Confessions of a racist nun* #3 spiritual tools

Denise West, OSB Living in Community, Racist nun 2 Comments

In my first blog post in this series, I diagnosed myself with the disease of racism. Some of my symptoms of this disease are denial of and defensiveness around racism as well as obliviousness to painful experiences of Black folks and other people of color. Simply put, most times we can’t handle listening to reality, so we don’t. We make the topic off-limits and go on enjoying the fruits of hundreds of years of systemic racism that has led us to a life of racial comfort.

The problem is, despite our good intentions and stated values of justice for all, when we don’t listen, we do evil, in the form of inaction that maintains the status quo and keeps the internal and external structures of racism undisrupted.

As I reflected on how my journey of faith has led me to become a little more aware of my internalized racism, I realized that the Benedictine values of humility, right relationship, community, listening and hospitality are among the spiritual tools that can equip us to respond to the cry for justice that’s no longer possible to ignore. In this post I’ll share my thoughts on how these values, which are after all Christian values, can lead us on a path to greater peace and justice.

Dialogue around race calls for humility on our part. Let’s not presume to know the experience of others. Let’s begin with the idea that maybe we don’t know much about our racist behavior.

We need to be in relationship with people who are not like us to show us what we are blind to. As I learned when I was newly arrived to Benedictine Women of Madison, intentional community has a purpose, one of which is to show us our growing edges. We quickly discover that even people with similar upbringings see the world in very different ways. How much more when we are raised in different cultures, one the dominant culture and the other oppressed. To be Benedictine means being open to hearing what others have to tell us about ourselves. That is, we need to listen to what people of color tell us about their experience of us.

Hospitality is needed during this time. First, to the experience of others, but – perhaps even more importantly – we must make room for our feelings that inevitably come up when we crack open the door to authentic race-related conversation. Defensiveness. Guilt. Anger. Rage. These are unpleasant feelings, and our natural and understandable reaction is to push them away. I didn’t create the problem of racism, but my feelings are my responsibility. If I’m serious about social justice, I have to work to let discomfort abide within as I look with curiosity at the meaning behind the feelings. Third, once we are walking this path of awakening, let us offer hospitality to those who have not yet arisen from sleep.  Dr. David Campt teaches that white progressives have a responsibility to be in relationship with people who disagree with us on racial issues. ‘Othering’ them only makes things worse for people of color.

Although I don’t think there is a ‘cure’ for racism, I believe that engaging my racist self in a process of discovery is healing. I may never be completely devoid of racism, but I can change and become a more whole human being.

*Yes, I acknowledge that technically I’m not a nun. A Benedictine nun lives a cloistered life. But would ‘Racist Sister’ make sense to anyone?

Comments 2

  1. Liked your article and its relation to Benedict. I just read “See No Stranger” and the guiding principles are the same. I liked especially the challenge of walking the path with others who don’t think the same!!!
    By the way, Catholic all my life and never knew difference between nun and sister. Always thought religious women were nuns and in my day, you had better call them Sister. Thank you for being one.

    1. Hi – thanks, Marcia. I heard in an interview the other day that the response, “Can you say more about what you mean by that?” is a good one to keep conversation going without judgment.

      I just googled the book “See No Stranger.” I’m putting it on my list!

      I’m glad to be walking with you and all the oblates, too!


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