"People talk about racism and "reverse racism," but if you’re a white lady like me, what you get to see most is not incidents of probable racism against any particular person, but all those things white people say and do when they’re left unsupervised."
--Jen Fitz, writing here at Sticking the Corners
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"This is where the party ends."
-- They Might Be Giants, "Your Racist Friend" (Flood, 1990)
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The following is not a question of equivalencies. It is a question of consistency.
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Catholics who try to be faithful to the Church's teachings speak and write a great deal about sending messages with our actions.
To make an example of current events: It's not a simple matter for Catholics to decide whether to attend a ceremony celebrating a sexual union (of any kind) that we know isn't a valid marriage. Even if everyone knows our beliefs -- we aren't supposed to leave people confused in any way about what we stand for. We may not say a word; but our silent presence may be taken as assent and acceptance; in fact it is a kind of assent and acceptance.
Conservative Catholics know this. Liberal Catholics know it too. We each of us, if we have integrity, behave accordingly, maybe with some internal struggle, to send the message we believe we should send, by providing or withholding our presence.
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Silent presence happens in other contexts, too, where actors wish to promote a view of human nature that is patently opposed to the teaching of Christ.
And by "contexts" I mean holiday dinners with relatives, meetings with co-workers, drinks with your buddies; and by "a view of human nature that is patently opposed to the teaching of Christ" I mean all sorts of notions that are contrary to human dignity.
Notions that entire groups of people deserve blame for the actions of some of their members.
Notions that individuals can be judged by the characteristics of a group.
Notions that demeaning language -- objectifying language -- mocking language -- language that fails to treat persons as individuals, individually redeemed by Christ, individual agents working toward their own salvation in the context of the world -- is harmless if none of its targets are there to hear it.
Are we sending a message that might confuse people into thinking that, because we are there, we agree? Are we endorsing this language without meaning to?
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I have been the nice white lady standing uncomfortably -- and yet silently -- in the presence of another who is telling a story about Those Blacks, You Know How They Are. I have stayed in the meeting when the female speaker makes the crack about how a bunch of women will not be able to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time. I have done the thing where you don't laugh at the disgusting joke about gay people, or whomever -- the thing where you remain silent, because it's polite and you have reasons not to cause a scene, and maybe the teller will notice that you don't, actually, think it's funny -- but it is, in the end, the "thing" where you remain.
Silently, but you remain.
That too, my friends, is sending a message of acceptance. Acceptance of a seriously distorted view of human nature and of human dignity. Acceptance that is in no way reconcilable with the teaching of Christ.
The teaching of Christ is the teaching that welcomes the stranger, the person who is different, frightening, repulsive.
Welcoming the stranger is, as the nation learned to its grief in Charleston this week, not without personal risk.
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I had a moment of clarity around Christmas, as often happens around the holidays, when I found myself in a Nice White People situation. The kind where a forceful, humorous personality, the life of the party, feels himself safe, among people who will not challenge him. He's just messing around, after all! It's just a joke! And in this case, the joke involved dehumanizing slurs directed at gay people.
(But he has Democrat cred! Everyone knows he is a supporter of gay rights! Of same sex marriage and antidiscrimination statutes! ... Nonetheless, I am here to tell you that on occasion such people will still, if they are among a safe crowd, tell crude and dehumanizing jokes. I don't understand it, but it is true.)
I must have stood by silently a thousand times before, in this and other situations. It is not my job to set people on the right path. I may be opinionated, and I am free with my opinions on this blog, but I am not eloquent on the spot. I am reluctant to make trouble, at least when it comes to people that I have to get along with in the future for some reason.
The difference this time is that in the circle, in the conversation, in the party, I was standing, a drink in my hand, right next to my two oldest sons.
I heard the slur.
I saw my teenaged son look away, down into his Coke.
And in that moment -- and hours later, too -- I understood that I had been placed in a position where silently remaining was not acceptable, and that to silently remain would be a direct violation of my duty towards the young people in my family. The people I am charged with raising, and teaching.
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This is where the party ends
I can't stand here listening to you
And your racist friend.
I know politics bore you,
But I feel like a hypocrite talking to you
And your racist friend.
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Like I said, I am not eloquent on the spot. So I didn't speak up, not then.
But I let the expression of contempt and disgust play across my face. It was real, not faked. I don't have much of a poker face anyway.
And I left the room. (Yeah, I know. My kids were still there in the room, with the joke hanging in the air like the smell of a fart.)
And I did not look the speaker in the eye again. And he knew I was not looking him in the eye.
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That night I dreamed I was driving a car on an empty road, and up ahead curious clouds roiled into the sky. I was studying them and wondering what they were, wondering if a thunderstorm was brewing, when -- too late -- I realized I was driving straight toward a towering cloud of volcanic ash, and it was pouring over the road in front of me, obliterating everything in its path. I swerved the car to the right, I felt my body thrown to the side by the force of the turn, and the wall of ash flooded over my car and into the windows, snaring the tires, dragging my car along with it, enclosing me in darkness, suffocating me.
I woke up still suffocated.
I got up out of the bed, leaving Mark sleeping beside the baby. I went downstairs and found my boys and I told them: Last night you heard some vile language about people who don't deserve to be talked about in that way. I want you to know that it wasn't right. No matter who says it, it isn't right for people to use language like that about other human beings.
They listened to me with serious faces. "We know," they said.
"I know you know," I said. "And I also want you to know that I didn't say anything about it last night because didn't know how to respond last night. But that I am going to respond now, and I am going to let that person know that I do not want him to talk that way where you kids can hear."
And then I went upstairs and I wrote an email, and I hit Send.
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It was the loveliest party that I ever attended
If anything was broken, I'm sure it could be mended
My head can't tolerate this bobbing and pretending
Listening to some bullet-head and the madness that he's saying.
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So it's like this. I am one of those people who has no sense of humor. I am unacceptably self-righteous. There is no getting around it.
God give me the courage never to find that crap funny ever again. God give me the courage, if not to speak up, then to leave the room, again, and again, and again.
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Sometimes, Nice White People get together and they say objectifying things that they think are harmless. I think they think they are harmless because everyone else in the room is also a Nice White Person. Or occasionally it is Nice Straight People. Sometimes it is A Bunch Of Great Guys. Occasionally it is women objectifying women, not always Those Other Women either, believe you me; I have been in these rooms.
No one whose feelings might be hurt is there. Ergo hurt hasn't happened, right?
This is wrong. Because
(a) it normalizes the objectification of human beings,
(b) it is always an offense against human beings because it is an offense against truth, and
(c) sometimes the Nice White People who can hear are not, in fact, particularly nice. Sometimes they are disturbed people. Sometimes they are impressionable because they are young. Sometimes they are vulnerable. Sometimes they are vile racists who add what they hear to their experiences that tell them racism isn't so vile, that they are among friends even in their vile racism.
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Serious Catholics know that silent presence sends a message of acceptance and assent. We know this!
We know it is important not to confuse people about the truth.
Can we just try not to leave them confused about all the truths as well? Like the truth that a human being is an entity to which the only appropriate response is love? And that dehumanizing use (as the butt of a joke, as a scapegoat, as an outlet for sexual urges, as a political point, as a means to an end) is never the right response?
Why are we only worried about confusing people about part of the Christian message? Can we come up with a way to make it not at all confusing that we believe in charity towards all?
Out through the kitchen, to the bedroom, to the hallway
Your friend apologized, said he could see it my way
He let the contents of the bottle do the thinking
Can't shake the devil's hand and say you're only kidding.
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My heart is heavy this week. Pray for Charleston, and give thanks for people who welcome the stranger and who will go on welcoming the stranger, in everything they say and in everything they don't say.
*Since this was first posted I elected to adjust slightly the wording in the paragraph about ceremonies, to reflect the fact that, while there's plenty of advice to be had out there, and maybe individual bishops have advised their faithful on it, I don't know of any explicit direction in Catholic doctrine stating what particular Catholics must do or not do with respect to social invitations, the circumstances of which can vary greatly. It's not a matter to take lightly, but as far as I can tell, it remains a matter of conscience. Everyone, however, appears to agree that the reason it is not to be taken lightly is because presence speaks.