Reflections on the WPC 16

Invigorated, tired, humbled, overwhelmed, inspired, hopeful. Those are words that FGC staff who attended the White Privilege Conference (WPC) used following the conference. WPC, of which FGC was one of the sponsors, “provides a challenging, collaborative and comprehensive experience” which strives “to empower and equip individuals to work for equity and justice.” This year’s WPC was held in Philadelphia in April. There seems to be consensus that we all learned something and are coming out of this experience with new and broadened perspectives that will shape the way we perceive and engage with the world. Over 500 Quakers attended WPC this year. It was hard to walk more than a few feet without bumping into a Quaker as we comprised 20% of the 2,500 conference attendees. It was encouraging to see that so many Quakers are recognizing the importance of deeply understanding white privilege and working to both educate themselves and take steps to dismantle white supremacy. I hope that those who attended WPC had as enriching an experience as I did. I also hope that we can take that excitement, the new skills, and strategies back to our home Meetings and share the gained wealth of our knowledge and make some changes. I can’t speak to the specifics of anyone else’s experience but I know I came away with a lot of notes from the panels I attended. I was also grateful and deeply moved by my caucus sharing our experiences with other European Americans. Caucuses at WPC create a space for attenders of a particular identity to gather with others with that shared identity and reflect upon the day and conference so far.  I found it to be an unexpectedly centered and worshipful experience.

As part of the conference, FGC set up an open Facebook group titled WPC Quakers. It is for friends who attended the White Privilege Conference and those who are interested in antiracist social justice work and dismantling white supremacy to share resources and their learnings. I welcome anyone who’s interested to come share what you learned:

Highlights from the notes I personally took:

From Workshop “Fighting for Freedom against White Supremacy when you don’t fit the Grass-Roots Activist Mold” facilitated by Evonne Bilotta-Burke and Frankie Jader

There are many types of activists. While grassroots activism is often center stage, it isn’t a fit for everyone, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for each of us to do our part. Other types of activists include:

  • Educators who have gained experience in equity and diversity work and share knowledge and can help guide others.
  • Questioners who call others in to social justice work, questioning injustice and social structures. They help identify assumptions, privilege, and biases in themselves and others.
  • Behind-the-scenes activists are not the face of a movement, but work to be helpful from where they are. Often behind-the-scenes-activists are either working within corrupt systems to increase accountability and justice, or working within philanthropic/non-profit or similar settings facilitating positive change. Behind-the-scenes activists may live their activism through their work, or it may be through donating, whether via volunteering, money, or material support to their causes.
  • Artists use their creations to provoke change, conversation on social justice, and self-reflection and analysis by those who engage with their art.
  • Economic activists think critically about what they do with their money to best support social justice and use of their financial resources is guided by a strict code.

It was inspiring to hear variety of ways people make a difference that don’t always get media coverage. I was heartened to hear both what people in the room were doing and to think about where I might fit in and what more I could do.

Another category of activist I appreciated hearing about was the “flounderer”. A “founderer” is an activist who has good intent but through lack of knowledge or awareness of their own privilege and biases makes mistakes. It was helpful to hear that being a “flounderer” isn’t unusual for white allies and activists and that just because we’ve been uninformed, or made a mistake, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn, grow, and go on to make a difference.

Activism is engaging at the level of your ability in a way that combines skills, passion, conviction and knowledge to make an impact on the world, whether on just an interpersonal level, or on a national stage, and all of the levels in between are valid.  

Tips for keeping my white privilege from undercutting activism [which may be helpful to other European Americans]:

Knowing ourselves is key to being an effective activist and purveyor of social change. Knowing our privilege and the intersections of our identities and the privileges that come with each is important to keep that privilege from affecting our work. In different activist groups we may be at different levels of privilege. It can be helpful to be aware of these shifting dynamics. Figuring out what we don’t know and taking steps to learn is important. It is particularly useful to learn about things that don’t impact you personally. Making an effort to learn about those experiences of those different from ourselves and understanding other axis of privilege and oppression allows us to take steps to actively include everyone. Social justice is intersectional and there is always more space for us to grow in our understanding. Knowing where our comfort zones are and knowing where our challenge zones are is important. When we take time for self-care and to regroup it enables us to keep pushing into our challenges.

As European Americans we need to not make this activism about us and should not be at the center. Listen to understand, not to respond. In being aware of our privilege we can be sure to step back and allow those whose identity is directly impacted to lead and speak. We should be open to the guidance and leadership of those who more thoroughly understand through their lived experiences. We can always offer suggestions but should keep in mind we may not have enough perspective and our way is likely not most informed or best. In any setting, look for ways to bring in unheard voices. Diverse identities help challenge oppressive systems, the more diverse a group we’re working with or creating is, the more effective it will be.

Make mistakes. Mistakes mean you’re trying. They’re going to happen, they’re going to be difficult and frustrating and embarrassing. These feelings are hard, but it is up to us as good activists to be resilient and keep working. We need to work on not being defensive, to be open to corrections, to listen, and learn, and to take ownership of the impacts we make even if we did not intend them. When we are called out it isn’t about who we are as people but a thing we did or said that had an impact. This will be uncomfortable and that’s a good thing. When it’s uncomfortable that we’re growing. This work is hard and we should feel challenged. Being in community is about being vulnerable and owning our mistakes. Act with love and don’t be afraid.

From Workshop “An Experiential Activity for Identifying and Addressing White Supremacy facilitated” by Krista M. Mallot and Tina R. Paone

When receiving pushback from calling someone on their use of inappropriate language it can be helpful to ground explanations in personal stories so the person being educated can understand the impact of that migroagression. When we as white allies feel internal frustration about “p.c.” language or being called out on our words, it is important to look beyond our own feelings to understand the impact wording has on other people. Our lives are better when we can learn to connect with people that we might otherwise have alienated. This requires challenging and confronting our own biases and culturally inherited white supremacy. Any time we are invited to take up this challenge it is a space both for self-evaluation and personal growth to be truly in community with others.

Shifting language can be difficult, and awareness that failure is probably going to happen is important. The point for activists and allies who are not part of the oppressed group that particular language impacts is to keep trying, to hear when we are called into community, to think about the impact of our words, and to educate outwards to our white community with what we have learned.

When calling in others (whether our students, our families, our friends) to consider their language and receiving push back it can be helpful to acknowledge the emotions that we are hearing from them, before sharing what we have learned. Building a relationship and staying engaged can be the first step to helping someone else on their journey of confronting their white privilege and dismantling white supremacy.

When called out on mistakes as an ally and activist it is helpful to meet that invitation with gratitude. Acknowledge and own the mistake, embrace the responsibility of our growing edges. Everyone will make mistakes, the joy is to learn from them. Being thankful to those who take the time to connect with us through their own pain can help ground these interactions in a stronger sense of fellowship. Don’t make your apology about your own hurt feelings, guilt, or shame. As European Americans, being called out is a small moment in comparison to the litany of oppression and microaggressions people of color experience. To examine and receive support for working through the negative feelings that come with failure, find another white activist or ally. Part of our role as European Americans with privilege, steeped in a culture of white supremacy is to take responsibility for the messiness of our failures without being discouraged and to make changes to do better next time.

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