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ND symposium examines problem of white privilege

Marcela Berrios | Friday, March 24, 2006

Discussions about white privilege as a form of racism in the Catholic Church will draw theologians, psychologists and sociologists to Notre Dame for a three-day conference starting Sunday.

The interdisciplinary symposium “White Privilege: Implications for the Catholic University, the Church, and Theology” will feature speakers from Duke University, Loyola University-Chicago, Marquette University, Wellesley College, Boston College, Xavier College and the University of Hawaii, among others.

Bishop Dale Melczek from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gary, Indiana will also speak at the symposium.

Conference speaker Peggy McIntosh from the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women described the subtle effects of this socially-ingrained discrimination in her article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” published in the book Critical White Studies.

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage,” she wrote.

The conference’s speakers have backgrounds in theology, women’s studies, black studies, peace studies, psychology, sociology and law.

“By organizing the symposium in an interdisciplinary fashion, we hope to generate more theological discourse through the process of exchange across disciplines,” conference organizer and theology professor Margaret Pfeil said.

Pfeil said she hopes this large pool of opinions will contribute to the unmasking of the elusive white privilege phenomenon.

“As a discipline, theology lags far behind the social sciences in addressing white privilege as a form of racism,” Pfeil said.

While most other social sciences and disciplines have challenged for decades their own embedded stereotypes and power structures of race, Catholic theologians have remained quiet about their approaches to diversifying the frameworks of their research and academia.

Noting that most of the world’s Catholics are non-white, Pfeil stressed the need for the symposium.

“As the nation’s preeminent Catholic university, [Notre Dame] is in a powerful position to make a substantial contribution to critical thought and transformative action with regard to white privilege,” she said.

In an effort to confront white supremacy within the Church, in theological journals and in society, the Symposium will provide an intellectual forum where scholars and students may discuss the causes of the insidiousness of white privilege, the phenomenon’s shaping of the context in which prominent theologians approach Catholicism, and the indirect effects of these events on the Catholic population, Pfeil said.

The symposium is sponsored by the department of theology, in conjunction with other University departments and organizations.