“Owning My White Privilege”

This post is contributed by Suzy Burke, co-leader of ECCT’s Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation Ministry Network, as part of their ongoing communication. It was originally written for the Southeast Region newsletter.

Owning My White Privilege
by Suzy Burke

I am Debby Irving. No, I’m not changing my name, but when I read Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race, I realized she was telling my story. Like Debby Irving, I grew up in New England in two all-white towns, and I never had a classmate of color until I began my graduate work at Columbia University, and even then it was rare. My parents had grown up during the Depression, so although my dad was a successful NYC executive, I was raised to be frugal and hard-working. I was also told that I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up so long as I was willing to put my nose to the grindstone. I imagined that my success was due to the fact that I had loving parents who could afford to
give me a good education, and I had internalized the value of hard work.

I always thought of my life as morally neutral, “average” in fact. I only saw racism in individual acts of cruelty or injustice, not in invisible social systems that I took for granted. Through the work ECCT is doing to address racial healing, justice and reconciliation, I have come to realize I am undoubtedly the beneficiary of white privilege, an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, as Peggy McIntosh so aptly describes it in her seminal article: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” She offers many examples of the privilege that most white people, including me, are oblivious to. Here are a few:

  • We can go shopping, pretty well assured that we won’t be followed or harassed.
  • Our children’s school books testify to the existence of their race.
  • We can excel in challenging situations without being called a credit to our race, a “compliment” my brilliant black colleague received recently.

Sadly, the list goes on. Most of my friends of color don’t have these luxuries and I can only imagine how exhausting that must be, day after day, week after week, year after year. As a member of the dominant culture, it’s pretty easy for me to feel confident and comfortable, knowing that I belong. I am now face to face with my complicity in perpetuating a system that makes my friends of color, about whom I care deeply, struggle to feel the same level of confidence and sense of belonging.

A priest of color who I hold in the highest regard recently shared one of her dreams for the future in ECCT: That she will be able to apply for any open position in the diocese and her fitness to serve will be based on her gifts as a priest rather than her skin color. I am committed to doing what I can to hurry that day.

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