You may have seen the movie "Hidden Figures" (and if you haven't, you should). It's the story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. It is a story not only of their talent and their ability to overcome obstacles, but also of the challenges and roadblocks that African-Americans (especially women) faced in the early '60s.
In one powerful scene, Vivian Mitchell, the white supervisor who has blocked Dorothy Vaughan from advancement, says to her, "Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y'all." Dorothy replies, "I know; I know you probably believe that."
This simple scene conveys one very harsh truth about racism - that frequently those who perpetuate racism are unaware of the role they play in continuing this scourge in our society. Many people are just plain blind to their own prejudices and bigotry in a sort of "subconscious bias." But, a subconscious bias is still a bias, and still maintains this evil of racism in our culture.
Without an examination of our own attitudes and beliefs, without a deep reflection on our prejudices and predispositions, you and I are responsible for continuing the hate and the violence that result from racism.
I recently heard an excellent analogy. Racism is a lot like those "magic eye" pictures that were everywhere some years ago. You probably remember them. They were posters that typically had some sort of pattern of colors and shapes, but contained an additional image if you looked at the picture the right way. Some people could see the "hidden" image almost immediately. Others could see it after trying for a while, and some just gave up and were never able to see it. But what was also true was that once one saw the hidden image, it was almost impossible NOT to see it.
Those who have been the object of racism are able to see it immediately and recognize it easily. Those of us who have not been the victims of racism can still train ourselves to see it, but it requires our desire to look honestly at events and situations in a different way and be willing to have a conversion of heart.
Almost 40 years ago, the U.S. bishops issued a pastoral letter, entitled "Brothers and Sisters to Us," which decried the sin of racism and also pointed out our participation in it in these words:
"Each of us, as Catholics, must acknowledge a share in the mistakes and sins of the past. Many of us have been prisoners of fear and prejudice. We have preached the Gospel while closing our eyes to the racism it condemns. We have allowed conformity to social pressures to replace compliance with social justice."
We are called to view issues like Charlottesville, Confederate symbols and memorials, kneeling in protest, and other racially-charged matters with a perspective of Gospel values and an "eye" that might call us to a conversion of heart. We need to open our eyes to the racism around us and our role in it - and act to rid our society of it.
Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and is a Global Fellow with Catholic Relief Services.