The fear of being perceived as racist can block healthy and important conversations about racism.

Primary Media
Portrait of Carmen Lansdowne
Credit: Carmen Lansdowne
Published On: November 9, 2023


It has been a journey learning to navigate life as a woman where being racialized is one part of my identity but I can also pass for White. While I may not have White privilege the way that it gets talked about in some anti-racism training resources, I do have the White skin privilege that comes with appearing White. This is sometimes called passing—as in passing for White.

As a result, I have often experienced acceptance into spaces where most people are White, middle class, and educated. That also has to do with being raised in a comfortably middle-class home, and that acceptance got stronger the more education I had. But sometimes I have experienced what some call Indigenous exceptionalism—where people around me assume that I am the exception to the rule of their racial stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples. I imagine it can seem harmless to folks who have said things to me like “You’re so articulate” or “You’re so lucky you didn’t have to grow up like…” and then go on to share one of their stereotypes of how they think Indigenous people live or what we are like. Sometimes the reverse is true—I get asked why I don’t claim being biracial. As if it diminishes my White heritage to only describe myself as Haíłzaqv/Heiltsuk. But my aunties taught me that we didn’t have concepts of race and that I am simply Haíłzaqv (but digging into that is a longer, different story).

I didn’t know that passing was a thing until I was training for ministry and was part of a church book club. In all of the contexts where I trained for ministry, there were almost no racialized members in the church. In this particular book club, we read a novel by Canadian author Mairuth Sarsfield called No Crystal Stair.* It was about a Black woman who passed for White in Montreal, and all of the ways in which that resulted in her experiences of racism and a lack of understanding of who she was. Someone in the book club didn’t understand the concept of passing, so I said, “It’s like me—I am Indigenous and I pass for White.” The person responded, “I don’t care what you say—until you show up to church in a buckskin dress with a feather in your hair, you’re always going to be a little White girl.” And that was the end of the discussion.

I know that some readers might think what was said to me was horrible—and it was. But it was also a teachable moment. Except that there was no teaching. The problematic part of that story, for me, was that was the end of the discussion. There absolutely was personal prejudice in what was said to me. There was institutional racism in the silence that followed—no one wanted to go there. It didn’t have to stay personal if we had discussed it, but there was no conversation.

I had an aha! moment this summer preaching at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ in the USA. I urged the church to please start from a place of belief when a racialized person shares an experience of racism—even if you don’t understand. I said: “Because it’s not personal unless you make it personal by refusing to have a conversation about how what was racist was racist.” It’s not about intent. For me, that is a big part of the work of anti-racism: the willingness to have a discussion. It’s about being brave and seeking to understand. I think sometimes the fear of being perceived as a racist blocks really healthy and important conversations about racism. But it’s not personal unless you make it personal by refusing to have a conversation. The teachable moments are where we can say, “Wow—that kind of prejudice is not OK, and here’s why,” and then dive into how in Canada Whiteness is normalized, and we can talk about racism. If we don’t have that conversation, then experiences like mine become about that one awful thing that caused silence in the room and the work of anti-racism gets stalled.

Faith Reflection


Oh God,
You know our inmost thoughts, our fears, and our insecurities.
This work of anti-racism is hard, vulnerable stuff. 
But when we don’t move through our fears, either to name or to discuss,
the work of anti-racism is stalled.

We are not perfect, and we will not do this work perfectly.
But we believe that the desire to do the work is, in fact, important to you
as we strive to seek liberation for all of us—because racism affects us all.

We know that racism is not your will for us—your desire for us is
life, and life in abundance.
You know each of us by name as one of your children.
Give us the courage to be vulnerable.
Give us the integrity to listen deeply.
Give us understanding to accept what is shared.

Give us grace as we move forward, together.
In the name of the Liberator, we pray,

Living It Out

In a moment of quiet reflection, take a paper or a journal, and reflect on your experiences of racism in the church. Were they directed at you? Did you witness them, and did they make you uncomfortable? Did you not understand why something was racist? Did you witness conversation being shut down?

What conversations happened or didn’t happen as a result? As you continue on your journey of anti-racism, based on what you know now, what would you have changed, if anything? Was there a missed opportunity? If yes, what was it? If you felt shut down or unable to discuss racism, do you know why?

If you have the opportunity to safely share with someone in your community of faith, consider doing this at an appropriate time.

The Right Rev. Dr. Carmen Lansdowne (she/her) is the 44th Moderator of The United Church of Canada. She is the elected national spiritual leader and public representative of the United Church until 2025. As Moderator, Carmen chairs the governance bodies of the United Church. She also sits on the board of the Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation. She has previously held a number of important governance roles with the United Church, including supporting Indigenous candidates for ministry.  The Moderator maintains academic interests, church ministry, and Indigenous ways of being, parenting, and partnering. She holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and is a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation.


*Montreal: Women’s Press, 2004.