Coming to terms with the past

By Frater Brian M. Junkes SVD

Before entering the seminary, I lived in a rural community called The Acreage in South Florida. It was not next to the sunny beaches and colorful high-rise condos of Miami but rather in a community on a grid system of dirt roads, two-acre properties, canals, and woods of pine trees.

It was rather quiet living until you heard the roar of someone’s pickup truck or motorcycle down the street. Overall, it was a nice community. Growing up, I was aware that like in other communities, crime did happen.

Racism also was present. As a child, I remember hearing from a friend that the Ku Klux Klan used to meet at a house that was down the street. I also heard the KKK protested the opening of my high school because students of color from other towns and communities would study at my school.

During my high school years, some students fought over race. They would even meet in local parks to fight after school.

One of the most memorable conflicts happened when some guys went to a Black student’s house to fight over a girl. The one guy brought 30 friends with baseball bats with him and waited outside of the other guy’s house. Fortunately, he never came out.

Later, when the victim and his family left the house to go grocery shopping, the group came back with spray cans and painted “KKK,” Nazi swastikas, and WP (white power) all over the house.

Some of the members of this group were later arrested after the police found the spray cans in a nearby lot. I knew some of these guys who perpetrated this abhorrent behavior. Some of them would say things like “I am not racist, but…” and “I have black friends.” They were blind to their own prejudice.

I used to hear people talk about avoiding the “bad neighborhoods and areas” in the county and how they did not want Black people and Mexicans around. I have heard “Black jokes” and “Mexican jokes.”

I have listened to people rant about how terrible Black people and Mexicans were in the past. Racism certainly still existed in the history of my local community and exists now.

I bring all of this up because the topic of racism is now in the news and headlines again after the killing of George Floyd. This time, I really felt it. After reading the news about the protests and seeing what my friends have posted on Facebook, I have felt the need to reflect and contemplate on what has been happening and on myself.

Recently, in light of what is happening, I have had to ask myself: What am I doing about racism? Am I racist? Do I have any prejudice towards people of color? How can I help people in the future or in the mission if I have not reflected on my own biases, prejudices, and racism? How can I help the international community I am a part of to become intercultural if I have not overcome those things? Some people may say I am being too emotional or sensitive, maybe even experiencing overwhelming guilt, but I say this is too important to dismiss lightly.

 I have learned in recent years of being in formation and living with people from different cultures that people can have prejudices and biases towards people of other countries and cultures even if they are in the subconscious and are not aware of it. I have witnessed this firsthand from other people.

Sometimes, it is laughable with no one being hurt; other times, it causes a divide in relationships and hurts others. Racism prevents the person who has the biases and prejudices from going deeper and getting to know the other person who is vastly different and unique.

I have been in community with people who have shown this attitude towards me as an American. Besides the overt racism that is commonly seen in the news and movies, it can be subtle. This subconscious racism is what people are taking to the streets and protesting.

My point in sharing all of this is not only to bring awareness, but also to invite people to reflect internally to possibly discover any deep-seated or subconscious biases, prejudices, and racism they may hold.

It is natural to resist and deny that it is there, but if we want to stand with our brothers and sisters who are discriminated against, we must first start with ourselves. We must examine our own consciences and our own past to make sense of who we are in the present situation. Only then can we really make a difference and help others.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently said more than half a century ago: “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

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