The White Privilege Conference and Reflections on How Well-Meaning White People Reinforce White Supremacy

For the first time, I attended the 17th annual White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia; it’s an important and impressive conference that has grown to 2700 participants. More than half of the participants were white, maybe even 60% or 70%, and so that’s a lot of white people recognizing the need to examine and dismantle white privilege and white supremacy. There is no doubt this is a step in the right direction, but it is only a start – we need to work on action. The beginners at this conference (and maybe others as well) are exactly the audience I have in mind for my book project, an introductory manual on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action aimed at white readers.

As I think about my work, I would like to reflect on the conference by beginning with some meaningful experiences and a few brief highlights and then conclude with a longer reflection about #WPCsowhite that emerged during the conference.

I was honored to present a workshop with The Meta Theatre Company called “‘When the Curtain Falls, Community Action Begins’: Dismantling White Supremacy through Theatre and Community Action in the Age of The New Jim Crow.” Caroline Hann, Barbara Cannell, Cyndie Wiggins, and I performed two sketches and shared our collaborative experience working with the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition (of NJ) that led to book discussions of The New Jim Crow in three very different locations last year: 1) the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ 2) my class “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ and 3) in the community at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, NJ. We explained how the women of Edna Mahan helped develop curriculum materials for these discussions and wrote short pieces about their personal experience in relation to Alexander’s book, we read a few examples of the women’s writing that we read last year to my class and the community group and a few of their responses, and we explained how we facilitated dialogue between all three groups even though the three groups never met. The audience participation in both workshops was impressive, and the discussion was motivating.

I participated in the Leadership Institute organized by Joe-Joe McManus of Rootstrong and Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the White Privilege Conference and the President of The Privilege Institute. The Leadership Institute brought together about 25 people who spent one full day together before the conference began and then reconvened during every lunch break for conversation with the keynote speakers. Since the conference was so big, it was great to be able to return to this small group for discussion and reflection. Joe-Joe did an excellent job of organizing this institute and its speakers, which included Kecia Brown McManus, a wonderful presenter.

I also want to acknowledge the work of presenters at some fantastic breakout sessions:

  • Debby Irving, author of Waking up White, shared her personal struggle in learning about and interrogating her own whiteness
  • Jacqueline Battalora, author of Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today, gave an exceptional presentation about the invention of whiteness as a divide and conquer strategy, an approach I find very effective
  • June Christian of Teaching Tolerance demonstrated the “Let’s Talk” strategies for conversations about race and racism, which were great to experience rather than just read about
  • Robin DiAngelo, whose work on the concept of “white fragility” I’d been following for a while, helped run a highly interactive workshop about changing the “rules of engagement”

There were also excellent keynote speakers and performers:

  • Jasiri X and Aisha Fukushima shared their beautiful and powerful art, what Aisha calls “RAPtivism”
  • Young people from the Youth Action Project and 1Hood Media shared their inspiring stories, showing real leadership
  • Yusef Salaam described his heart-wrenching experience as one of the Central Park Five, the teenagers wrongfully locked up for more than 10 years; he now works to end mass incarceration
  • Vernā Myers addressed the fear white people have of saying the wrong thing and the importance of “interrupting bias”
  • Howard Stevenson talked about racial micro-aggressions and systemic racism using both exceptional research and personal examples; he even shared an audio recording of a conversation he had with his young son about the murder of Trayvon Martin to show how hard it is, even for experts in this field, to have such difficult conversations

Finally, I want to reflect on the larger issue of the complicity of well-meaning white people in white supremacy (myself included). I was especially interested to hear keynote speaker James Loewen, who wrote about whitewashing history in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. He did a great job of explaining the significance of the period 1890-1940 when white supremacy escalated and when the Civil War was rewritten as a conflict over states’ rights; he described how sundown towns forbid people of color after dark. I was nodding along, diligently taking notes, when he showed an image of a sign for a sundown town and read it out loud, including the n-word. I was surprised to hear him speak this word, but I also thought, he’s a famous and well-regarded scholar with a lot of experience: he must know best. I moved on. Soon, however, I saw that the official conference hashtag in Twitter #PHLWPC17 included criticism of his choice to speak the word out loud. I then saw #WPCsowhite emerge with additional criticism. That made me question why I initially gave Loewen the benefit of the doubt. I deferred to his experience and status as a well-published scholar, as we are taught to do in graduate school and in the profession. I realized I was reaffirming a hierarchy based in white supremacy rather than thinking about the trauma people of color can experience when hearing this word, especially from a white man at a podium in front of more than 2000 people. At our lunch discussion with the speakers, I wanted to know what he thought of the criticism, and though I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I asked him what he thought. He wasn’t aware of the criticism in Twitter but indicated that he provided context and was reading a historical sign. He’s since affirmed that perspective in Twitter. I was disappointed that he didn’t really seem to hear the concerns expressed. Even though he’s an experienced scholar, I don’t expect him to be perfect, but I do expect him to want to continue to learn and grow. I wished he had taken the concerns to heart and reconsidered his position. I believe white educators can still show students the history of white supremacy in this country without saying the n-word out loud. Refusing to say the word out loud doesn’t mean denying a history of racism. For me, as a white educator, not saying the word out loud means recognizing that me saying that word as an authority in the classroom can echo the decades of white educators before me who used that word not to reveal white supremacy but to enforce it. I believe that to help break that cycle, I should never say the word, in any context, whether in the classroom or outside of it. I don’t believe other white educators should either. However, if people of color had not spoken up about the pain they experienced when Loewen spoke the n-word, I probably would have left his keynote still thinking, well he knows best. And that’s my complicity in white supremacy.

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