The mostly white professors in the small Iowa college wanted to support Eddie Moore Jr.’s idea of a challenging gathering on race.
But the name Moore had in mind 18 years ago made it tough.
The White Privilege Conference?
Moore, who is black, was in his early 30s then and a new assistant dean at Cornell College, a private, liberal arts institution in Mount Vernon, Iowa. These were some of his mentors he’d sought for advice.
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“They asked, ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Is that the right name?’ ‘Will people come?’ ”
His answer has held now for nearly two decades as the gathering — now grown into an annual conference that has been hosted throughout the nation — comes to Kansas City from Thursday through Sunday for the first time.
“I want to be clear,” he says now, in case Kansas City might not know what’s coming. “This is not a ‘diversity’ conference. It’s not a kumbaya experience.”
Instead, he has created a conference that means to give people, white and black, space to have challenging conversations, in the face of what Moore said has been “consistent resistance” from people and organizations who find their topics upsetting or misguided.
“It’s scary getting hate mail,” he said.
Now 50, with a family to worry about, Moore and the Denver-based Privilege Institute he leads carries on its purposefully provocative mission, prodding conversations he thought were lacking in the country from his perch in Iowa in the late 1990s.
The ideas were out there. He had read seminal writings such as Peggy McIntosh’s, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Joe Feagin’s “The White Racial Frame,” Na’im Akbar’s “Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery” and Jim Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
“Those four books, intellectually and interpersonally … lit a spark in me to do something beyond diversity,” he said.
What was missing, he said, “was space for tough conversations.”
He wanted to bare the privileges seen in the inequitable experiences people have in education, in banking, in employment and in their encounters with institutions, law enforcement and criminal and civil justice systems.
He wanted “an Afro-centric” conversation “committed to exploring white supremacy, white privilege and other forms of oppression.”
And that work had to occur with people coming together across racial lines, he said.
“This (the conference) is not to shame white people, or blame white people, or hate or attack white people,” he said.
“I know people alive today did not create the systems of red-lining,” he said. “We’re not saying white folks are not having tough times. Everybody’s got privilege. We have ability privilege. Male privilege. It’s about how we’re impacted by it and how we respond in a positive way.”
Moore grew up under hard circumstances with his mother, poor near southern Florida’s Gulf Coast, he said. He had football coaches and teachers who shepherded him toward college.
He was finishing doctoral studies with plans to be a high school principal and coach when the social justice work called him in a new direction.
The resistance continues unabated as the Kansas City conference culminates another year of work, but he says he is committed to the conference “for the rest of my life.”
Nearly 200 different presenters will be running a slate of workshops in the Kansas City Marriott Downtown Muehlebach Tower. There will be keynote addresses, including author Michael Eric Dyson, speaking on “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.”
This will all happen sheltered from media coverage inside the workshops because the organizers believe it allows participants to bare vulnerable feelings.
And when the conference is done, he said, its participants want to take away “lifelong friendships” and leave “a social justice footprint.”