Faith leaders gather to tackle issue of white privilege

OCC

Oklahoma Conference of Churches director of engagement Micah James speaks at the opening session of a white privilege training seminar Aug. 3, 2019 in Oklahoma City. (Photo provided)

Oklahoma City — Faith leaders from across the state joined a cadre of trainers from the United Church of Christ and Oklahoma Conference of Churches Saturday at First Christian Church of Oklahoma City, to tackle the issue of white privilege and racial justice.

The 45 clergy and lay leaders of a diverse group of denominations signed on for a full day of training to become facilitators in the United Church of Christ (UCC) “White Privilege: Let’s Talk” curriculum, developed in 2016 to improve understanding of white privilege and foster racial justice.

Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC) executive director the Rev. Shannon Fleck said OCC has hosted training sessions on the curriculum in the past. But, she said, this session was planned to train facilitators who could go out to host their own training sessions on white privilege, and expand the reach of the curriculum.

“Our whole goal is to work toward reconciliation and anti-racism in society as a whole,” Fleck said, “and one path to doing that is being more aware of the systems in our world, and how a lot of those systems are set up to benefit white people.

“That’s something that’s hard to learn, and it takes a lot of intentionality,” Fleck said, “but if we can be aware of how those systems are set up we can be better allies toward building equitable systems in our society.”

Fleck said OCC received a lot of pushback on Saturday’s training session, in emails, phone calls and social media posts leading up to the event. She attributed the opposition to defensiveness surrounding the question of white privilege.

“The backlash comes from a general place of defensiveness, and the term ‘white privilege’ can be a little loaded, and we understand that, but we want to help people learn more about it,” Fleck said. “It’s very easy to go to a place of defensiveness when someone brings up something people don’t agree with, especially if it’s for something you can’t control. This is very hard work, and there are a lot of misconceptions about what white privilege means.”

The Rev. Kathy McCallie, director of the doctor of ministry program at Phillips Theological Seminary and pastor at Enid Faith Ways United Church of Christ, said the UCC white privilege curriculum overlaps with resources taught at Phillips, and addresses real issues of bias in American society.

“Although the UCC curriculum may seem startling to some, most Americans believe that no one should be treated differently because of their race or skin color,” McCallie said. “The problem is that well-documented evidence shows that people tend to have biases we are not ever aware of.”

McCallie said progress toward true equality stalled after the Civil Rights movement, when many in America felt the issue of racial injustice had been addressed.

“In the ’70s and ’80s there was a hope we were further along with racial justice than we seem to be as a nation,” McCallie said. “There was a hope the steps we were making toward complete, fair equity for all people would continue to make good progress. But, what we’ve seen, especially in the last decade, is there is unequal treatment in classrooms, in all kinds of settings in public life.”

The white privilege curriculum helps people who desire to be good allies to people of color recognize their own latent bias, and how it plays into everyday decisions, McCallie said.

“There is a lot of bias in our society, but I don’t think it’s conscious for most people,” McCallie said. “I think most people in the U.S. want equity for all races, but there is still a lot of deep, unconscious bias.”

Digging into that unconscious bias is painful work, McCallie said, but necessary work toward achieving equality.

“Talking about race is difficult, but necessary for all of us to work together for more fair, safe communities,” McCallie said. “Racial justice is a priority for the UCC, and the curriculum offers some helpful steps toward equal treatment for all people. The bottom line is, it’s really painful to talk about race, but unless we talk about it we can’t seem to make progress.”

Suzanne Nichols, lay minister with Church of the Open Arms United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, said she was motivated to attend Saturday’s training by a perceived resurgence of racism in the country.

“I knew I needed to speak out in response to some of the recent situations,” she said, “and I needed training to understand what privilege I might have, and how to respond to people in a way that doesn’t play into the arguments of ‘I don’t have any white privilege.’”

The training was not a light topic.

“It was pretty intense,” Nichols said. “There was a lot of thought process involved, thinking about how you live in the world. We did a pretty intense study on what white privilege is, and how white people experience privilege that we don’t even recognize as privilege.”

Nichols said many experiences of everyday life go unnoticed by white people as systemic privilege.

“If you’re white, you can move into a neighborhood without having to worry you’ll be shunned because of the color you are,” Nichols said. “That is never even a consideration, and that’s a privilege.”

She said a difficult part of the training involved uncovering her own privilege, and how she benefits from bias.

“I’ve always thought I didn’t have privilege because I am a woman, and I don’t have as much as a white man does, but there are a lot of things that are biased in my favor,” she said, “and learning to identify them was a big deal, and it can be difficult.”

An even more difficult part of the curriculum, she said, was recognizing that, no matter how good a person’s intentions may be, most white people fall somewhere in the gray area of racism.

“If you enjoy the privilege of being white, and therefore you have power, and you have bias, then you are a racist,” Nichols said. “Racism is prejudice or bias plus power.

“That’s not an easy thing,” Nichols said. “I don’t want to be a racist, and I thought I wasn’t, but by that definition I am.”

The important thing, she said, is to recognize that bias and power, and to live consciously to advocate for equality. She hopes to use Saturday’s training to help others understand the difficult topic of white privilege.

The Rev. Amy Rogers, pastor at First United Presbyterian Church in Guthrie, said it’s hard for anyone, especially those who pride themselves on not being racist, to admit they have bias.

“I think we all have bias — that was driven home today,” Rogers said. “We all have bias, no matter what race we’re a part of. But white people, we just don’t understand how much privilege we have. We tell ourselves ‘We all have equal opportunities if we just pull ourselves up by the bootstraps,’ and that’s just not true. We need to open our eyes to the realities that exist, and be able to start having conversations.”

Rogers said she came to Saturday’s training to “get some tools and vocabulary” to be able to have those conversations around race and white privilege. It takes a certain measure of humility to even begin those conversations, she said.

“I think there’s a lot of fear of misstepping if you talk about difficult topics like race, and there’s still a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding,” Rogers said. “You have to be willing to drop some of your defenses to even explore this topic.”

Overcoming those defensive barriers, to foster real understanding and empathy, requires teaching white people privilege doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve had it easy, or that their hardships don’t count, Rogers said.

“Life can be difficult for all of us, no matter what color our skin is, but people of color have the added struggle of being people of color,” Rogers said. “Poverty is hard for anyone. But, being black and poor can be double or triple hard in ways we don’t see, but that affect people of color every day.”

To really understand those differences, Rogers said there’s no substitute for lowering your defenses, and just listening to others.

“We need to learn to honor someone when they say ‘This is my experience,’ and just honor them and learn from them,” Rogers said. “Take the time to listen to someone’s experience. You can argue with an opinion, but it’s something else altogether to really listen to someone’s experience as a person of color. We can all benefit from that.”

Fleck, with Oklahoma Confer­ence of Churches, said she was encouraged by the turnout and participation at Saturday’s training, and she looks forward to the trainees carrying what they learned home to their congregations and communities.

“I think people are more and more becoming motivated to learn more about themselves, so they can be better advocates, and live out their faith in such a way that they advocate for others,” Fleck said, “and this training just helps us better understand privilege so we can be better at this work.”

This fall, OCC plans to host a community-wide, public discussion on white privilege and racial justice.

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