‘White privilege’ under microscope at conference in Philly

‘White privilege’ under microscope at conference in Philly
Sam Newhouse

Got privilege, Philly?

That’s what the White Privilege Conference – now in its 17th year and kicking off its first visit to Philadelphia Thursday – wants you to think about and explore over three days of workshops, lectures, and presentations by academics and activists from across the nation.

Students and participants will be learning in the cradle of liberty how racism and oppression have been part of the U.S. since its founding – a situation organizers likened to “the crack in the Liberty Bell.”

But organizers also want the world to know that while their mission is to examine “white privilege, white supremacy and other forms of oppression,” that doesn’t mean they’re not welcoming to people from all walks of life.

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“It is not about beating up on white folks or males or heterosexuals,” said Dena Samuels, board president of The Privilege Institute (TPI), which oversees the White Privilege Conference (WPC), “but rather to consider how these identities are socially constructed and serve to include and benefit and lift up some people at the expense of others.”

In some circles, the concept of “white privilege” is well-known. It was famously explored in a 1987 essay by Peggy McIntosh as a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in Western countries. But there are just as many who haven’t read about or studied the concept at all.

“It’s not actually talked about as much as it should be,” said Heather Hackman, a presenter and participant at WPC. “Mainstream, corporate media pays some attention to the ways that people of color are harmed by racism, but rarely looks at the corollary element of it, which is whiteness.”

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Founded in 1999 at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa with just 175 attendees, this year the WPC is in its biggest city ever, and is expecting about 2,500 attendees, 250 presenters and performers, and 175 workshops at the conference, which is being held at the Marriott Downtown.

The WPC is known for handing out white wristbands for white people to wear to remind them of their “white privilege,” as well as “Got Privilege” T-Shirts.

“Any kind of mnemonic device that will help white people think about and remember something that we’re not supposed to remember and think about is helpful,” Hackman said.

Running from April 14 to 17, the WPC includes a talk by Yusef Salaam – who was incarcerated for 12 years after being wrongly incarcerated in the Central Park jogger rape case. There will also be some Philly flavor, with activists from the Philly Coalition for R.E.A.L. Justice, who made headlines sparring with Bill Clinton last week over his 1994 crime bill running one workshop.

A lot of the programming sounds academic, like “Adding a De-colonizing Lens to Expand our Vision of Racial Equity and Social Justice,” while others will make plenty of sense to a local audience, like “What Happened to My Hood? White Supremacy, Gentrification and Displacement in Philadelphia.”

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Issues of race have been huge in this year’s election cycle, with Republican Donald Trump earning criticism for defying political correctness, while Hillary Clinton took plenty of jabs for making an off-color racial joke at a recent campaign appearance with New York mayor Bill de Blasio.

“This is one of the greatest illuminating elections we have ever seen, that really allows us to see what some of the real issues are across our nation,” said Dr. Eddie Moore, WPC’s founder and TPI’s executive director. “Some of the people who are going to be leading our nation are making the kinds of comments and statements that I would expect from a ninth-grader … It just signals that we need more competency, we need more conversation.”