Facing Tough Conversations on Race the Ignatian Way

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“The issue of race too often leaves us uncomfortable, tongue-tied, embarrassed, stammering, mute—and limping from ineffective response to crisis-motivated engagement,” said Bryan N. Massingale, S.T.D., professor of theology.

Father Massingale made the remarks before a small crowd of academics at a panel discussion sponsored by the Center on Religion and Culture (CRC). The Sept. 18 event, titled, “Mission and Vision: Ignatian Humanism and the Case for Diversity,” examined where Ignatian spirituality and race relations should overlap but often do not.

Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, moderated.

Referencing Father Massingale’s remarks on “tongue-tied” responses, George Drance, S.J., said that a proper Ignatian response to such critical issues would be to confront rather than deflect.

“The culture of Ignatian humanism would see these interior movements as something that asks for attention rather than avoidance,” he said. “They call for a deeper discernment of the reality.”

Father Drance, an artist-in-residence at Fordham and artistic director of the Magis Theatre Company, said Ignatian discernment is not limited to Jesuits, but “is extended to anyone who finds the same resonance” and would require deep and somewhat disturbing conversation. “I’d love to see my students get into a conversation for a very long time and stick with that uncomfortableness,” he said.

Companion in mission

Robbin D. Crabtree, Ph.D., dean of the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said her institution chose her—an “atheist feminist Jew”— among many candidates for the deanship because she understands the mission.

“As an outsider within, a ‘stranger’ who has been welcomed and put to work, I am, if nothing else, what the Jesuits call a ‘companion in mission,’” she said.

She said her institution was not afraid to grapple with the complex questions that might arise from her being hired. This springs from the value Jesuits place on having the difficult conversations, she said.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be satisfied with what I sometimes call ‘l-i-t-e’ conversations about race, gender, sexuality, power, and privilege,” she said.

Crabtree relayed her own experiences as a Jew within a Catholic institution and questioned how far “individual ‘others’” can realize their full potential within such environments. Many of her students from underserved backgrounds found themselves burdened by “survivor’s guilt.”

“These students’ wrenching comments, identity questions, and almost crippling anxiety—and many, many tears—reveal the personal risks they are taking as they arrive and seek to survive and thrive at our Jesuit institutions, as Catholics who are undocumented, as African Americans from neighborhoods where many of their peers have died rather than gone to college, and as first-generation pioneers who have few inherited tools or signposts for this four-year journey.”

Crabtree said that faculty and administrators need to become more aware of their privileged position. This requires listening and “allying identity.”

Father Massingale said that conversation “presumes you have equal partners” in the talk. For persons of color, however, the risks are not always equal. Creating space for contentious conversations is a distinctly Jesuit value, and that message must be made clear to anyone desiring to be part of the Ignatian institution.

What is needed is “a robust understanding that difficult conversations are the norm of these institutions,” he said. “Maybe we should have an academic Miranda warning, ‘If you are here, this is what you’re signing up for: Sloppy, messy conversations are the norm, and we’re going to provide the incubator to make that happen. This is who we are.’”

Click here to view panel discussion. 

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