Fear of being seen as racist or privileged is not life-threatening. The effects of racism, however, can be.

Primary Media
Portrait of Chelsea Masterman
Credit: Chelsea Masterman
Published On: November 2, 2023


In 2005, I spent a few months as part of an intercultural mission team through the Caribbean and North America Council for Mission, of which The United Church of Canada is a member. We served in a racially and culturally diverse neighbourhood in Toronto.

As someone who believes that communicating and connecting across cultures is part of the key to co-creating a better world together, I was excited to be there.

At the time, as a White woman in my mid-20s from a small prairie town, I was also nervous. I knew of concepts like systemic racism and was conscious that I had a lot more to learn. It scared me to think systemic racism might be built into my own thoughts and behaviour in ways I could not identify, but others could.

One day, one of our supervising pastors invited me to join him for a conversation. He asked if I had ever heard of White privilege.

I was confused. “Privilege” sounded like a positive thing. Were we going to talk about why it is good to be White? That sounded racist to me.

As part of this discussion, we revisited a moment in which I spoke up at a public meeting between the police and community members.

The police kept talking about a tip line people could phone to report a crime, and the community did not seem to trust that it was safe for them to use. When I stood up to speak, heart racing, nervous but certain I had insight that would be useful, I tried to clarify that the line was confidential. I thought the community members had missed that part. The response was unenthusiastic, muted.

As the pastor and I debriefed this experience, we considered the confidence I had had that my comments would be welcome. I realized my decision to speak, and my belief that I had heard something the community had not, were part of White privilege. It likely won’t surprise you that a deeply rooted lack of trust had been growing between this community and the police for years. For me, trusted friends of my family were police officers. A good friend from high school became a police officer. The Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t started yet, and I assumed my experience of feeling safe with police was true for everyone. Before I spoke, I had neither put in the time to learn this cultural context nor considered that my lack of understanding might be an issue.

Was it my youth? My extroverted personality and tendency to act impulsively? Lack of sensitivity and experience? Ethnocentricity or socialization? All of the above? Probably. White privilege isn’t solely a matter of skin colour. Rather, it is all the ways that skin colour mixes with, influences, and is influenced by many other life factors, systemically. White privilege prepared and cast me in a role for which I had never intended to audition. As a seminary professor helped me explore a few years later, intent does not equal (nor negate) impact.

These days, although I still cringe a bit at the memory, I can write about it with more clarity and calm than I once could. Initially, I was flooded with shame and what I can now identify as grief—grief that this sin of systemic racism I had heard of for so many years was not just outside of me, it was also within me.

As the mission went on, I learned that when I had something to say, if I waited before saying it and listened, I was better able to first receive the wisdom of the voices of my mission teammates and the community members. This sometimes rendered my comment unnecessary or changed it for the better.

Part of me wishes I could report I no longer fear my White privilege showing. As many Indigenous or racialized writers have noted, fear of being seen as racist or privileged is not life-threatening. The effects of racism, however, can be. Nevertheless, while my fear is no longer as powerful as it once was, it remains.

Thankfully, another part is here now too. This part realizes having White privilege does not make me a bad person. This part calls me to face fear and shame, to accept it and work through it in service of dismantling systemic racism, within and without. Loosing and breaking bonds of injustice (Isaiah 58:6) is part of co-creating the realm of God.

Faith Reflection

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…. We love because God first loved us.
1 John 4:18‒19

While fear and shame are powerful emotions, love is stronger.

Prayer practice: When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, linger on the line “Your kin-dom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Ask God to cast out your fear, replace it with love, and inspire you in whatever work of co-creating God’s realm you are called to in this life on earth.

Living It Out

If you are a White person (particularly an extroverted White person), the next time you are in a group of people (especially if there is racial and cultural diversity within that group), take time to notice when and how much you speak compared to the others.

If you tend to be the first one to speak in an open discussion, when a question is asked of the group and you already know what you want to say, count slowly to 10 in your head. Notice if there is silence and how you feel about that. If you are uncomfortable, consider that for some, silence is a polite way of allowing others to speak first.

Remember that God is with you in the silence. You might wish to ask God to help turn your discomfort into a quietly active anticipation of receiving the gift of another’s insights. Listen with curiosity.

This can be a subtle yet powerful way of disrupting privilege, while also entering more deeply into relationship with God, others, and yourself.

Chelsea Masterman (she/her) is originally from High River, Alberta. She grew up in The United Church of Canada and currently serves in team ministry at Grace United Church in Edmonton. She is also part of the executive of the Western Intercultural Ministry Network (WIMN) of the United Church. WIMN is committed to a fully inclusive and intercultural church and covers the five western regional councils: Prairie to Pine, Living Skies, Northern Spirit, Chinook Winds, and Pacific Mountain. The network holds gatherings, educational events, and online conversations that focus on intercultural discussions and dialogue. Network members are engaging in and promoting action in their regions toward living out the United Church’s vision of being an intercultural church