Reflection from the White Privilege Conference

By Toni Benjamin

The White Privilege Conference is designated to identify the ways white privilege functions within society to create and perpetuate systems of social inequality. This year’s conference ran from April 10 to 13 and took place in Seattle, Wash. It was entitled “The Color of Money: Reclaiming our Humanity” and focused on the importance of acknowledging socio-economic status when approaching and dealing with issues regarding social injustices. It was comprised of a number of different workshops, keynote speakers and networking opportunities in hopes of building coalitions amongst people from all over the country as well as a number of people from countries outside of the U.S.

By Hoa Bui

I am an international student from Vietnam, and I self-identify as a female able-bodied Asian person. I just started to learn how to be an Asian my freshman year. I also want to make it clear that I mess up. The fact that I am a person of color does not mean I have everything together. I mess up multiple times and repeatedly. During a trip to the White Privilege Conference, I said the most offensive thing to a friend. I remain silent many times when I see, or feel, injustice is happening, because I don’t have the time. I have told many offensive jokes about all racial, gender or physical-body groups. I consider myself a work in progress. I don’t want to teach anybody anything, and I just want to tell my story.

Please do not criticize me solely on the fact that a friend of color of yours does not share my experience. Why should I and your friend of color, or any two people of the same groups, have the same experience, or feelings, in the first place? And please do not think that I hate white people. I love white people! I have many, not just one, white friends! (The previous two sentences are satirical.) All I am trying to say is that I am writing this piece out of love and passion.

From April 10 to 13, I went to the White Privilege Conference with Associate Professor of Educational Studies and Department Chair of Educational Studies John Palmer, as well as a group of 15 Colgate students. The conference did not only address racism but also classism, able-ism, gender discrimination, heterosexism and so forth. The conference was structured with many workshops, keynotes and caucus group. For caucuses, the attendees were divided into three groups, white/anti-racist, people of color/indigenous and mixed/bi-racial. There were no topics for discussion during caucuses; people could simply stand up and speak whatever was on their minds.

Some people disagreed with the way people were divided by their races during caucuses, claiming that the point is for people of all races to come and work together. However, I realized that the appearance of other races changes the dynamic and the quality of the conversation. In my workshops, nearly half or more than half of the attendees were white, and I saw everybody, including me, dancing the dance of politeness.

In the presence of a significant number of white people, we approached racism as an object of inspection, something outside of ourselves. I smiled and nodded at white people whenever they contributed something, or anything, to the conversation. However, when there were more people of color than there were white people, I felt empowered to criticize, disagree and tell my story because I knew that what I was saying served to connect me with other people of color. Most of the times I talk to white people, I know, or feel, that my story will just make them feel guilty and pitiful of me. My pain is not about you, white people.

Some people pat themselves on their backs, claiming they are my allies. But to quote an attendee of color in one of my workshops, “Racism is not my problem. Whiteness is your problem, and I can help YOU with YOUR problem. I can be your ally!” Trying to eliminate racism is the decent thing to do. If  you feel entitled to claim yourself as an ally, it is probably a product of your whiteness. Keep in mind that there’s no “honored person of color” ally badge at the finish line; your work is never done.

And please do not point to some people of color in power and say that other people of color should try harder to reach those positions. First of all, Bill Gates is white, so why don’t all white people become Bill Gates? Please do not expect all people of color to be exceptional. And to borrow Sister Souljah’s idea, to be powerful is to have the means and the ability to achieve a goal without compromising any part of one’s identity (If you do not know who Sister Souljah, a raptivist, is, just go on YouTube and type in her name).

The question of who the good white and the bad white are is irrelevant. First of all, dichotomous thinking is a product of whiteness. Second, it is not the point. If you are white and you have privileges, feel empowered to use your privileges and educate yourself on these issues. Talk about this with your peers. Ask yourself who you are affecting whenever you do or say something. There are stupid questions but ask anyway.