20th White Privilege Conference
DoubleTree by Hilton Cedar Rapids Convention Complex — March 20-23
After nearly two years of planning, Cedar Rapids will host the 20th White Privilege Conference (WPC) March 20-23, 2019. Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., founder of the WPC, praised Cedar Rapids in an interview with Little Village for “its love, courage, support, and willingness to host the WPC.”
“Every year, every city, there’s always pushback,” Moore said, which is why he also praised Cornell and Central colleges, hosts of the first five iterations of the WPC who also faced “some of the challenges and pushback.”
Moore, who was educated in Iowa — at Cornell, Loras and the University of Iowa — celebrated that fact. “I’m happy to say that Iowa is where I got my start,” he said. “This is one black guy that loves Iowa and Iowans.”
In many ways, the timing of this year’s conference couldn’t be better, as the question of privilege swirls around the state’s consciousness. On Jan. 16, the U.S. House of Representatives removed Rep. Steve King from his committee assignments after the representative from Iowa’s 4th district asked why terms such as “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were offensive in an interview with the New York Times. On Feb. 26, Iowa State University hosted Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. And even closer to home, on Jan. 29, the University of Iowa opted to cancel its in-house white privilege workshop, a follow-up to a November event that faculty and staff had requested, after facing scrutiny from right-wing online publications and subsequent scrutiny from Iowa legislators. (The university has since reinstated the event, now scheduled for May 17.)
According to Moore, pushback around these events tends to come from three sources: people with a lifelong commitment to fighting against social justice and diversity; people representing white supremacist groups and organizations; and people who misunderstand what words like “diversity” and “privilege” mean, often due to misrepresentations in the media. But Moore emphasized that the WPC is not about eliminating privilege.
To be fair, privilege can be a confusing term. Unlike “right,” a legally defined concept that presumes legal protection, “privilege” refers to unquestioned background assumptions — the kinds of things you can take for granted. For example, as a white man, my ability to walk down a street alone at night is not something that I think about. It is a privilege because it is something that other people cannot assume is safe — for example, women, minorities and disabled persons who choose to use the streets at night must think more carefully about that choice.
Questioning privilege does not threaten it — I will still be able to walk alone at night — but makes me more aware that my experience of safety is not universal. This insight, in turn, can allow me to be more empathetic and compassionate when interacting with others in the world.
Sara Riggs — an employee of the University of Iowa Libraries, one of the sponsors of the event (the UI at large is not a sponsor) — said she is excited to attend her fifth WPC. For Riggs, the proximity of this year’s WPC is an added bonus, because her kids can attend the conference’s Youth Action Project, where they will have the opportunity “to learn some of the skills I have learned over the years and some other strategies to take back to their school.”
The event itself, however, is key. Riggs said the WPC allows her to “network with groups of people to discuss strategies for community action and to advance social and economic justice.”
“Each year, I have challenged myself to listen and reflect on the lessons and ideas that are presented about privilege and oppression and how they affect my daily life as a white, queer cis woman,” Riggs said. “By attending these conferences and reading books and other writings by the presenters, I have moved to a place in my life where topics about race and other oppressions are easier to discuss … I have developed a kind of courage to face these ugly truths about our society and decided to not accept them.”
“Everybody has privilege,” Moore said. “Having privilege is not a bad thing … we’re saying the opposite: Having privilege and understanding it allows you to do some good things.”
In an example from his own experience, Moore shared the story of a speaker from an earlier conference, whose talk was on deafness and privilege. Moore ran into the speaker at the airport and was talking when a news story broke. As Moore paused to listen to the television, the speaker identified this as an example of how hearing is a privilege and asked that he remember to ensure closed captions were on the television next time he was in an airport.
Moore partially credits the WPC’s commitment to questioning privilege of all kinds to Kimberlé Crenshaw, who pioneered the study of intersectionality.
“[Privilege] just manifests itself in very different ways: gender, religion, class, gender identity, body image, geography,” Moore said. “We work hard to cover privilege comprehensively and ways that we need to understand other kinds of oppression … that’s how I plan the program … every day and every workshop looks at a lens of intersectionality.”
This presumption that everyone has privilege, and the WPC’s commitment to exploring that, means there’s often some tension throughout the event. But such disagreement, Moore said, is part of why the WPC is valuable.
“I wanted to create a high-level, challenging environment built on a foundation of love that explores white supremacy and other forms of oppression,” he said. This is why he hopes whiteness workshops will continue at the UI, assuming that “the college [or] university setting is the place where you will be able to raise these tough questions and have the difficult conversations. That’s part of why you want to go to college.”
Moore noted that, although the cost of the conference may seem steep (most full-conference passes fall between $250 and $500), the fees are far lower than most other national conferences of its kind. And volunteers are rewarded with discounted prices on tickets.
“The WPC is committed to not letting money stop people from attending,” Moore said, “to the conference being accessible.”
The goal of the WPC is to empower people to actively work toward equality in both public and private spaces. Moore warned against coming to the WPC to find “the magic formula.”
“[It’s] an action-oriented conference,” he said. “We want to inspire people to seek truth, speak truth and most importantly to take action.”
Daniel Boscaljon is an experimental humanist, humanist celebrant and cultural critic who lives in Iowa City and moderates “Coffee with Dan” events (including the “Going Home” conversation series starting March 16). He is slowly assembling a website that collects his varied work: danielboscaljon.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 259.