Finding hope in the relay for racial justice

A quick, but inspirational conversation with Rev. Bryan Massingale

By Abigail Ng

Rev. Bryan Massingale speaks passionately about the realities of racial justice during his Mission Week closing keynote Feb. 9, 2017. (Photo by Dan Johnson, LTC.)

After Rev. Bryan Massingale gave his closing keynote, capping off Mission Week 2017: Black, White, and the Call of the Church with a message of hope and a call to action, I had the honor of sitting down with him for a brief conversation. As I walked away from our interview, I was amazed at how energized I felt. Something had been sparked within me, a drive to advocate for change and continue the conversation of racial justice beyond Mission Week. Rev. Massingale left me feeling incredibly inspired, and I hope after reading his words, you do too.

How did growing up in Milwaukee, specifically in the 53206 area code, affect your outlook on race?

Massingale: Growing up in 53206 gave me a passion for understanding why certain communities are treated differently than others. Why is it okay to abandon neighborhoods, zip codes? Why does that happen? Growing up in 53206 gave me a passion for trying to understand my experience.

I didn’t realize how in poverty I was living until I went to high school. I went to a school that was 90% white. I went to my friend’s house in Wauwatosa and I thought, ‘Wow, I only thought it was like this in the movies.’ That’s when I began to realize how different my neighborhood was. Again, that fueled my passion for finding out why that happened, why we let that happen.

What is the greatest obstacle to connecting with people who may be different from us, and how do we overcome that obstacle?

One of the greatest obstacles is a sense of isolation. I always tell people, isolation fuels ignorance, indifference and fear. The Religion of Public Life Institute did a story a couple of years ago that found out most white Americans have social networks that are 91% white. 75% of white Americans have social networks that are completely white, so they’re not interacting with anyone who has a different experience than they do. That increases the walls of ignorance, indifference and fear. We overcome it by putting ourselves outside of our comfort zones and being willing to listen to perspectives that may be different.

What’s a heartache for me is when men of color speak about their experience with law enforcement and people look at us like we’re making this up. Why won’t you believe us? Just because it’s not your experience, understand that this is happening so often that it can’t be made up.

People must go beyond their comfort zones and be willing to realize that we have to listen to the voices and experiences of those who are different. We have to create a space to hear their story.

Rev. Bryan Massingale walks onto the stage at the Varsity Theatre with a smile for his Mission Week 2017 closing keynote. Marquette faculty, students and Milwaukee community members listen attentivley. (Photo by Dan Johnson, LTC.)

What is one thing Marquette students can do to work towards racial justice?

Marquette students have to overcome their fear of the surrounding neighborhood. From my time here, it seems that one of the first things Marquette students hear is the neighborhood is dangerous, and they have to exercise caution when engaging it. Yes it’s a city, and yes it’s an urban environment. You can’t be stupid. But I think that message causes people to regard the neighborhood with suspicion.

Marquette students need to realize that the people in the neighborhood are human beings just like themselves. They need to not be afraid to engage people who are not like themselves.

Real transformation happens in personal relationships with community members, and that’s what I would love to see Marquette cultivate more. My dream for Marquette is that students will not leave this place without having sustained encounters with the members that are part of the surrounding community.

What do you think is the significance of Marquette having a week centered around conversation about racial justice (Mission Week)?

It makes me proud to be a Marquette alum, it really does, because as I say in my book, one of the greatest obstacles in dealing with race is that we don’t want to talk about it. So for Marquette to create a whole week for a conversation that most people would rather avoid, that’s something I’m proud of. It’s a gutsy move.

I know [talking about race] makes people uncomfortable. Marquette could have easily avoided this and chosen another topic. It speaks a lot to Marquette’s commitment to their own mission that they’re willing to say, ‘You know what, we’re going to have a week devoted to this conversation, and we know it’s not going to be comfortable or easy, but we can’t be who we say we are if we don’t take the risk of being uncomfortable.’

What message do you want Marquette students, faculty and Milwaukee community members to take away from your keynote speech?

I want them to take away two things. One, that we need to tell the truth about our society and about how we got to where we are. Too often we want to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist or we’ve already gotten beyond it. We need to tell the truth and say, ‘Yes this is not 1965, but we have a long way yet to go.’

Two, is a sense of hope. Too often we get into these conversations and we think, ‘It’s 2017 and we’re still talking about this.’ That’s why I wanted to end my talk on a note of hope. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we can make a difference. That’s why I use the metaphor of the relay race.

I may not get to the finish line, but I run my leg of the race so that the person coming after me can do what they have to do.

When we see ourselves as part of a relay, then we don’t get upset when we suffer defeats. We know that our job is to do our part, but we don’t have to do everything. We just have to do something.

Someone told me that a movement is nothing more than millions of people doing millions of different things in millions of different places. Not all of us are going to get tear gassed or are going to march, but we all can do something.

When each of us do what we can do, that’s what makes a movement, and that’s what brings change.

Thank you for saying that. It’s so easy to get discouraged in these times.

Oh and it’s going to get worse, sorry to say. But as a country we’ve been through tough times before. What would have happened if during the times of slavery or segregation people said, ‘This is too tough, I’m going to give up?’ This is our tough time and now it’s up to us to draw inspiration from the past and continue. It’s going to get really tough, but we can’t give up.

After his closing keynote, Rev. Bryan Massingale signs his book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, for Mission Week attendees. (Photo by Abigail Ng)

Last question, and it’s a fun one. Which animal do you like better: Golden Eagle or Ram? Note: Rev. Bryan Massingale previously taught at Marquette and now teaches at Fordham University in New York. Fordham’s mascot is a Ram.

Oh, that’s easy. Golden Eagle. I’m an alum. I can’t betray my alma mater!