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The White Privilege Diaries 1: Slurring our words

Updated: Jun 19

I was bleary-eyed and confused, coming off a 5am flight to Denver, Colorado. The US border official was a middle-aged Black woman who asked me, travelling on business, what conference I was attending. “The White Privilege Conference,” I said. She slid my passport across the desk back to me and said with a chilly tone, “Have a good time.”

Moments later, in my decaffeinated haze, I realized that I should’ve explained that, no, I was not attending a Proud Boys rally, I was here to learn from Dr. Eddie Moore and his colleagues who held the first WPC 25 years ago. It’s four days of speakers, workshops and discussion groups about ways to heal our racial divide and foster personal and professional growth for people of all colours. Did I have a good time? Yes and no.

Some white people think the goal of these discussions is to make us feel guilt or shame. That’s both incorrect and counterproductive. I didn’t feel guilty for being white at this conference but rather appalled by the ways whiteness is used as a weapon and how I’m participating in that, consciously or unconsciously. There was lots to unpack and think about.

W.E.B. DuBois wrote about white supremacy way back in 1935 yet we’re all still working to understand how it disrupts our culture in ways psychological, economical, political, even medical. A society that benefits some people while pushing down others, based solely on skin colour or other immutable factors, is not a healthy society. In 1989, feminist scholar Peggy McIntosh dug deep into privilege with her famous paper, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a metaphor for the collection of unearned assets white people benefit from in an anti-Black culture.

Peggy McIntosh and Jefferson Darrell
Peggy McIntosh and Jefferson Darrell

I didn’t expect to hear the N-word at this gathering and certainly not from white people but at the end of each day, I attended a “white caucus” in which a pair of facilitators led discussion groups for us to unpack whatever feelings the sessions brought up that day (there were also Black caucus and mixed-race caucus groups. This is where things would get awkward but interesting. Older white men stayed as silent as possible, worried they’d say the wrong thing, while some others overshared. And then a young non-binary person started to cry. They had attended a workshop in which a white woman started using the N-word. Several people in the room objected but the facilitator, a Black woman, said no no, please speak freely. This young person felt trapped and upset. “I should’ve said more!” they cried, “That’s not right, no matter who says it! If this was happening to a Black person on the street, I would step in!”“But it wasn’t happening on the street,” our facilitator said gently, “It was this Black woman’s workshop.”

In his own workshops, my colleague Jefferson Darrell tells the story of first being called the N-word at the age of seven. Seven! Attendees are always shocked, as am I, every time I’ve heard his story. He uses the full word, I won’t, and I’m surprised by how many white people I encounter who insist that banning its use is an infringement on their free speech, like in the infamous 2011 conversation between comedians. I remember our grandmothers telling us, “It costs nothing to be polite,” but it’s been an ugly ongoing debate — Black linguist John McWhorter has insisted in the pages of several major newspapers that using the euphemism “the N-word” gives it too much power — but the goal either way is to have racial slurs die off from being boring or banned. No one says “paddy” or “bogtrotter” anymore (I’ll get into that in part two) and every organization, as I’ve discussed before, always needs to set limits on what speech is acceptable. Making white people cry or get angry is not the goal here, even if we seem to do it easily when race comes up. Lots to unpack in the days to come for this cis white man, more on that next week…

Breakfast Culture's “Ally is a Verb” group and individual anti-oppression coaching workshops show how to use privilege to speak up and support, how racism manifests in ways big and small, and how to be effectively anti-racist. Schedule a talk with Jefferson Darrell today to learn more:

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