When I attended and presented at the White Privilege Conference in April, I took part in and heard some amazing workshops and keynotes, and I learned a lot. Some of them made me feel good, reinforcing some of my current views. I mean, let’s be honest. A lot of us attend conferences to hear our world view reflected back at us. What I had not quite expected, though, was to be challenged to my core.
One of my mentors once told me that any time I find myself comfortable, it’s time to look around and unsettle myself because no true growth and change comes from a space of comfort. Thus, knowing that it would make me quite uncomfortable, I decided to attend a workshop entitled, “Profiting from Privilege: An Open Dialogue about the Ethics Involved with White Consultants and Keynote Speakers on White Privilege” led by a professor at Metropolitan State University named Paul Spies. It promised to grapple with the question, “Should white speakers and consultants profit from their ‘expertise’ in helping other white people understand and grapple with white privilege?”
Going into the room, I knew that I was going to be challenged a lot, and I kept repeating to myself, “Don’t allow feeling defensive to cloud your ability to listen to the legitimate feelings and concerns of others.” My hands were shaking, and my heart was beating fast. After all, the very nature of this workshop was challenging the foundation and ethics of the business that I have been working so hard to establish, that I care so much about, and in which I have invested a tremendous amount of money.
The dialogue was exactly what I expected it to be: challenging to my foundations. The room was probably 35-40% white folks (most of whom likely worked in diversity/anti-oppression consulting for profit), and we all looked profoundly uncomfortable, like our secret had been exposed, a secret that many of didn’t even realize we were keeping. The truth is that White consultants and presenters regularly make more than People of Color who are doing the same work. The truth is that knowledge of racism is a knowledge of People of Color. It’s a Black knowledge, a Brown knowledge, a Red knowledge, a Yellow knowledge. In the words of Ewuare Osayande, “it is an analysis born of the blood struggle for Black liberation and racial justice throughout American history.” The truth is that it is not a White knowledge. Those of us who profit from the work to end racism are profiting from the words of People of Color we have heard and read. We are profiting from our relationships with People of Color. We are profiting from someone else’s “blood struggle.”
The conversation was candid. I appreciated that those in the room did not pull any punches.
“There’s no other way to say it: It is racist for a White person to profit from anti-racist work.”
“White people have no right to profit from Diversity work.”
“While White people have an obligation to act as activists to end White supremacy and racism, they need to do it as a responsibility and do it without pay.”
While I think most if not all of the White folks in the room were defensive, only a few spoke out defensively. I sat and listened, reflecting, remembering when a mentor once told me, “If you’re defensive, it’s probably for a good reason. Reflect on that defensiveness and figure out what you have done wrong. Then apologize.”
I left the workshop feeling defeated. I was thinking to myself (and even said to another participant), “I need to dismantle my business. My business is racist. No matter how much work I am doing to dismantle racism, the very structure of my business is racist.”
In what ways am I benefiting from racism in my work?