Nsukka, which is a town I grew up in, is a university town with an international flair. It is located in the Eastern part of Nigeria in Enugu state. Growing up, my family and I worshipped at St. Peter’s Chaplaincy within the University. At a typical liturgy, you would find people from America, Asia and Europe affiliated with the university. I bring this up to say that even before I came to the US, I have seen, been in class with and worshipped with people of different races/ethnicities. Even then, we considered anyone who was not as dark as we were whites. As a child, I did not “see” the variations in color between people of European or Asian descent. To us they were all “white people,” “ndi ocha,” or “Oyibos” as we called them. As a child, I was taught by my parents to respect everyone no matter their color, religion, and language.
In the first few weeks after I arrived to the United States 18 years ago, I had my first racial experience. I lived in Philadelphia in the Bryn Mawr, PA neighborhood. The sisters I lived with had a thrift store run by the community, where I was assigned to help out, especially as I continued to integrate into the American society, learn how money “works” in America, and begin to mingle with the community. It was in that thrift store that I had that encounter which after I retold my story to the sisters in my house, they made me realize the terminology of the treatment I received from this white lady who had come into the store as being racism.
After that experience, I have encountered more as I continue to live and minister, especially in my practice as a Social Worker/Psychotherapist. One very recent encounter I could share was of a new client who was referred to me for therapy. As I made my initial contact with him, I learned just few identifiers I could share here- he is a white male in his late 40s. He not only verified my qualifications in that first phone call, but he made me know that he was “just” going to meet me for the first time to see if this would work given that he did not understand “my ascent over the phone.” By this time, mind you, I got my degrees in America; I have lived here for almost 2 decades! And honestly, this is not the first time I have had people challenge me negatively based on my ascent. I relay all these stories to bear witness on the existence of racism and white supremacy in America.
The incidents of protests in the past few weeks have heightened the awareness of this systemic racism and injustice meted on people of color, especially blacks. The incessant and barbaric killing of black people, especially our brothers, by the hand of the police, while it oftentimes does not go unnoticed, I ask why is it continuously being perpetuated? While I, as an immigrant, will say I receive a double dose of that injustice, it has not helped that my brothers and sisters who were unwillingly trapped, captured, enslaved, shipped into a foreign land, have lived with this reality all their lives. The treatment of a “lesser than others” or “not being human enough” has got to stop!
In my religious congregation as it is in many others, I am one of two only black sisters, and that begs me to ask why that is so? In our Catholic environment, there is a very wide margin between the number of white Catholics when compared to black Catholic members, and I ask why? Sometimes, indeed many times, it feels very lonely being the only one of my culture/understanding among whites. A sin is a sin, a wrong is a wrong, silence is complicit. White silence equals violence. Have you asked why am I uncomfortable about calling out the evil of racism and systemic injustice in America? How can you as an individual with a conscience contribute to the breakdown of the systemic injustice and racism even in your own little way, as it applies to you? Yes, you can always say, I did not start it, but remember silence is complicit. You as a Christian and as a Catholic. What would Jesus do or say? What systems have you witnessed that promote annihilation of the black people in the church, and how can you be part of the breakdown of that system? For instance, in the priestly vocation or religious congregations, how many blacks are there? Yet, you might not be called to that way of life, but can you raise awareness of the dearth of black people in this vocation such that it becomes uncomfortable and preempts the leaders to act? Can you be anti-racist in a proactive way?