I had the amazing privilege (no pun intended) of attending the White Privilege Conference Global in May, held for the first time in Canada. (It has been held in the U.S. for the past nineteen years). It was an amazing event, and I was delighted that other than school boards, the United Church of Canada seemed to have the largest delegation! We were all able to attend workshops in the morning, and two keynotes speakers per day as well as entertainment that augmented the experience.
The idea of intersectionality was presented in a myriad of ways including the intersections of race and sexuality, race and disability, race and colonialism. All of these topics held the opportunity for listening, discussion and calls to action. A keynote address investigated the relationship between white privilege and white supremacy. Understanding that white supremacy is behind white privilege was eye opening, and centred the conversation where it belongs.
Critical analysis of the media was front and centre, with an informative workshop highlighting the Canadian media and how stories involving issues of race are handled. Whereas we are usually asking who is left out of the story, we were prodded into asking questions like, “whose name is published, and whose isn’t?” “whose picture is pixellated, and whose is not?” “what are the descriptors being used in articles and how do they reflect race?”
In one example, a white woman has a racist rant in public and is caught on film, and not once, over multiple stories and multiple media, is her face shown and her name is never mentioned. Despite this not being a first offense, no charges were ever laid.
And these two stories about robberies illustrate how race is considered. In one story, a group of young black men charged with multiple bank robberies are labelled “pathetic parasites,” by the Staff Inspector Mike Earl. Their pictures are portrayed as mug shots.
The same Staff Inspector referred to the “lunchtime bandit”, a white man, as a “preppy punk.” Indeed, he thought he might even be employed, since he only robbed banks during his lunch break.
As Desmond Cole told us, “our media operates under a false pretense of objectivity!”
I attended several workshops all geared towards “a pedagogy of discomfort,” looking for tools and activities which could show us how to lead our congregations, whether inside or outside of churches, into a place of discomfort. I was looking for a way to hold them in the uncomfortable spaces, safely and long enough to allow learning to begin. Nathalie Sirois shared her mantra, “If you’re not making people uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right!”
I was certainly uncomfortable. Who was I, a white woman, who didn’t think of herself as particularly privileged, newly awakened to the extent of my privilege? It was good to hear the women of colour in the crowd who were angry, who weren’t afraid to tell their stories from their vantage points. But there was an excitement, a timid, fearful excitement within me that pushed me into the uncomfortable space and held me there. I want to be part of the solution, and I don’t know how to do that with integrity, with grace, and without any assumptions. I don’t know how to do that on their terms, but that’s exactly how it must be.
The event was exceptional, and those of us who went as members of the church, not necessarily attached to General Council are expected to continue to work together, and initiate activities in our own communities to speak to these issues. In reviewing my notes, and lists of books to read on critical race theory, well, our work has just begun.
The White Privilege Conference Global was held at Ryerson University in Toronto, May 9 – 12, 2018
Karen Orlandi is a second-year student at CCS.