White Privilege

How Can a Progressive White Church Tackle Racial Injustice?

Many progressive white churches are passionate about aiding the march toward racial justice.  They read books about racial issues and the American history they were never taught.  They share eye-opening articles and documentary films with congregations eager to learn.  They march in MLK parades, acknowledge the stolen lands of Native Americans, patronize minority-owned businesses, and invite guest speakers of color.  They update their everyday language to be respectful of marginalized people.

Often overlooked is what could be an important first step: understanding whiteness.  In other words, understanding white privilege.  

What White Privilege Is and Isn’t

Because the term white privilege sometimes arouses strong feelings and misunderstanding, it’s best to define it for the sake of this blog.

Merriam-Webster says white privilege is the set of social and economic advantages that white people have by virtue of their race.

Oxford, Cambridge, and Dictionary.com definitions are similar.

A helpful analogy is right-handedness vs. left-handedness.  Because there are more right-handed than left-handed people, the world is organized for the right-handed.  Right-handedness is the default.  It doesn’t mean right-handed people are bad or prejudiced.  They just benefit from right-handed “privilege” that they don’t even have to think about.

Let’s look at what white privilege is not:

  • White privilege does not mean that white people are bad or racist attitudes.
  • White privilege doesn’t mean that white people don’t experience hardship.
  • White privilege doesn’t mean that white individuals haven’t worked hard to achieve success.

More clarity on white privilege can be found in this Forbes article by Dana Brownlee.

Historical Context:  The Long History of Exclusion

To understand how we got here, we must delve into the past.  White privilege is rooted in colonialism and slavery.  It has morphed through history, shaping the power structures we grapple with today.  Historical events have cast a long shadow on our contemporary understanding of privilege, from exclusionary laws to institutional biases to inequity in property ownership.

Seeing White Privilege

White privilege isn’t always blatant; it seeps into the fabric of everyday life. According to Peggy McIntosh’s often-quoted 1989 article, white privilege can be knowing that you’ll see your race represented in the media you consume, that your elected representatives will reflect your race, that your children will likely have teachers of your race, that you can achieve or excel without being told you are a credit to your race.  White privilege can be as simple as knowing that band-aids or pantyhose at your drugstore will represent your flesh tone.  

If you are white, you don’t choose white privilege; like right-handedness, it’s the system’s default.  You can’t choose to give it up.  White privilege is present, though often not noticed in daily life; the assumptions are not made, and the fears are not experienced.  When we understand whiteness, we can work to dismantle the systems that give privilege to one race over others.

Why Should Churches Care?

Many white evangelicals and churches are at the forefront of social justice issues, and understanding white privilege is key to making progress.  It aligns with the core values of Christianity.  The pursuit of justice; the embodiment of love, and the creation of an inclusive community mirror the teachings of Christ. Understanding and acknowledging privilege is an inherent part of living out these values.  Understanding our whiteness can help us see and dismantle discriminatory practices within our own walls.

The United Church of Christ Faces White Privilege

“It is time that this still largely white denomination wrestles with its investment in whiteness, and learns
all it can about the manifestations and impact of White Privilege.”—The Rev. John C. Dorhauer

The former CEO of the United Church of Christ issued this call to action as an introduction to White Privilege: Let’s Talk- a Resource for Transformational Dialogue (WPLT), a curriculum designed by the UCC to help members engage in safe, meaningful, substantive, and bold conversations on race.

When this curriculum was offered at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Colorado, dozens signed up, wanting to dig deep, and understand how being white shapes the trajectory of one’s life. 

An essential part of the curriculum is writing a Spiritual Biography, told through the lens of race.  Each participant writes about their first memories of awareness of race, white and non-white.  What were they taught about race, implicitly or explicitly?  What did it mean in their families, communities, and churches?  For many, this can be an uncomfortable journey that brings a new understanding.

Along with writing the Spiritual Autobiography, participants read articles by five UCC clergy (Rev. Traci D. Blackmon, Rev. John C. Dorhauer, Rev. Da Vita D. McCallister, Rev. John Paddock, Rev. Dr. Stephen G. Ray, Jr.) that reflect the personal experiences of race that shaped them. There are also video clips that illuminate aspects of privilege. 

The comprehensive class materials and “homework” are the basis for subsequent challenging and substantive discussions. Though individual participants have had widely divergent upbringings, influences, and emotions, by the end of the class, many felt profound change.

What Happens When White Privilege is Unveiled?

Some of the participants wrote about their experiences. 

Doug Brown, a participant in WPLT

“Although I consider myself sensitive to racial issues, supportive of civil rights, and sympathetic to causes like “Black Lives Matter,” I suspected that I had blind spots about my own white privilege.I learned how historic American social, institutional, economic, and political norms, at best, have ignored people of color and treated them like second-class citizens, and at worst, subjected them to hostile, brutal, and inhumane treatment.

The class opened my eyes to the advantages I have enjoyed, that is, the privileged position I have held when compared to marginalized people. I count the class as a transformative experience because it changed my perspective and my heart on a cellular level.” 

Annie Nestor, a participant in WPLT

“I took a White Privilege Class offered by our church, and the outcome stunned me. I think about it every day! Truly, every day. 

I realize clearly now the privileges I was born with.  For example, I can trust the establishment of the government, police, banks and retail stores, etc. to treat me fairly and with common respect. And they do. But I understand this is not true for too many Americans.

I see others treated differently often in stores, on the news, and in casual comments my friends utter, mindless of their stereotyping of people.

I had previously read several of the “trending” books on white privilege and been sickened as I read them, but I was only temporarily moved into any action. On the other hand, this class made me talk about my background and my thinking, name my biases, separate fear from rumors, and helped me find the hidden assumptions I have made of myself and my privilege at the expense of others.”  

“This class gave me a more coherent idea as to what exactly white privilege means. I gained clarity on the insidious nature of tangible and intangible factors that contribute to continuing disparities in education, wealth, and housing.

Sandy Clough, participant and facilitator of WPLT

“By the time the class was complete, explaining and understanding white privilege came much more easily.”  

Randy Nicholas, participant and facilitator of WPLT

“Wow! The experience of the white privilege class has stayed with me and continues to impact how I live my life every day. It was nothing short of a new path to trod. The workshop was a wake-up call, almost like being doused with ice water.”

I discovered how asleep I had been for my whole life to the impact of white privilege. The life I knew from the start was privileged, and I was completely unaware. I thought my life was “normal”, not privileged. I considered myself and my family good people. We certainly did not consider ourselves to be part of the problem for Black people… or were we?”

I now see that while I was trained to work hard, excel, and achieve, I did so with a subtle tailwind. I didn’t face obstacles getting into college. I could use my education to get a job. I could find what I liked in my neighborhood grocery store and could afford it.”

“The last of the 6 sessions of the Workshop focuses on becoming an ally of those who need as many allies as they can get to overcome the headwind of systemic racism and white privilege. I knew that I could use my influence with my children and grandchildren to ensure that they were sensitized to hoarding the spoils of privilege and to their unwitting complicity in keeping the structures in place. I dream that the grandkids grow up in an environment where equity and justice are normal.”  

What Can White Churches Do About White Privilege?

The UCC White Privilege curriculum is one way to help church leaders and white churches see the world from a non-white perspective, but it is by no means the only way. What matters is the takeaway: unraveling the layers of white privilege gives white churches the tools they need to continue the journey of self-reflection, understanding, and, most importantly, actionable change.  All races must support each other in every way possible in the ongoing dialogue surrounding race and privilege and create a more inclusive and equitable world.

“This class made me, I hope, a better citizen, friend, and person able to live truly inclusively and with kindness toward all types of people different than me.”  Annie Nestor

“Now I’m clear about the ‘inclusive’ part of our church’s vision of its future:  we are compelled to be a community that continues the work of dismantling the elements of structural racism and white privilege around us; where we live, and not just on Sunday mornings. We can be known as that church in our community.”  Randy Nicholas

Moving Towards a Community of Understanding and Equity

In culmination, the transformative understanding and acknowledgment of White Privilege lead to a path of introspection and societal change.

The experiences shared by participants in the White Privilege Learning to Transform (WPLT) class illuminate the profound impact of unveiling the invisible knapsack of unearned advantages. The challenge now lies in acknowledging this systemic bias and actively dismantling it.

As we strive to foster a more inclusive, empathetic, and equitable society, we must continue these difficult conversations, challenge our biases, and, most importantly, translate this newfound understanding into concrete actions.

White privilege is not the issue of a select few but a societal construct that requires collective action to unseat. As Annie Nestor and Randy Nicholas have beautifully put it, becoming a better citizen and working towards an inclusive future is not a journey that stops at awareness; it’s a continuous process of learning, unlearning, and relearning.

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