Utter the words “white privilege,” and two things will be accomplished.
The term is as much a conversation stopper as it is a starter. It’s often misunderstood and loaded with assumptions that ignite angry reactions.
People who might gain insights from such a conference probably would never attend. Those who see the value already are probably mindful of how history and attitudes once ingrained in social constructs and law still play out in people’s lives.
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Yes, major civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, and your ancestors may not have owned slaves, but that doesn’t negate the current ramifications of this history. Study disparities in accumulated wealth between the races as one example. Track how the now illegal housing covenants, practices of red-lining and bias affected people’s bank accounts and eventually their descendants.
Too often at gatherings like the White Privilege Conference, people wind up having the same conversations that they’ve been having for 25 years, preaching to the same choir, without noticing that no one is sitting in the pews.
Despite decades’ worth of progress, there is still a privilege to being white in America. Laws change, flagrant bias is outlawed, but the impact of policies that were shaped to benefit some people over others endures.
That reality and the present-day consequences of our racial history are discussion topics worth pursuing. And it might help people understand that, consciously or not, many are scrambling to preserve a standing in society that seems to be diminishing amid changing demographics.
The day is approaching when white people will not be the majority. That change is discomforting for some.
What’s more, the nation is still finding its bearings after a contentious presidential election where all sorts of dog whistles on race and class were blown. Whole swaths of voters were labeled deplorables, bad hombres and more.
Those tactics work when people define others with racial labels and simplistic categories. That keeps people from admitting truths about our history while denying current challenges. And it keeps rural, low-income voters from recognizing what they have in common with urban African-Americans or Latinos, and vice versa.
These are important conversations. But only if they are honest and focused on facts. If that’s the thoughtful dialogue that Kansas City is inviting, then the White Privilege Conference could facilitate progress.
But sustained efforts are needed. A weekend gathering with an edgy name is not enough.