My very first of too many encounters with racism came very early in my life, way too soon for a child of 7. I was in the second grade at the Ellis School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My teacher was Miss M. and boy did I think she was just perfect.
One day she had a visitor stop by, so she gave us a busy work assignment while she chatted with her friend. After a while, I heard her “you are naughty” voice exclaim, “Robert!” My head snapped up from the assignment I was wrapped up in and I looked at her. It was as if she was speaking to me and it took me a few moments to realize it was not Walter as on some occasions in the past, but Robert.
“Go to the corner of the room,” she snarled. Poor Robert got up from his seat, head on his chest and headed for the corner at the back of the classroom. Every eye in the room followed his journey. When he got there, she said, “Turn around and face the wall.” I looked at her and I noticed that her friend was smiling and she covered her mouth as she started to laugh. I didn’t understand what was so funny. After all, poor Robert just got caught and now he was in the corner, and he must be truly embarrassed, as I was whenever I was sent to the corner. I just could not figure it out.
And then I heard her say, “And don’t touch the walls, you’ll get them dirty!” A peel of laughter came out from behind her friend’s hand that was still over her mouth. It was in that instant that I understood what she meant by her last remark. You see, Robert was black! My beloved teacher was committing an act of racial injustice against one of my peers. I can still remember this scene as if it happened today and not 70 years ago.
During my life I have worked with and for people of color. I have watched what they went through every day. So when I was in the seminary my spiritual director asked me what I was most thankful for. I replied, “That I have never had to experience the ravages of institutional racism!”
So you see, that is why I am going to join the Novena for National Unity & An End to Racism. I invite you all to join us in prayerful examination of the way that race, racism, and privilege shape our lives.