By Sister Margretta Dwyer
Racism has many layers. It continues to exist with us in spite of good intentions. What do we need to look at that we haven’t noticed? What are possible subtle ways of perpetuating racism, layers that might not enter our minds as we struggle to understand why we think the way we do? I’ve been asking myself these questions for a long time. Too often, we don’t think deeply enough about the issues for which we stand.
Clichés such as “I don’t see color, I’m color blind” are a put down, as they frequently mean I am not seeing the person before me. Subtly, this is an insult. Another common cliché is, “Many of my friends are people of color,” a subtle way of declaring, “I am not a racist.” Racism may still show in my actions, if not particularly in my thoughts.
American history books are less than accurate when it comes to racial issues. What is presented as fact freely leaves important items out and speaks favorably for the white person, sometimes painting a false picture.
For instance, when Native Americans fought to retain their land and have federal contracts fulfilled, they called it a battle; at the same time, the white people called it a massacre. Whatever picture we have in our minds depends on which word we use and can be a subtle form of racism that we hold on to.
A recent book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough (2019), is an example. It paints the Native Indian as more savage than human, looking to kill all pioneers, whereas they only wanted their land back, land being taken over by settlers. How may we still be influenced by these events today?
After the United States-Dakota War in 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged for revenge in Minnesota, approved by President Abraham Lincoln. In 2017, an “artistic” recreation of the scaffolding used was displayed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Moreover, this macabre setting was placed on what had previously been Dakota land. Such acts maintain racism in a not-so-subtle way. Native Americans protested, and the “exhibit” was dismantled.
The doctrine of Manifest Destiny is the belief that the white man is divinely ordained to settle Indian lands and make them civilized lands. Because the white man came from Europe, he considered himself superior to the Indian. The Indian Removal Act was signed in May 1830 and thus began the Trail of Tears, an evacuation process. Mexicans and Native Americans were thought to impede the progress of the white man, so they were removed from their lands. Remnants of these two events can subtly influence our thinking today. Nothing can be done today to change the reality of these past events, but we can check our thinking on the matters.
Examples abound in the practice of religion. Missionary work is one. Pictures often depict the white person doing service to a person of color. More often, the white person is taller or standing over the person of color. This subtly influences our thinking of the societies the missionaries are serving. Pictures advertising for religious life in the past have done likewise.
When entering a church today, we may be struck by the mostly white statutes and artwork displayed before us, even though the real-life people they depict were anything but white. Picture a white person walking into a church filled with statutes all of color. What feelings would emerge? A form of systemized racism is carried out in most churches. Pictures and statutes need to reflect truly those they represent. No light-colored hair and blue-eyed Jesus.
Individual acts influence the larger system, but to focus on individual acts is to possibly forget about the larger system, as Robin DiAngelo has written so powerfully in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, a powerful text that should be read by all. White supremacy is built deeply into our history, embedded since the time of the founding fathers. Most of us were taught a history of errors. It is difficult to correct that, but it is not impossible. Collectively, individuals can improve the system in which we all live.
Special thanks to Sister Susan Severin who reviewed this article