A REFLECTION ON PROPHETIC IMAGINATION
As a presenter at Ignatian Yoga’s recent Prophetic Imagination retreat, I suggested participants read Jesuit professor Bryan Massingale’s article, The assumption of white privilege and what we can do about it. There are a few reasons I like this article. First, Fr. Massingale wrote about what I have been thinking since I was eight years old. That tender age is when I began to discover racial differences among my friends and notice how different groups of kids were treated differently by teachers and other adults based on those differences. I realized that the darker color of my skin and the coil of my hair could cause me to suffer the ill effects of others’ racism.
As a person of color, I do get asked about how to help people do better when it comes to dismantling racism. Another reason I have shared this article with so many folks is because Fr. Massingale offers concrete and doable suggestions to begin our own internal work. I truly believe that an anti-racist society is only possible if each of us admits our complicity – tacit or overt – and, as people of faith, pray for the courage to change our own behavior. Our challenge is to commit to do the hard work in our everyday lives.
Finally, Massingale offers hope that together we can create a new society. Hope and action can together can lead us there.
Massingale asks readers to distinguish between personal discomfort and being actually threatened. Sometimes I am introduced to someone in an environment where I can be relatively assured that they mean me no harm, while silently thinking to myself, ‘whoa, if I saw that same person coming toward me on a dark city street, I would quickly cross over to the other side.’ As a woman, I can easily justify personal safety as a legitimate reason to be skeptical of strangers. However, when I am able to check myself, it is often very easy for me to identify what about this person would have led me to think they could be a danger to me. It was likely their race, skin color, gender, speech, dress, appearance, attitude, occupation or even attractiveness. My own body forces me to admit that I make distinctions among people because I know that all strangers do not instinctively illicit in me the same feelings of concern or discomfort. Where and how did my body learn how to react to whom?
A productive next step for me in such a situation, once I know I am safe, is not to just ignore my initial inkling to quickly cross the street. I must own the fact that certain characteristics possessed by someone else caused my body to involuntarily feel prickly all over. Sometimes I resort to beating myself up about my flawed snap judgment or how I might miss out on wonderful people and experiences. Why can a stranger so quickly elicit a negative reaction from me? If I take some deep breaths, I can usually find the corner of my mind where the various biases I brought to the situation reside. I am the one who needs to take some action if I wish to begin to dismantle my defective people-sorting process. Am I willing to learn to unlearn the various “isms” I carry with me that result in my own unease? How do I change my own mind and in a future similar circumstance refrain from negative prejudgment about someone?
There are so many things I still need to learn, but “I don’t know” is a very difficult phrase for me. I am well-educated, traveled and read, yet increasingly disturbed by how much I do not know. Instead of allowing myself to feel inadequate, I try to read more news, especially from non-U.S. news sources. Reading and listening to how other countries describe so differently events familiar to me helps to challenge my perspective and realize that on any given day where I happen to find myself shapes my understanding of an event. On a smaller scale, I find that if I actually take time to read instruction manuals and recipes fully before starting a project, I am not only more successful, but become more open to ways of doing things that are different from the fixed idea I had in my head when I started. Every day, I allow myself to ask respectful questions of trusted friends and try to refrain from offering advice unless asked. I read opinion articles by people with whom I know I disagree and even occasionally watch the “other” cable news channel.
Prayer is powerful. When I practice yoga, I begin with a three-part mindfulness technique my meditation guru cousin taught me: hold your tongue in the middle of your mouth, be aware of your feet, and breathe deeply through your nose. This technique works to slow down my sympathetic nervous system and be present to reflect on one of a few of my favorite prayers:
- What am I grateful for?
- What am I doing that is no longer serving me or the people I love?
- What am I willing to do differently now that I am aware of what no longer serves me?
I liked Massingale’s article so much I read his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. In the final lines of the epilogue, after quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fr. Massingale ends the book with a slightly longer quote than he ends the article:
In other words, social life is made by human beings. The society we live in is the outcome of human choices and decisions. This means that human beings can change things. There is nothing necessary or fated about racial hierarchies or white privilege. They are the result of human agency; it does not have to be so. What humans break, divide, and separate, we can — with God’s help — also heal, unite, and restore. What is now does not have to be. Therein lies the hope. And the challenge.
If we can envision a better racial future, it is possible