Armstrong: White privilege is real

A FUNNY THING happened when I stopped by the White Privilege Conference that took place at the Philadelphia Marriott last week.

I was told I couldn't stay.

The conference's policy was not to admit reporters unless they had registered for the five-day event. So not only couldn't I hang around - as I had intended to do - for the rest of that day, but I was told I wasn't allowed to record any of the sessions or interview panelists. If I was caught slipping into any of the sessions without having registered - which I'd also thought about doing - I would be asked to show my registration badge. Hearing all that only made me even more curious. What was the White Privilege Conference and who was behind it?

"The White Privilege Conference in its 17th year is about looking at white privilege and other forms of oppression," explained Stephanie Puentes, the conference's media coordinator. "It's not just about race but it's about race and gender. It's about race and sexual orientation. It's about race and abilities [and] disabilities. We're trying to look at it comprehensively.

"It's not about beating up on white people. It's not about saying that white people are bad - and I think that's a common misconception that people have when they hear the name of the conference," Puentes pointed out. "We're not talking about white people. We're talking about whiteness. We're talking about a system that we all live in that favors some and disfavors others."

As we talked, I began to see why the conference, which ended Sunday, is skittish about letting in outsiders. Merely raising the notion that institutional racism still exists in America and that whites automatically get certain benefits because of skin color raises people's hackles. It makes people defensive. I worked for everything I have, they say. Nobody gave me anything. You want government handouts.

I see it all of the time in our own online newspaper comments when readers repeatedly blame African Americans for their circumstances and don't take into account how it is that so many people got in the situations they did.

One of my best male buddies and I go at it periodically over the term, because of how it connotes affluence. His parents were working-class white people and he grew up in the projects. Mine were college-educated African Americans and middle class, yet there were numerous additional racial barriers they had to deal with - which is where the whole notion of privilege comes in.

On its website, the White Privilege Conference lists several examples such as the ability to assume that, "If you work hard and follow the rules, you will get what you deserve" and also "that your failures will not be attributed to your race or your gender."

According to their website, white privilege also is the ability to, "assume that most of the people you or your children study in history classes and textbooks will be of the same race, gender, or sexual orientation as you are."

I would add that it's also the ability to move into a new neighborhood and not having to be on alert that your neighbors might react negatively to your family's presence. It's also not having to worry that having a black-sounding name will limit your job prospects. And it's not worrying about whether your children might be more harshly disciplined in school because of their skin color, as many studies suggest. It's also about being able to go into certain high-end stores and not have employees automatically eye you suspiciously because of your race and treat you like a potential shoplifter.

Puentes, a semi-retired former high-tech employee who lives in California, started attending the White Privilege Conference nine years ago after being introduced to it by a friend. During its early years, the conference met in Iowa and now meets in mainly smaller cities. This is the first time, the White Privilege gathering has convened in Philadelphia.

After we chatted, I agreed to leave and Puentes escorted me out with promises that she would try to see if the group's founder, Eddie Moore Jr., could fit me in for a quick interview. I headed out, pausing briefly at the vending tables, with her shadowing me at a polite distance. I was back a few hours later and made my way back to a conference room where I prepared to record the interview as I often do. Moore asked me to stop.

"Part of why I just operate in this mode of paper and pencil is because of some of the kinds of resistance we've received," he explained, as someone else handed me a notebook. "People take it personally. They feel like it's an attack on them individually. Where we begin is really looking at systemic white privilege, organizational white privilege . . . we see people who consistently go in for a bank loan get different treatment."

Privilege extends far beyond race, Moore pointed out.

"It's like when we go buy a car. I automatically get a perk being a man . . . that's part of what we are looking at," he said. "Most men still see women in kind of an unfair light in terms of ability and equality. When you look at the pay differences between a woman and a man, there's still some real work to do in that area."

And that's what this conference apparently does. It tries to move participants beyond where they are when they arrive. Roughly 2,500 attendees came for the experience last week.

"We don't want people here reporting on what's happening at the conference," Moore added. "We want people experiencing what's happening at the conference . . . In order to have significant, substantial learning around the issue, you have to be here more than one day."

White-privilege organizers are dealing with the media in the wrong way. It's off-putting to be denied entrance and also be given a one-pager detailing the group's press policy.

But I understand the group's reluctance, since even bringing up the subject of white privilege makes people leery. Participants at previous conventions have gotten death threats. I know that just writing about the subject of white privilege and the convention being in town, my inbox is going to be full of ugly, racist emails.

After all as Moore pointed out, "There are some pancakes you can never flip over."

armstrj@phillynews.com

215-854-2223 @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen