Maureen O’Connell’s new book, Undoing the Knots: Five Generations of American Catholic Anti-Blackness, is a project of unraveling. To frame her task, she cites James Baldwin’s “advice to white people” to “go back where you started, as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.” Over the course of the book, O’Connell retraces her family’s history in the United States, specifically in Catholic Philadelphia, to uncover how her family’s identity as Irish immigrant Catholics became entangled with whiteness and anti-Blackness over the course of centuries, such that her own Catholic identity remains knotted up with racism today.
O’Connell’s examination of her ancestors’ and relatives’ experiences in the United States as white Catholics—as well as her own—leads her to two revelations that extend beyond her family’s history. The first: whiteness is “part of the tradition of American Catholicism.” In other words, what it means to be white and what it means to be Catholic are handed down together from one generation to the next through ritual, practice, and teaching, and American Catholic traditions and rituals can become lessons in learning and performing whiteness.
Identifying as white helped newly arrived Irish Catholics confront anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. Rather than stand in solidarity with African Americans, who also lived under an Anglo-Saxon culture that was not their own, Irish Catholics “tapped into the rootstock of American anti-Blackness to build immunity to the pathogen of anti-Catholicism.” In the twentieth century, for example, Irish Catholics used minstrel shows to create a racial boundary between themselves and Black Americans. In her research, O’Connell discovers that both her mother and her uncle participated in a Catholic blackface minstrel show, a form of entertainment that was “standard fare” for Irish Catholic families into the 1950s. The practice of blackface minstrelsy cultivated a twisted version of solidarity, connecting white people with each other via shared ridicule of Black people. It is these kinds of traditions that O’Connell wants to scrutinize so that white Catholics can recognize how Catholic traditions and practices have been used to communicate and pass down the myth of Black inferiority.
O’Connell also emphasizes that the decisions of Church leaders shaped how white Catholics thought about race and racism. At every turn, Catholic leaders missed opportunities to subvert the racial hierarchies that oppressed Black people in the United States. Instead of requiring “confederate Catholics to atone for the sin of slavery” or suggesting other measures of reckoning honestly with the trauma of slavery and the Civil War, U.S. bishops exercised what O’Connell terms “a preferential option for the institutional Church.” They prioritized converting Black people “rather than reconstructing conditions that continued to oppress their bodies,” and they continued to focus on defending against Protestant discrimination and promoting doctrinal orthodoxy rather than opposing oppression.