By Sonia Keiner
Written by Dr. Heather Hackman
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending two equity / social justice conferences back to back – the 19th annual “White Privilege Conference” (WPC) and Policy Link’s (PL) semi-annual “Equity Summit 2018”. What was striking to me about the second was the absence of what was central to the first. The work that Equity Summit folks were doing was impressive, especially from the vantage point of the majority People of Color / Native speakers in the plenary sessions. Glaringly missing, however, was any substantive attention to Whiteness. Conversely, the White Privilege Conference by its very nature centers the conversation on Whiteness as a means to attend to the core driving dynamic of racial oppression in the U.S. When the Equity Summit did name “white” it was often in the context of individual White people and not the ways that White privilege and White supremacy serve as the continual catalyst for this system, altogether. Said differently, White people would not work so hard to maintain racist housing segregation, despite red-lining being illegal, if they did not get something out of it – namely better housing, better schools, better transportation options, more access to multi-generational wealth brought about by property value increase, and the like. For the Equity Summit to discuss issues such as housing, education, criminal justice, etc. without naming this driving force is at best unfortunate and at worst deeply problematic. WPC knows this and chooses to go right to the heart of the matter as is evidenced by the extraordinary level of focus and organization of the conference on all that is necessary to bring about abiding and permanent racial justice for the U.S.
To elaborate, it is one thing for the Summit to call out racism in the prison industrial complex and emphasize the deeply urgent need to revamp the current prison system (or perhaps eliminate it altogether and replace it with something dramatically different). But, it is short-sighted to proffer that position without identifying that White folks from the private / economic sector, the political sector, and the social sector garner extraordinary power from the way the criminal justice system is currently operating and therefore will not simply yield that power because there is a louder call for us to change that system. For me, this omission left the conversation about criminal justice reform incomplete.
Even worse was a White, cis-male speaker on a panel about the role of philanthropy in racial equity work who continually suggested that cities “are just not educated enough” about how to use data and that their organization’s work is designed to “teach cities how to read and use data”. Aside from the deeply condescending tone this man had toward all cities, who are apparently too ignorant to know how to use data (rather than city workers often being overworked and underpaid, or unable to afford the software or time to do such sweeping data analysis), he had no idea whatsoever that his entire transactional, data-driven approach was steeped in Whiteness and racially dominant ways of perceiving government, social change, and the function of cities altogether. I was appalled that he was presenting this type of perspective at a conference on “equity” (primarily racial equity, it seems) and thankfully, two of the People of Color on the panel shut him down a bit – not so that he would notice it because I think he completely missed it, but certainly so the audience would notice it.
To be fair, one Equity Summit panel did talk about Whiteness (more than the entire rest of the conference combined) through its focus on gender justice as articulated by some very fierce POC/N speakers making the deep and critical connections between the system of patriarchy and gender oppression to that of racial oppression and Whiteness. The fact that this perspective stood out, however, speaks volumes about the lack of attention paid to Whiteness in the overall conference. Policy Link (PL) would do well to pay attention to the work of the White Privilege Conference (WPC) and take the very courageous step into a comprehensive racial justice approach in the way WPC does. In asking folks at the Summit about this, their response was that PL has never really paid attention to Whiteness largely because it is trying to work with majority, historically White leaders whom they did not want to alienate by naming Whiteness that explicitly. I have heard similar rumblings about the work of GARE and that it has no problem naming racism, but continually comes up short with respect to addressing the White privilege and White supremacy at the heart of so many government practices, policies procedures and programs that continually target POC/N folks and benefit and advantage White folks.
As is evidenced by the laser-like approach of the White Privilege Conference, we will never see an end to the system of racial oppression if we do not clearly and consistently call attention to the Whiteness driving it. As I left WPC fired up for more of the deep and hard work, but then went to PL’s Equity Summit, I was reminded yet again that even in spaces where racism is named there is still often a lack of willingness to call attention to Whiteness. Perhaps PL’s new leadership will use this transition as an opportunity to usher in a more comprehensive analysis (racism and Whiteness) of U.S. racial realities for all of the systems and structures they are trying to change. If that is too risky of a move for the POC/N leadership in terms of their safety and well-being, as is often the case when POC/N folks have spoken truth to power, then White people involved in Policy Link need to step up and speak up about Whiteness.
I look forward to the next Policy Link conference and hope that it has a chance to lean even harder into its work around racial justice and decolonization. This cannot be done without dismantling structures of Whiteness and I hope they make that move for the betterment of everyone who is trying to do this work. The time is surely now to do so.
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