The DoubleTree Hotel, a sprawling complex just a quick shuttle ride away from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, mostly hosts stranded passengers, pilots, and flight attendants whose shadowy silhouettes can be glimpsed at insomniac hours rolling their suitcases down the plushly carpeted hallways, and windbreaker-clad locals from nearby Puget Sound towns, for whom the hotel’s sports bar and decent cheeseburgers are a draw during the Pacific Northwest’s long, chilly rainy season. The SeaTac DoubleTree also, this year, hosted the Fourteenth Annual White Privilege Conference (WPC14) from April 10 through April 13.
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.