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A Quaker's Reflection of the 2012 White Privilege Conference

Challenging Racism

Power, Privilege, and the Search for Community:
A Reflection on the White Privilege Conference – March 28-31, 2012, in Albuquerque, NM

by Jamie Newton

For this Friend, it was a privilege to attend the thirteenth annual White Privilege Conference, held at the Albuquerque Convention Center March 28-31, 2012 – and I use that term literally, not as a pun. As first-time participants, my wife and I weren’t quite sure how a pair of older, middle-class, white Quaker professionals would fit in. Would we be merely tolerated, perhaps not always courteously, as beneficiaries of an oppressive system and examples of well-meaning but irrelevant bumblers to whom inequities that are unavoidably obvious to nonwhites and other minorities must remain forever as invisible and taken for granted as water to a fish?

I emphasize that what I offer here are personal reflections on my own individual experience. I’m aware that for some others the WPC felt strikingly different than it did to me. I found this among the most welcoming, inclusive environments I’ve ever encountered – a brief immersion in the kind of diverse, cooperative society I hope we will someday consider ordinary. A lifelong educator, I went to the WPC to listen more than to comment, to ask more than to answer, to question my premises rather than to defend them. Through five keynote speeches, seven workshops, three film screenings, and many conversations, I consistently found friendly openness, active listening, and authentic disclosure of views and emotions.

From its initial focus on inequities due to pervasive racism, the WPC has evolved. This year’s theme was the intersectionality of racism, oppression, privilege, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. Keynoters spoke on the recent rise of hate groups in the US, cultural conflict within the deaf community, casual abuse of Native American cultural practices in such domains as retailing and the mascots chosen by sports teams, legal and extralegal oppression of immigrants and citizens presumed to be immigrants, and the legal intricacies that required development of the concept of intersectionality – e.g., the courts initially ruled that African American women who were systematically denied employment had no standing to sue because General Motors employed women (all white) and African Americans (all male). Examples of workshops I chose to attend are the film Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin; Exploring the Intersection of Whiteness and Femaleness; The Everyday Impact of Christian Hegemony; The Color of Wealth; the film Ghetto Physics; Touching the Untouchable: Examining the Intersection Between Race and Class. For me, the WPC was informative, challenging, both saddening and inspiring, motivating and encouraging.

Thanks to the initiative of Friends General Conference to encourage Quaker participation, among the 1600 participants were more than 54 Friends. We met in the Quaker hospitality room several times each day for worship, worship-sharing, and to process our own reactions with benefit of the light and insights of others. We were a community within a community, supporting one another and lifting one another up. Thanks to Vanessa Julye of FGC’s Committee for Ministry on Racism and to Pelican Lee of Santa Fe Monthly Meeting for facilitating the Quaker presence at this very special conference!