From Your Presbytery Leader:
“Why I Attend a White Privilege Conference”
When I was just starting out a little over ten years ago as a freshly ordained pastor, a debate about race was unfolding at one of my first presbytery gatherings. I don’t recall the exact issue, but I’ll never forget when a White colleague named Jeremy spoke out about the importance of passing an anti-racism measure. He proclaimed, “Because of how I benefit from a system that advantages me over others, I am a racist,” which brought vocal approval from every Black and person of color in my proximity and bafflement from a lot of White people.
I sadly confess that, at the time, I was one of those who was baffled. I remember thinking what he said didn’t make sense—he wasn’t “racist,” in fact he was the “least racist person I knew!”™ Didn’t “racist” mean bad person? I walked out of that space realizing something important about the community occurred that I did not understand, and that alarmed me. I was pastor of a multiethnic church! I was responsible for too much, and weak spots like this from people in power can hurt people. I needed to learn real quick.
So I hit the books, seeking authors of color as well as perspectives from those racialized as White. I committed to attending one conference a year on anti-racism. I sought events hosted by Black and Indigenous people of color open to the larger community. This was how I originally found the White Privilege Conference, an anti-racism conference named that way, even if it raises eyebrows, so it can be totally clear that it is confronting a hard subject. As someone who for most of his career has lived and learned in White-dominant Presbyterian spaces, there is something very powerful about going to a conference where historically marginalized communities are the ones who choose the speakers and curate the workshops, where we can learn not just with our minds but with our bodies—the space we take up, the feelings that arise, and in community learn how to channel that energy towards disrupting systems, language, and practices that extend advantage to those over others—starting with myself.
As I kept attending the White Privilege Conference, year after year, I found that not only has it been HARD addressing the persisting trauma my ancestors so causally inflicted on others (and finding my place in this struggle as a White person felt even harder!), I came to discover that the more I learned, the less I knew, with so much more to understand. Like detoxing from powerful hold of addiction, or deprogramming the brainwashing of being in a cult, all my attitudes and prejudices about race were things that found I need to tend on a regular, lest they come creeping back.
All the while, as I have engaged this anti-racist space year after year, airing my metaphorical dirty laundry and seeking authentic community, I have noticed that not once have I ever felt unloved. In fact, it was so good for me to be in a place where people valued me, not the “me” carrying all the assumptions of class, status, and race that have shaped my self-worth my whole life, but the me that my Creator made, a me that can learn, grow and be redeemed. Again and again, strangers from a conference on race saw me more clearly, and had more hope for my potential, than my own church growing up! I’ve always likened the experience to that of kenosis—the Biblical term for self-emptying, where I pour out all I know, and let the Holy Spirit fill me from the inside out with a new identity—without shame, denial, or cheap grace—one that has no excuse but to cleanse White supremacy from within me and around me.
Is this not what the Church should seek to be? Transforming, renewing, repenting, focusing, healing, mobilizing, nurturing, challenging, empowering, committing, liberating? To be able to empty yourself of all you thought you knew about yourself and (re)ground your identity in who God made us? Then to go out into the world as agents of change, love, and justice? That’s Jesus and the prophets through and through!
I reflect often on what Jeremy had said on the presbytery floor, and now hear his words as my own. I am reminded of the quote attributed to James Baldwin that states: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing is changed until it is faced.” And I recall the power of the prayer of confession: “I am a racist.” It has taken a long time to understand the truths Jeremy was revealing and the definitions use employed to express them, but understanding racism as a system of oppression that favors one at the expense of others, and seeing myself as a benefitting participant in that system, then yes, I too am a racist. Knowing that means I can now work to make sure that’s not the end of my story. Because I remember that following the prayer for confession is the call to repentance. Repent: turn around, go in a new direction. I cannot change my skin tone, but I can work to understand the meanings attached to it. I cannot change my upbringing, but I can confront it. If White supremacy is a culture that gives an edge to people like me, I have a responsibility to make sure every privilege I have is shared freely with others, not like me. Everyone with the power to manage community spaces (elders and pastors alike) shares this holy responsibility. It’s okay to admit we need help along the way.
I am grateful for the five or so members of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery who attended in person or virtually at the White Privilege Conference in Charlotte this year! (I am grateful too for the vibrant communities of color that are able to find each other for solidarity and support at this conference too!) If you want to join me and others in this journey together, the next White Privilege Conference will be in Mesa, Arizona in 2023. If you want to be challenged in the community, this is a powerful way to start!
Looking forward to being in touch with you again soon!
(Next week will be the first edition of “Ryan Takes Your Questions!” Feel free to send any questions you would like him to address to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com by end of day Thursday, and we will see if we can make it a part of the next newsletter! It can be anything from “how do we can change the world?” to “what are your favorite chips?”)