Wake-Up Call: For Sister Helen Prejean, an Eye-Opening Experience Sparked a Lifelong Commitment to Justice

By Prejean, Helen | U.S. Catholic, January 2020 | Go to article overview

Wake-Up Call: For Sister Helen Prejean, an Eye-Opening Experience Sparked a Lifelong Commitment to Justice


Prejean, Helen, U.S. Catholic


Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean grew up in a bubble. "My family is very Catholic and very white," she says. When Prejean joined the religious life at age 18, she went from one social bubble to the next. Throughout her childhood, her parents employed African American servants. "They ate separate from us and had a separate toilet, but I never thought anything was wrong with that," Prejean says. "That's what culture does. Culture says, 'Honey, that's just the way we do things here.'"

In her newest book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey (Random House), Prejean tells the story of her journey to understanding the realities of race relations in the United States and how it informs her work to abolish the death penalty. "During my childhood my parents sheltered me from the realities of racial disparity and how we as white people treat those who don't look like us," Prejean says. "I only became aware of it when I moved in with African American people in the inner city, and they began to teach me about their experiences. I had never had any black peers, and that opened my eyes to how different my life is because of my skin color."

What is white privilege?

White privilege is taking for granted that anybody, no matter what color they are, will be able to walk into a place and never be turned away because of the color of their skin. I have never been turned away because I'm white. White privilege is also the assumption that if a person wants to get a job and they work hard, they'll succeed regardless of their background. That's simply not always true.

In the United States we tend to believe that everybody should be like us. It was only after I met African American people and developed relationships with them that I realized how racism affected them and how different my life experiences were from theirs.

Carlos, one of the kids that lived in the St. Thomas projects, a group of housing projects in the south of New Orleans where I lived and worked in the '80s, was a high school student. He wanted to get a summer job. So he applied to be a stock boy at a drugstore. When they saw his address was in a housing project, they wouldn't hire him. It was only because of his skin color and where he lived. There are so many stories like Carlos' in this country.

I once gave a talk to the Knights of Columbus where I described how hard it is for people in the community in which I worked to get jobs. A woman came up to me afterward and said, "My husband's a dentist and he needs a receptionist.

Can you send somebody?" I was working with an African American woman named Julia at the time, and I told her to apply. But the dentist rejected her application. She could not leave behind the way she talked when she walked through the door to the dentist's office. For the white community in which the office was, this was not OK.

How is capital punishment in the United States the result of white privilege?

In my work at the St. Thomas projects and to end the death penalty I have learned a lot about institutional racism. Racism is different from individual prejudice. It's in structures. It prevents people of color from succeeding. Even our language reflects the deep-rooted racism in this country. White is always pure. Black is always bad. Good cowboys wear the white hat, bad cowboys wear the black hat, and so on. People think that because slavery is over, racism in the United States has ended. They, like I did for a long time, do not understand the legacy of slavery.

The penal system is a legacy of slavery. Plantation owners didn't want to lose their source of free labor once slaves were liberated, so they set up a system of penal laws that resulted in the widespread incarceration of black men. Loitering, for example, became this big catchall crime. People could go to jail for six months just for loitering. Then, after they were released, the justice system could say, "Hey, you owe us for the meals and lodging that we provided you. …

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