Reflections of a racist nun*

Denise West, OSB Living in Community, Racist nun, Uncategorized 14 Comments

Did the title catch your attention? I hope so, because it is intentional. I wonder what the world would be like if every morning thousands of white people took a page from 12-step programs and greeted one another with, “Hello. My name is _______, and I am racist.”

I was recently diagnosed with the disease of racism. The strange thing is that I made the diagnosis myself, which is really the only way you can know if you have it.

The metaphor of racism as a disease (as opposed to racism as individual actions carried out consciously by bad white people) works for me. It affects my thoughts, my feelings, my assumptions, my speech and my behavior. It affects my cognitive and emotional processes, my physical reactions, and my sight. I didn’t used to know that I’m sick with a disease. I felt fine. I could see that others were suffering. I could see that. I didn’t like it. But I thought it was their business to find a cure for their suffering from racism. I had my own work to do to grow as a person.

What changed? One thing that changed was coming across the work of Robin DiAngelo, whose insistence that we change the way we define racism allowed me to keep my self-image as a “good person” intact, while acknowledging that the disease of racism is running through my veins as sure as my blood is.  I no longer had to live in denial.

The good news of the racism as disease paradigm, for me, is that healing is possible. There may not be a cure, but I can get to know this disease just as I would if a doctor told me I have diabetes or lupus. I would read, research, and reflect. I’d seek out people who also have the disease and look for or build a support group to talk about how we’re affected and to share our symptoms and stories. I would consult experts who have studied the disease as their life’s work, and hopefully I will eventually consider myself to be in recovery.

In the months to come, as I learn more about this condition, I hope to share my ongoing reflections with you. Please, remember, this is a self-diagnosed disease. I’m talking about how it affects me.  

Whether you are currently afflicted or not, please share your thoughts in the space below as the Spirit moves you. I’d love to have a conversation.

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

Comments 14

  1. Sister Denise,

    I hope you are well and thriving! I look forward to the reflections and thoughts you are going to share concerning your disease. Here in Rochester (NY) things are fairly inflamed at the moment. I, personally, am not comfortable with the concept of racism being a disease for two reasons. First, disease is biological in nature and caused by an external pathogen (CV19, rabies) or a process that goes haywire within our body’s internal mechanisms (diabetes, lupus, cancer). You mentioned a 12 step process in your note which does bring up possibility of a genetic component as has been postulated for alcoholism and drug addiction. Still, the evidence for that appears to be more in the domain of probabilistic as opposed to deterministic.

    My other reluctance to the disease model is it can make the associated behaviors more socially acceptable. Is shame an evil or is shame, like pain, an important feedback mechanism in keeping our personal and collective actions within reasonable (if not moral) limits?

    I duly note that early in Reflections of a racist nun* you clearly state your use of “disease” is a metaphor. A broken bone is not the same as a disease though a disease can make a broken bone more likely to occur. Conversely. a broken bone can become a site for disease to take hold and fester!

    May our hearts remain pliable and our convictions reasonable.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. It’s good to hear from you. Excellent points you make – true, no metaphor is perfect. I like your description of shame as an important feedback mechanism.

      I hope you, too, are doing well in Rochester and are finding peace in these chaotic times.


  2. The metaphor of being racist as a disease within resonates with me. As an Oblate promise (also a commitment to myself), I have posted daily on my Facebook page as an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve found my daily reflections and thought-provoking posts have evolved from the tragic death of George Floyd to the honoring of civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis. It’s been truly enlightening to “listen” to Black authors and writers and quote their Truth/truth directly from them. The Spirit is moving and positive energy is flowing as I prepare a post. I’m not seeking comments, likes, emoji’s etc. Planting the seeds of social change, metaphorically speaking, is the release of the racism disease within.

    1. Hi Monica,

      Thank you for sharing your response to this time of soul searching. Social media can be a powerful tool for reaching people with stories and messages they might not otherwise have heard.

      I hope you’ll continue to follow my blog – thanks for posting!

  3. Denise,
    Dennis Crowley here, talk with Sisters Joanne and Mary David and they can fill you in on my long-distance relationship with Holy Wisdom.
    For many years I too was ‘antsy’ with the growing realization of my internalized racism but didn’t know quite how to deal with it. I had close black friends, and in the 60s I marched in companionship with them. I was very uncomfortable when I found myself around blatant racist talk, slurs, and systems, but shamefully I only spoke out against them on occasion.
    In any event, as the Black Lives Matter phenomenon continues to emerge, I am beginning to discover a fledgling clarity to my white dilemma and it is called White Privilege which is a ‘softer’ version of White Supremacy the more virulent face of racism against black people. The point is they’re equally destructive to black people while White Privilege is more insidiously clandestine and much, much harder for white people to understand and own. I have begun my research to rectify my deficiencies in understanding the history of black people in the American experiment and would value sharing it with you to get your reflections, corrections, and input. If you would, send me your email address and I’ll attach what I have so far and thus begin the exchange of ideas.

    1. Hi Sr. Denise and Dennis, I’m not quite halfway through the book, “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” by Jamari Tisby. You may already be familiar with the book and author. If not, so far for me, it’s been historical, thought provoking and educational. I also am interested in further dialogue and the sharing of resources. The Spirit continues to move us to do so. Blessings to all who join Sr. Denise in this journey.

      1. Hi Monica,

        Thank you for writing with that recommendation. I’m not familiar with that book -there are so many on this topic. Yes, we will follow where the Spirit leads us!


    2. Hi Dennis,

      Isn’t it an interesting journey from oblivion to awareness? I’d be happy to have an ongoing conversation.

      Thanks for reading and responding!

  4. Thank you. As we all struggle through these challenging times, I am heartened by this honest and commited view.

    1. Thanks, Julia,

      What more is called for now than honesty and humility? Thank you for reading and commenting.


  5. Denise, Thanks for your courage of making your journey of racial awareness public through this blog. It gives me inspiration to put in the hard work of unlearning racial prejudice and growing awareness of how my whiteness affects how I and others move through the world.

    1. Thank you for that comment, Cory. I’m grateful for the people who have inspired and challenged me, and as time goes by maybe more people will share their experiences.

  6. I recently heard that we can be part of the healing by expanding our circles, both personally and professionally, so that is what I’m trying to do.

    1. Hi Michele,

      Thank you for writing. That is something I look forward to as well. Authentic relationships will open us all up to greater understanding.

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