Exciting White Privilege Conferences

Last week I attended an exciting annual White Privilege Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. There were something like 1100 academics, other scholars, anti-racism activists, and ordinary citizens of all racial and ethnic groups, all ages and genders, and various other diversity segments of the U.S. population. It was an exciting and informative conference, with lots of practical and praxis sessions on racism research and teaching, and much discussion of and data on anti-racist activism and organization.

Next is the preliminary statement for this year’s conference, which was sponsored and/or hosted by several organizations, including the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs’ (UCCS) Matrix Center, Goddard College, and the Social Justice Education Program at University of Massachusetts (Amherst). The questions in the preliminary statement below were substantially fulfilled, so far as I could tell:

The UCCS Matrix Center’s WPC9, “Critical Liberation Praxis” will examine and create practice that focuses on our goals, where we are going (liberation), rather than where we are coming from (privilege and oppression). Moving forward from focusing on what we are fighting against, WPC9 will provide a forum to examine what we are fighting for, and how to get there. How do we understand the intersections of race with gender, sexual identity, class, and other systems of inequality as they shape this struggle? How do we cultivate allies? How do we move forward? What does Critical Liberation Praxis/Practice look like?

Next is the more general statement about these conferences, whose founder and key leader is Eddie Moore, Jr.. They have been sponsored by several local universities and other important groups now for nine years:

The annual White Privilege Conference (WPC) serves as a yearly opportunity to examine and explore difficult issues related to white privilege, white supremacy and oppression. WPC provides a forum for critical discussions about diversity, multicultural education and leadership, social justice, race/racism, sexual orientation, gender relations, religion and other systems of privilege/oppression. WPC is recognized as a challenging, empowering and educational experience. The workshops, keynotes and institutes not only inform participants, but engage and challenge them, while providing practical tips and strategies for combating inequality. The WPC is pleased to announce the initiation of the WPC Youth Leadership Conference!

The conference participants and presenters include corporate and non-profit community members, students, educators, activists, musicians and artists. This conference is not about beating up on white folks. This conference is about critically examining the society in which we live and working to dismantle systems of power, prejudice, privilege and oppression.

Next year’s conference will be April 1-4, 2009, at the Hilton Memphis in Memphis, Tennessee (see here), and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in meeting many like-minded scholars and activists working on “race,” racism, and anti-racism issues.

Comments

  1. Joe,

    I wrote this piece about three or four years ago after visiting a white privelege conference. Thought you might be interested in my persepective.

    Doing the White Thing.

    ‘It will be one of those white things,’ my daughter said, talking about the conference I was to attend tomorrow. ‘I mean there aren’t any black people on my course.’ She was doing a course in anthropology at Manchester University. The title of the conference, Beyond Multiculturalism, race and privilege, had interested me. I still didn’t know what multiculturalism meant. I knew first hand why black people were disadvantaged from the moment of birth. If the conference was going to be about that, then I wanted to be there.

    Suman Fernando spoke first. He is a short quiet man with many years’ experience in the mental health field. He said he was unsure why he had been asked to the conference, that mental health field was a narrow field but that it did impinge on social justice. I, for one could see why it was important for him to be present. Diverse Minds, the black sector of the national Mind charity, existed because of racial inequality in the mental health services and if this conference was claiming to bring some measure of equality to the client/practitioner relationship then it was a good idea to have someone who could speak on that subject.

    It was very difficult, he said to come to an understanding of what was going within the mental health field, but the facts spoke for themselves. There was an over diagnosis of schizophrenia amongst the black ethnic minorities. There were more black people held in compulsory detention, and this raised the question as to whether black people were madder than white people. He gave us figures to illustrate this as well as figures relating to school exclusion. These documented excessive compulsory detention and medication, which had led to a loss of trust, fear, frustration, anger and resentment.

    What I found particularly interesting was how western psychiatry had developed alongside slavery and how European libertarian values and concepts flourished in a time of bondage. Western psychiatry grew out of these historical events. For instance at th e time of slavery, there was a mental illness called Drapetomania that gave rise to a slave trying to run away. This raised a laugh in the audience – we’re not like that nowadays, are we? His talk finished with a brief mention of the new Mental Health Bill which would extend the definition of the mentally ill, putting dangerousness and protecting the public as the primary reasons for sectioning. I looked over the words coming up on the screen; I still had the notion of the runaway slave in my mind. If society is oppressive, and anti-social behaviour is a symptom of mental illness, then psychiatry is inevitably an instrument of oppression.

    Salome Raheim, from the University of Iowa began by introducing the concept of privilege in addressing issues of race. Privilege is defined as a system of unearned advantages and benefits afforded to a social group but denied to others, which provide access to resources and opportunities and perpetuate that groups power advantage. Privilege is usually invisible to those who have it. She asked the audience for examples of their privilege and nobody spoke. I waited for a while before I said something. I pointed to the fact that I was on the one hand privileged by my white upbringing but disadvantaged by the colour of my skin. Salome acknowledged what I had to say but I soon became aware that that wasn’t the answer that was required. Next to me the Indian lady related a long story about how her daughter was seriously bullied and how she was on a mission to change white peoples perceptions. Then a black man behind me spoke about how when he visited the Met he was aware that the suspicion was cast on him and not on white people. It was interesting that the only black people present spoke first. But once the ice was broken, white people started to speak.

    Salome began to note down the answers from the white folk. She was on white privilege and she was sticking to that, jotting down notes on one side of her chart and on the other, it’s unprivileged logical opposite. They included, entitlement, maximising one’s own point of view, defining a person, the right to speak and the unthreatened standpoint. I recognised them all, and it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to go on and on and on about the privileges of having a white skin. But I was beginning to feel like an outsider and that I shouldn’t be there. This, as my daughter had said, was a white thing. Sitting there, I was feeling the very lack of privilege that my skin gave me, the very thing the conference was purporting to overcome.

    The food laid out at lunchtime was excellent. Talking of privilege, I felt truly privileged to eat it. Vegetarians were not marginalised, for once. A white woman (I resent having to identify people by their racial characteristics but in this context I can’t help it) came up to me and asked me if I had found the talk helpful. I wondered what she’d meant, helpful for what? I responded by saying that if I had had an opportunity to express wha t it was really like to live in a society of white privilege, people would be shocked, but being personal wasn’t on the agenda. I said I thought that if people really listened then that would be a huge first step; that would be doing something. ‘But do you not find that celebrating your culture helps you?’ she said. ‘It means nothing to me.’ I said. It was clear that she hadn’t understood what I had been saying – that I was a white person in a black skin. Do white people celebrate their culture in the way she was suggesting to me?

    The Just Therapy Team from New Zealand took the afternoon session. At the heart of their approach was the meeting of cultures with a focus on what they called ‘prime breaks.’ Society and community is divided by differences in culture, gender, disability and race. The question was raised as to how these divisions can be healed on a day-to-day basis? They suggested that a space had to be made in the work setting and that each of the cultural groups should have their own caucus where they could meet to discuss these issues. All the cultural groups would then convene together to come to consensus. Pain was given a privileged status within this approach and every effort was made to make this arrangement ‘liveable.’ Not only did the Just Therapy team act as family therapists, they also took an active part in community development, including how trade affected the daily lives of people within the community. I raised the question as to the position of the mixed race person within this arrangement since for me all cultural identification is a form of power, but this wasn’t well received.

    If I could characterise this Conference I would say it was overwhelmingly white, apart from Suman whose voice seemed to strike a balance between the black and the white races. It wasn’t just the skin colour of the participants; it was conference as a cultural ideological phenomenon. Those with knowledge and ideas spoke to the select few. The abstract concept of ‘privilege’ was passed on to the select group of white psychologists and psychotherapists in their own exclusive and mystifying language. I had the distinct feeling that what I was witnessing was the emergence of a new white club, where a new hierarchy of knowledge was being established. And while I could see that separation provided a safe forum for white people to discuss race, this was supposed to be a conference, and not group therapy. I felt my presence to be threatening, for being mixed race challenges every race theory and identification.

    It is certainly the case that white people need to look at themselves as racial and cultural beings, but I was only too aware of the polarisation of this attitude. It is good to change focus, to look the other way, but I didn’t get the feeling that that was happening. The concept of privilege was abstract and separate from feelings; there was to be no negotiation of white guilt here. This was the rational approach where the distress was seen elsewhere. In practice, white privilege was once again being supported. I don’t know how many times I heard the audience being addressed as ‘good people!’ The very support they were being given was feeding the separation between client and practitioner. Thus power was maintained within the class groupings, with exclusive ‘training’ and esoteric language. If justice is a prerequisite for therapy, this turns the notion of white privilege on its head and puts the client, in pain, confusion and despair, back at the centre of communication. As Hugh Fox quite rightly said introducing the conference, when you feel pain you are on the right road, since it is the road of pain where transformation occurs.

    The Just Therapy Team was the much more human approach. It was bigger in imagination and was moving in the right direction of integration of differences rather than polarising and fragmenting them. Their awareness of the imperialist nature of trade, of distributing funds, the near and far of influences on peoples’ lives took the distress away from the individual and placed it within a general sense of society. Unlike Salome’s approach they gave pain the privileged focus, making feelings and humanity itself the prime motivator.

    It is interesting and no accident that in the discussion of privilege, money and power were not mentioned. This wasn’t a conference about ‘earned’ privilege, and the almost hidden monetarist ideology was never acknowledged or questioned, except briefly by the Just Therapy team. I still had slavery on my mind, for when slavery was finally abolished, the slave-owners were compensated, not the slaves, who hadn’t ‘earned’ anything! For me the situation for the ethnic minorities in the mental health system remains the same as in slavery. Those who find themselves angry and depressed and hurt and wanting to run away from their social position are deemed to be mentally ill by those white people who are in positions of po wer. The madness of the oppressor on the other hand is the normal common sense of “good” people.
    Isabel Adonis.

  2. Joe Author

    Thanks for the sharp & probing analysis of a wp conference. The one in Springfield had some of these same problems you note. Interestingly, there were several significant disruptions of the new white dominance, as various people spoke up (and were encouraged to do so by Eddie Moore and others) and interrupted various general sessions to speak their mind on such things as white racism as demonstrated at the conference itself…. The young people there were esp. outspoken and insistent on youth of color being heard, from their own point of view.

    We have a long way to go, indeed.

  3. Toby

    The more I read about white priviledge conferences the more that old fashioned term-nuerotic-comes to mind. I’m not surprised that there were psychologist in the post mentioned above because the whole conference appears to be mired in collective self induced paranoia.
    Guess what people there is no such thing as white privilege since-surprise-privilege has no color-just ask the Indian who hates the untouchable or the Pakistani man who disfigures his daughter because she has shamed the family. Would you say those where signs of white privilege?
    There have always been societies where some people have more privileges, rights and responsibilities than others. Besides what is a privilege to one person is just another facet of live to another; neither good nor bad!
    White people can’t give up these so-called privileges because their is nothing to give up. But that is not what the white study/diversity pimps really want is it?

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