Exhilarating discoveries at anti-racist conference

I’m entranced with the White Privilege Conference’s culture and community.

I was a first-time attender at the 14th annual conference in Seattle last week, and the experience was a series of exhilarating discoveries. What most buoyed my spirits seemed to buoy others too: seeing about 1,500 white people who are so committed to ending racism that they’ll spend four days teaching and learning how to be allies, and seeing hundreds of people of color who are fully engaged in building an anti-racist community despite being outnumbered by white participants.

Plenary sessions opened with artistic and spiritual offerings from many traditions, such as African heritage people pouring libation and offering prayers, Native Americans invoking everyone’s ancestors, Jews leading Shabbat blessings, and the artist Jasiri X rapping along with a 1Hood video. The warm, human and visionary tone was set by the founder director, the great Dr. Eddie Moore, and by the planning committee, staff and volunteers. I learned that there’s a “Community Agreement” to create a challenging experience and to work collaboratively.

Here’s one anecdote that exemplified the community agreement in practice. During the Class Action workshop on organizational classism that I facilitated, a young white woman told a story of struggling with classism and racism at her former workplace. Her good intentions to be an ally shone through every word – but at a couple points she made over-generalizations about people of color that sounded off-base. While the 100 participants were occupied with a pair exercise, a young white man approached me and asked if he could bring up his discomfort with what she had said. So I called on him, and he began talking about her in the third person, with his back to her; I asked him to turn and speak directly to her, which he immediately did, without protest. He told her it sounded like she had said her new workplace was better because the managers are people of color “and so they’re cool,” which he interpreted as exoticizing all people of color. She apologized, thanked him, and said she meant to say that her new supervisors are progressive and are also people of color (not that all people of color are inherently “cool.”) I asked if anyone else wanted to add anything; an African American woman thanked the man for speaking up so the people of color in the room didn’t have to, which got some “thank you!”s and cheers from around the room. We all applauded the young man for speaking up. When I checked in with the young white woman after the workshop, she said she felt fine about being “called out,” adding “That’s what we’re here for!” Indeed.

I wish I could say such respectful, open, real-time conversations have been common in my activist experience, but sadly they haven’t been. In many settings the young white woman might have been talked about behind her back and been confused by receiving mysterious hostility; or she might have been trashed during the workshop; or the workshop would have been derailed by everyone taking sides and arguing. Instead we all shared an intention to become more effective anti-racists and so to debrief constructively.

This year’s theme was “The Color of Money,” and Class Action and other inequality- and class-focused organizations played a major role in weaving class intersections into the overall conference focus on anti-racism. I talked with many people for whom classism was a new concept, which they embraced with curiosity and a commitment to learn about and end all forms of oppression.

Social change was palpable in the air. It was intoxicating. With these 2,000 people all intent on taking effective action, I’m hopeful that we’re going to see a rising tide of racial and economic justice.

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