Today’s writer reflects on Session 4 in Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent as the starting point for her writing. Session 4 calls for white people within the ELCA to understand white privilege and the meaning and impact of white supremacy. Today’s blogger explores personal experiences of disadvantage and advantage as a white woman.
The Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent” is an acknowledgment of the church’s complicity in slavery and the perpetuation of systemic racism. Now Is The Time: A Study Guide for ELCA Declaration to People of African Descent focuses on deepening understanding of that history and engaging white people in conversation on the meaning and impact of slavery and systemic racism. Participant materials are available in addition to the study guide.
by Becky Shurson
As I think of situations where disadvantages came from my identity, my earliest memory is being the last student chosen for a coed 6th grade dodgeball team because my identity did not include being male, athletic, or popular. The reverse, an advantage experienced because of identity, came to me as a younger woman receiving leadership opportunities in a setting where younger female leaders tended to be the most valued. As I think of them now, I see the difference in my reactions; the disadvantage caused humiliation and disappointment while I received the advantage with no recognition of the unearned gift that it was.
Yet I know that the unearned gifts and opportunities that come to me are rarely by luck or coincidence. Instead, they are privileges borne from the exclusion of others and, most often they are white privileges because the same opportunities and advantages are not available to people of color. My white privileges—the advantages not available to people of color—are so much a part of life that I must search to even see them. They are the “invisible package of unearned assets” that white people carry around and draw from each day. They are the full set of tools that allow me to easily navigate the world and tend to the job of living, oblivious to how my experience differs from the experience of people of color.
These privileges of whiteness go beyond the government systems and policies that advance and advantage white people at the expense of people of color. Instead, these are the privileges of everyday life that allow me to move through the world without giving thought to how normalized whiteness is. They inform me that people will not be afraid of me or look the other way because of my color. They make me an insider on the jokes about so-called “Lutheran food groups.” They help me conceptualize a mostly white or lightly tanned Jesus, and they help me assume how natural it is for white pastors to be the leaders of congregations. (See the lists provided by McIntosh and Denson-Byers).
How unsettling and threatening to think that I (a self-identified good, hardworking person not tending to put my own comforts first) need to notice or question anything about how my identity as a white person affects the way I experience the world. In the noticing and questioning, how easily and quickly my unseen white advantages transform into my “rights,” and how quickly my “rights” lead to entitlement, defensiveness, and fear. I see myself in this statement: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. (It’s not).”
Once I curb my emotions and ego, my eyes and heart open to recognize the actual harm. People of color do not share access to the advantages of white-privileged life. After 400 (and more!) years of history in America, people of color still are devalued and denied their humanity as beings created in the image and likeness of God. And though I never participated in enslaving people, there is no doubt for me that I have benefited from and continue to enable racist systems and ideas that cause harm to people of color.
I read the scripture of Matthew 15:21-28 and grieve as I see an analogy to our world: A woman approaches Jesus as she screams for Jesus’ help for her demonized daughter. The disciples want to send her away, but Jesus talks with her, telling her that helping her would be like taking food from children and unfairly throwing it to the dogs. She reminds Jesus that even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the table.
I wonder what it would look like for white people to finally listen, recognize, and acknowledge the need to re-set our table of privilege to include people of color. (And not just begrudgingly making space available on the floor, but making full room at the table?) Even more, white siblings, what would it look like to use the power of our privilege to rebuild the table and systems to ensure a welcoming space for all?
Becky Shurson of Eugene, Oregon, served as secretary of the churchwide executive board of Women of the ELCA from 2014-2017 and was vice president from 2017-2021. She currently serves on the Oregon Synod Council.
1 Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August 1989, https://psychology.umbc.edu/files/2016/10/White-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf, accessed March 24, 2022.
2 Ibid., 2-3.
3 Yolanda Denson-Byers and Shari Seifert, “Unpacking White Privilege, the important work of making the church less harmful,” Living Lutheran, January 17, 2020, https://www.livinglutheran.org/2020/01/unpacking-white-privilege/, accessed March 24, 2022.
4 Franklin Leonard, Twitter post, October 10, 2015, 9:35 a.m., https://twitter.com/franklinleonard/status/652885246220734464?lang=en, accessed March 24, 2022.