Monday, April 18, 2016

White Privilege Conference 17

Last week and this weekend I attended the 17th White Privilege Conference, held in Philadelphia. The conference examines the challenging concepts of privilege and oppression, and helps participants build strategies to advance equity and inclusion in their lives and their institutions. I was a first-time attendee. The conference was both challenging and informative, and while it was personally very enjoyable for me, it was not necessarily so for others. As a senior white male, I have a lot of privileges, and whether I intend it or not, whether I am aware or not, these privileges generally come at the expense of others. This conference does a great job of opening eyes to this inequity and to illustrating the difference between intent and impact.

White people who want to improve the experiences of others have to work against the socialization and norms of society, which convey fear of people of color, of Muslims, of transgender people, of people with disabilities, and so on. If it was possible to be unaware of this fear and its impact before, this year's presidential campaign should make it clear to anyone, regardless of her/his/their politics, that we live in a divided and troubled society.

The conference title suggests an opportunity for white people to learn about their privilege, and indeed this is a big part of the experience. But who are the teachers? Is it people of color or other white folk?

The language can be off-putting or uncomfortable to those unused to social justice terminology. A person who has never recognized their privilege, never learned how other people are treated differently, can easily deduce that being told they have privilege is the same as being told they are a bad person. My advice is to get over it, just as you got over your PhD qualifying exam. Being an astronomer conveys many privileges, and so does having a college degree or being white in a department store. What is bad is when privilege combines with stereotypes and power to create systemic oppression. By oppression I mean unfair, unequal treatment that limits the ability of others to achieve their goals or potential. It does not have to be a conscious act of the privileged.

There are plenty of examples of oppression of women in astronomy ranging from men speaking over and not giving credit to women, to biased hiring and promotion processes, all the way to sexual assault. The oppression is greater for women who are also racial, religious, or sexual minorities. While the focus of the White Privilege Conference is on race dynamics, there is a strong current of intersectionality.

The conference had a remarkable set of plenary speakers and workshops, and participants got many opportunities to see white privilege in action. This ranged from a white male speaker who took extra time and said he would do so despite being asked by the organizers to conclude his talk, to many black people bearing the burden of white people's anxiety and microaggressions. This is hard work, and those with privilege have a difficult time unless they can show great cultural humility, as described by pediatrician and social activist Melanie Tervalon.

UPenn psychologist Prof. Howard C. Stevenson summed it up very well in his concluding plenary address. "Courage is seeing yourself as the racial elephant." I recognized the truth of his statement, "You are the elephant in the room." As a senior white male, I carry that with me and must never forget. Stevenson's concluding question turned this revelation into the possibility of healing: "Are you ready?" That is, am I ready to call out the elephant of my white privilege and then to use that privilege to halt oppression and serve others?

As lawyer, activist, and inspirational speaker Vernā Myers said in her keynote, "When enough of us are willing to forfeit our privilege, then all of us get to live in justice."

Are you ready? Are you willing? Come to the next White Privilege Conference and see!

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