experience life differently… and that’s okay. Be diligent, guard your mind, and don’t let it play tricks on you.
By Kevin Hofmann
Director, Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion
When Erin, the Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Director of Human Resources, called and told me I got the job of Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion, I envisioned myself setting up shop in a cafeteria or public area, anxious to meet all the Sisters. I thought I would set up a post armed with my warm cup of cream and sugar (with a pinch of coffee) listening to the Sisters share where in the world their life’s commitment had taken them. I looked forward to working at a table during lunch to be available to socialize and learn. So much of this job is relationship building and I was excited about that opportunity. So much of this job is listening, sharing, and connecting. Again, I was excited about that – coming from the student in me whose report card and parent-teacher conferences always centered around my need to socialize. Many teachers wrote something like, “Kevin needs to spend more time studying and less time socializing.” They were right, but creating relationships was always more important to me than doing well on a history test.
During my first day, Erin explained that the building’s cafeteria was another victim of COVID-19. On my first day, my plan was changed. I love my office – it’s quiet and my window overlooks the circular driveway outside of Weber Retreat and Conference Center. It is a great space, but much removed. Over the first few weeks, I looked for a good place to interact with Sisters and Co-workers. One morning while making my coffee run to Weber Center, I found my spot. The chairs just outside the elevator and to the right of the coffee stand is where I set up shop. Each day I make sure to grab my laptop and station myself in my satellite office. I pound away on my laptop and greet everyone who passes by.
I must admit I’m struggling with names, and I feel horrible about that. Each day I am greeted with hellos personalized with my name. I am trying to learn names and eventually I will know everyone, but right now I search for name tags or badges to make note of names. The other challenge is masks. I never realized how different people look with or without a mask. My mind usually takes a mental picture of a person’s cheeks and eyes and then fills in the blank area of the face covered with a mask. To date, my fabricated and disjointed picture created in my mind has yet to be correct. The good news: I know exactly when the masks will be lifted and the protocols will ease – it’ll be the day after I recognize everyone in a mask. I will have to start over the next day when the removal of masks reveals an employee’s cheek bones, nose, and chin that are no where close to how I assumed they would look.
I ask for grace both now and when the masks are (someday) put away. Until then, stop by and introduce yourself over and over. Sit down, let’s talk and get to know each other.
We always just called them “the nuns.” They were two Sisters, two Sisters of Mercy, who were like family members to my best friend’s family. They were a package deal. I never saw one without the other. I had to call my best friend this week and ask him their names because I never knew their individual names. Sister Celeste and Sister Gina Mary were their names.
In 1975 my family and I moved to North Rosedale Park, a nice, beautiful, quiet, and predominantly white neighborhood in Detroit. I was self-conscious and very anxious about being the first Black child on our block. No one else looked like me and in every group, I was unique. As an eight-year-old I wanted to be more like a chameleon, tip toeing through life without being noticed.
I became very aware of my surroundings, constantly looking for a safe place to land. I returned to the neighborhood a few years ago and as I drove down the street that I barely recognized now, I could point out what was safe and what wasn’t. I remember the houses that were safe for me as a child of color, and I remember the houses and families that were not safe. I realized I spent a lot of time as a child searching for a safe harbor.
Fortunately, directly across the street from my new house, there was a safe harbor for me. My soon-to-be best friend, Mike Tenbusch (pictured with Kevin above) and his family lived across the street. I knew while in their home I was safe. I was safe from the ignorant comments, safe from the slights, and safe from the noise that often comes with my skin tone.
About once a month, the nuns would come over to Mike’s house for dinner, cards, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. I quickly became part of the Tenbusch family and would look forward to the visit from the nuns. It was an honor to be included in the festivities and enjoyed quite a few hands of Crazy Eights or Rummy with them. The nuns were especially patient with me as I struggled to hold the cards in my small hands often losing a few cards under the kitchen table during every hand.
The nuns and the Tenbuschs introduced me to Catholicism. I often would spend the night over at Mike’s on Friday or Saturday. If it was a Saturday, we would stay up late, watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on TV and wake up to go to church at St. Scholastica. It was a large, ornate, church that was very impressive. Father Livi would say the Mass and I would struggle to make sense of his words though his thick Italian accent.
My father was a Lutheran minister, so I was comfortable in church. The Mass was easy to follow because so much was like the Lutheran church services I knew. Several times a year, the Tenbuschs would have a full Mass in their living room. Another close friend of the family, Father Frank Canfield, would say Mass and give communion in front of the fireplace. I enjoyed talking to Father Frank who has this calm metered way of talking. He talks like every word is important. Father Frank had an Obama-like ability to make you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He showed me compassion and gave me positive attention.
But, there was always something uncomfortable about Mass that I did not like. I remember there was a shift in the 1980s, I think. When communion was announced there was new verbiage that came with it. Now the instructions were clear. If you were not Catholic, you were not allowed to take communion. A sacrament that signified community was now exclusive and I was not allowed to participate. As all the Tenbuschs stepped out into the center aisle to take communion, I stayed in the pew looking down. I didn’t want to get the “heathen stares” from those who were allowed to partake. I sat alone in the pew feeling like I had broken every commandment and committed five of the seven deadly sins.
It was uncomfortable because I felt singled out. Jesus himself was looking down on me from the cross in the back of the beautiful alter. I was convinced if any non-Catholic made their way towards the chalice, Jesus would elevate himself off the cross and strike them down at Father Livi’s feet.
This was a confusing process to me. I remember thinking in my adolescent mind this was unfair. Jesus shared his last supper with Judas, but I couldn’t get a wafer and a sip of wine any longer at St. Scholastica. Judas was on the guest list before me!
It felt like occasionally I was allowed to come in to church. I was able to get the day pass, but my day pass did not include all the thrills. After a few years I stopped going with the family to St. Scholastica. The call to communion made me feel like an outsider. It told me I was not welcome.
I always thought we should always invite everyone to the table. The meal we are offering may be just what that person needs.
13C, 14C 15C, 16C, 17C. 17C was the seat on my ticket. I had requested the aisle seat because I don’t like climbing over people to use the bathroom. I was the first to arrive in my row. 17A was the window seat. 17B the middle seat is reserved for the poor soul who doesn’t like comfort. It seems like you pay to sit at the window. I like the freedom and space of the aisle seat but the payment for the less restrictive seat is that you may have to sacrifice a shoulder, or knee, or foot. The aisle seat is where you are constantly assaulted by passengers walking down the aisle. You must be on the look out for free swinging arms, hips, elbows, or a bag thrown over the shoulder. The most dangerous is a bag carried by a passenger who is paying more attention to seat numbers than the devastation they are causing by clobbering every aisle passenger as they descend the aisle. In between the violence of passengers boarding, I watch each person walking towards me as I silently pray asking God to show mercy and not put anyone next to me. The young woman with the three-year-old is approaching and my prayer becomes more fervent. They pass me by. “Thank you, Jesus,” I whisper.
People come and go, and I continue to thank the Lord. Then a young man with brown skin, a long beard, wearing a Kufi on his head approaches me. He smiles at me with his eyes and the tops of his cheeks. His mouth is covered by a black N-95 mask. He quietly asks, “Is this 17B?” He had purchased the dreaded middle seat. The tight space makes breathing a conscious act.
My seat mate secures his carry-on above me, and I point my knees towards the aisle so he can sneak by me to get to his middle seat. The only talking we do is with the tops of our cheeks and eyes. He settles in and I go about making myself appear busy, so my new friend doesn’t try to talk to me. I direct my eyes and attention to my phone as he situates himself in his seat and fastens his seat belt.
We take off and about half an hour into our flight the arm rest between us is still empty. Instead of assuming we have a right to the arm rest we resolve to no one using it. An hour into the flight I shift my weight in the seat and we bump elbows as they pass over the empty arm rest. We both politely apologize, and my friend speaks up.
“Please take the arm rest, my friend.” His tone is welcoming, and his eyes are soft and sincere. I thank him and my comfort level immediately gets upgraded to what feels like first class.
I place my arm on the arm rest and expand my chest taking in a larger volume of oxygen. This simple gesture gives me permission to relax. The invitation into my new friend’s space makes me feel welcome. The invitation tells me this is a safe place. Feeling safe, I turn to him and ask if he is a Detroit Lions fan. It is a safe question because his carry-on luggage had the familiar Lion’s logo on it. We were flying out of Detroit too.
“Yes, yes I am. You?” He asks politely.
“Yep, they have disappointed me my whole life, but I can’t let them go.” I say with a smile. We bond over the pain of team.
The conversation is easy for the rest of the trip. We talk about the Detroit Pistons and Tigers, our favorite Detroit athletes, American or Lafayette coney dogs, and we talk about how the city has changed. We also talk about Jesus. He shares with me that he and many of his Muslim friends admire Jesus. He speaks very knowledgeably about Jesus and with much respect. I ask him questions about Islam and the Quran and he asks me questions about the Bible. We understand our beliefs are different but the conversation about our beliefs is respectful and curious. He teaches me more than I teach him. His understanding of Christianity is impressive. I learn he is married with two children and lives in Dearborn. We bond over both living in Dearborn at one time in our lives.
The flight ends quicker than it began. As we collect our things and prepare to exit the plane, we say our goodbyes. We shake hand and he pulls me and gives me a welcomed hug. We break COVID protocol, but between Allah and Jesus I think we are covered.
We walk down the exit ramp together and when we enter the airport, he goes left to catch a connecting flight and I go right to claim my bags. I take a few steps and turn around. “Hey Karem! Thanks for sharing the arm rest.”
“My pleasure, my friend. May God bless you and your family,” Karem says.
“You too,” I yell back.
I was so glad to have met Karem and I know I will probably never see him again, but I will remember him. I will remember the man who was courageous enough to invite me into his space.
Invite someone into your space this week. Welcome into your space someone who thinks or believes different than you. What you will get out of it is more valuable than an empty armrest on a crowded plane.
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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