“No,” I said. “It’s supposed to help white people like me and the people of color who attend figure out how to create a just society where privilege doesn’t come to someone because they have white skin.”
I wondered about going to this national conference. Would it be overwhelming? Would it be a bunch of white folks listening to how bad they are, wringing their hands and feeling guilty? Or just talk, talk and talking with no plans for action?
It wasn’t what I or my neighbor worried it might be.
This conference knocked my socks off. Those four days brought me much learning, deep transformative conversations, ideas and plans for action and a sense of hope from being with so many committed people from all over the country.
Next year - YOU can go. It’s right here in Bloomington at the Sheraton Bloomington Hotel and hosted by the University of Minnesota and various community organizations. It includes a High School Youth Leadership Conference.
In LaCrosse, this year over 1,500 people (about 80% white and 20% people of color) gathered from April 7-10th to listen, speak, take risks and plan for the future. As the mission statement says: “…to work for equity and justice through self and social transformation.”
Notice the social transformation part. The conference was about our personal stories and biases and contributions to the problem, but also about the institutional and structural systems of racism and privilege that support personal, individual bias. An example of this is the race-based discrimination that continues in the housing market related to lending practices (see "Race Discrimination in Housing Markets Accounting for Credit Risk", by Samuel Meyers of the University of Minnesota and Tsze Chan of the University of Maryland at College Park. Published in 1995 by Social Science Quarterly).
Here is a sampling of conference wide sessions and workshops I attended:
1. Dr. Joy DeGruy (African-American author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome) spoke on the topic “Beyond Surviving Historical Trauma: Creating a Blueprint for Healing.”
For me, one of the most troubling moments was a photo she showed of a group of white people dressed in their Sunday best, standing and watching a lynching in the 1920s. In the front was a young girl, maybe aged 10. DeGruy asked: what kind of callousness was necessary for this girl to develop in order to watch this horrendous torture and not respond with her humanity? For white folks to allow and participate in the horrible things that happened what did they need to do to themselves and their humanity to live with themselves? How does this affect us white folks now?
The other plenary sessions included Spero Manson speaking on "Redressing Health Inequities in Native America," Shakti Butler on "Growing our Souls: Transformative Love and Radical Healing as Political Acts for Justice," and Verneliia Randell, "Dying While Black: Why Liberal Colorblind Policies Won't Eliminate Racial Health Disparities."
2. The European American Collaborative Challenging Whiteness led a workshop where we got to “know” about a topic through what they called “presentational knowing.” This kind of knowing is expressed through images and patterns, using intuition and imagination. I took my experience from the DeGruy lecture and expressed it through drawing. Other groups in the workshop used clay, sound and writing. When we explore our experiences through intuition and imagination they become more a part of us. We come to “know” on a spiritual, emotional, and intuition level, and not just through analytical or head ways of knowing. Many, including myself, shed deep tears, laughed and connected with each other’s humanity in this beautiful workshop.
3. White Women Getting Real is a book of essays compiled for publication this year by Nancy Peterson and Judith James (of Minneapolis). At the workshop, the leaders read the stories of white women educators who have spent much of their careers teaching in multi-racial/ cultural settings. These are women who are concerned with equity and teaching ALL of our children. Educators, mostly white, and a number of African American college students attended the workshop. A deep, heartfelt exchange took place with the students sharing their frustration with white teachers who “felt sorry for them” or lowered their expectations because of their skin color. “We don’t want to be treated as though we need to be fixed. We want to be challenged and held accountable.” I was impressed with the patience and honesty of the young people and the openness of the teachers who listened to their stories.
4. I saw two films (many more were shown). One was called Shades of Youth and was full of interviews with youth of all colors talking of their struggles with racism and white privilege –it’s a powerful film.
The second was a film called Prep School Negro. Film maker Andre Robert Lee grew up in inner city Philadelphia and got a scholarship to attend a mostly white upper class prep school, Germantown Friends School. The film is a gut-wrenching story about what it is to be “other.” Andre develops a “double consciousness” to survive in two very different worlds. The healing he brings to himself and his family is deeply touching.
5. I attended other powerful workshops and sessions, but lastly I will mention that there were so many opportunities to meet, network with, cry with, laugh with, and process with awesome people from all over the country that are engaged in making a difference.
I’ll be there in Bloomington next year. How about you?