White Privilege ConferenceSeveral of us from Traces of the Trade attended the White Privilege Conference in Springfield, Mass. over the past few days, where we offered a screening and discussion of the documentary and solicited feedback.

This conference is an annual gathering of people committed to addressing issues of racial justice and healing, organized by the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Society Equity and Inclusion at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The conference consists primarily of workshops and talks, with a variety of films, support groups, and auxiliary activities, and is an opportunity to meet with people dedicated to this work. The ninth annual conference was held on April 2-5, hosted by Goddard College and the Social Justice Education Program at UMass Amherst.

Katrina Browne and I drove out to the conference for two days, joining Tom DeWolf and Holly Fulton. We screened the film on the second night of the conference, to an appreciative and thoughtful audience which stayed for an hour past the allotted time (after attending a full day of conference workshops and events). Those who attended the screening offered a wide variety of insightful comments and suggestions, including frank discussion about how difficult (if necessary) the conversation inspired by Traces can be.

Katrina also lead several informal sessions with conference presenters and participants, who gave generously of their time in order to offer us feedback on the film, and on the developing plans for making the film available to various audiences across the country. We also attended the joint book signing event for authors, where Tom was available to sign copies and to discuss his new book, Inheriting the Trade.

Aside from our own activities, I was particularly impressed with the presentations by Joe Feagin, whose scholarship, passion, and commitment to social justice are inspiring. Professor Feagin is a sociologist at Texas A&M whose work has focused primarily on issues of race and gender. His current research includes disturbing results from a project to gather data on racist speech and behavior, through diaries kept by white college students.

My favorite workshop was offered by the amazing Victor Lewis and Peggy McIntosh, on using The Color of Fear to teach about white privilege. I’ve written about Peggy McIntosh’s work before; she gave generously of her time during the filming of Traces of the Trade in 2001, and her work plays a central role at the White Privilege Conference.

The White Privilege Conference is far from perfect. The conference, its organizers and presenters take for granted a number of key assumptions about how participants will have experienced race and will view racial justice in the U.S. These assumptions, controversial even among those who take “white privilege” seriously, are not always correct, can be divisive, and risk stereotyping those of all races. Worst of all, the conference’s strong stance on these issues inevitably limits the range of dialogue and learning which takes place in, and surrounding, the conference.

On the other hand, the genuine commitment of the presenters and participants, and their frequent willingness to challenge their own assumptions, are a joy to behold. It’s also hard to argue with the basic philosophy of the conference:

This conference is not about beating up on white folks. This conference is about critically examining the society in which we live and working to dismantle systems of power, prejudice, privilege and oppression.

As one participant put it, “It was like a social justice activist’s version of Disney World.” 

I was also particularly impressed to see how well issues of gender, as well as transgender concerns, were incorporated into the formal and informal program of the conference, given the ostensible focus of the conference on issues of race.

Responses to the conference online this year range from endorsements of various kinds to the raising of a mixture of both valid and invalid concerns to the simply incomprehensible.

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