Want to know what racism feels like?

April 5, 2010

Bobz Book Reviews

Witnesses to Racism FC

“Witnesses to Racism: Personal experiences of racial injustice,”

edited by Lois Prebil, OSF

“Racism,” Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George notes in an introductory message to this work, “continues to be a defining issue in our society,” not simply caused by individuals but “woven into the very fabric of our institutional and social structures.”

Eleven people of various shades of skin pigment will help everyone of us understand what racism is, what it feels like, in this slim Acta Publications paperback. The stories are first-hand accounts delivered orally at the Archdiocese of Chicago sponsored “Workshops on Racism and Ethnic Sensitivity,” and are just a sampling of those witness talks.

While it takes only 20 minutes of so to read, “Witnesses to Racism” carries lifetimes of personal testimonies about how racism hurts people. And you may be amazed at who has applied the hurts.

You will cringe as you read how:

  • A woman recalls being called a “dirty Mexican” at the age of six, a phrase reinforced by a nun in her school.
  • A Japanese-American’s story of being forced to like in the horse stalls of a racetrack when her family was among the 120,00 Americans of Japanese descent who were incarcerated by the U.S. Government during World War II without trial, due process or justice.
  • How an Ojibway girl’s mother is followed around a store by a clerk, who wipes off everything her mother touches.
  • How the professor at the University of Mississippi told a class that he hates “Catholics, ‘Nigras’ and Jews,” so a black Catholic student had two strikes against her.
  • Why a Mexican-American girls always considered herself inferior and longed to be white.

And that’s not even half of the stories that will — or ought to — make you shudder and promise to do your part to change the racial attitudes and racial injustice that continues in the United States today.

How we hurt one another

Several of the chapters relate the naivete of the authors. “At a young age,” one says, “I learned what it meant to be different. Even though I didn’t feel different I was treated that way.” What results for several are feelings of unworthiness and self-doubt. To compensate, Japanese-Americans try “to become invisible.” A Mexican-American girl dislikes and denies who she is, refusing to speak Spanish so she can be more like the girls in school.

And racism is part of so many of us, unintentionally. A Caucasian person recalled walking into class on the first day of school and seeing black children: “I was terrified! I had never even seen a black person before. . . . I didn’t know why, but I knew I was supposed to be afraid and stay away.”

Several witnesses spoke of their parents as racist and of picking up feelings of both racial superiority and inferiority in their childhood homes.

It’s time to act

This little book, though, is an eye-opening jab in the conscience, a reminder that Catholics — we, our church and our community structures — must evaluate how we treat those whose skin is a different shade than our own.

For starters, test yourself.

  • What do you think about when you come across the name “Mendoza?” What images come to mind?
  • Do you ever wonder how a black family can afford to live in your neighborhood?
  • How many times did our parents — or we ourselves — tell children to “stop running around like a bunch of wild Indians?”

Need help fighting the cultural racism ingrained in you? Try this answer passed along from a college professor to one of the storytellers: “When in doubt do the loving thing.”

Finally, just a bit of loving critique in the form of a suggestion.

While I realize the texts in this book are verbatim testimonies, this book could be so much better with some editing. The first-person books of Chicagoan Studs Terkel came to mind as I read what are truly wonderful stories here that so need to be told, but a crisp editor’s pencil would have culled some of the unneeded verbiage and made the strong stories even stronger. An oral history is one animal; a book is a different one and would have been better with judicious, Terkel-like editing. — bz

About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski