Students Unpack “White Privilege”

Anna D'Alessandro

Last Thursday marked the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Just two days before this benchmark in history, the White Privilege Conference began its ninth annual meeting. Over one thousand students, educators and activists gathered in Springfield, Massachusetts to attend the Conference that mirrored King’s vision in ambition and spirit.

Colgate University Assistant Professor of Educational Studies John Palmer kicked off the conference with his keynote speech, “Karate Chops, Geishas, Nerds, and the Asian Invasion: Reflections of a Corean [sic] Adopted American.” Palmer shared his experience in search of his racial identity and empowerment. He included the audience in recounting his inspiring journey to confront the Asian-American stereotypes perpetuated by the media. First-time attendee first-year Jackie Gerson shared the impact of Professor Palmer’s keynote on her perspective of racism.

“Growing up in a very diverse town, the majority of my friends were non-white,” Gerson said. “I never considered the discrimination some of them would have faced if they lived somewhere else. Professor Palmer’s speech – describing the racism he met in the rural Midwest – struck home to me as I thought of my friends and how lucky they were to be so accepted.”

Palmer, who was a classmate at the University of Iowa with Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the conference, attended the conference this year for the ninth time.

“There is always something new at the conference,” Palmer said.

As an educator, he uses the workshops to broaden his knowledge and understanding of racism and to supplement his teaching. However, he finds the greatest aspect of his experience at the conferences to be his interaction with the youth. Last year, a high school student named Maria inspired conference organizers to select an Asian-American as a keynote speaker. As a result, Palmer was selected to fulfill the unprecedented role.

“At lunch I kept getting question after question from students,” he said after giving the keynote address.

Palmer’s experience expresses the extent of involvement that the high school and college students in attendance played at the conference., Furthermore, it symbolizes their role at the forefront of the social justice movement to eliminate racism.

The focus of this year’s conference, liberation, encouraged discourse on the critical issues of privilege, supremacy, and oppression. As Diane Goodman, author of Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups and presenter at the conference suggests, the term “privileged” applies to all members of a dominate group who receive advantages that members of minority groups are denied. Rather than criticizing and directing blame towards the privileged, the conference raised the awareness of all dominate groups – males, heterosexuals, Christians, whites, the rich – of their roles in minimizing prejudice. As the theme indicates, the goal of the conference was to use knowledge of privilege as a perspective from which to view the future and a foundation for liberating the oppressed from the status quo.

This year marked the third year that Colgate sponsored students to attend the conference. The twelve Colgate students attending selected the activities they participated in from 107 workshops, 17 film screenings and literary discussions, and four caucus and support groups offered. Workshops ranged from history lessons in racism to the connection between race and the human rights movement. The origin of race lies in the British attempt to suppress the Irish, a purely social construct that was exaggerated by the colonization of America and popularization of slavery in the seventeenth century. The overcoming of apartheid in South Africa and the failure of the United States to ratify United Nations human rights charters provided an overview of democracy’s role in eradicating racism. Other workshops, such as one facilitated by Student Affairs Coordinator and Research Assistant to the Vice President and Dean of the College Ernest Daily and Staff Psychologist Hsiao-wen Lo, provided a framework for participants to initiate their search for identity.

Sophomore Janay Jones said her favorite workshop was You Mean, There’s Race in My Movie?’ A Critical Analysis of Race in Mainstream Movies.

“The workshop taught us to see how some characters of color play into racial stereotypes, which reiterates racist ideas about the ethnic groups of these characters,” Jones said. The workshop surprised participants with the frequency in which minority archetypes are depicted in mainstream movies, such as Rush Hour 2, The Last Samurai and Bruce Almighty.

In addition to the workshops, film viewings, and caucus groups, keynote speakers motivated and set the foundation for the day’s activities. The final such speaker, Joe Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A & M University, surprised his audience with the findings of his research. Feagin collected and analyzed the journals of 626 college students from across the nation who were instructed to write examples of racism they observed over a six-to-eight-week period. The chilling accounts he shared from the 7,500 examples of blatant racism that the students recorded on their college campuses confirmed the irony of the saying, “everyone admits that there is racism, but no one admits that he is a racist.”

Senior Soumya Venkatesh explained the underlying thought process surrounding this very common misconception.

“Just because you can think of someone who is more racist than you are, does not mean that you are not racist,” Venkatesh said. Students believing this assumption became a common thread between the journal entries that Feagin shared.

The conference received overwhelming praise from the students and faculty who attended. In the upcoming months, conference attendees will hold a brown bag lunch sharing their experiences and preliminary plans will be made for students to attend the conference next year, which will take place in Memphis.