Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: We need to have the ‘white privilege’ conversation

Seft Hunter, (from left), executive director of Kansas City's Communities Creating Opportunity, Eva Kathleen Schultz, the former executive director of Communities Creating Opportunity and now with Travois, and Marquita Brockton Taylor of Communities Creating Opportunity, will be on hand for the White Privilege Conference.
Seft Hunter, (from left), executive director of Kansas City's Communities Creating Opportunity, Eva Kathleen Schultz, the former executive director of Communities Creating Opportunity and now with Travois, and Marquita Brockton Taylor of Communities Creating Opportunity, will be on hand for the White Privilege Conference. tljungblad@kcstar.com

There’s a joke about a scuba diver who passes two fish. “The water is fine today,” he says politely before swimming on. The fish exchange a confused glance and one asks the other, “What’s water?”

I thought of this old joke when reading The Kansas City Star’s coverage of the upcoming White Privilege Conference.

Over one year ago, leaders from Kansas City’s diverse communities began working to attract the White Privilege Conference. For three days this weekend, thousands of activists, academics and citizens will engage one another around the reality of white privilege and white supremacy in America.

Support for the conference comes from the health, education, nonprofit, environmental and business communities. Our family business is proud to support this important conference alongside some of Kansas City’s strongest institutions.

We finance economic development and affordable housing in American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. We see firsthand that systemic barriers prevent native communities from accessing capital. Like other conference partners, we believe the suffering rooted in economic and social inequality doesn’t result just from scattered individual acts of prejudice. Society’s big problems result from the systems society has chosen to put (or allow to remain) in place.

I have been surprised by our community’s reaction to the term “white privilege.” Well-meaning friends have encouraged us to move the conversation to the safer, more familiar ground of “diversity.” Some news coverage of the conference has questioned whether the term “white privilege” will close otherwise receptive ears. These reactions only increase my gratitude for those who have worked so hard to bring the White Privilege Conference here. They show us exactly why we need to have this conversation.

When any of us provides financial support or volunteer time to this kind of conference, we are making an investment. Our investment strategy as a company is simple: Identify change agents working in low-income communities, support them as they build consensus around solutions and then provide capital to help them implement those solutions. We believe solutions to community problems are successful only when they emerge from the community itself.

We have chosen to invest in the White Privilege Conference for the same reason. We generate no revenue from supporting this conference. But we view our donation as an investment nonetheless. Our friend and conference founder Eddie Moore Jr. is a change agent. He has created a conference that is black-led and puts people of color at the center. For a company like ours and a city like ours, helping to bring his message here is an investment worth making.

We have problems in our city we don’t talk about. We fear facing them will divide us. I’ve learned in my family, my business and when I was on the Tax Increment Financing Commission that the opposite is true. If we confront these problems, we’ll begin seeing opportunities instead.

Take any of the issues that the civic, political, business or faith community routinely hold up for discussion. We lose too many young people to homicide. We don’t invest enough in our kids’ education. One can’t begin to address these problems without acknowledging their roots in the geographically concentrated, generational poverty that afflicts our city. We can’t begin to address that problem until we confront the fact that this poverty disproportionately impacts people of color.

Discussing white privilege in Kansas City will help us focus on the causes, not just the symptoms, of our problems. Privilege — earned and unearned — is something we have to varying degrees. It is the water we swim in. When we fail to name and notice it, it holds power over us. When we face it together, we draw power from one another.

Phil Glynn is president of Travois, a socially responsible business in Kansas City and a stakeholder in the upcoming White Privilege Conference.

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