Thursday, March 12, 2015

Back at the WPC - Number 16 (Louisville, KY)

I'm at the White Privilege Conference #16 in Louisville - the fourth for me. It's exhausting and invigorating at the same time. There is a good-sized group of Quakers here from all over the U.S., and I am also sharing the experience with an old friend and colleague from my workplace as well as with my newest workplace colleague, who is also my supervisor.

The conference opening ceremony was a drum song blessing and then brief opening statement by a Native American elder. I was moved by this, though feeling, as I often do with these ceremonial openings by Native American leaders, that I'm not sure where to take it - I recognize the spiritual power, but I don't know how much I'm invited in, and how much I'm an onlooker. The fact that the audience applauds at the end of these is jarring to me.

The opening plenary speaker was Loretta Ross, a full-force dynamo with a history of activism and leadership in the women's movement and as program director for an anti-KKK group (Center for Democratic Renewal, which closed down in 2008). I was impressed enough to go to her session later in the day.

Ross's plenary session talk included comments about the construction of white consciousness as connected to a white supremacist agenda which serves only the smallest minority (1%) even of white people. Loretta explained that the ideology holding this worldview together includes rigid categories of identity around gender and sexual expression, and negatively impacts almost everyone in many ways. The main point of her plenary, though, was to provide pointers on how to work and live in a world where the kind of critical consciousness fostered by the WPC is not shared. Where possible, we were enjoined to operate from a loving mode of "calling people in" rather than "calling people out." Her example: don't use the family Thanksgiving dinner to drop an "identity bomb." Also helpful is finding definitions that people can agree to share as a basis of conversation, such as differentiating between prejudice and racism. (We are all prejudiced in many ways, she explained - but racism requires a system of power and privilege.)

Having conversations about racism and white privilege is difficult for white people, she explained, because they don't feel that they are privileged as individuals, or the conversations make them feel stupid, or they feel they will get called out.

The next session was quite lovely, though rather emotional: "Having the Hard Conversation" - which involved a frank and somewhat personal conversation between three WPC veterans and well-known figures in anti-racist work, Heather Hackman, Jamie Washington, and Shakti Butler. I thought my colleague Diane would get a good sense of the passion behind this conference by hearing these three, who did indeed have a hard conversation among the three of them, with the rest of us listening in. We also had a period of small group conversation ourselves, which included the two of us and a Quaker friend from my Meeting, Demi Miller. At the end, two young persons of color shared some very painful stories about recent experiences that were radicalizing for them.

After lunch, we followed up with Loretta Ross's "Manipulating White Anger," which took us through different aspects of a far right agenda for maintaining power through fostering racial and other divides in the country. Much disturbing to me in this session were comments about legislative efforts to push back abortion rights, some that I had no clue were going on - such as a particularly chilling effort to characterize Black women having abortions as perpetuating racial genocide. After an exhausting tour of many forms of bad news, we got to what Ross proposes as a way forward - which is to fully embrace human rights in all their dimensions, which she listed and explained (nine of them). As she talked through these, I recognized how very far we are in our society right now from providing even the most basic of human rights to all people in the country, and I believe this is truly is a matter of priorities - because we are a wealthy enough society that we could afford to do so (including providing a college education for all wthout having students walk out the door 40-90 thousand dollars in debt).

The last session, "So What's Race For, Anyway?" by Pem Davidson Buck, was a fairly formal presentation on the creation of race as a category of human division, covering some of the same historical ground as a keynote and session I went to last year, but adding some information from the field of anthropology. We chose a more academic session as the earlier ones were pretty emotional and draining. Some book titles to follow up with: American Nations by Colin Woodard, and Worked To The Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky, by Pem Davidson Buck.

We ate at a Persian restaurant, then were too tired to go to a movie preview, but if I had been able, I would have gone to Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Ruskin. Ruskin worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and organized the march on Washington in 1963. Ruskin was a gay man who was marginalized in the civil rights movement and in the public eye because of his sexual preference. He was also a Quaker, though I don't know if this came up in the film.

I don't know where all of this exposure will take me. Will I start distancing myself from the pain and fear that some of the material raises in me, and start seeking for weaknesses in the analysis? I have a tug back to unconsciousness, as in some ways, it is a particularly painful time: some of the politics going on right now feels like we are turning back the clock on civil rights - voter suppression, erosion of the public good in many areas, education becomng corporatized, thus even more unequal. But one of the hopeful thing about the WPC is that it brings together a fresh crop of young activists, not just the old warriers of my generation. Also, the emphasis is on compassion, not hatred, as fundamental for social change. It's also reassuring to be in the company of the old warriors, who remain vital and full of humor, expressing righteous outrage but not bitterness. We're not done yet, my generation, radicalized in the 1960's and 1970's. It's just a much harder, longer slog than we imagined.

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