Reflections on the White Privilege Conference

Wow!  A lot has happened since I posted my “Tim Wise and White Privilege” entry last week!  I was pretty excited to go to the White Privilege Conference, as I was one of the features presenters at the event, and I was looking forward to going to some great workshops and hearing some great keynotes.  Little did I know, but I was about to have my world rocked.

I was once told by an incredible professor and mentor that if I ever find myself quite comfortable, it is time to look around because growth never comes in a space of comfort.  We only change and grow when we are challenged, and to truly be challenged is to be pushed to the boundaries if not outside outside of our comfort zone.  Well, I was definitely challenged in ways that made me profoundly uncomfortable during the conference, and while that is tough, I am so happy and better for it.  That being said, I still have a lot of processing to do, so my posts in the next week will likely be a part of that processing.  What better way to process than to throw some of those ideas out to my readers to see what you all think!?

As a result, this week’s post is meant to give you an idea of some of the things that were discussed at the conference (and I was only able to attend a minority of all of the things offered) while providing me a space to think through all of the amazing and challenging things presented throughout the White Privilege Conference experience.  The following list is likely to be somewhat “stream of consciousness.”  Each bullet relates to others and also very much stands as its own point.  These are some of the conclusions and questions that I am struggling with.  Please comment on any that challenge you!  Agree, disagree, challenge!  Discuss!

Take Aways from the 12th Annual White Privilege Conference held in Minneapolis, MN

  1. “Forgiveness is not simply saying that what happened was okay.  Sometimes it was not okay and never will be okay.  Forgiveness is the release of responsibility so that you can move forward, find healing, and seek justice.”  – Lakota Elder Dave Larson
  2. I loved the way that Lakota Elder Dave Larson introduced a prayer and blessing he offered at the start of the first full day of the conference.  Before speaking, he warned everyone that he would be speaking in a language that is not native to this land, a foreign language that comes from a small island in the Atlantic.  The island is called England.
  3. After speaking of the criticisms of the White Privilege Conference as being anti-American, as being racist and bigoted in itself, conference founder Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. welcomed both those who support the work of the conference and those who don’t, recognizing that there are undoubtedly those who have come to infiltrate and expose the conference in a negative light, saying, “This is what America means!  We’re engaging with tough issues.”  So often the rhetoric on what is American is controlled by the conservative, usually white, male dominant power in this country.  The idea that this conference was the very essence of what America should be (though rarely is) made me proud to be there!
  4. “If something comes from an Afrocentric design, you can’t pour the water of white supremacy on it and expect it to grow!” – Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr.  This one hit me hard.  I can’t help but think of our educational system, a system structured around teaching kids to be white (to speak in white vernacular, to value the white “heroes” of history – even when those heroes owned slaves or committed genocide, – to read a white canon of white literature), to believe in the core fundamentals of capitalism, to believe in the Horatio Alger myth of an American meritocracy.  In this system, how can we expect those of our students of an Afrocentric design (or a Latin American design or Hmong design or of any design other than Western European) to flourish?  Plain and simple . . . we can’t.
  5. In her workshop entitled “Organizing in the Borderlands: Exploring a Multifaceted Racial Worldview,” Jessica Vasques Torres put a lot out for me to question.  One thing she threw out that was somewhat of a sidebar was a question relating to the campaign for marriage equality.  She asked, “Why do we, as queer folks (she is lesbian herself), want to join an institution with a 50% failure rate?  Shouldn’t our goal be to deconstruct the very destructive, sexist, and heterosexist institution of marriage itself?”  Very good question!
  6. In her same workshop (which I won’t go into in much detail in this post because it was quite complicated), Jessica Vasques Torres challenged the idea that we should be pulling those who are without power into the circle of those with power because that, essentially, means becoming white.  “We have to demythologize that what we have is for all!”  Our society is not structured for everyone to enter the “center,” the area with power and privilege.  Our society is built by straight, white men as a place essentially for straight, white men.  How can we, then, work to build something new rather than trying to reform the very institution that is built around the destruction of those on the “outside.”
  7. What right to white people have to go into oppressed communities in the U.S. or abroad and attempt to “help?”  In doing so, we bring our privilege and our socialization as a person with power into the experience.  Further, such work is to always try to bring those without power to the center . . . to make them white.  What right do we have to do that?
  8. Steve Martinot posited that “Slavery, not wage labor, is the basis of capitalism.”  All of capitalism as we know it today was built on the reality and concept of slave labor as the foundation for a society.
  9. If we ever question whether our corporate-driven society was designed to work for the people or for those who control the money, consider that corporations were designated as people (in the 1819 Dartmouth College v. Woodward U.S. Supreme Court Decision) 44 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was even issued.  Chew on that.
  10. Michelle Alexander delivered a stirring keynote based on the research of her newest book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”  I haven’t read it, but I intend to, and I suggest you do the same!  In her keynote, here are a few of the things she highlighted.
    – There are more black people in some form of the criminal justice system today than there were black slaves in 1850.
    – Incarceration in our culture renders those who exit prison (disproportionately black and Latino men) as unemployable, as they always have to check that box that says they were convicted of a serious crime.  Thus, we ensure that they are rendered to less-than-legal forms of employment and that they return to prison.
    – We are one of the only industrialized nations that renders prisoners as less than citizen, taking away and restricting after release their voting rights.
    – The black unemployment rate is currently around 16.2% (double that of the white unemployment rate), but it would be 15-24% higher if we counted those in prison as “unemployed,” which they are.
    – There has been a 2/3 increase in federal incarceration from drug-related offenses and a 50% increase in state incarcerations for drug-related offenses since 1980.  Black men are significantly more likely to see prison for drug-related offenses than white folks even though studies have found that black people are no more likely to use or deal drugs than white people.
  11. In his workshop surrounding his upcoming documentary entitled, “The Nigger Word,” Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. had us do an exercise.  He had everyone close their eyes and clear their minds.  He then slammed a door and said, “A nigger just walked into the room.  Describe him.”  Unfortunately, when we were honest with ourselves, the things that came to mind were horribly stereotypical and negative things about black men.  “Thug. Scary. Pants below his knees. Angry. Etc.”  Dr. Moore’s point?  It doesn’t matter whether or not you say the word!  If what you think of is messed up, then it’s all the same!  “You don’t have to talk like the clan to think like the clan!”  He challenged us to interrogate where our perceptions of the word come from.  “Explore your nigger source.”
  12. Inaction is, in its effect, action.  Never forget that.
  13. Only those who have incredible privilege have the ability to give up hope, to describe a cause as hopeless.
  14. “The colonists who came to this country might as well have been wearing Nazi uniforms.”  Their effect was the same on the indigenous people of this land.  – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  15. One must liberate oneself before that person can hope to aide in the liberation of anyone else.  That is what separates a missionary from someone who is truly working for justice in solidarity with the oppressed.  – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
  16. Many people don’t want to hear the truth about what has been done to black, brown, and red people on these lands because it challenge the very system of supremacy on which our lives are built.  The United States itself is built upon oppression.  That can’t be reformed.  The only antidote to a colonial government is to end the colonial government. – Waziyatawin
  17. For the United States to abandon the state of Israel is to expose our lie, to expose our colonization, to expose our genocide against the indigenous people of this land.  Thus, the U.S. as we know it cannot and will not ever abandon its support for Israel, no matter how genocidal Israel’s policies become.
  18. I went to a workshop led by Peggy McIntosh, author of “The Invisible Knapsack.”  She helped me to see that I had been using her list white privileges all wrong, even on this blog!  She said that if she could go back and rewrite the intro for her original list, she would make sure people know that this is not a checklist!  This is her experience with her unearned white privilege in relation to the women of color with whom she worked at that specific time that she wrote it.  If she wrote the list today, it would be different.  To use it as a checklist for white people to compare themselves against misses the point.  The reality is that privilege is relative, and identities are complex!  Each person struggles with ways in which they have unearned disadvantages, and each person has their own set of unearned privileges.  For some of us, we have WAY more privileges than disadvantages, but we can’t effectively teach about privilege without addressing the underlying pluralities of our identities and how our privilege is always relative!
  19. One of the most important and powerful ways that we in power enforce a system of power against those without power is to deny their lived experience.  “Emotional colonization” is when we disagree with or deny people’s personal experience as living on the other side.  As such, we as white folks don’t have room to argue if a person of color says something is racist.  Their lived experience is that it is racist, and our lived experience is one of power in relation to that racism.  Thus, we don’t have a right to argue about that.
  20. White people have a choice of three things they can do in relation to oppression.  They can pity the oppressed and thus continue the cycle of oppression.  They can deny that the oppression exists.  They can work through the pain of being an oppressor and work to a place where they stand with people, not for people.  Which are you doing?
  21. White folks often talk of peace and love.  “Can’t we all just get along?”  This is a statement of incredible privilege that assumes that everyone is one equal ground.  Peace and Love cannot be realized until we are all on equal ground.  To call for peace and love in the face of oppression is wrong.  There can be no peace and no love without justice.  Justice is a simple prerequisite to such things.
  22. An ally is a person who from the powerful, dominant, and privileged group who stands in true solidarity, acting with those who are without power and privilege to realize justice.  Being an ally means being an ally all the time.  You cannot choose to be an ally only sometimes if you truly want to call yourself an ally.  A question then stands: What are you willing to give up, to give up for real, to be an ally?
  23. The last one in this list is something that I will be exploring in my blog post at length at a later date, but I wanted to include it here.  What right, if any, do white people have to profit from doing diversity, anti-oppression, and inclusion work?  This is the question that most uncentered me.  It shook me.  After all, my entire career assumes that it is in any way acceptable for white folks to do diversity, anti-oppression, and inclusion work for profit.  Granted, I don’t make much profit at all, but I do profit.  What right do I have to do that, particularly as I am simply benefiting from and passing along information that was shared with me by people of color, by LGBTQ folks, by working class and poor folks, by Muslims and Jews and others, by differently-abled folks.  This is not my knowledge!  What right do I have to profit from other people’s knowledge?  Further, what right do I have to profit in this work when it has been found that white people are often paid more for this work than people of color?  This is a question with which I am struggling and that I will not likely come to an answer about soon, but I need to sit with it.  I need to be uncentered by it.  I need to be challenged by it in order to come to a just conclusion on the other side.

Undoubtedly this list is only a snapshot of my experience at WPC.  It is a starting point for discussion, but I mean it when I say that I want to hear from you.  Which of these things struck you?  Which do challenge you?  What are your reactions?


3 thoughts on “Reflections on the White Privilege Conference

  1. […] on the work that I do and the reasons that I do that work.  The White Privilege Conference gave me a lot to think about, so I was happy to take the time during my fasting to reflect on the privilege that I bring, for […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. […] I have a bit of a crazy week this week, as I am heading off to the White Privilege Conference in Albuquerque, NM.  I look forward to presenting a few workshops and to learning a tremendous amount from the other presenters!  To read a little about what I learned last year, check out my post, Reflections on the White Privilege Conference. […]

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