Got Privilege? One White Woman’s Experience at the 2010 White Privilege Conference

“Got privilege?” The first time I saw my friend Evangeline’s bumper sticker back in 2003, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes.  The “got milk?” reference is so overdone, especially in college student affairs, the land I call home.  “Got homework?” “Got wellness?” “Got housing?”  I get it, we get it…it’s quick, it’s catchy, and it calls on the reader to do a split-second analysis – “does this relate to me?” – and if yes, they can’t help but read further.
In this case, it was a bumper sticker, so there was nothing further to read – except a little line at the bottom, some reference to the “White Privilege Conference” (WPC).  Now that I’ve been to the conference myself, I know that the mere mention of its title elicits some wide-eyed stares – “the what?” – from fellow “well-meaning whites” who think I’ve gone off the deep end and joined the KKK.  But I knew better; I’d already participated in one of Evangeline’s white privilege reading groups at Duke University where we both worked at the time.  I’d already unpacked my knapsack.  I was drinking the Kool-Aid.  I “got it”…the most insidious form of racism was institutional, not personal.  Internalizing white supremacy and racism had been an inevitable part of my upbringing as a white person.  And working against racism was inextricably tied, somehow, to my work as a feminist seeking social justice in higher education.  Done!  Check!  Anti-racist identity achieved.  Mission accomplished.
So when I saw that bumper sticker, I knew Evangeline Weiss, anti-racist educator and activist extraordinaire, hadn’t gone off the deep end.  I did not, however, know the first thing about this White Privilege Conference until she told me a bit about it over coffee.  I listened with interest, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend anytime soon.  As a new student affairs professional, I attended NASPA and smaller, functional area-specific conferences for high-risk drinking and sexual violence prevention educators, and later, and campus-based women’s center staff.  Despite a fierce interest in social justice, diversity, and feminist anti-racist activism, I didn’t “have the time” for working on my own internalized white supremacy.  I was too busy with my “work.”
Got privilege?
Fast forward to fall 2009.  I was a third-year, full-time doctoral student in the CSP program at the University of Maryland, College Park.  With five years of practice experience under my belt, I had learned a lesson or two about anti-racism work.  I had been challenged by students and colleagues to examine how white privilege influenced my thinking as a feminist educator.  I had seen firsthand how “well-meaning whites” shied from addressing white privilege and racism, hiding behind other marginalized identities or a “commitment to diversity” instead.  Most importantly, I had learned that when it comes to white anti-racism work, there is no “getting it,” no peak to summit, no finish line to cross.  Unlearning racism is akin to maintaining fitness.  It’s a lifelong process that requires working out regularly.  There is no point at which you are “done” going to the gym and eating your vegetables.  If you stop working, you get out of shape – and it’s much harder to get back in shape than to stay there by working on it daily.
With this lesson learned (but in constant need of revisiting), I was buried in the first draft of my dissertation proposal.  I wanted a topic that forced me to “walk the walk” of white anti-racism work.  “Something to do with white identity construction among college women,” I decided.  “Let’s see what’s going on in that knapsack of mine these days,” I thought.  “Where can I learn more about this topic?” I wondered.  I wanted to take a year off from the NASPA and ACPA annual conventions, which engage and inspire me as a professional but do not provide a focused opportunity to work on my own internalized racism.
In fact, sometimes I think the concept of “professionalism” – probably in any field – does more to maintain power and privilege than dismantle them.  Who counts as “professional”?  What does “unprofessional” behavior look like?  Who decides, and what is at stake?  Student affairs is not immune to the norms of white culture, which rewards “colorblindness,” emotional distance, and conflict avoidance, just to name a few.  It’s no coincidence that these characteristics are directly at odds with the values we hope students will develop in college – that is, if you buy into the countless association reports, peer-reviewed journal articles, opinion pieces, and strategic plans that have argued for these values.  “We” want students to recognize and value difference, become emotionally engaged with what they learn, and embrace conflict as a healthy part of growth, yet when do “we” take the time, sticking with the fitness metaphor, to stop and take our pulse as a profession?  When was the last time you personally considered how racism benefits or hinders you as a student affairs educator and a human being?
Got privilege?
I looked up my friend Evangeline and asked if she was up for a reunion in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, at the 11th annual White Privilege Conference.  Trustworthy friend and anti-racist activist that she is, Evangeline was totally up for it.  Before I knew it, we were running toward each other at a baggage claim in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, picking up our rental car, and driving the nearly three hours to LaCrosse.  Early the next morning, cups of coffee in hand, we walked into the formidable cement structure that is the LaCrosse Center (a municipal convention center and arena), and my first WPC experience began.
I dove right in, attending a full-day workshop on intersections of white privilege and Christian privilege.  Led by Paul Kivel and Warren Blumenfeld, this workshop was right up my alley and pushed all my buttons in exactly the way I was seeking.  I realized I had a lot of work to do around the intersection of my white and Jewish identities.  I discovered that as a white upper middle class Jewish person, I silently acknowledged the harm caused to me by anti-Semitism and Christian supremacy.  Yet when other white upper middle class Jews spoke up about these things, I cringed.  “We need to deal with our white privilege,” I would say (if only internally – the privilege, afforded to me by whiteness and education and social class, of not speaking out all the time).  “We Jews in America [as if all of “us” are upper middle class and white] need to stop hiding behind the Holocaust and deal with the legacy of racism from which we benefit by virtue of the color of our skin.”  Hiding behind the Holocaust? I was horrified to realize I had been blaming my own Jewish people, the victims of anti-Semitism, and falling into the old trap of pitting one oppression against another.  Internalized oppression is a very ugly thing. I both benefit from white privilege and suffer because of Christian hegemony.  Identity is not a zero-sum game.
Got privilege?
There were many highlights of the conference.  I attended the queer caucus meeting and watched with growing amazement as the typical crowd of five or ten grew to nearly fifty, leading to a powerful but difficult dialogue that was a challenge for facilitators prepared for a much smaller group – a wonderful problem to have.  I was moved to tears by Ariel Luckey’s hip hop theater performance, the Free Land Project, tracing Ariel’s journey to come to terms with how his family has benefited over time from the displacement of indigenous peoples.  I got to see with my own eyes some of the “rock stars” of the white anti-racism movement, like Peggy McIntosh, Shakti Butler, and Eddie Moore, Jr.  And I relished the multicultural Shabbat dinner held on Friday night, finding a spiritual dimension to my anti-racist commitments that I didn’t even know existed.
But for me, the most intense, challenging, frustrating, and rewarding part of my conference experience came from participating in two workshops geared toward white women working on their “stuff” – how we white women, as a culture, perpetuate both racism and sexism in our everyday lives.  Lisa Albrecht led a workshop called “I’m a Better Anti-Racist Than You: White Women, Ego, and Humility,” and Beth Applegate and Kathy Obear facilitated a session called “The Critical Liberation of White Women – What Are We Fighting For?”
Finally…someone was willing to talk about the elephant in the student affairs living room.  It’s no secret that white women are profoundly over-represented in our profession, yet when was the last time you (no matter your social identities) heard or participated in a real conversation about racism, sexism, and how white women in our profession experience and maintain white privilege?  Have you ever noticed how the conversation seems to veer away from whiteness and toward hiring more people of color?  Away from racism in everyday life and toward the great diversity program the multicultural center held last week?  Away from racism and toward sexism, as if one necessarily trumped the other?
White women, and all who have observed these dynamics, are you nodding as you read this?  I know you know what I’m talking about…one-upping each other in class when talking about racial identity development, or making sure you are the first one at staff meeting to raise the issue of how “we” are going include students of color (a.k.a. “them”) in our upcoming program.  Or, worst of all, witnessing a comment from an “unenlightened” white woman, and doing everything you can do distance yourself from her – “can you believe she said that?” – instead of taking the time for a difficult dialogue?
Got privilege?
I came to WPC seeking a dynamic, challenging environment to engage more deeply, as a person and a professional, in white anti-racist work.  I found that and more.  The WPC inspired, frustrated, motivated, challenged, supported, and moved me to keep up with my anti-racist workout routine, even on those rainy, nasty days when I don’t feel like going to the gym.  I met amazing colleagues from our profession and others.  Yes, I “networked.”  Yes, I found outstanding resources for my dissertation research, which will focus on white identity construction among college women.  Yes, I exchanged some business cards.  But I also found a community of activists from Massachusetts and Minnesota, Palestine and the Lakota nation, ranging in age from their teens to their seventies.  I found the roots of a movement based on Afrocentric principles and led by people of color with white allies, struggling together to dismantle white privilege in a world where race is not just black and white, where coming to the United States in search of a better life is seen as a crime and praying to Allah is construed as terrorism.  The WPC does not have clean, crisp edges.  It is messy.  It is a work in progress.  And for me, it is a new place, along with student affairs, to call home.
– Claire Kathleen Robbins, MSW
Doctoral Candidate, College Student Personnel Program,
Department of Counseling and Personnel Services
University of Maryland, College Park
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1 Comment

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One response to “Got Privilege? One White Woman’s Experience at the 2010 White Privilege Conference

  1. Claire…..I would like to have a conversation with you. I just came back from a Master’s low res intensive at Goddard to my home in MN. My Masters is focusing on Story Myth and Metaphor with looking at both the healing aspects and the destructive elements of perpetrating discrimination. I would really like to have some conversation with you. Do you think that would be possible?

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