It took a while, Treva Burger said, to fully grasp the notion that she has benefited her whole life from white privilege.
“I wouldn’t call myself a white supremacist, but I do acknowledge that I have benefited from policies of white supremacy," Burger said.
Like how one of her sons, starting at age 17, had several run-ins with the police, but faced few consequences — at least in comparison with what a black teenager might experience.
There was the time when his car ran out of gas at an intersection and he was pushing it to the side of the road. The police who arrived at the scene smelled alcohol on his breath, but charged him with underage drinking — not DUI. (He wasn’t driving at the time.)
There were other times where his charges were less severe than they might have been, she said.
“He was arrested and jailed briefly. But if he had been a black kid, he’d be either dead or in prison.
“The white privilege in our family has kept him alive.”
Burger, of Abington, is a former board member at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, a Unitarian Universalist church in Mount Airy, part of a denomination formed from Universalists and Unitarians, and whose members could include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.
One Sunday a month, members of the church’s Ending Racism Committee meet, mostly to address racism within their own ranks. The goal is to look inward before focusing on racism out in the world, said Barbara Dowdall, the committee’s chair.
The denomination has a history of civil rights: One of the church’s early ministers, Theodore Parker of New England, supported abolitionist John Brown. (“He had his life threatened,” Dowdall said. "So he had a gun in the pulpit with him.”) Two white UU members, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both from Northern states, were killed during the 18-day campaign of voting rights protests in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
Despite this history, Dowdall said, the church has realized that its members of color have not always felt welcomed.
“We believe that we are great social justice warriors,” said Dowdall, who is white. “We know the names of the white Unitarians who died at Selma, but how many of us know the name of the young black man who was killed the week before?”
Dowdall was referring to Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon and military veteran, who was beaten and shot Feb. 18, 1965, at a voting rights march in Marion, Ala. His death eight days later inspired the plan for the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.
The Ending Racism Committee was founded more than 17 years ago, after members of the Unitarian Society attended the first Jubilee Anti-Racism Training workshop sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association. “People wanted to continue learning,” Burger said.
These days, at the monthly meeting, which usually attracts about 12 people, the committee has been learning about black Unitarian Universalists such as Lewis Latimer, an inventor who improved upon the lightbulb, and the Rev. Joseph F. Jordan, born in 1863 to parents who had been enslaved. He became a Universalist minister in 1903 and a school principal in 1904.
At its most recent Sunday gathering, the 10 church members who attended — seven white, two African American, and one of Indian origin — had a moment of silence to honor the victims of the El Paso, Texas, massacre the day before.
Although she is not a member of the committee, Lisa Dutton, a black church member, regularly attends the first hour of Ending Racism.
“I think they do a good job of having different programs and activities that can help educate people" in the church, Dutton said of the Ending Racism group. "For those who get educated, it can broaden their perspective, and that makes for a more welcoming environment.”
Burger hadn’t attended the meetings until about two years ago.
“I just figured I knew I wasn’t racist, so I didn’t need anti-racism work,” she said. “That was work for people who had racism issues.”
However, about six years ago, she was invited to attend a three-hour workshop on “building a beloved community.” (The “Beloved Community” was a vision the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. popularized as a society based on justice and equal opportunity.)
It was then that Burger began to understand the concept of “a dominant culture view of the world” existing at the same time as a “beloved community, or people of color,” worldview.
“What hit me was that my view of the world isn’t everybody’s view of the world,” Burger said.
She later attended the three-day anti-racism workshop sponsored by the denomination, where she learned more about systemic racism and other problems.
It had taken several workshops for Burger to realize how much she didn’t know. At a follow-up meeting to the three-day workshop, Burger, who graduated with a nursing degree from the University of Pennsylvania, said she grew frustrated.
“I didn’t understand the language or the vocabulary," she said. "They were talking about systemic racism and anti-racism and other words that I didn’t even know. I just remember thinking, ‘I’m an intelligent person, and I don’t know what people are talking about.’ ”
Rosita Johnson, a black member of the committee, has talked with both black and white members who don’t see the need for social justice groups at the church.
“This one white member told me she goes to church for spiritual reasons, not to talk about social justice, which she considers is politics," she said, underlining the need to bring in speakers to talk about the realities of living in Philadelphia. “And I’ve met some black members who don’t understand the emphasis on discussing racism.”
She wanted them to know what it was like working in Philadelphia schools for 31 years, how the state legislature cut funding, and what it meant for her predominantly black school, Lingelbach, in Germantown.
“They cut nurses, they cut librarians, they cut aides, everything our children needed was cut,” said Johnson.
Yet, after she was transferred to Solis-Cohen Elementary, then a predominantly white school in the Northeast, "I saw right away that that school was getting things that the school that I used to teach at ... didn’t have.”
For Burger, the learning continues.