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Steps towards racial justice

RSS By: MNYS Anti-Racism Task Force

Our Anti-Racism Task Force members will be taking turns in writing posts that shed light on issues surrounding racial justice work in our church and society. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors.

White privilege? I thought we were talking about racism

May 16, 2016

By David Parsons


I’ve decided to participate in the work of the Metropolitan New York Synod Anti-Racism Task Force because I understand systemic, institutionalized racism as the essential issue for all who seek to not only pray, but live out, Jesus’ teaching on prayer: "… Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…"


The reading and education and self-reflection that I’ve done over the last few years has led me to understand that I am racist. I don’t like to think of myself that way. I like to think of myself as welcoming to all people, embracing diversity, committed to equity, an ally to those who are the targets and victims of racism. That feels good.



What has become clear to me is that I am the product of a system of privilege that has rendered me functionally unconscious of that privilege, leaving me unable to see how it oppresses my brothers and sisters of color, and how it oppresses me.


Here are some concepts and tools that helped me to begin to understand my location, and impressed upon me the need to work for change, personally and institutionally.


A mentor who’s worked for many years on racism told me, "given my background as a white, middle-class, college-educated person; I learned that it is best for me to assume that my motives in any given situation are informed by a matrix of racism and white privilege. That seems to give me the best chance of acting in a loving, open manner." That approach has been working for me, working on me, slowly and steadily.


At this point, it might be reasonable to say, "White privilege? I thought we were talking about racism." Privilege, specifically white privilege, seems to me an essential aspect of racism. Peggy McIntosh wrote a seminal work, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." She describes me when she states, "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group." You can find a copy of the "knapsack" here.


Jane Elliott, an antiracism educator and activist, posed the following scenario to a largely white audience in a video (as an exercise, if you are a person who identifies as white, you might want to read this sitting down): "If you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in society, please stand… Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, [and] you know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it, or to allow it to happen for others." I remained seated. I’m not willing to accept that any longer, in myself, or in my church. If you’d like to see the video, you can find it here.


Street_ArtWhat I’ve come to understand about racism, from my privileged, white location, is that it is a lose/lose proposition. Racism not only harms those who are its targets, its victims. As the Rev. Joseph Barndt, a Lutheran pastor, antiracism trainer and organizer, and the former director of Crossroads Ministry in Chicago, writes in his essential book, "Becoming an Anti--Racist Church: Journeying Toward Wholeness" (Fortress Press), "racism’s most devastating power is that it takes all of us prisoner. It controls and threatens to destroy us all." (emphasis added) Rev. Barndt urges churches who wish to confront racism first to look within: "… The mission to build a multicultural church does not begin with outreach, but rather it begins with "in reach" into the center of our sanctuaries. We cannot escape the painful realization that our own people and our churches are imprisoned by racism and are not free."


If you read this far, I’m grateful for your time and attention. I covet your prayers for the work of the Anti-Racism Task Force, and for the Metropolitan New York Synod. We have work to do. It is God’s work, holy work. May the Spirit surround us as we journey together.

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