by Tobin Miller Shearer

Psalm 22:29-31 (NRSV)

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

As I carried the green beans, cherries and pickles into our back room after returning from a family gathering, I asked my spouse, “Are these canned goods a privilege or a blessing? Are they evidence of the deliverance the Psalmist promises?” Neither she nor I had a satisfactory answer.

Two weeks later I asked some friends about the difference between white privileges and blessing. I told them that I was stuck. I could not figure out a way to distinguish between the two.

“Blessings stop being blessings and start becoming privileges when not everyone has access to the blessing,” said one. “God pours out blessings on everyone. White privileges keep those blessings from being poured out equally. Like male privilege, they get in the way,” said another.

A third added, “Many of us who are white automatically cloak white privilege in the religious language of blessing. When we discover that what we thought were blessings from God may actually be privileges provided by racism, the very substance of our faith gets called into question.”

One more response chimed in, “Anything can be constructive if it draws me into a deeper relationship with God. If something drives me away from God, then it is destructive. In the same way, what appears to be a blessing could actually be a curse if it causes me to be more distant from God. White privilege is automatically in that category.”

So this is what I gathered: When racism provides, blessing dies.

For all the blessings in my life, for air to breathe, relationships, family, and just enough canned cherries, pickles and green beans to walk with joy, help me to be grateful, dear God. Help me boldly change the systems that give privileges to white people and deny them to people of color, loving God. Please give us the blessing, dear God, to be clear about how we connect to the privileges and oppressions in this world. Amen.

Tobin Miller Shearer is an associate professor of History at the University of Montana where he also directs the African-American Studies Program. A prolific author, his most recent book is Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Johns Hopkins: 2010). He is a co-founder of ROJ’s Damascus Road Antiracism Process.