The Good and Necessary Work of Unpacking Racial Privilege

May 24 / Terra McDaniel
A decade ago, I was content with where I stood in terms of race and ethnicity. I’d been a consistent advocate for diversity in my white and male-dominated ministry contexts. I actively supported those adopting interracially. My bookshelves contained texts about multiracial ministries and families. One of my favorite passages was the portrait of the new earth in which “saints from every tribe and language and people and nation (have been made into) a kingdom and priests serving our God” (Revelation 5:9-10). It still is.

But some things happened that rightly unsettled my ease. I started witnessing ways that expectations and reactions to my Black godson were different than they’d been for my blond blue-eyed daughter. I moved into a more diverse neighborhood and began to realize how naïve some of my perspectives regarding racial reconciliation were. I read MaryKate Morse’s Making Room for Leadership and identified with experiences she described of marginalization and even intimidation as a woman in ministry. Her framing of how various aspects of our identities converge to influence our presence as leaders helped me further grasp things I’d missed. I lacked awareness of the many ways I held power as a white, wealthy, well-educated person. And then the Unite the Right rally happened. Young white supremacists marched chanting “You will not replace us.”

All this clarified that if I wanted to be genuinely for my siblings of color in the US and beyond, I had more to do. I prayed and listened. I read I’m Still Here, Just Mercy, White Fragility, and Tell Me How It Ends (note no AAPI authors are listed—my education continues!). I participated in a Be the Bridge group using materials created by Latasha Morrison. I took a trip to the US-Mexico border to learn first-hand what was happening with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants.

Inviting Privilege into the Light

As a spiritual director (and simply as a human), my work has included cultivating more resilience to address racism in all its forms around and within me. Because as has long been clear to scholars and those burdened by systemic oppression, white people don’t need to feel ill will for racist outcomes to continue. As Austin Channing Brown articulates, “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied to only mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination [which is]…a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures…”[1] The impacts of things like white flight, redlining, and ‘stop and frisk’ policies continue.

It’s crucial for me to recognize I’ve been influenced by growing up within a racialized hierarchy. Racist ideas and impulses remain latent within me. They must be brought into awareness so they can be confessed and healed. I must acknowledge that whether I’ve sought it or not, my white skin has benefitted me. I haven’t experienced the steady stream of exclusions and hostilities my friends of color live with daily.

It’s vital to take stock of the voices in my world by unpacking the ways racism still plays an insidious role in and around me (and, using Kendi’s phrase, working to unlearn it). In White Awake, Daniel Hill describes being exhorted to notice who his teachers were. Like him, I observed that my shelves, social media feeds, playlists, etc. were dominated by white men. I’ve been working to change and grow. My fellow directors of color encourage me to be a learner with respect to the culture and histories of those I meet with as well as my own cultural framework; to seek and advocate colleagues of color; to beware of a ‘white savior’ mentality; and to simply be patient and keep showing up.

Cultivating More Hospitality

All of this matters because, as one of my teachers is fond of saying, ‘we are always in the room’ as spiritual directors. This isn’t to say I should attempt to become someone I’m not. But I am responsible to work toward ensuring my identity isn’t a barrier to listening—and hearing—well. As I welcome people of various backgrounds, my invitation is to become increasingly racially (and otherwise) spacious. And the more I bring my past failings and ignorance into the light and work toward change, the more I’m able to host others with empathy and understanding without becoming triggered or defensive.

I am responsible to keep up with events and conversations among oppressed and marginalized communities as much as possible in order to be ready to engage conversations around racial pain and trauma. This doesn’t mean coming with an agenda. Instead, I’m equipped to bear witness when the soul experience of systemic or overt marginalization surfaces in a directee. I host them as they process grief, anger, or confusion. As they lament suffering and injustice.

My work continues to unfold as I celebrate with new eyes the vision of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation where “differences are seen and celebrated…as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures...”[2]

I wonder how the Spirit is stirring in you to learn and unlearn?

What resonates? Where does your story diverge? What might be yours to do?

[1] Brown, Austin Channing, I’m Still Here (Convergent, 2018), 101.
[2] McCaulley, Esau, Reading While Black (IVP Academic, 2020), 106.
Pictures are of an art exhibit in Austin, TX by Ender Martos, named Veintluno #21veintluno21

Terra McDaniel

Terra is a spiritual director, pastor, teacher, and writer who loves making space for people of all ages to tune into their own souls. Terra is convinced that the Spirit is working both within the church and outside it and feels particularly called to host those who feel spiritually homeless. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and