“Black Lives Matter and Catholic Whiteness: A Tale of Two Performances”
How do the voices and actions of the members of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement speak to us in the Catholic theological academy? The latter group acts on the basis of membership in a social body of performed whiteness. It is deeply implicated in the very moral problems that members of BLM, thinking and acting as moral subjects and not mere objects of study, aim to address. How do we, as Catholic ethicists, know whether we have appropriately engaged with BLM as a disruption of our own complicity? To answer this question we need to assume that the author and audience of this essay, like BLM activists, inhabit a performative identity sustained by continuous ritual participation and narrative construction. We must invert the academic gaze toward ourselves by asking about our own complicity in white supremacy.[i] We are invited to receive the actions and narratives of the Black Lives Matter movement as a moral challenge posed to US Catholics in general and Catholic scholars in particular, specifically in our capacity to be participants in the ritual worship of the same white supremacist idol more broadly worshipped as the majority religion of US society.
The problem does not center upon the bare fact that the majority of Catholic theologians in this context are white, but rather upon the question of whether as a group they participate in a pattern of mostly unexamined cultural dominance, or whiteness. Bryan Massingale has observed: “What makes the US Catholic Church a ‘white racist institution,’ … is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, music, theology, and persons—and only these—are standard, normative, universal, and truly ‘Catholic.’”[ii]
To the extent that the majority of the Catholic theological academy fails to reckon adequately with its own whiteness, the quality of ethical reflection in that group will to that same extent be deficient. As Margaret Pfeil argues, “Insofar as the privileges conferred by the standpoint of whiteness escape critical scrutiny by those who are white, the social location of whiteness can be considered epistemologically compromised.”[iii] If it’s true that the race privilege of whiteness corrupts moral epistemological capacities, we might expect that, in general, a large group comprised predominantly of white people living in a broader structural and ideological context of racial hierarchy, and who claim to be professional experts in moral analysis, would actually themselves be a grave moral danger. Thus, a radical inversion of the academic gaze requires nothing less than Catholic ethicists, and white Catholic ethicists in particular, asking the same self-critical question recently posed by Katie Grimes (who is herself redeploying a quotation from W. E. B. Du Bois): “How does it feel to be a problem?”[iv]
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