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White privilege: Minnesota planners says conference will take on sensitive topic head on

It’s a little risky getting the word out on the White Privilege Conference planned for Minnesota, organizers say, because discussions about the advantages of being white in America can be so provocative.

It’s a little risky getting the word out so early about the White Privilege Conference in Minnesota next spring, planners say.

That’s because it’s a provocative topic. And there’s always the possibility that the “haters,” as one of the organizers puts it, will descend in mass and try to disrupt peaceful discussions about the advantages of being white in America and the oppression that has led to.

Still, that’s not happened in the 11 years since the conference founding in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

And, there are still too many people who don’t know what the White Privilege Conference is to not get the word out, a triumvirate, the local chair people, told me over a bowl of soup the other day.

Lisa Albrecht started with a full head of steam. “White people don’t often understand we are born with a set of benefits, whether we like it or not, that advantage us as white people in the world,” said Albrecht, a white University of Minnesota professor in the school of social work in the undergraduate social justice minor program.

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It’s a conference and discussion “built on the premise that the U.S. was started by white people, for white people,” according to conference materials.

“What white folks don’t understand is their privilege and power in the system of how the USA works. When you hear ‘U.S. citizen,’ do you think of Raul? Somebody looking at him and asking, ‘where are you from?’ I’ve never been asked that,” said Rick Purcel, who is white and who works as safety and systems coordinator for the Minneapolis YWCA, as he talked about colleague Raul Ramos at the table across from him.

“For me as a person of color, I always have to think of who I am,” responded Raul Ramos, senior access and opportunity specialists with the Minnesota State Colleges and University Diversity and Multi-Culturalism Division. The conference is his opportunity to “rejuvenate” himself and to work with like-minded people “interested in turning this country into an anti-racist, multi-cultural country,” said Ramos, who also facilitates the Higher Education Anti-Racism Team, a group of local colleges and universities.

Conference theme and speakers
More than 1,500 people from all over the country are expected to attend the conference set for April 13 to April 16, 2011, in Bloomington. The theme is “This Land is Whose Land? Defining Citizenship, Understanding Access, Taking Action.” Hosting is the new Minnesota Justice Collaborative, which includes Minnesota Colleges and Universities, Augsburg College, the YWCA Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, among others. Conference sign-up begins in mid-January.

Speakers include:

Rose M. Brewer, scholar-activist, professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as co-author of “The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide” and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, “feminist, revolutionary, and historian.”

The conference is far-ranging in its inclusivity, with privilege topics extending beyond skin color to gender, sexuality, class and disability. All are woven together, the planners say, adding that issues of poverty and land ownership for Native Americans will figure prominently in the Minnesota conference.

As for the conference shaking up folks?

“This conference is on the radar of conservatives because it threatens the status quo, because we’re not just talking about individual change, we’re talking about systems change,” said Albrecht.

“Understanding, connecting, respecting” are keys to the conference, Purcell said.

It’s all about trying to transform institutions, building lasting relationships, said Ramos. For more information or to volunteer, email him at: Raul.Ramos@so.mnscu.edu