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Leadership Challenges and the Assumption of White Privilege

Reflections on the thoughts of Fr. Bryan Massingale

We at ConSpirita Consulting Network are committed to improving leadership, especially ecclesial leadership.  These times of a global pandemic and a global awakening about racism cry out for courageous and humble leaders.  This series of blogs invite you to come along with us as we humbly, courageously and consistently undertake the work of self-education about racism in the United States, in the Catholic Church and in our own white, privileged lives.  This blog offers Fr. Bryan Massingale’s challenges as they were recorded in an article in the National Catholic Reporter entitled “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it.”

The world has changed drastically over the last month or so.  First we had major challenges handling work with the coronavirus pandemic.  Many leaders had to change from the way things were done to a new normal that included people working from home, physical distancing ourselves from one another, wearing masks and restricted gathering sizes, or worse yet, no gatherings at all.  It turned all our meetings to virtual meetings.  Zoom became our friend.

Fr. Bryan Massingale is the James and Nancy Buckman Professor of Theological and Social Ethics, as well as the Senior Ethics Fellow in Fordham’s Center for Ethics Education.  Prior to his appointment at Fordham, he was Professor of Theology at Marquette University.  Professor Massingale is a leader in the field of theological ethics.  He has written a series of opinion pieces in National Catholic Reporter and been on numerous podcasts on racism.  I’d like to highlight one of his recent pieces in NCR, one that gave me a whole new way to look at white privilege.

You may recall the recent story about a white woman, Amy Cooper, who was in Central Park with her unleashed dog, who called the police to report a black man, Christian Cooper (no relation) was threatening her.  What he did was ask her to leash her dog, as is required in that area of Central Park, and then recorded the whole interaction.

Why did she call the police?  He was just there to birdwatch.

Fr. Massingale says she felt safe to do what she did because she was operating on a long list of assumptions that she may not even be aware of (which does not excuse her behavior but does help to explain it).

He records a long litany of assumptions out of which she is operating.  I won’t list all of them here but here are a few:

  • She assumed that her lies would be more credible than his truth.
  • She assumed that she would have the presumption of innocence.
  • She assumed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt.
  • She assumed that the police would back her up.
  • She assumed that her race would be an advantage, that she would be believed because she is white. (By the way, this is what is meant by white privilege).

There are many more but reflect a minute on just these.  Can you look back at a situation where you interacted with a black person and were working on these same assumptions?  If you can’t, look harder, because they are there.

Personal examination:  Many years ago I was walking down the sidewalk with 2 colleagues, one white, one black.  My pocketbook was slung over my shoulder.  We approached a black man walking toward us on my side of the sidewalk and, unknowingly I put my hand on my bag as if to protect it.  My black colleague told me what I’d done and I, of course, denied it, not recognizing what I’d done.  But she insisted and then I saw.  I presumed the man guilty of being capable of robbery without any evidence, except for his blackness.  I learned from my colleague/friend what it communicates to black people when they see us do that kind of thing.  It’s dehumanizing.

It’s easy to say that real leadership exercises courage.  But in the face of uncovering white privilege, I can see why cowardice might overcome courage.  I found it hard to uncover just the above story from my memory and to acknowledge elements of it as racist.  It would have been far easier to just assert that I am not a racist because I can’t remember these stories and so my inability to recall them must mean I am free of guilt or responsibility.  But I think that if I look further, I’ll find lots of places where I was silent, where I benefited from systems and structures that allowed me to walk my dog, off the leash, and know I would be seen and heard by the law far differently than a black person.  I think I need to read the Gospels more carefully and re-look at Catholic Social Teaching…and ask myself what black people hear and understand when they read these same things.  I bet I’ll discover it is not the same.  And so, the education continues.

Resources

https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/26/us/central-park-video-dog-video-african-american-trnd/index.html
https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/assumptions-white-privilege-and-what-we-can-do-about-it
https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/podcast
https://brenebrown.com/unlockingus/  Brené with Ibram X. Kendi on How to Be an Antiracist 

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