- Ilsa Govan
Reflections from the 16th Annual White Privilege Conference
I returned to the White Privilege Conference for a 9th time this March. What keeps me going back? Every year I gain new insights into myself, into my work, and into ways to challenge institutional isms. In addition, the amazing group of people that make WPC special co-create a space that feels like a second home. Seeing the familiar faces and all the new connections keeps me motivated beyond the conference, as I realize just how many people care passionately about making our world a little better.
One theme that stood out was the idea of “calling people in” versus calling them out. Loretta J. Ross spoke about this in her keynote, highlighting the importance of bringing more people into movements for justice. She used a story about talking with her brother to illustrate how loving someone can be a powerful motivation to think critically about oppressive comments. Many other speakers and workshops also touched on this idea. They emphasized the importance of actually caring about the person you’re talking to, not trying to situate yourself as superior to them, asking questions, and relating to their experiences.
I then had the opportunity to practice this in a workshop. When talking in triads, a white woman made a couple of racist remarks, what I would call microaggressions, towards a man of color in our group. Part of her response when we pointed this out was asking him to say stereotypes about her because she said she wanted to be hurt, too.
This reminded me of an experience I once had in an all-white group where a couple of people essentially said, “I want to be called out, not called in. Sometimes that’s what I need.” This is problematic to me for a few reasons. First, more people hurting because of racism is not going to end racism. White allies wallowing in or even embracing the pain of being called out in order to somehow feel better about our unconscious bias or privilege feels messed up. And the idea that stereotypes about white women or calling out a white person would somehow be equivalent to, and therefore off-set, stereotypes or other forms of racism directed at people of color is also false.
In our white caucus I heard many people talking about not having the skills to call in other white people. I posed a few questions to move us beyond thinking of this as simply a skills deficit:
What do you fear will happen if you call someone in?
What do you get out of your current behavior (calling out)?
What would you have to give up?
How do you feel about the people you are calling out?
What does calling people out have to do with internalized superiority?
These are all questions I continue to ask myself. In the triad, I related a personal story to what the white woman was saying, while still pointing out the problem with her comment along side (not on behalf of) the man of color. She asked me for more resources. It seemed to end with her staying engaged and wanting to learn and change. At the same time, I didn’t really care for her and noticed myself feeling superior to her.
And so I will to return to the White Privilege Conference and other spaces where we can continue this journey of exploring what collective liberation means and what it will take for us to get there.
(Special shout out to Heather, Kay, Tilman, Johanna, and Ilana this year!)