Churches tackling white privilege

The Oklahoma Conference of Churches is inviting churches across the state to join them in tackling the issue of white privilege, but there has been some resistance to the idea of opening that conversation.

“Every time we start to publicize this event, we get a lot of pushback,” said the Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC).

An article in the Enid News & Eagle drew a host of Facebook comments Thursday that seemed to highlight the “pushback.”

One commenter said bringing up the topic of white privilege is “hate speech” against white people. Another said the topic is “fueling the racial agenda,” while another declared it “pure BS and insane thinking.”

One seemed to allude to a conspiracy theory surrounding discussion of white privilege, describing it as “George Orwell stuff,” and part of a politically correct plot to “re-educate” the population under duress.

A majority of white commenters on the article took exception to the topic being raised, because their lives had been hard, and therefore white privilege couldn’t exist.

Fleck said the OCC discussion and training sessions seek to dispel those kinds of fears and misconceptions.

“It’s perfectly normal to become defensive and to struggle with the conversation,” she said. “What we want people to know is, having white privilege does not mean your life has been easy. It doesn’t mean you haven’t had struggles and difficulties. What it means is, if you’re white, your struggles and difficulties haven’t been made worse because of you being white.”

Fleck said white privilege and racism have become a major focus of the conference in recent years, “and now we want to expand that and really focus on this work.”

In recent years, OCC has offered one-hour training sessions, but Fleck said this year OCC is expandin to a full-day train-the-trainer seminar. The purpose of the seminar, according to an OCC press release, is to help congregations identify and address lingering effects of racism.

“One of the pernicious and enduring characteristics of privilege is that even whites who long ago became aware of the endemic racism in America, and who challenged themselves to grow beyond their racist pasts, are yet still recipients of privileges that give them enormous economic advantages,” according to the press release. “Even more insidious is that some of the most committed white allies for racial equity remain largely unaware of the countless ways that privilege manifests itself daily in their lives.”

A significant hurdle to overcoming issues of white privilege, Fleck said, is the sense of defensiveness it inspires among the people who most need to hear the message.

Fleck acknowledged conversations around white privilege can be difficult. And, to help facilitate those conversations, OCC has adopted a curriculum first brought to Oklahoma and Kansas in 2016 by the United Church of Christ.

Edith Guffey, conference minister for the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ, said Oklahoma and Kansas were deemed a good place to implement the “White Privilege: Let’s Talk” curriculum because UCC churches in the conference are predominantly white.

“This helps take the focus off of looking at other people, and said, ‘Let’s look at ourselves, and look at our own white privilege,’” Guffey said. “The foundation of this country is built on white privilege, and that’s still an issue.”

And, she said, it’s an issue that can only be tackled when white people decide to take an honest, hard look at disparities in privilege between themselves and people of color.

“It’s not about people of color,” she said. “It’s about white people.”

A significant thrust of the training, Guffey said, is helping people overcome the notion that tackling white privilege means shaming white people for being white.

“It’s not about shaming anybody, because nobody asked for privilege — it’s just built into the system,” Guffey said. “It’s not about shame. The question is how to use privilege for good. And recognizing its existence is necessary, so you can learn to use it for good. Shaming people does no one any good.”

The Rev. Nancy Eggen, minister for racial justice initiatives for the UCC Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, said helping people wade into the discomfort surrounding questions of white privilege is an important aspect of addressing privilege, and racial inequality in general.

“Most people find it difficult to talk about race and racial disparities, but it is that discomfort and unwillingness to talk about race that allows the disparities to continue,” she said. “There has also been the idea that it is the responsibility of people of color to educate white people about race, but the reality is that white people need to do their own work of understanding their racial identity as white people, and the impact that whiteness has had on society. This curriculum provides some very concrete tools for starting that work.”

Churches are a natural atmosphere in which to have those conversations, Eggen said, because of the common teaching of the Gospel and its calls to justice and equality.

“We’ve found that communities of faith are a good place to do the work of understanding white privilege because most religious traditions have historically encouraged their followers to care for their neighbor and to work for justice for those who have been marginalized,” Eggen said.

The Rev. Shannon Cook, minister of faith development at First Christian Church of Norman, said the curriculum helped break down some of the resistance to addressing white privilege, when her congregation underwent the training last year.

“Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know,” Cook said. “This helps white people understand the privilege they carry with them, just by virtue of being white, and it also shares some important stories of people of color.”

Cook said the UCC curriculum helped members of her congregation overcome the common, defensive response to questions of white privilege.

“It is hard to understand how we might have privilege when our lives aren’t easy,” she said. “White privilege doesn’t necessarily make your life easy; it just means your skin color doesn’t make your life more difficult.”

But, she said, the curriculum is still challenging — and needs to be challenging.

“It’s not going to make you feel good, but it’s good for you to experience this and understand what it means to move around the world as a white person,” Cook said. “The point of the training isn’t to guilt anyone for being who they are. It’s not about criticism. It’s an attempt to gain a better understanding … that, while we may not make decisions in our daily lives that are racist, we do benefit from a system that has historically been systemically racist.”

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