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The Third and Fourth Conversions


The Third and Fourth Conversions
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

We continue our conversions to greater solidarity with the marginalized.

The Third Conversion is when we idealize some of the virtues of the poor that we ourselves do not have. When the lens is cleared by our initial awakening to injustice, it is much easier to focus on people’s admirable qualities, especially those that might be lacking in our own group. This was certainly true for me. In my travels to India, the Philippines, and many Global South nations, I saw plenty of people who were happy, generous and grateful with the little they had. By contrast, I could be entitled and grumpy whenever the littlest things went wrong! It was so humbling.

Although it feels positive, staying at this conversion stage still places an unfair burden on those who are marginalized. Projecting only good qualities onto them tends to ease the burden of solidarity work from us. Layla F. Saad describes this tendency in relation to black women in her book Me and White Supremacy:

Black women are either superhumanized and put on pedestals as queens or the strong Black woman, or they are dehumanized and seen as unworthy of the same care and attention as white women. Both superhumanizing and dehumanizing are harmful because . . . they fail to capture Black women in the mess, joy, beauty, and femininity of women of other races. [1]

If it is unjust to dehumanize others, it is equally unjust to “superhumanize” them, applauding their ability to “do it all” instead of making sure they don’t have to.

The Fourth Conversion is a deepening recognition of the impact of systemic oppression. This tends to come about as a result of disillusionment and disappointment with the poor, especially when one sees how they have been socialized to a worldview of failure and scarcity. This is internalized oppression. As Paulo Freire puts it, “so often do [the oppressed] hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything . . . that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.” [2] From the very beginning, the systems we operate in either support us or tear us down.

From my place in society, I was able to enter into a good education system, and I always had good healthcare. I was offered so many options and encouragement to become “successful.” But when we come from a social location that has put us in systems and relationships where options are limited, we are often humiliated and looked down upon at every stage of our life. Under those conditions, it is much harder to keep putting our best foot forward.

The work of solidarity is to close the distance these systems have put between us by joining and accepting others as fully human—in our struggles and gifts alike. This work requires a commitment to relational accompaniment. What is needed, according to Freire, is for us to “stop making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures, and risk an act of love.” [3]

[1] Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (Sourcebooks: 2020), 87.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th anniv. ed. (Continuum: 2005, ©1970, 1993), 63.

[3] Ibid., 50.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Living School symposium presentation (November 25, 2018), unpublished.

Image Credit: Paulo Freire (detail), Centro de Formação, Tecnologia e Pesquisa Educacional (CEFORTEPE), SME-Campinas, Campinas, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Conversion to [solidarity with] the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new existence; they can no longer remain as they were. —Paulo Freire