As a young man I was introduced to the spiritual practice called the “examination of conscience”. It is a good way of relecting on yourself and your life in order to improve it along the lines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The examination calls us to consider the wrong we’ve done and it even calls us to consider our sins of omission, which is to say the good we could have done and didn’t.
A few months ago I was listening to a friend complain about the plight of ethnic and racial minorities in the USA. We’ve come a long way to be sure in the struggle for human rights and equality, but as most of us know we still have a long way to go. As my friend described her experience it dawned on me that she had not experienced direct racism or discrimination, but rather she had been a victim of what I call the racism of omission.
The racism of omission is everywhere, but as a Franciscan I expecially see it in religious institutions. Often it is not so much what an institution does to or against person of color (African-American, Latino/a, Native-American, Asian-American, Middle Easterners…) as much as what it omits to do. For example, when I was in the seventh grade, I was finally able to go to a non-segregated school. I had been a pretty bright student in the Mexican-American elemtary school I attended and was used to being called on often. When I suddenly found myself in a classroom with “white” kids I realized that the teachers would not call on the Latino/a kids. The teachers were not explicitly discriminating against us. Theirs, however, was an overt sin of omission. Racism of omission dictated that teachers prefer to support and encourage the white students. They were usually never mean to us or insulting of our orgins, they simply did not give us the opportunity to show what we knew or could do.
Sadly good Christian institutions like schools, parishes, Church communities fall into the racism of omission without ever really thinking about it. I would call them to practice a good examination of conscience and reflect not only on how they are overtly racist but to consider how they have practiced the racism of omission. When attempting to make your institution more welcoming consider what you could do to make it more welcoming to people of color. Is your bulletin only in English? Why isn’t it in Spanish, or Vietnemese as well for example? When you invite guest speakers to your programs? Are they always white men and women? Why don’t you invite Lebanese, Nigerian, Brazilian or other specialists of racial/ethnic and cultual minorities? The answers to these questions will vary and many of them are rationalizations and justifications for the racism of omission.
The examination of conscience is a good practice for those who wish to improve their spritual life. Reflecting on your institutions’ racism in what it thinks, says, does or fails to do (cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissióne) will help you bring racism of omission under control and hopefully to an end.