The Cost of Silence

By David J. Theroux, SSE, Edmundite Center for Faith and Culture/Peace and Justice


My background and early education did not prepare me well for a world in which people were different from me. Quite the opposite:  I grew up in a very small world of immediate family, Catholic Church, and neighborhood without reference to the larger world of diversity that is the United States and the world. We did not speak of difference. People different from ourselves were not noticed or included. Thus, when I reflect on the cost of silence, I am led to consider what it cost me as an individual and all those closest to me. Not to hear the voices of those different from me and the community in which I lived closed me off from the lives of so many others who contribute by their presence in the world to the harmony of the many voices that create the rich harmony that is our world. But, silence also cost all those different from me:  Because I could not hear their voices in the small world in which I lived, they were not given reality and recognition. They did not exist and could not speak.

What I write is a reflection on my journey toward giving voice in my life to people different from me and the community of people out of which I emerged. It is an effort to break the silence.

* * *

I am a baby boomer, born just after WWII, part of that segment of the American population who have been moving steadily up in age since WWII and now find themselves approaching late adulthood and, in my case, the age of 70. I was born in 1947 and grew up in a working class family. My father was the son of French Canadian migrants to the United States and my mother is a French Canadian migrant to the United States, arriving in 1927 at the age of one and a half.[1]  My first five years were spend on a farm that my father and grandfather owned in Wauregan, Connecticut. At the age of five, we moved into a mill town village in Plainfield, Connecticut, where we lived until I was fourteen. I attended the local Catholic school with my two brothers and my sister. During those years, another brother and sister were born into our family. As a family, we easily filled a pew in the Catholic Church we attended regularly, and, during Lent, almost daily—my mother remains to this day a very devout Catholic woman.

The school and church we attended was almost exclusively French Canadian migrants and their children. There were kids who came to first grade who could not speak English. One of my close friends came to have the nickname “Frenchy” the rest of his life as a result. Sermons at Mass were regularly delivered in French, and the culture we shared was rooted in a common French Canadian ancestry, which most families could trace back to the late 1600s in Canada. We were so enmeshed in our French Canadian culture that we did not recognize other cultures than our own. We knew that there were others different from ourselves:  Polish, Italian, Irish, and others who shared a common European ancestry. We also knew that there were non-Catholics in our midst. But this knowledge did not really affect our consciousness of the world.  By way of example, I did not come to know who Saint Patrick was until I went away to high school and encountered boys of Irish ancestry, who promoted the saint to such an extent that he was chosen as our class patron at the boarding school. I found myself wearing a green carnation on Saint Patrick’s Day, much to my bewilderment.

My cultural background as a French Canadian was such that it was considered a grave situation were someone to marry outside of our cultural group. I am told that my maternal grandmother cried for weeks when Aunt Claire announced that she would be marrying a man of Russian descent, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Cultural loyalty was paramount, and associating with other ethnic groups was considered a movement away from family and family loyalty.

It is no surprise then that we had no contact with people of color or African Americans in particular. Although there must have been people of color in the area, I cannot remember an occasion where we in fact came into contact. Thus, it was very surprising to me, and remains the case even now, that there should have been so much prejudice towards people of color. Yet, that was the case. I can remember my uncles in particular speaking despairingly about African Americans. I still wonder why this was so when, at least to the best of my knowledge, we never came in contact with Black people. Even one of our childhood rhymes, a counting rhyme intended to select one child out of a group, referred despairingly toward African Americans:  “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n****r by the toe; if he hollers, let him go, eeny meeny, miny, moe.” Bigotry was part of our lives, not in any conscious way, but as a reality that was unchallenged and accepted with no perception that it should be challenged and unacceptable. It just was.

For high school, I went away to a minor seminary in New Jersey—a boarding school for boys who were interested in training for the priesthood. This changed my world and opened up new perspectives on life for me. I met other boys from different parts of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and as far south as Virginia. I found my sensibilities and cultural background challenged. I adapted and thrived. I also met an African American boy my own age, who became a friend—a story I leave to later on in what follows.

What is notable for me in telling about my early life is the realization of how provincial my early years were. My family, and the community of Catholics I lived and interacted with, were very monolithic in their understanding about the world and what life was all about. Loyalty to your own kind was an essential virtue learned at an early age. What lay beyond my ethnic group and ghetto mentality was of no real interest or value. You were born, you grew up, you worked, you married, and you died within a very confined and confining world. Sad to say, I do not think that much has changed over the years. When I reunite with my brothers particularly on visits home to see my mother and family, I feel like I have gone back to the past where prejudice continues to reign, an alien land in which I am now a foreigner.

* * *

For most Whites, people of color--and particularly African Americans--are invisible to them. I do not mean that White people do not see people of color or African Americans. Rather, White people do not hear the voices of people of color, and African Americans particularly, as they narrate their experience or as they construct their understanding of the world. Plainly put, White people do not bring into their consciousness the reality of people different from themselves. Because of the dominance of Whiteness as a cultural norm and as the basis of power in the United States, White people do not perceive the cultures of those other than themselves as normative or as significant. 

The cost of this silence about people of color and African Americans is twofold. On the one hand, White people become one-dimensional in their perception of reality, perhaps even monotone in how they speak about the world that they dominate and control. On the other hand, those different from White people suffer from not being heard, perceived as other than what is the norm of White society in the United States or as insignificant in the construction of meaning in our nation.

* * *

I was friends with an African American Sister of the Blessed Sacrament some years ago during my time in New Orleans, where I was working among African Americans Catholics in various capacities. She shared with me one day something about herself that was revelatory to me. I do not remember what occasioned the remark, but she said that there was not a day that she did not wake up knowing that she was Black. That’s the way she put it. Every day began with a recognition that she was Black.

I understood intellectually what she meant. I had been living and working among African Americans in a section of New Orleans that was almost exclusively Black. I had studied at Xavier University of New Orleans, the only Black Catholic institution of higher education in the United States, learning from African Americans, both professors and students in the Institute of Black Catholic Studies, what was their experience in America (African Americans revealing what it was like to grow up Black and to live Black in the United States). I learned Black theology also, something that Edmundites studied to prepare themselves for ministry among African Americans. I learned Black theology from African Americans, a theology that grew out of the experience of being Black Catholics in the United States. More than a textbook rendering of Black culture and Christian faith, this was a lived theology that expressed Black belief and Black praxis in the midst of a White dominant culture.

And so, I understood what this African American nun was saying. She was revealing to me that she noticed everyday how her life was different from White people in America—she experienced the difference of being Black in White America. It was not something that she had to bring to consciousness. Her every conscious moment during the day was shaped by the difference she felt—what it meant to be Black in White America.

But, she awakened me also to the fact that there was a White America, something that White people in the United States take for granted or, more likely, do not notice because it is the dominant reality of America:  a White nation under a White God. For her, America did not mirror her, nor did it reflect the reality of Black people in the United States. She could not see reflected in the mirror of American society what was her reality—only the reality of White people. And so, waking up Black every day, remembering her Blackness every day, was not a celebration of her Blackness but a cruel reminder that she was living in somebody else’s world, a world that did not include her.

But, the other reality for her was that even God, as worshipped in America, was White, a reflection of who White people are and what White America is all about. The God of America moved to the United States from Europe, a God shaped by European sensibilities and perceptions. When White Americans prayed to and pondered the reality of God, they saw their Whiteness mirrored back to them. And so, growing up Black in the United States meant relating to a White God, a reminder once again of her difference—a reminder to Black Americans of their difference.

Most White people do not know that there is a Black America. They know that there are Black Americans and they may even know some Black Americans, but they do not know that Black people have their own culture, their own language, their own religious sensibilities, and practices. You see, White America thinks that there is only one America, a White America—an America in which all people in the United States live. The same can be said of the other Americas:  the Latino America, the Asian America, the African America, and so many other Americas, populated by people who are not White; Americas that have different cultures, different languages, and different religious sensibilities and practices.

The problem is this: White Americans believe that everybody different from themselves ought to live in White America. And, it is the responsibility of White Americans, at least those who would countenance the possibility, to invite and to make comfortable all those they invite to live in White America. This is the rub for Black Americans, I believe, and all others who are not White in America:  White Americans want them to be White. Integration, embraced by White liberals and perhaps reluctantly allowed by many conservatives, is about all those people who are not White becoming White. You often hear White people say that they are colorblind. What that really means is that they do not recognize Black culture, Black language, and Black religious sensibilities and practices as real or of value. Black people, for many White Americans, only become real when they act White and adopt White culture, language, and sensibilities. It is often the reality for Black people when they deal with Whites that they feel as if White people have opened the door for them to become real by becoming White. Who they are as Black people is invisible to White Americans or, if visible, something that Black people need to leave behind in becoming real in White America.

* * *

I first noticed that I was White while in graduate school at the University of Maryland. The Jackson Five were on Campus for a concert (Michael Jackson was still a very young boy and not yet the overshadowing star of the group). I decided to go to the concert:  I enjoyed the Jackson Five and heard them on the radio often—Black music was becoming a regular fact of American culture, at least on the radio. I bought my ticket and arrived for the concert early. I took my seat and began to watch people arriving for the concert. I soon realized that the overwhelming majority of people at the concert were Black — to this day I remember thinking and feeling that I was the only White person there. Here was a cultural event that did not mirror my reality or the reality of White America. It was not a White event. Nor was it an event at which I felt comfortable because of my Whiteness.

Nobody ever told me that there were people and events that reflected and revealed other cultural realities in White America — that people could be themselves, feel at home in their bodies and in their lives, without being White. Where I grew up in Connecticut, an area sometimes referred to as the Appalachia of New England, there was only us, White people who differed from each other because of their ethnic (European) heritages. Difference was recognized and perhaps even celebrated based on White categories of distinction:  Irish, Polish, Italian, French Canadian, and so forth. In the ghettos of our minds, as Jay Nolan would have it, we understood difference in terms of our ethnicity and how these differences played themselves out in relation to others who were different from ourselves ethnically. There was no room for a broader understanding of difference, it seems.

I remember the first time I saw a Black person. It was at a beach in Rhode Island where we happened to be spending the afternoon as a family, swimming and picnicking for the day. There appeared at a distance a young boy who was Black. To this day, I know nothing more about him than that he was the only Black boy on the beach at a time when I and many other White people were there. The image of this Black young man remains in my memory, where so many other remembrances of that day have faded and disappeared, perhaps because he stood out in his Blackness from what was the norm in the world I occupied. I noticed his Blackness that day, but I had no language to express it or to understand it.

My second encounter with a person of color was James Thomas. I attended a minor seminary for high school in Blackwood, New Jersey. We sat alphabetically in our homeroom, and Jim sat next to me, his desk next to mine in the arrangement of the classroom. Through our high school years, because our names and then our interests were proximate, we became friends, at least the way boys become friends during their years at a boarding school. We knew nothing of our lives apart from the school. And, upon reflection, it seems to me now that Jim came to the school for the common purpose we all had at a minor seminary, i.e., eventual ordination to the priesthood, but he also, different from the rest of us, became part of what was a very White world. His Blackness was not something we recognized or celebrated. I do not remember his Blackness being mentioned. I have no recollection that his presence among us was challenged or treated disrespectfully, although there is perhaps every possibility that it was, given the nature of White American in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. This was the silence of that time:  his identity as a young Black man was never mentioned or noticed in any conscious way, even though it was obvious. Perhaps that was the overt politeness of our school culture, although I now wonder if that was really the reality in which Jim found himself:  a young Black man in a very White school.

Once I joined the Society of Saint Edmund, I found myself confronted and challenged with the realities of Black American in White America. Our novice master, newly appointed at the time of our novitiate, was Fr. Maurice Ouellet, an Edmundite who had been expelled by Archbishop Toolen from the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, because of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He was at the time somewhat of a celebrity because of what had happened to him. His take on the plight of African Americans in Selma, Alabama, and in the country, was the stuff of popular news, and the fact that an archbishop had expelled him from the archdiocese was a sensational story for the press. During our novitiate, he was interviewed by Life Magazine, very popular at the time (the mid-1960s). He was invited to speak at Yale and Harvard, and we went with him. It was all very exciting and au currant. My life as an Edmundite was shaped by his influence, as was the lives of so many Edmundites for whom Maurice Ouellet was a mentor and guide during our formation as Edmundites.

But, as I recall Fr. Ouellet’s influence on me, I wonder where the African Americans were in my formation. Devotion to a cause, the rights of African Americans, was very much a “White thing” as I now recall. We, as White Americans, committed to social justice as Catholics, were committed to the rights of African Americans in our nation. It was very idealistic. We were committed to an idea. However, the only Black people that I knew at that time were the Black boy at the beach and Jim Thomas. I had never heard African Americans tell me about themselves—their hopes and dreams, their fears and their pains as people of color. My commitment to African Americans came out of my Whiteness, it seems to me now, rather than out of a connection with Black people themselves. The ideal and fairness of all people have equal rights in our nation was the attraction, and I could feel for people different from myself, although I had no real understanding of what their experience of America was really like.

It was not until I was assigned as an Edmundite to Mobile, Alabama, to teach in a Catholic high school, that I began to come in contact with Black people in any meaningful sense. I found myself teaching African Americans at the school, and I interacted with Black people in the parish where I lived. It was here that I began to hear African Americans tell their story of White America. This is perhaps the place where the silence was finally broken. 

I remember particularly coming to understand the effect on Black students of attending predominately White Catholic elementary schools and high schools. What I learned was that there was a price to be paid in attending predominately White Catholic schools. African Americans students every morning left their predominately Black neighborhoods where they lived to attend White schools. At the end of the day, these same students went back to Black neighborhoods. From a White perspective, we thought that students of color were enjoying the benefits of receiving a superior education from Catholic schools, which in Mobile, Alabama, and elsewhere in the United States was true, given the realities of public education at the time—and even to this day—in many urban and rural places in the United States.

What I came to learn, however, was that there was a cost that these students paid for attending predominantly White schools. First, in returning home each afternoon, they were held suspect by those students of color who did not attend predominately White Catholic schools. Many African American students, before leaving school, would change out of their school uniforms so that they would not be noticed in returning home to their predominantly Black neighborhoods. However, an even greater harm was done to students who had attended predominantly White Catholic schools all their lives. They experienced a disconnect from the Black community, sometimes unable to speak the African American vernacular English and sometimes feeling that their identity as Black persons had been compromised. I came to know a very accomplished religious brother belonging to the Franciscans who worked at John Hopkins University in Baltimore who remarked that he never had been able to speak Black vernacular English because of his early education in predominantly White Catholic schools. For him, the cost of a good education in White Catholic schools had meant a permanent disconnect with other African Americans.

My understanding of the Black experience in the United States was deepened most profoundly when I was assigned to New Orleans, Louisiana, where I would live for twenty-five years. I lived and worked with African Americans all day and every day. At Saint Peter Claver Church, Xavier University, and finally at Bishop Perry Middle School, my daily experience was living in the Black community and working daily with African Americans. As a member of the Society of Saint Edmund, we were encouraged to take courses at the Institute of Black Catholic Studies, where we learned from African Americans about what it was like to be Black and Catholic in the United States. Black Liberation Theology became my way of analyzing what the United States had done to African Americans in bringing them to Christianity and how African American Christians came to know Christianity in light of their experience of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and the violence of America toward people of color. But, what was most remarkable in the theology of Black Catholics was how much they had achieved, despite the cruelty of White America towards people of color, a consciousness of victory rather than a consciousness of victimization, as Molefi Asante from Temple University characterized the experience of African Americans in this nation.[2]  I came to understand that African Americans do not perceive themselves as the victims of our nation’s cruelties toward people of color. Throughout their history, a story told by African Americans that is a counterpoint to the story of America told by White Americans through the lens of a common European rootedness, Black people have survived the racism of the United States and become stronger in the midst of slavery, segregation, and discrimination, forming an identity that is uniquely African American in contrast to what is the presumed identity of White America, and in recent years discovering and tracing a history that is rooted in their African heritage and culture.  As some African Americans put it, you can still hear the drums of Africa in the walk of Black people in America.

Yet, what strikes me as telling is how much the pain of African Americans goes unnoticed in White America. During my years as a teacher and a principal at Bishop Perry Middle School in New Orleans, a school for African American young men whose household incomes fell below the level of poverty as determined by the American government, I came to understand how much harm African American men experience in their daily lives, even from an early age. Dr. Rudy Detiege, who founded Bishop Perry Middle School with me, told me how he had played as a boy with other White boys in his neighborhood (New Orleans was made up of neighborhoods that were both White and Black prior to integration), only to be told that he could no longer do so because he had reached the age of eleven when Whites and Black were no longer to mix. Students at the school would relate to me how they watched their mothers be followed in stores because the presumption was that they might steal. They related also how they were often followed in stores, even though they had no intent of stealing, and how White women would clutch their purses and cross to the other side of the street when they say them coming toward them. The students related how Black men that they knew would be stopped while driving because they were Black. I was assured that four Black men riding in a car together would certainly result in their being stopped by the police. These were daily occurrences in their lives, not just something that happened on occasion.

Fr. David Cray, SSE, related a very telling story of how racism works in our nation. During his time in New Orleans, David had the responsibility of raising funds for Bishop Perry Middle School—tuition at the school was free for students and the school depended on donations to keep the school running. He had a meeting one day with a White business man from whom he hoped to receive a donation. The man responded to the request by commenting that had no intention of making a donation:  Why would he make a donation to help Black students gain a good education when such an education might lead to these students taking jobs away from White men?

Prior to moving to Vermont to work at Saint Michael’s College, I was the administrator of two African American parishes in New Orleans. This was after Hurricane Katrina, and Bishop Perry Middle School had been forced to close due to a lack of funds and most of the students not returning to New Orleans. The secretary at one of the parishes, who had worked at the church for many years, would often comment on her experience as a Black woman. In growing up, she would remark about how skin color and hair played a significant role in her life. Because of the color of her skin, darker than a brown paper bag, there were dances to which she could not gain access. Her brother, because his hair was very curly, could not gain access to dances because he could not pass the straight hair test.

What is remarkable in these instances is the fact that the dances were for Creoles in New Orleans, all African Americans. However, Black culture in New Orleans was such that skin color and hair type were points within the Black community. This may seem strange to White people, but there is here the legacy of White American prejudice. Those African Americans in New Orleans who had lighter skin color and straighter hair could claim a Creole heritage, a level of Whiteness that indicated their claim to some White ancestry in their background. No matter that lighter skin color or straighter hair was most likely the result of rape or of Black women becoming the mistresses of White men in New Orleans, a level of social standing had been reached in these liaisons, such that a higher social standing could be claimed.

There is here a harm perpetrated on Black people by White America that is particularly insidious. Convincing people of color that their skin is better, or their hair is better, to the degree that it approaches White skin and White hair. How often I heard Black students at Xavier University, sitting in the lounge area of Campus Ministry where I worked as director, comment about another student:  “She/He has good hair” (meaning straight hair). Even Dr. Detiege, whom I admired greatly and who had White blood coursing in his veins, would speak more about his Belgian ancestry than his African roots. This is the result of Whiteness in our nation becoming the standard by which people are judged. What a sinister effect Whiteness has had on people of color.

* * *

All these things I came to learn and so many others not mentioned above, in living and working with African Americans. But the negative impact of White America on people of color, and especially on African Americans, should not overwhelm the benefit I experienced in being a part of the Black community for a time. I was blessed in so many ways. I miss the joy in how Black people speak, the liveliness and expressiveness of language. I miss being drawn out of my Whiteness by people of color, who challenged me to think differently and to see life through a different lens. Although I never really mastered how Black people clapped to music (I found it hard to clap to music as did African Americans, who sensed the beat differently that White people), I did in time come to sing in Church not only with my voice but also with my body, feeling the beat with my body and clapping with the off-beat with my hands. I learned to preach differently. I recall classes where Sr. Thea Bowman, a Franciscan sister in the Catholic Church, would criticize our preaching, telling us that she was being critical because she wanted the best from us for her people. The interchange in preaching between the preacher and the congregation, the call and response of preaching, is something that is special and lost to me now.

I have come to see that White America remains caught up in the silence it has imposed on itself because of the dominance of Whiteness in our nation, the perception that only White cultural norms ought to dominate this nation, and an inability to see beyond Whiteness the many varied colors of our nation and its peoples. I have also come to understand that silence harms. White America often does not engage in talking about difference, presuming that there is only one cultural norm for our nation. But, the silence has blinded White Americans to the harm that the choice toward Whiteness has imposed on people of color, and particularly on African Americans. Most importantly, I believe that when White people claim to be color blind, it is never to the advantage of people of color. The implied meaning is that people different from White Americans are welcome to become White. Participation in our nation has the under-the-table bribe that to enjoy the freedoms of this nation and to sit at the table with White people must mean leaving behind difference, i.e., cultural norms and values that are different than found in White America.

Breaking the silence in White America would mean learning to speak languages different from the vernacular spoken by White Americans, shaping language in terms of other cultural norms and values and seeing the world through the lenses of the other cultures that occupy this nation, but which are not really seen by White Americans. I believe that I would enjoy being White, without all the baggage of Whiteness, if I could learn to clap to a different beat and to sing with my body as well as with my voice.

[1] Jay Nolan in The American Catholic Experience:  A History from Colonial Times to the Present (South Bend, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1992) uses the term “migrant” in reference to three particular groups in the United States:  African Americans, because of their migration from the South to the North; Latin Americans because of their migration from Mexico and points south of Mexico to the United States; and French Canadians because of their migration from Quebec in Canada to the United States—each group already Americans prior to their migrations.

[2] Afrocentricity (Trenton, NJ:  Africa World Press, 2003).

Learn What Matters