A Week At the White Privilege Conference – Musings On Tone

Talking about white privilege is hard, no doubt about it. Talking about it in groups is even more difficult. To be sure, therefore, talking about it with over 2000 people is beyond the pale (pun intended). But, two weeks ago I was in Seattle for the 14th Annual White Privilege Conference (WPC) and it was several days of challenging and very engaging dialogue. Fears arose, brilliant insights were shared, guilt popped up everywhere, different levels of awareness had folks verbally and intellectually “bumping into each other”, tears were shed, hearts were opened, and all in all it made for an exhilarating several days.


But, amid all this inspiration there is one thing that stuck in my craw a bit…and it was the issue of tone, specifically the use of cynical, sarcastic, “judgy” tones on the part of white folks to other white folks. It’s a pretty standard phenomenon, really. White people are quite scared when talking about issues of race, and specifically white privilege, and out of this fear often react in a range of ways depending of course on their level of knowledge, experience, and skill. More specifically, in the case of public settings such as this conference, some of the more problematic ways that white folks respond to these issues is through the vehicles of cynicism (to show how analytical one can be), talking non-stop (to show how much one knows about the issue), or self-criticism (to show how serious and truly progressive one is about the issues), and it is these means of engaging that got my attention at this year’s conference. The act of calling oneself out as a hypocrite or as a “white ally with a lot more work to do” has its utility, but only if it is done in balance with principles of compassion, empathy and care. This is not merely my opinion, it’s just good pedagogy. I have seen very few students in my classes, or participants in my trainings, be motivated both intellectually and emotionally through my use of cynicism, by talking “at” them, or via incessant criticism of myself, and by its passive-aggressive implication, them. And given that best practices in education, new studies in learning theory, and basic brain analysis tell us that the best learning definitely takes place when the cognitive and affective dimensions are both engaged, it makes absolutely no sense to engage with each other in a way that shuts down the heart, primes the mind for criticism and attack/defend, and ultimately discourages deep learning.


However, despite the above knowledge there were several moments over the 4 days of the conference where it felt like whites were almost competing with each other in their use of cynical, self-critical, incessant dialogue in the service of calling out whiteness – which was often just cover for accusing other white folks for not doing enough, as well as a way to “prove” what a good anti-racist the speaker was. As stated above, it definitely is important for white folks to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and our role in racial injustice/justice in this society, but at this conference I was able to see the starkness in contrast between doing so out of a place of criticism, self-righteousness, and what in the end felt like (and was) arrogance versus a place of love, care, empathy and deep sense of community (while not holding back on the honest and thoughtful observations of whiteness).


Case in point: In one session I was able to see the speaker presenting what was quite powerful information, albeit quite sharp and possibly difficult to digest, in a manner that was so indirectly (and eventually directly) accusatory of the participants that after a while people simply shut down. In racial justice circles this shutting down is often read as “resistance” and yet in this session what I was seeing was not resistance coming out of a place of privilege, but simply the body not being able to hold one more nugget of information in the form it was being presented. This I am sure, was the opposite effect the facilitator wanted, and yet the means by which this white person was presenting the information eventually made it impossible for many in the session to both cognitively and affectively take any more of it in; the affective shut down, leaving less room for the cognitive.


Instead, it would have been preferable if the facilitator could have simply paused, recognized in a sincere and humble manner his own humanness, his own feelings, and ultimately his own body, and then continued with his workshop in a more embodied and grounded way. Had he done this, he might have felt his own disconnection from the content and then extrapolated that perhaps the attendees were also feeling this way, thus suggesting a slight change of tack in his delivery. Unfortunately, this did not happen and I watched every single person within my line of sight thoroughly check out of the workshop well before it ended.


Let me say again that I am not suggesting that we coddle whites as we struggle with accepting the reality of white privilege. The crisis state of racial dynamics in this country demands a clear and powerful turn of attention on the part of whites to issues of whiteness and how we fuel the systemic oppression of people of color. But, we have to get past the rhetoric of progressive cynicism in the name of “doing the hard work” and instead come from a place of compassion and care as we wade into the morass of pain and confusion that is the legacy multi-generational whites must face in order to get to the root of whiteness within each of us and in turn in this society.