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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
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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.”

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