Owning My White Privilege
walk with me to the balcony for a minute, please


Sunday night, members of the LEAD team gathered with people in Houston to grieve, pray, reflect and plan for a new future post #Charlottesville. As an organization, we are committed to living our values out loud. We recently shared LEAD’s theological statement, which serves as a foundation for our actions. May leaders of faith around the globe live their values in ways that speak out against injustice and stand up for equality.

By Peggy Hahn, Executive Director – LEAD

What are the odds that I was born in the city of New Orleans with white skin? I don’t need to search the data to know that not only was I in the minority of babies born in the city that year, but that my life’s journey has been shockingly different due to something I had no control over. The skin color we are born with is not a choice, but the way we live in our skin is.

It is sobering to realize that the access I had to a privileged childhood is owed both to my amazing, hard-working, loving parents AND to the color of my skin. The history I was taught in a Lutheran elementary school reflected this privilege. Growing up white in New Orleans made Jackson Square and Robert E. Lee Circle part of a heritage that felt as nostalgic as singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” cooking gumbo, and going out for beignets. All of this was wrapped up in my family’s love for me, without me ever taking a step onto the balcony to see how this same warm nostalgic experience was oppressive and pain-producing for others.

Over 50 years later, I have gained perspective. I can recognize that the history I was taught was from one point of view and that most of the world has a different view. When I get perspective, it isn’t hard for me to admit that Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee are icons of an oppressive culture.

The problem with being in the ethnic majority in our country is that you can get away with ignoring, dismissing, and unintentionally participating in the oppression of others. For many, it is hard to imagine how a statue has the capacity to remind people of the pain they live every day. This does not make that pain invalid or untrue. Coming to terms with this is a heartbreaking and crucial part of being a white leader in the church today.

I didn’t learn about institutional racism until 30 years ago and today I am confessing to you that I am a racist. Maybe you are ready to confess that with me.

I don’t have to worry that when my children are pulled over for speeding they will be harassed, raped or deported. Or even lose their life. Just writing this makes me feel sick because I can’t bear knowing I am part of a system that means other mothers live with this fear every day. But it is true.

Being a female leader brings challenges of its own, but I would be blind if I didn’t see the incredible, and seemingly endless, stereotypes and biases my Latina, Black, Asian, Native American (and this is only naming a few) sisters have to endure.

The recent events in Charlottesville are sickening not only because I reject white supremacy but because I know that I too am complicit by virtue of being white.

It is time for the white church to show up. Why aren’t we a counter movement? We must stand against racism of all kinds. We need to say out loud “God actually made ALL people in God’s image.” God embodies diversity.

Rozella Haydée White, a LEAD consultant, calls us to return to scripture and read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) carefully. LEAD stands with her as she writes:

We will not let the light be overtaken by those who seek to use it to intimidate. We must let the light be what it was meant to be – an illuminator, a guide, a source of comfort…turn to the first sermon of my Lord; the one that turned every system and relationship on its head. Now is the time to embrace and enliven these words. Now is the time to turn everything upside down so that we may be right side up.

Please join me in stepping into the conversation about racism that we have avoided so elegantly. LEAD is committed to the work of ending white supremacy and challenging racism. We are overdue for a heart-to-heart conversation about what it means to be a white Christian. We all need to confess our complicity and grow out of our relational comfort zone. Here is a short list of what you can do now:

  1. Stop permitting racial jokes. Make your life an unsafe space for this kind of profanity.
  2. Stop discounting others because of their skin color, language education, income level, gender or sexuality. Add this to the “off limits” list in every zone of your life, leading by example.
  3. Use this litany from the PCUSA with your leaders. Pray about this together.
  4. Start a small group movement with LEAD’s Work Out resources or a focus on Jesus’s ministry of inclusivity. Create momentum starting with those most open to growth.
  5. Show up at prayer vigils or better yet, lead one in your own congregation.
  6. Build a relationship with someone outside of your ethnic group. Add them to your prayer life.
  7. Worship with people from a different culture.
  8. Introduce yourself to your own neighbors. Keep them in your prayers.
  9. Vote
  10. Teach your children to do the same.

I didn’t choose my skin color.

I can choose how I live in my skin. We all can.

7 replies
  1. Gigie Sijera-Grant
    Gigie Sijera-Grant says:

    Thank you, Peggy. I am glad we had the opportunity to pray together at the LEAD Retreat at the Bishop Claggett Center last Saturday. As an Asian woman church leader, I am grateful to have you as an ally.

    Reply
  2. Bernard Carl
    Bernard Carl says:

    As a white pastor, who was born in 1951 and attended an integrated public school and lived in a poor section, I cannot and will not accept responsibility for the plight of others. My being born white was not the cause others to enjoy the same life as I now experience. You are entitled to your opinion, Peggy, but I believe it is unfair to lay blame at the feet of all those, through an act of nature, to be held responsible for the plight of others.

    Reply
  3. Jim Merhaut
    Jim Merhaut says:

    Thanks, Peggy! Yes to all of this. Racism is a white issue. We created this mess. We are responsible for cleaning it up.

    Reply
  4. Sue Beall
    Sue Beall says:

    Thank you Peggy. You have spoken words we ‘whites’ all need to stand up and speak. Thank you. I will try to be more bold in my stand for what is right in Gods eyes when ever I can, and where ever I am.

    Reply
    • Peggy Hahn
      Peggy Hahn says:

      Thanks Gigie. I’m just sorry it took me so long to speak out.

      I’m really surprised by negative comments. It reminds me how little we understand institutional racism and the very real way in which we think as individuals without remembering how our communal power weighs in.

      As my friend KATHY wrote “We criticize our Muslim brothers and sisters for not “speaking out” (though many of them do) when family members become radicalized. I seem to remember that a Middle Eastern man that might’ve had something to say about that. What was it? Hmmm. Oh, right, Matthew 7:5 ‘You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.’

      We don’t live in isolation of each other. Our behavior truly does have consequences. This is something I tried to teach my children because too often we miss the call in scripture to confess our corporate sin as we fall short constantly to love our neighbors as our selves. Or even to just love ourselves.

      Reply

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