Council of General Synod (CoGS) members on May 1 took part in a workshop on the subject of anti-racism and, more specifically, white privilege.
Esther Wesley, co-ordinator of the Anglican Fund for Healing and Reconciliation, and Peter Noteboom, senior partner and finance director at Global Learning Partners, which facilitates “learning through dialogue,” facilitated the workshop.
In her opening remarks, Wesley cautioned attendees that conversations revolving around race are almost never easy. Workshops on race are often permeated by a palpable tension, she said, and feelings of anger and fear can bubble close to the surface. “I’ve been in this work for close to 30 years. I don’t think it was my choice to do this-I have often asked God, you know, ‘Give me something else to do’…[but] there’s also joy in getting to know people…where they are, where they’re walking in life.” The keys to a successful workshop, she added, lie in the creation of an open and accepting dialogue, in welcoming the beliefs and understandings of others and in resisting the temptation to assign blame.
CoGS members began with an exercise called the “power flower,” during which individuals shaded in the petals of a flower diagram. Each petal represented a different form of racial, socioeconomic or spiritual power or privilege (examples included sexual orientation, age, ability level, etc.). The exercise was revealing in that it showed CoGS to be heavily populated by men and women possessed of high levels of power and privilege.
This segued into a discussion on the nature of white privilege. Noteboom put forth a definition of white privilege coined by American feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh, which posits that it is “an invisible package of unearned assets…about which I was meant to remain oblivious.” Noteboom then opened up the floor to discussion, challenging the audience to consider the merits and subsequent implications of that definition.
The concepts of invisibility and obliviousness resonated with participants. Bishop John Chapman of Ottawa suggested that today’s society is more racist, in fact, than it was 15 years ago. “People have figured out how to be racist in ways that don’t look like you’re being racist,” he said. “It’s hidden, so it’s allowed to grow…I almost would rather that it was the way it was before, when it was open and you could confront it.”
Pat Lovell, lay member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) and ELCIC partner at COGS, agreed, saying that in some ways she preferred the “overt” nature of racism in the past to the “covert” nature of racism today.
Wesley and Noteboom then asked the audience to consider the level of power and privilege represented by CoGS’ membership group, and examine it in the context of the invisible quality of white privilege. “Think about whose voice is missing,” said Wesley. “…Where is their voice? At what level of our church are their voices heard?”
Consensus among the group was that a great deal of work at the parish level, specifically in terms of improving areas of inclusivity, welcome and outreach, is the first step in addressing the imbalance of power and privilege at CoGS.
As the workshop wrapped up, members were given the opportunity to share how the experience had affected them. The prevailing sentiment was one of hope, of an eagerness to move forward into the world with the knowledge and tools with which they had been equipped. “I found that today was incredibly profound and provocative in the sense that it encouraged people to address the elephant in the room,” said Lovell. Bishop Larry Robertson of the Yukon said that despite the fact that “Racism is so ingrained in us, in all of us, in one way or another…we’re always learning, we’re always finding out more…and hopefully as I learn about myself, I can share with those around.”
Wesley echoed those thoughts in her closing comments, saying that combatting racism, combatting unearned privilege, involves a concerted effort to see through systemic prejudice and to witness things as they truly are. “Recognize that our deepest, common humanity is not grounded in race,” she said. “It’s not grounded in religion. It’s not grounded in creed or national origin. It’s grounded in a love of God.”