A White Catholic girl goes to the movies .... thoughts on race inspired by The Butler

This afternoon I went to the movies to see The Butler. This was one of the films I wanted to see when I was on vacation at the beach, but I'm glad that I waited to see it until I got home to Chicago.  Seeing the film at my local theater in the heart of Hyde Park, just down the street from President Obama's house, and perhaps most importantly as one of only a few White folks in a predominantly African American audience, was a privileged cultural experience. Let me explain, as best I can, some of my complicated reflections on race inspired by the film and the film watching experience.

First of all, let's admit it, White folks rarely write about race.  We rarely think about race.  This is part and parcel of the undeniable (yet often denied) reality of White privilege.  We don't write/think/talk about race because we don't have to. Fortunately, I was privileged to be able to take a course at CTU last semester on the ethics of power and racial justice.  It gave me a framework and language to use to explore my own experiences of race and White privilege as well as the ethical imperative of naming this reality if we are ever to arrive at anything close to racial justice and equality.

One of the preeminent Catholic moral theologians who is writing about these issues is Fr. Bryan Massingale. I HIGHLY recommend his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Not only is it brilliant, thought provoking and challenging, it's also incredibly well written and easy to read.  One of the biggest concepts I took away from Fr. Massingale is the power of lament and his assertion that because we experience racism viscerally, or at the "gut" level, we can't arrive at racial justice just through rational thought or discussion. In his words:

Thus, I believe that we Catholic ethicists need to lament the ambiguity and distortions of our history and their tragically deforming effect on ourselves.  We need to lament, mourn, and grieve our history. ... Lament has the power to challenge the entrenched cultural beliefs that legitimate privilege.  It engages a level of human consciousness deeper than logical reason.  Lamenting can propel us to new levels of truth seeking and risk taking as we grieve our past history and strive to create an ethical discourse that is more reflective of the universality of our Catholic Faith.

Lament. As a White girl watching the violent tragedies of hate in the film, from the Jim Crow South to lynching to attacks on the freedom riders, it was hard not to feel a visceral feeling in my gut.  Yet, as someone born after these events in 1972, it is also tempting to think that this isn't about me.  I'm not responsible.  And yet, this is my history, our history, and it does indeed have tragically deforming effects on each and every one of us.  We need to lament, mourn and grieve our history, and stories like The Butler help us to do this.  We also need to celebrate the victories, the courage, the ways each of us big and small works to promote racial justice in our lives and communities.  The recent commemoration of the March on Washington is one example, and anyone who has visited the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C. cannot help but be moved.

I realized this afternoon that living here in Hyde Park is really the first time in my entire life that I have not lived in a predominantly White neighborhood.  While I did attend a racially mixed high school, I grew up in a very White suburb.  In fact, when my parents first bought their house in Bowie, Maryland, the developer refused to sell to African American home buyers.  It wasn't until the PG County Open Housing law passed in 1967 (thanks in no small part to the hard work of my Dad who was on the County Council, something to celebrate indeed) and the Federal Fair Housing Act in 1968 that the developers were forced to sell homes to qualified Black buyers. By then, of course, most of the houses had been sold to White buyers.  Hence, my very White childhood.

Last semester, I reflected on this part of my history for my paper in the course on the ethics of power and racial justice.  I reached a bit deeper into this history when I remembered that the suburban house of my childhood was built on the grounds of a former plantation.  This means that I played on land where generations of African Americans were forced as slaves to farm the land, care for the horses, and run the manor house.  A little bit of research helped me discover that when slaves were freed by the 1865 Maryland constitution, forty-one people, aged 2 to 75, were held in captivity on the very land where I was raised. This brings our sordid history closer to home.

And it is not all in the past.  As I continued ethical reflection on my childhood home, I realized that while I/my family never owned slaves, we continue to this very day to benefit from racist housing policies that prevented the descendants of slaves from buying homes on this land.  Because my White parents were able to buy a reasonably priced house, they gained home equity.  This enabled them to buy a larger house when I, the fifth child, was born a decade later.  This equity helped pay for my college education. We sold the house after my mother passed away, but we are still benefiting today. As my siblings and I help my father navigate his later years, we are comforted by the fact that he is able to access quality care and senior housing because of the proceeds of the sale of this house.  This too is White privilege. Our experience of course is not isolated.  Our nation's history of racist housing policies is why there is such a continuing racial wealth gap today. 

Another Catholic moral theologian, Mary Elizabeth Hobgood, writes that those of us who benefit from White privilege are "accountable for understanding how racism advantages [us] at the expense of others." This, she says, is "a lifelong task of gaining religious awareness and engaging in moral action."  I am not writing this post to lay a guilt trip on myself, my family, or anyone else.  Rather, I seek to take the next steps in coming to grips with my own privilege, to engage and take responsibility for my own advantages, at the gut level, so that I can increase my own awareness and walk the path towards racial justice. And, if by putting words to some of this messy journey I can help someone else on theirs, all the better.  This is, after all, a communal journey.  Racism does not happen in a vacuum.

Earlier I mentioned that my present neighborhood is a new racial experience for me, being a racial minority of sorts in a predominantly African American neighborhood.  It's true.  I realize that with the exception of a few brief periods in London and Jersey City during my novitiate, I've always lived in Cities/neighborhoods where most people look like me. 

I'm coming to appreciate this time of living on the South Side of Chicago as a cultural experience.  In many ways, its refreshing.  I've started attending a predominantly African American Catholic parish where I feel welcomed, even if it is a different style of worship than I am used to.  I felt privileged watching The Butler with a mostly Black audience.  I loved hearing some of the comments, the moments of laughter, the silence and held breath at poignant moments, and the heart felt applause at the end.  It made the entire movie watching experience that much more meaningful for me.  Living here also makes me face my racism and recognize my own White privilege more often.  That's tough, but it's also an opportunity, and it's one for which I am very grateful.

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