Beyond the Pale
At ‘white privilege’ conferences, a lengthening list of victims issue an ever-more-detailed indictment of Western civilization
May 27, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 35 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
White privilege—what’s that? It was a question I was asked several times by the non-White Privilege hotel guests whom I encountered in the DoubleTree’s elevators and stairwells, since I was required by conference rules to wear at all times my official badge, conspicuously hand-lettered and yellow-highlighted “PRESS” by me. I always answered the question as honestly as I could, drawing on the four days’ worth of White Privilege keynote speeches and workshops I attended over a long, wet, April weekend near the airport. “It’s where you learn that white people oppress everybody else,” I said. This seemed fair enough. WPC14’s own website declares that “the WPC has become a venue for fostering difficult and critical dialogues around white supremacy, white privilege, diversity, multicultural education and leadership, social & economic justice, and the intersecting systems of privilege and oppression.”
I should have said, “rich white people,” however, because the theme of this year’s White Privilege Conference was “The Color of Money: Reclaiming our Humanity”—with the cover of the conference program sporting a photo of the hundred-dollar bill’s Ben Franklin peering anxiously from behind a superimposed padlock and chain, and slideshows of such pallid plutocrats as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates flashing to the beat of the rap music that thrummed through every conference intermission. The idea was that white people, especially white people connected to corporations, were hogging all the money.
WPC drew only 175 attendees at its first session in 1999, on the campus of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where the conference’s founder, Eddie Moore Jr., had earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1989 and was serving as an assistant dean while working on a doctorate in education from the University of Iowa (he received it in 2004). Moore is now director of diversity at the Brooklyn Friends School. A larger-than-life character (he’s at least six-foot-eight and a former college basketball player), Moore physically and psychically dominated the conference. The typical garb for WPC14 attendees ranged from hippie (old folks) to hipster (young ’uns), with common elements of rubber soles on every shoe and green-conscious water bottles dangling from every backpack. The shaven-headed Moore sartorially carved out for himself an impressive hieratic distance from his disheveled audience: meticulously tailored suits complemented with silk shirts, silk ties, and even socks in shimmering springtime colors. A gold elastic-band watch that looked like a Rolex gleamed on his wrist.
Back in 1999 the main focus of the White Privilege Conference had been on race. Recently, though, the categories of victims of white supremacy have grown to include such overwhelmingly white groups as feminists and the “LGBT community”—or “LGBTQ community,” “LGBTQQ community,” and “LGBTQQIA community”—all acronyms used by White Privilege participants at various times (the two “Q’s” stand for “queer” and “questioning,” the “I” for “intersex,” and the “A” for a conventionally heterosexual “ally” of all of the above). This year’s conference also offered yoga classes “especially welcoming to people of size, queer people, and others who might not feel comfortable in conventional yoga classes.” In addition, “gender-neutral” restrooms for those who “opt out of a gender binary system” (in the words of the WPC14 program) are a standard feature of every White Privilege Conference.
In 2007 the conference acquired the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) as a partner, and the university continues to cosponsor the WPC as it moves around from city to city and campus to campus. By this year at SeaTac, the number of White Privilege attendees had swollen to 2,000, a substantial increase over the 1,500 or so at WPC13 last year in Albuquerque, where the theme was “Intersectionality”—WPC-speak for two-fer oppression, as in the case of a black female or a gay Latino.
The bulging crowds at the SeaTac DoubleTree were a fire chief’s acid-reflux nightmare. By row-counting I calculated 1,500 chairs—all taken—in a ballroom whose wall proclaimed “Maximum Occupancy 505.” The smaller conference rooms that housed some 120 different workshops (a sample: “Talking Back to White Entitlement,” “Follow the White Supremacist Money,” “Engaging White People in the Fight for Racial & Economic Justice”) were typically as packed as mosh pits. Outside the ballroom and the conference rooms dozens of tables sponsored by nonprofits, White Privilege-conscious colleges and universities, and a handful of local public agencies (the Seattle and King County housing authorities, for example) were heaped with books, fliers, buttons, and “Non-Profit Anti-Racism Coalition” fortune cookies. “Racial Micro-Aggressions: What They Are and Why They Hurt” announced one pamphlet. At another table, attendees could—and many did—buy a “Got Privilege?” T-shirt to wear around the hotel. Other T-shirts for sale bore such slogans as “There’s enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Conference speakers and workshop leaders offered apologies to the nearly defunct Duwamish Indian tribe of western Washington, whose land had been “stolen” (in the words of one speaker) by white people, and also to the local eponymous hero, Chief Seattle, a 19th-century Duwamish leader who may or may not have been an early environmentalist. One woman poured a ceremonial “libation”—that is, the contents of a glass of water—onto the ballroom floor in order to summon up the spirits of the “ancestors” whose bodies presumably lay somewhere in the vicinity, if not under the DoubleTree itself, as in The Shining.
Who were those 2,000 people lounging on the lobby floor as they ate their WPC-supplied vegan-option box lunches or lined up to buy corporate lattes at the in-house Starbucks station? From my conversations with some of them, it seemed that they had one thing in common: Someone else, or something else, usually a public entity or a university or a nonprofit or a church, had paid their way (up to $435 in registration fees alone) for the four days and nights at the Seattle airport. The top representative professions at the conference were: college professor, student, campus diversity officer, and employee of an activist organization whose title typically included the words “equity,” “social justice,” or both.
Indeed, one way to look at the conference was as a networking event for a diversity industry that is larger and more elaborate and competitive than one can imagine. The conference program bulged with ads for other White Privilege-style conferences (a Pedagogy of Privilege conference this coming August at the University of Denver, for example) and white-privilege reading material (sample book titles: Deconstructing Privilege; Cultivating Social Justice Teachers; White Women Getting Real About Race). It seemed that nearly everyone in attendance, including many of the college professors, was flogging a book or had a side gig as a “consultant”—that is, someone you might want to hire for your own campus or workplace exploration of the ins and outs of white oppression. Eddie Moore himself, when he is not at Brooklyn Friends, runs America & MOORE LLC, and his business card advertises “Diversity Education, Research & Consulting.”
For other attendees, however, the White Privilege Conference was something quite different: an intensely meaningful communal ritual for members of minority groups—a forum for letting hang out their innermost feelings, often tinged with anger and fear, about the way they think white people think about them. “I can be myself here,” Storme Lynn, an Albuquerque psychiatrist, WPC veteran and workshop leader, and sometime member of the New Mexico Equity and Social Justice Alliance, told me. “Most of the time I feel that I have to hide my real feelings behind a mask—and I can’t talk about them,” she said. “Here, I can find an outlet for them. I can feel comfortable.”
One of the most well-received events was a reading of A Poem for My White Friends by race-relations facilitator Norma Johnson. Her lengthy chip-on-the-shoulder lyric dwelt on the gaffes that white people make, or were assumed by Johnson to make, when dealing with blacks in professional and social settings. For example, Johnson expressed the belief that if she were white and walked into a department store and stuffed her coat with purloined sweaters, the security guards would simply assume that she was pregnant and give her a pass, but since she was African-American . . . “I didn’t tell you how many times white people told me, ‘You’re different,’ ” Johnson’s poem concluded, “I didn’t tell you how your liberalism chokes me sometimes.” Were white liberals really this obtuse and boorish? Were security guards dumb enough or bigoted enough to believe that white people could never be shoplifters? The White Privilege audience seemed to think so. While the words “Lindsay Lohan” were skipping across my brain like a pebble on a lake, Johnson’s poem was receiving a sustained standing ovation from an audience that was in fact majority-white.
Indeed, although Norma Johnson and Storme Lynn are black, and so is WPC founder Eddie Moore (along with a number of the conference’s other organizers), the idea of “white privilege” is a thoroughly white one. It was the brainchild of the extremely pale Peggy McIntosh, now associate director of Wellesley College’s Centers for Women. In 1988 McIntosh, a women’s studies professor who liked to describe herself as a “feminist” and an “antiracist activist,” published what she called a “personal account” in which she asserted that while conscious racism seemed to be on the wane after the victories of the 1960s civil-rights era, white people—including McIntosh herself—continued to practice a form of unconscious racism that allowed them to oppress minority groups even though they might not have any idea that they were doing so. “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,” McIntosh wrote in her paper. “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks,” she wrote.
McIntosh’s paper listed 46 different ways in which she believed that “skin-color privilege” enabled her to count on advantages that weren’t available to her “Afro-American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances.” They included such verging-on-Onion parody items as:
“17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.”
“39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.”
“46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”
McIntosh concluded: “In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit in turn upon people of color.”
McIntosh’s paper was an instant hit among her academic confreres, assigned as required reading in so many college sociology classes, and photocopied and printed off the Internet so frequently that McIntosh has been waging a last-ditch copyright battle. (Although excerpts from the paper circulate freely on the web, you have to send anywhere from 50 cents to $6 to McIntosh to read about her invisible knapsack in its entirety.) McIntosh’s appeal lay in the fact that her paper provided a three-legged stool of theory upon which a burgeoning white-privilege industry could sit in perpetuity, especially since—as was inevitable—the concept of “white” has gradually expanded to include such categories as “male,” “Christian,” “middle-class,” and “heterosexual.” The three legs were: (1) racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and so forth can never be obliterated, because they are fundamentally unconscious phenomena; (2) members of minority groups are permanent victims, forever entitled to feel angry and alienated, because they will be perpetually, if often unconsciously, slighted by whites (or men or Christians or heterosexuals); (3) white people (or men, heterosexuals, whatever) cannot escape guilt for setting up a society that favors them to the detriment of nonwhites, women, gays, whomever.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been guilt-plagued whites who have most eagerly leapt onto McIntosh’s theoretical bandwagon. In 2012, for example, an organization called Un-Fair Campaign, headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota (90 percent non-Hispanic white, according to the 2010 census), released a video in which Un-Fair members filmed themselves with such slogans as “I Am a White Man—That’s Unfair,” “We’re Lucky to Be White,” and “Society Was Set Up for Us” scrawled in black magic marker onto their milky foreheads, cheeks, and chins. It was hard not to laugh—as many conservatives did—and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which had originally supported the campaign, backed out, although other institutions, such as the University of Wisconsin-Superior, affirmed their support of the Un-Fair self-loathing campaign. (The video, once freely available on the Internet, has since been withdrawn as “private.”) Then, early this year, Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (Wisconsin is 83 percent non-Hispanic white), in collaboration with the federal Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program, posted a link to a flyer that encouraged white high-schoolers to wear white wristbands as a “reminder of your privilege.” The flyer suggested that Wisconsin teens “put a note on your mirror or computer screen as a reminder to think about privilege,” “make a daily list of the ways privilege played out,” and conduct an “internal dialogue” asking questions such as “How do I make myself comfortable with privilege?” and “What am I doing today to undo my privilege?” Again, after a torrent of negative publicity, including a derisive April 3 syndicated column by George Will, the Wisconsin agency withdrew the flyer.
Right-of-center ridicule hasn’t stopped numerous white-privilege activists, professional and amateur, from continuing to bang the breast-beating drum. One of the most prominent these days is Tim Wise, 44, part Jewish, part Southern Scotch-Irish, who has devoted nearly all of his postcollege years to what might be described as white-privilege careerism, traveling from campus to campus—and also from corporate headquarters to corporate headquarters as a paid speaker—lecturing his fellow whites on the dastardly implications of their skin color. Wise’s extensive bibliography includes such books as White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son (2004) and Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority (2012).
On April 16, the day after the bombing at the Boston Marathon that killed 3 people and injured 264 more, Wise published on his website a laundry list of certifiably white bombers, mass-murderers, and would-be bombers and mass murderers: Timothy McVeigh of the Oklahoma City massacre in 1995, 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph (who also targeted abortion clinics), and the like. As Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto pointed out, Wise restricted his list to white malefactors whose politics could be construed as right-wing and conspicuously omitted such whites on the left as the Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers (who admitted to planting bombs that exploded at the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other sites during the early 1970s as part of a Vietnam war protest) and Kathy Boudin, who narrowly escaped a fatal explosion in 1970 as she and other Weather members were assembling nail bombs in Greenwich Village that they planned to detonate at a soldiers’ dance in Fort Dix, New Jersey. (Boudin was later convicted of driving the getaway truck in a 1981 armed robbery by the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army of a Brinks armored car that left a Brinks guard and two police officers dead of gunshot wounds; she served 22 years in prison.)
Wise’s April 16 web article seemed consciously to imitate the style of Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper: “White privilege is knowing that if the Boston bomber turns out to be white, we will not be asked to denounce him or her, so as to prove our own loyalties to the common national good. . . . White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas.”
The very same day, April 16, syndicated columnist David Sirota published an article in the online magazine Salon that linked to Wise’s posting and was titled “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American.” Sirota wrote: “[W]hite male privilege means white men are not collectively denigrated/targeted for those shootings—even though most come at the hands of white dudes.” The next day, April 17, Sirota published a follow-up article in Salon, “I still hope the bomber is a white American.”
On April 18 the FBI published photographs of the two bombing suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, that fulfilled Sirota’s hopes although perhaps not in quite the way he had expected: The Tsarnaevs were “white” in the sense that they were Chechen Muslim immigrants from Russia, and thus authentic Caucasians from the Caucasus, although they were not the Bible-toting, abortionist-shooting rednecks that Sirota and Wise seemed to be hoping for. The Tsarnaev brothers were also “American” in the sense that Tamerlan, age 26, possessed a green card and was thus a legal U.S. resident, and Dzhokhar, age 19, had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in September 2012. On May 1 the Boston police announced the arrest of three more suspects who allegedly lied to authorities and helped the Tsarnaev brothers destroy evidence. Two were also Caucasians—from Kazakhstan.
WPC14 ended two days before the Boston bombings, so there was no opportunity for its speakers and workshop “facilitators,” several of whom sported Wisconsin-style white wristbands, to indulge in any Sirota-esque speculations. But there seemed little doubt that had the opportunity presented itself, they would have weighed in enthusiastically. Eddie Moore, for example, declared from his speaker’s podium that the 17-year-old black youth Trayvon Martin—who became a posthumous celebrity after his February 2012 shooting death by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida—had been “murdered.” This even though Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial has yet to take place (it is scheduled to begin on June 10), Zimmerman claimed self-defense, alleging Martin attacked him, and Zimmerman, although initially branded a white, turned out to be of heavily Hispanic mixed race, with a black great-grandfather.
The White Privilege website declares: “It is not a conference designed to attack, degrade or beat up on white folks.” And yet . . . the first White Privilege session I attended seemed to be nothing but beating up on white folks. It consisted of the final 90 minutes of a WPC “institute” (an eight-hour workshop, available for an extra $180) held the day before WPC14 officially opened. It was titled “The Color of Empire / The Cost to Our Humanity: Dismantling White Privilege and Class Supremacy Using Cellular Wisdom.” The facilitator was Heather Hackman, a professor in the social-responsibility graduate program at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota and also the founder of the Hackman Consulting Group, which according to its website offers its “training” services on “deep diversity” and “social justice” to a range of clients that includes corporations, local governments, and educational institutions from preschool through college. The main premise of “The Color of Empire” seemed to be that white people had created the idea of race, “the sole purpose of which is to rationalize the white race,” Hackman said. Hackman, herself distinctly pale of complexion, maintained that her fellow whites some 400 years ago had created a skin-color-based category called “red” even though there are “500 different Native American nations, bands, and tribes.” They had also devised a category called “brown” for “Latinos,” “even though there’s no ‘Latino’ food and no ‘Latino’ language,” Hackman said.
This actually made some sense: If racial classifications are artificial (“socially constructed” was the way Hackman put it), lumping people together under a skin-color label who may have nothing linguistically or culturally in common, why not just get rid of the classifications altogether? Isn’t that exactly why conservatives like me oppose racial preferences and set-asides? But Hackman in fact focused obsessively on race, race, race, and color, color, color. She showed us a Southwest Airlines television commercial in which there apparently weren’t enough “people of color” among the actors playing crew and passengers. She had us divide ourselves into small groups to discuss “how old we were when we discovered what race we were.” (My answer: about age 30, when I realized that with a Hispanic mother, I could make my employers look attractively diverse on their Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports.) She drew a U-shaped tube with a plunger that had something to do with white people hogging all the resources that rightfully belonged to other races. When I asked Hackman about why race seemed to be the prime focus of her workshop even though it supposedly didn’t exist, she told me that I needed to read up on “critical race theory.” She added: “We’re talking about a reclamation of racial categories.” In other words, racial categories are an oppressive white fantasy—until they prove to be useful for promoting race-based identity politics.
That seemed to be a conference theme. At another packed, nearly all-white workshop, titled “Where, When and Why White People Were Invented and its Relevance Today,” blonde and blue-eyed Jacqueline Battalora, professor of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, author of Birth of a White Nation, and a professional “antiracist training” expert (according to her website), similarly argued that race was an imaginary concoction. The guilty parties this time, Battalora said, were the British colonizers of America, who enacted antimiscegenation laws during the 17th century in order to divide and conquer their white-indentured-servant/black-slave-and-freedman workforce. But as with Hackman, race-as-social-construction for Battalora quickly bled into what sounded more like plain old racism of the kind that you would think an antiracist training expert would eschew: “You white people wouldn’t have the standing you have in this country if it weren’t for white supremacy—it’s just the truth!” She led a kind of cheerleader chant: “What is the color of money?” “White!” shouted a chalky-faced workshopper sitting in the front row. “Good!” yelled back Battalora.
In a workshop titled “White Pride World Wide? Understanding and Challenging Cyber-racism,” facilitator Sophie Statzel Bjork-James, a (white) graduate student in anthropology at the City University of New York, surveying a range of what she described as hate-group websites “more powerful than you think,” declared: “This country has yet to deal with white terrorists—we still haven’t dealt with Timothy McVeigh,” the 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, who was tried and convicted in 1997 and executed in 2001. In a workshop titled “Last Gasp of the Great White Male or Has Privilege Pulled Us Into the Vortex Already?” Jody Alyn (yes, another white) of Jody Alyn Consulting in Colorado Springs wove a Moby-Dick-themed web of rich-whitey conspiracies worthy of a hate-group website, although the other way around. It all started, according to Alyn, with the founding of the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1973 with money from the white-skinned beer magnate Joseph Coors (Alyn: “Oh my God!”), which spawned the publication of Charles Murray’s IQ-focused The Bell Curve in 1994 (helped along by a grant from the equally white Bradley Foundation), and culminated with the Supreme Court’s progressive-bugaboo decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 that the First Amendment protects corporate speech. Then along came the Tea Party, which Alyn maintained had been “totally fabricated” by wealthy whites as early as the 1990s.
At another workshop I learned that there was something even worse than being white: being a Christian. The workshop was titled “The Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony: Racism, Sexism, and Economic Inequality.” The facilitator was Paul Kivel, a (white) “trainer” (according to his website), “social justice educator,” and author of the forthcoming book Living in the Shadow of the Cross, whose cover displays a cruciform forged out of chain links hovering over a map of the Western Hemisphere. As a Christian, I’ve got to say that I scarcely recognized my own religion in Kivel’s lurid presentation. For one thing, he never got around to mentioning Christianity’s most famous figure, Jesus Christ. But thanks to Christians’ proclivity to believe in such bizarre concepts as “good” and “evil,” Christian atrocities formed the bulk of Kivel’s hour-and-a-half ramble through 2,000 years of history. According to Kivel, Christians “destroyed libraries,” “killed millions of people,” and singlehandedly caused “a closing of the Western mind. So much was destroyed that we call it the Dark Ages,” Kivel said. That was only the beginning. Afterwards came the Inquisition, witch-burnings (“the church decided that women were the source of all evil”), wars, racism, slavery, oppression, colonization, hierarchies, individualism, the Protestant ethic, free-market capitalism (“an economic system that is destroying all of us as well as the material world”), global warming, “corporate predation,” “punishment of the poor,” “incredible violence,” and even the Gregorian calendar and the King James Bible (“a consolidation of power over the culture”). Was there anything that Christianity couldn’t do?
In stark contrast to the Christian carnage spotlighted by Kivel was the WPC’s sunny session on Islam. In a packed workshop titled “White America’s Islamophobia Profiteers,” Amer Ahmed, associate director of the office of multiethnic student affairs at the University of Michigan, explained that Muslims practice a religion of peace, tolerance, and family values, in which the word “jihad” means “inner struggle” and the phrase “9/11” means an unfortunate event after which “more and more Americans associate Muslims with terrorism” for some reason. (Again, this was before the Boston Marathon.) A video shown by Ahmed depicted Islam placidly spreading over the centuries throughout the Middle East and northern Africa—tactfully omitting the Arab conquests by which it spread, the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim slave trade, and the Mughal overrunning of India—until, according to Ahmed, white Europeans got into the picture by practicing “colonialism” and creating “fake countries,” such as . . . Israel. As for the “profiteers” in the workshop’s title, Ahmed listed exactly three: Terry Jones, the Florida pastor infamous for burning copies of the Koran in 2012; Pamela Geller, a “Zionist,” leader of the fight against the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the proposed (but as yet unbuilt) 13-story Muslim center two blocks north of the site of the World Trade Center towers; and Robert Spencer, whose blog “Jihad Watch” monitors Islamic terrorism. When I asked Ahmed after the workshop how exactly those three freelancers could be termed “profiteers,” he responded, “They’re selling books.” (Geller and Spencer are indeed published authors.)
So it went. Terrance Nelson, aka Mush-ko-dah-be-shik-eese (“Little Buffalo”), a diminutive bronze Anishanabe Indian from Manitoba wearing tinted eyeglasses and an Indian-blanket-themed vest, berated the European settlers of North America in a keynote speech for a variety of crimes ranging from “genocide” via smallpox to burning Mayan books during the 16th century to systematically stealing Indian (“First Nations,” in Canadian-ese) land and national resources. Nelson is known in Canada for his threatened rail blockade in 2007 that resulted in a terrified government’s transfer of 75 acres to the Anishanabe for an “urban reserve” (aka tax-exempt gas station complex) in Winnipeg—and also for his participation in several other rail blockades in early 2013; his having been ousted as chief of the Roseau River Band of the Anishanabe in 2011 amid allegations of financial mismanagement; and a controversial trip to Iran in 2012 during which he declared in an Iranian government-sponsored television interview that Canada’s Indian reserves were “concentration camps.” The White Privilege attendees seemed neither to know nor to care about Nelson’s history—because he was, after all, a genuine Indian telling white people all the things about their oppression of Indians that they wanted to hear. They gave him an ovation when he declared that he had “blockaded the Alaskan pipeline.” They gave him a second ovation when he ordered them, “Get off your dependence on oil!” And they gave him a third ovation, a standing ovation, when he shouted, “Ninety-nine percent of Americans, you need to take back your country from the 1 percent!”
Nelson was followed at the podium by two elderly Japanese-American survivors of World War II internment camps in Western states. They at least had some genuine grievances as law-abiding U.S. citizens herded behind fences for the war’s duration. The prize, though, for most self-loathing paleface (“if you are white, and you are occupying this continent, you are macro-aggressive”) went hands down to Paul Gorski, an antiracism professor at George Mason University’s New Century College (and also a “consultant”). Gorski apologized, calling himself a “hypocrite,” for eating factory-farmed chicken (at least in the past—he’s now a vegetarian). He apologized for patronizing the George Mason cafeteria (operated by the food-service behemoth Sodexo, which “pays the lowest legal wages”). He apologized for drinking Coca-Cola. He apologized for animal-testing of products and showed us a slide of a bleeding bunny rabbit. Also, Gorski added, “I got married. I participated in an oppressive tenure system at my university. I used big banks. These are some of the things that make me a racist, a sexist, and a heterosexist.” By the time Gorski got around to apologizing for his sweatshop-manufactured pants and polo shirt, even a few of the water-bottle-danglers sitting behind me started to laugh. “I guess we have to start making our own clothes,” someone joked.
A few of the speakers did go off-message occasionally. Betsy Leondar-Wright, program director for Class Matters (another consulting outfit), warned that it was not a good idea to use such jargon words as “supremacy,” “hegemony,” “imperialism,” “neoliberalism”—or, for that matter, “privilege”—around white working-class people if you wanted to get them on your side. “You don’t want to talk about how white people are responsible for all the evils in the world,” Leondar-Wright advised. Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, sounded silly when he said, “You can be a man or you can be a human being, but you can’t be both,” at his workshop, “ ‘White Trash’ Solidarity: Reject the ‘White,’ Embrace the Trash.” Then again, Jensen did announce, to the horror of his audience, that he had “come out as a Christian.”
Most surprising of all was an entertaining keynote speech (actually the most entertaining speech in all of WPC14) by 16-year-old Jacob Swindell-Sakoor, a student of Eddie Moore’s at the Brooklyn Friends School, that actually imparted some useful information about how people of color like him could acquire some of the supposedly white-hoarded money that was the topic of WPC14: by thrift, prudent investing, and avoiding debt. He talked about his summer jobs from which he made sure he netted some savings, and about his policy of buying cheap but reliable musical equipment for his band instead of flashy, expensive stuff: “Teenagers think they can spend like Kim Kardashian.” You could have knocked me over with an Anishanabe headdress feather when young Jacob embarked on a critique of Richard Nixon for taking America off the gold standard in 1971 and launching an era of profligate deficit spending—“so now we have fiat money.” What—did Jacob think he was at a Ron Paul rally?
Despite the swollen streams of dumbed-down Marxism, white guilt-wallowing, and victimological self-pity inundating the WPC—not to mention the obvious element of self-promotion, as speakers and workshop leaders auditioned for their invitations to the next “diversity” or “privilege” get-together—I came genuinely to like the conference’s organizers. They were consistently courteous and also tolerant of my unabashedly conservative views. Eddie Moore proved to be charming underneath his white-antagonistic carapace, and I quickly became “Sister Charlotte.” By the time I had my picture taken sitting in a front-row chair between Moore and WPC regular Storme Lynn, I was wondering if I hadn’t succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. Self-described education advocate Immaculate Ferreria-Allah of Sumner, Washington, insisted that I pose with her for a photo next to the “Companies That Benefited Financially from the Slave Trade” sign in the DoubleTree lobby (the sign said one of the companies was Lehman Brothers—so there really is cosmic justice).
Abby L. Ferber, a white-wristband-wearing UCCS sociology professor who leads the WPC planning committee, did her best to try to explain to me that “white supremacy” in sociological terms isn’t synonymous with “Aryan Nation” but has to do with the unspoken assumptions of people who belong to a country’s cultural majority, in America’s case, whites. “American society was set up to benefit white people,” Ferber said. This made sense in a way. Three years ago I spent eight weeks living and traveling in the overwhelmingly Muslim countries Tunisia and Egypt, whose inhabitants’ sense of their own Islamic cultural superiority was also overwhelming. All I had to do was hear the electronic muezzin droning the call to prayer from the mosque down the street at 4:30 every morning in Tunis to realize that the North African ummah operated strictly for the benefit of Muslims. Call it Islamic privilege.
“My skin color is not black,” a female college student sitting in the DoubleTree lobby told me (I promised not to quote her by name). “I’m of mixed race, but culturally I’m African-American. We all have a culture, and I’m trying to come to terms with my culture. Culture is more specific than race. This all goes back to the idea of the melting pot, where you’d just be an American white. They say, ‘I’m just white’ [of skin], but actually it’s a question of the food you eat and the festivals you celebrate.”
One could point out that most black Americans celebrate the same holidays and eat the same food as most white Americans, but that would be quibbling. The fact is that America was founded by Westerners (call them “white people”) who believed they were advancing the ideals and values of centuries of Western civilization. Why were Westerners alone expected to apologize for their own culture and to refrain from criticizing aspects of other cultures or subcultures that struck them as dysfunctional? In truth, among the WPC14 offerings that I sampled, not a single one of those “difficult and critical dialogues” about race, class, and privilege that the conference promised took place. Audience pushback to the speeches and workshop presentations was minimal to nonexistent. During Jody Alyn’s “Great White Male” conspiracy workshop one man did crack, “Somewhere right now conservatives are holding a conference just like this one saying there’s a huge liberal conspiracy.” A workshop by Moore himself titled “N!gga/DJANGO: Why Are These White Folks Laughing in the Dark?” generated a lively challenge to his premise that a racism-pandering corporate entertainment industry—and not black rappers—was responsible for the resurgence of the taboo n-word, used prolifically in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. That was about it. Otherwise, it was a roomful of Mmmm-hmmms when, say, Robert Jensen called his employer, the University of Texas, a “white-supremacist organization.”
In a later telephone interview I asked Moore why, if the conference was supposed to foster difficult dialogues, there hadn’t been any discussion of the genuine reasons that white people might have for looking down on inner-city black culture: the breakdown of the family, for example, that has led to high crime levels among young men growing up without fathers at home. “That’s the kind of commentary [the WPC attendees] hear every day,” said Moore. “So sometimes they want to be in a place where they can hear the other side—at least that’s what I’m hearing from them. If people are always coming down on you and your culture, and you feel that you can’t even raise the issue of racism, you want to be in a place where you feel safe to raise it.”
Both Moore and Abby Ferber agreed, though, that the White Privilege Conference was mostly about “preaching to the choir,” as Ferber put it. I asked Ferber what she hoped might be the ultimate goal of such racial-identity marathons. “I think it’s possible to have a society where there’s complete equality, where you can have differences without a racial or cultural hierarchy,” Ferber said. I asked her if such a society had ever existed. “Not that I know of,” she laughed. That means, of course, that the future looks bright for many more White Privilege Conferences.
Charlotte Allen, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, last wrote on the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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