Shannen Dee Williams, assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, addresses the Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly in Atlanta August 10. She spoke about the racism faced by black nuns (Credit: CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin.)
In early American history black women could be accepted into orders of nuns only if they could “pass for white,” and later they faced significant racial prejudice. Despite all that, they became role models for the black community in America and served as spiritual leaders.
Those who could gain admittance faced discrimination from their fellow sisters, she added.
“Black sisters matter, but they constitute a dangerous memory for the church,” said Williams, assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Black bishops have recounted similar experiences. Bishop Edward Braxton has at times spoken movingly of his own experiences with racism. He writes:
I have had two personal experiences with law enforcement officers that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong. The first experience was when I was a young Priest. The second was when I was already a Bishop. In both cases I was not in clerical attire. I was dressed informally.
In the first experience, I was simply walking down a street in an apparently all-White neighborhood. A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, “What are you doing in this area? Do you live around here? Where is your car? You should not be wandering around neighborhoods where you do not live.” I never told him I was a Catholic Priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer? This was long before I heard the expression, “walking while Black.”
In the second experience, I was driving in my car in an apparently all-White neighborhood with two small chairs in the back seat and a table in the partially open trunk tied with a rope. A police car with flashing lights pulled me over. The officer asked, “Where are you going with that table and those chairs? Before I could answer, he asked, “Where did you get them? Then he said, “We had a call about a suspicious person driving through the area with possibly stolen furniture in his trunk.” I wondered what I was doing to make someone suspicious. Many years would pass before I would hear the expression “racial profiling.”
Bishop Ferd Chari of New Orleans reports similar experiences of racism.