I was in fourth grade when it happened for the first time. We were in the school library and our teacher was breaking us up into small groups to sit together. She sat all of the African American and Hispanic kids together and as soon as we took our seats, one of my white classmates stood up, pointed at us and said, “Look — teacher sat all the **** together!”
It was the first time I had ever heard this racial slur in reference to myself or my peers. I remember the teacher going pale in the face and hushing him before trying to continue with the lesson. I remember looking into the faces of those at my table, our fourth-grade minds trying to figure out what had just happened.
I think back to this moment in my life often. I often think about the teacher’s motives to segregate us from the rest of our classmates; I think about the way my classmates’ long, white finger curved slightly as he pointed us out; I think about my teacher’s stricken face and simple hushed rebuke.
I remember going home that day and standing in our kitchen and telling my parents, “Today I got called ****. What does that mean?” I remember my father’s rage as he called the school and demanded a meeting; the way my mother lowered herself to my height and reminded me that I needed to be proud of where I came from, proud of my skin color that God gave me, proud to be the daughter of Hispanic immigrants.
That moment was not the last time someone referred to me with a racial slur. Those terms followed me through high school and college, yet they were not limited to just my school experiences. People have been racially profiling me in both secular and religious circles, and have made racist comments in my presence.
The past few years have seen a growing awareness of the pervasiveness and evil of racism. As I’ve taken on the work of fighting racism within myself and alongside other BIPOC, one of the most important conclusions I’ve reached is this: If racism is to be abolished, we all must take up the work of actively seeking reconciliation and reparation. This is true if you think you are affected by racism or not — because we are all affected by racism. Whether racism manifests in external forces around us or within our own internalized assumptions, we will only abolish it from our life stories when we go out beyond ourselves to seek reconciliation and its complete abolition.
Too often this reconciliation is passive and solely external: we post the black square on our Instagram feeds, we make sure “Black Lives Matter” is in our twitter bio, we follow BIPOC voices on social media. These are valid responses to growing awareness, but it’s possible to do all of those things and still avoid the internal, active work of facing our own bias against others and repenting for the ways in which we have belittled the experiences of BIPOC.
There’s a word for this type of active, internal work in our Catholic tradition: repentance. It refers to the way that turning away from evil begins as an active search in the heart, and then grows into conviction expressed in actions. It’s important to note that the movement is internal and active first — the external action is the expression of this conversion.
For Catholics, the sacrament of reconciliation is an important place to begin this work of conversion. It’s where we find accountability, remorse, forgiveness, and healing for the ways in which we have hurt ourselves and others.
Racial reconciliation comes in the form of the active, internal work that we do to de-center white narratives in our own lives and networks. That work grows our love for our neighbors who have been dehumanized and marginalized, and calls us to move from bystanders to protagonists fueled by righteous action.
When we actively examine our stories for the ways in which we have hurt others or perpetuated harmful systems and structures, we are beginning to seek internal repentance. This movement requires proactive work — we have to choose to do it. No matter how aware we might be, conversion doesn’t just happen to us.
Racial repentance might begin as an epiphany or awareness sparked by the external actions of others — either witnessing injustice directly or other people’s protests — and we want to join that movement for justice with our own external actions. But if that external work is not accompanied by internal work, it’s empty and does not change any of the ways in which we have all participated in a racist system that destroys BIPOC lives.
Active reconciliation doesn’t come from just reading books, watching movies, and listening to podcasts. It is the fruit of habits and disciplines that we choose daily to become less selfish — to step outside of ourselves, to work to de-center ourselves, to see and stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized and oppressed by systematically racist structures and institutions.
If we truly want to work to eradicate racism, to hold systematically racist institutions accountable, to work for true unity and dignity, then we must live a life marked by active reconciliation. This kind of accountability is not the same as “cancel culture.” If we believe in the grace of forgiveness and the call to repentance, then we know that this accountability is part of our work to restore the parts of the Body of Christ that have been hurt by sin and a failure to love.
Sometimes I think about my classmate from fourth grade. I wonder if he, too, remembers that moment of segregation that occurred in our fourth grade classroom. I wonder if he has realized how what he said marked us, if he has worked to actively repent from it, if he now keeps himself accountable to love his brothers and sisters by empowering their God-given dignity.
I know that our interaction marked my own existence as a BIPOC forever, and it has fueled my own work to promote racial equity and reconciliation. This kind of active reconciliation will allow us to create spaces of empowerment for our BIPOC brothers and sisters.
This is the good work we are all called to actively take on in our own lives.