White Privilege Conference: Beyond the hype, there’s hope

By Stephani Maari Booker
Community Editor

Keynote speaker Michelle Alexander earned a standing ovation.

-Photo by Misha Oneby

Fox News’ Sean Hannity dismissed the 12th Annual White Privilege Conference (WPC) as a “White guilt conference” and quoted from an interview with organizer Dr. Eddie Moore published in the MSR (“White privilege: It’s designed to kill you,” April 7-13 issue) as “proof” of how horrible it was supposed to be.

Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kerstin ridiculed the WPC (“Always room in the budget for white guilt,” Star Tribune April 10), saying that critics like her would be “laughing too hard” to expend the energy to disrupt or protest the conference. Both Kerstin and Hannity declared that Minnesota school districts funding teachers’ attendance at the WPC was a waste of taxpayers’ money in a time of budget cuts.

The WPC, held in Bloomington April 13-16, brought in over 2,200 people from not just the state’s public schools but from across the country and even outside the country with the purpose of learning about, challenging and dismantling White privilege and supremacy and other forms of societal privilege and oppression. (See the Dr. Eddie Moore interview for an explanation of White privilege/supremacy and how it relates to other forms of privilege and oppression, such as male privilege and sexism.)

The purpose of the conference was not to “attack, degrade and beat up White folks,” as Moore said in his interview. Yet, the contempt, dismay and ridicule the WPC has received from White critics who have never attended it makes one wonder, “What are they afraid of?”

There were over 150 workshops at the WPC, plus daylong institutes, keynote speakers and film screenings. The workshops addressed an almost overwhelming range of issues related to privilege and systems of oppression, with titles such as “ESPN’s Rap Sheet: How Sports Media Promote White Male Supremacy,” “White America’s Islamophobia,” and “Walking While Brown: Racial profiling…[and] Arizona-type immigration policies.”

A number of workshops dealt with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, including “From Gender Policing to Respect for All,” in which facilitators screened scenes from the documentary Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up. In the film, high school students of various races, genders and sexual orientations were interviewed about everything from enforced gender dress codes to being victims of homophobic harassment and rejection.

One Latino young man in the film talked about how boys aren’t supposed to wear tight pants if they don’t want to be “beat up,” while an African American young woman recalled nearly being forced off her school’s cheerleading squad by fearful adults after she came out as bisexual.

“Trans(gender) Citizenship” and “A Trans Historiography” both linked gender policing to race and class privilege: “A Trans Historiography” facilitator Adison T. Petti declared, “Our present understandings of sex and gender not only affect all of us, but [also] they are largely a product of racist, colonialist ideology” that forces everyone to fit into gender roles and sexual expectations that conform to a White, middle-class, heterosexual ideal of “manhood” and “womanhood.”

The daylong institute “Let’s Get Real About Racism” was facilitated by Lee Mun Wah, a veteran diversity trainer who also has made a series of films in which people of various racial identities engage in intensive, often confrontational dialogs about racism and/or sexism.

Mun Wah talked about asking a group of 2,000 people, “So, how many of you think you’re a racist? Only two White people stood up… Then I said, ‘How many of you think you have racist attitudes and behaviors?’ Everyone stood up. What’s the definition of a racist? One who has racist attitudes and behaviors!”

He then asked the institute’s White attendees what they think of when they hear the word “racist.” People shouted out, “skinheads,” “KKK” and “rednecks.”

“Who would want to be called a racist [and be associated with] skinheads…and rednecks?” Mun Wah responded. “That’s why people fight so much” against being confronted with racism, he added, “because that’s what it conjures up in their heads.”

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, gave a fiery keynote address in which she admitted that she herself was once part of the problem of discriminating against people with criminal records. As a civil rights lawyer, she once told a Black man who was willing to testify to being brutalized and framed for drug possession by the police that she couldn’t work with him because he had a felony conviction.

“You’re no better than the police!” Alexander remembered the young man shouting. “The minute I tell you I’m a felon, you stop listening.”

Alexander asked, “How was my own privilege blinding me to the reality he was experiencing in his community?” Her encounter with the young man led her to become a legal scholar. In her research, she learned that the U.S. prison population “went from about 300,000 to well over two million” in about three decades, and “more African American adults are under correctional control today…than were in slavery in 1850.”
In the end, she concluded that “the War on Drugs is the new Jim Crow… We use our criminal justice system to label people of color [as] criminals…[and] it is…legal to discriminate against [persons who are incarcenated or have served their time] in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans,” including barring them from housing, jobs, voting and jury service.

Alexander made these statements to an audience that, though very ethnically diverse, was largely White — and she received a standing ovation. This may be a sign that the White Privilege Conference is an event where people recognize and accept responsibility for the parts they play in perpetuating systems of oppression — as did Alexander, an African American woman with class privilege as a lawyer and professor — and hopefully use what they learn to dismantle all forms of privilege and oppression.

Could that be what the critics are so afraid of?

For more information about the conference, go to www.whiteprivilegeconference.com.
Stephani Booker welcomes reader re sponses to sbooker@spokesman-recorder.com.