This is not going to feel good: The National White Privilege Conference is coming to Kansas City.
The notion that whites in America step into their communities with more advantages of earned and unearned privileges than their neighbors of color is a hard conversation starter.
The local social activists who urged the annual conference to come to Kansas City know that talking about “white privilege” brings charges of reverse-racism. It gets lampooned as white guilt.
But everyone’s pain and discomfort is a good place to start the talk, says Seft Hunter, executive director of Kansas City’s Communities Creating Opportunity.
“It’s like putting your hand on a glass-top stove,” he said.
With the first swell of heat, you want to snatch your hand away. But this experience means to arouse self-examining pain, Hunter said.
He’s not just thinking of the diverse crowd of close to 2,000 people expected from around the country downtown Thursday through Sunday on a mission to strengthen a collective struggle against inequity and systemic oppression.
He’s thinking as well of the wide Kansas City community surrounding the scene and so many people who will take pause at the provocative words: white privilege.
The image of the stove, Hunter said, came from the Rev. Susan McCann, the rector of Liberty’s Grace Episcopal Church. She was another of those who wanted the conference to come.
This is Kansas City’s moment to confront its own racially and economically stressed history together, he said.
“This is such an important moment,” Hunter said, quoting McCann, “it’s too critical to take your hand away from the stove.”
In order to examine white privilege, he said, “you have to legitimize discomfort as an appropriate way to feel.”
This is the 18th annual gathering of the conference, started by Eddie Moore, Jr., founder of The Privilege Institute in Denver. This is the first time Kansas City will host.
Can Kansas City handle it?
Eva Kathleen Schulte, the former executive director of Communities Creating Opportunity — known as CCO — wondered that when a friend invited her to the 16th version two years ago in Louisville, Ky.
Even before she met Moore or the sponsoring group, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, she imagined the difficulties the event courts.
Moore recounted in his blog after the 17th annual conference in Philadelphia that “personal attacks, derogatory language … harmful and vile threats” were some of the costs for holding “open and honest discussions on white supremacy, white privilege and oppression.”
For people among the white majority who struggle economically with no trust funds in sight, many see perceived favors extended to minorities as reverse racism. A famous Harvard University study in 2011 showed the disparate views of racism, with just 16 percent of whites believing there is still “a lot” of discrimination, compared to 56 percent of blacks who felt that way.
The David Horowitz Freedom Center in Los Angeles is among organizations and groups at the front of a growing belief that American’s are now seeing “black skin privilege.”
The risk of going head-on at this discourse by hosting a conference with white privilege in its name “was jarring” at first, Schulte said.
After her meetings with the Kentucky hosts and with Moore, and after going through many of the institutes and workshops in Louisville, Schulte believed Kansas City needed this experience.
Real change in advancing an equitable community “cannot happen,” she said, “unless we are explicit that people start from different places.”
“Every human being is somewhere on the huge spectrum of earned and unearned privilege,” she said. People should not shy away from the notion of privilege “as an excuse for not wanting to engage in the conversation.”
“Naming it,” she said, “exposes the sea we swim in.”
Marquita Brockman Taylor, also with CCO, went with Schulte to the Philadelphia conference last year, with a mind of helping make Kansas City ready for 2017.
CCO and other Kansas City organizations have been laboring in causes of social justice for years, and the White Privilege Conference is a chance to learn strategies that help draw diverse communities into the same space in challenging, but safe, ways, Taylor said.
So often, she said, one racial or economic group will be the comfortable hosts of a gathering and another group is the awkward visitors wondering if they really belong.
But at these conferences, “all are uneasy,” she said, and that’s a good thing.
“You can open up and tell the truth,” she said. “You can ask, ‘What is it like being a black person?’ ‘What do you think of me as a white person?’ You will learn something.”
It was hard at the Philadelphia conference, looking at people not like herself and telling each other what they thought of their nationalities, their race, their ethnicities.
Media are not permitted in to record the sessions. No interviews are allowed of participants. The intentions are to let people feel protected in exposing their fears and misunderstandings.
The sessions will be mixed race and gender, but the attendees gather in separate demographic groups to debrief at the end of each day.
“They make sure you leave whole,” Brockman Taylor said.
The conference is popular with academians, teachers and college professors, students, social workers, community organizers — people whose life passion has been advancing inclusion and economic and social equity.
Keynote speakers coming to Kansas City include author and educator Glenn Singleton, professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, diversity consultant and poet Amer Ahmed, psychologist and community organizer Hsiao-wen Lo, writer and activist Jacqueline Keeler and the performing duo Josh Healey and Jasiri X.
Kansas City will be under examination as well, Hunter said. Every conference is also about the place.
Start with the city’s public health data that show that people living in the central city’s ZIP code area have a life expectancy that is 13 to 15 years less than for those in ZIP codes in the Northland or along State Line Road.
Many people have been trying to understand and ease the disparity in quality of life and opportunities on either side of Troost Avenue’s racial divide.
“Kansas City has issues,” Hunter said. “We have work to do.”
And when people leave the conference, he expects people in this work will better understand their anxiety. They will know more of “how to be creative in that space … and how to extend grace. I’ll commit to work through it and give you two, three and four times to explain what you mean.”
And it starts with facing up to those words. White privilege.
The White Privilege Conference
Thursday through Sunday, Marriott Kansas City Downtown
Registration at www.whiteprivilegeconference.com
Cost: Ranges from $230 for students to $400 for individuals.
Taste of Kansas City Reception to meet the speakers
5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine.