This past weekend, I, along with most of the members of the White Noise Collective, attended the 14th Annual White Privilege Conference in Seattle, WA.
For us and for me, the learning was deep and came in unexpected ways. I learned so much from every workshop, keynote and conversation I participated in, including gaining knowledge about the anti-asian racism perpetuated by use of the practice and term “meditation,” ways that white supremacy shows up in organizational decision-making processes (even collective ones) and the destructive potentials and neocolonialism and international “aid.” Honestly, I couldn’t even begin to summarize these three days.
And so I’m focusing this on the learning that came from the process of presenting our newest workshop, White Females and Helping Professions in the Buffer Zone. In our workshop, we presented some of our thinking about the social construction of the“white female identity” and the “buffer zone,” reviewed a few threads of the historical context that encouraged white females to take on roles in the buffer zone (specifically as a part of the origin and maintenance of capitalism), and then engaged folks in creating a Theatre of the Oppressed piece in order to generate ideas about the patterns and how we can find our zones of influence to make change.
Or at least that was what we aimed to do. And we did get a lot of feedback from folks who offered immense gratitude for the learning and the planting of seeds, as many of them admitted that this was something they hadn’t been introduced to or been able to explore before.
And yet, in this process, we realized how much we perpetuated many of the very patterns of white female socialization that we had aimed to present and transform. One of the resources we brought forward in our presentation was Tema Okun’s list of key traits of white supremacist culture. This list includes such things as Sense of urgency, Paternalism [Maternalism], Fear of open conflict, Quantity over quality, Power hoarding, Progress is bigger, more, Worship of the written word and Objectivity.
A lot of good ideas, for sure. And by the end of the conference, I’m pretty sure I embodied in really conscious and unconscious ways every single one of these. I say this with a lot of self-love, because I know that this is how learning happens sometimes. Sometimes you read a book and you got it. And sometimes you need a really messy group process and to make a lot of mistakes to finally get it.
Let’s start at the beginning. Sense of urgency. In preparing for the conference, we created
and submitted a presentation proposal pretty late into the game. We were told we’d been put on the waitlist and therefore didn’t move forward with preparations, assuming that would be the last word. We found out two weeks before the conference that our workshop had been accepted, and then scrambled to get it ready. We said yes to presenting because we felt really confident that we had the materials, resources and exercises and could pull it together. And because we thought, of course, that progress is bigger, more; that this was a great opportunity to grow our workshop portfolio and put ourselves and our offering out there in the conference world. We pretty much did it all over email. As I “had the time” combined with excitement, I created the framework for the powerpoint and started thinking about structure. Let’s just go ahead and call that individualism and I’m the only one thinking, and maybe a little power hoarding because organizationally, it is often the case that those “with the time and energy” are either those with a higher level of societal privileges or those socialized to set aside their own needs in service of the collective needs. It is definitely my pattern to do the latter. And, oh, how the academic, jargon-filled worship of the written word and perfectionism showed up in that powerpoint and presentation! It was so full of ideas that both I (and all of us) were so attached to, that even when we acknowledged to ourselves that we were trying to pack in too many ideas, we still couldn’t bring ourselves to cut it down (convincing ourselves we could somehow manage both quantity and quality). We maintained our sense of urgency, our perfectionism, and even threw in some avoidance of open conflict and some more denying of our own individual needs throughout the final planning of the presentation.
It was a beautiful process all around.
I’m able to say this with some amount of humor mostly because we were able to catch ourselves by the end and start to see/speak/act in greater accordance with our values. Unfortunately, much of this happened after we did our first presentation, when one of our collective members was finally able to take the time to really think about our process and speak her truth. And once she poured out some truth, we finally all set aside the dire need we had to get everything ready, and we poured out some more truths, acknowledging some of the ways we did huge disservices to ourselves and our needs throughout the process. We were all compromising ourselves, in either subtle or overt ways, for various reasons – a sense of obligation, excitement, ambition, etc. We didn’t end our conversation completely resolved and we didn’t end with a perfect solution or a group hug. What we did do, though, was to bring some choice and awareness to the situation. Choices and awarenesses that weren’t possible when we were so consumed by the need for a quick and perfect outcome. This was a moment of interrupting white supremacy patterning. This is one thing I’m proud of, even though I can’t take any of the credit for initiating it, and it makes me ever more aware of how essential it is that we continue to learn to slow down, to prioritize building relationships and to sometimes say no, even when it might disappoint.
As for the presentation itself, I wish we hadn’t rushed ourselves through the material out of fear of running out of time (because we ended up having plenty of it), I wish we had done a better job of preparing and distilling our strategies to dismantle section and I wish we had been better prepared for what we would do if there happened to be 73 instead of 30 participants. I really wish we had done a better job at the beginning of framing/contextualizing for ourselves and the participants exactly who this workshop was for and what it aimed to do. And I wish we had remembered to list and discuss “taking our leadership from people of color and front line communities” as a primary strategy for disrupting the white supremacy of the buffer zone, instead of having our oversight mentioned by a workshop participant. And I wish we had been able to offer it again with more integrity and all that we’d learned.
But sometimes we don’t get that. Sometimes we have to accept that when we make these mistakes, there will be people who walk away angry, hurt or disappointed (both others and ourselves) and we won’t always get to fix that or make it better. It’s really uncomfortable to acknowledge that there are these things beyond our control. But I think that learning to sit in this discomfort, accepting that we are not always the saviors, is one thing that is definitely required to start to disrupt our roles within the buffer zone.