A Week At the White Privilege Conference – Introduction

My apologies for the delay in blog posts, but these last few weeks I have been preparing to present at the White Privilege Conference and that took time away from writing. As I write this, I am just returning from Seattle and the 14th White Privilege Conference and it was once again an excellent experience. I want to give a huge thanks to both the national and local teams for their tireless work, the countless volunteers supporting the conference, and to the many presenters who contributed their energy and brilliance to make the conference such a success. I strongly encourage anyone committed to racial justice work to consider attending the WPC next year as it is a transformative experience.

 

And what makes it so? Well, the very name of the conference makes it an exceptional event because it places myriad elements of white privilege at the center of analysis and discussion in a manner that is rarely undertaken. Certainly there are many conferences around the country that address racial issues, cultural issues and/or racism, but very few conferences “call out” what is at the heart of the system of racial inequity in this society in the way WPC does. And this is a critical point: so often when I ask white folks why racial oppression is such a pervasive and powerful force in this country, they invariably say it is because of “prejudice”, or the “systems that target people of color”. And while it is true that both of these are massive factors in the propagation of racial oppression, it is important to note that the driver of racial inequality is actually neither of those things. Let me explain…

 

Prejudice, as we know from the ample body of research on the psychology (both individual and group) of prejudice, the sociology of prejudice, the brain functions associated with prejudice based on socially constructed axes of difference such as race (skin color), has to be taught/learned and as such can be un-taught/unlearned. Therefore, it seems illogical that something which has to first be taught and that can be unlearned in a generation or two is the sole reason why racial oppression is so persistent in the U.S. Similarly, because the oppression of people of color takes such an inordinate amount of resources to enact, has no logical function for any healthy society, and cannot be justified in any reasonable way, there has to be a deeper reason, a more compelling reason for racial oppression’s enduring presence. That “more compelling reason” is that the group doing the oppressing is getting something out of it. And, in this case, white people are getting something very tangible and very powerful out of the structure of racial oppression.

 

To illustrate, it is common knowledge that red lining was (and still is, just not as overtly) used to intentionally racially segregate housing across the U.S. whereby people of color are denied access to homes in communities with the better schools, transportation, parks, and overall living conditions. Obviously, however, these houses do not go away as a result of this process, and therefore “someone” has to fill them – that “someone” is of course white people. Thus, the end result of denying preferred housing to people of color is that more houses (and all of the other benefits that come from safe, healthy housing) are available to whites in these areas.* And so, for every resource denied to people of color in this country at the hands of structural racism, there are more resources available to whites. And when we consider that racial oppression operates in exactly this way throughout every sector of this society, it becomes apparent why the real driver of racial oppression in this country is the endless list of benefits and advantages that white people accrue as a result of it. For this reason, creating an entire conference that so openly and honestly addresses this underlying motivation for the maintenance of racial oppression in the U.S. is a bold, powerful, and much needed event.

 

So what does it mean to have a conference about White Privilege? Some fear that it is all about “hating white people”, and yet in point of fact the exact opposite is true; this conference is committed to the liberation of everyone from the limiting and violent confines of racial oppression. For me in the few years I have been attending it, this liberatory message has come as much from the keynotes and workshops as it has from the personal and relational commitment attendees make to lean into these issues, do our own work, and seek a more racially just society together. This alone is a challenge to the highly individualized, overly intellectual, non-relational, and emotionally distant macro racial narrative of U.S. whiteness and says quite powerfully that we are going to challenge these issues as a community in order for all of us to be able to live peacefully in a racially just world. We cannot achieve this alone, we cannot hope for this just for ourselves or for those immediately around us, and we must strive for racial justice as if our small lifeboats are lashed to everyone else’s lifeboat and we will either all rise and be liberated together – a far cry from white liberalism, and a more likely recipe for the achievement of social justice in this society. And this is one of the elements of WPC that makes it vastly different form other professional conferences: it’s about the “we” and our human commitments to being our best selves with and for each other.

 

If you are reading this and have not attended the WPC or have not even examined issues of white privilege before, I strongly encourage you to do so and use it as a place for deeper investigation and incredible motivation as we all strive for a better society.

 

* An excellent and more detailed discussion of this and other race-based means of denying resources to people of color and allocating resources to white people can be found in George Lipsitz’s book The Possessive Investment of Whiteness.

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