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Conference Engages Participants on Race, Gender and Class

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by Helen Hu

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An ambitious conference on race, gender and class underscored that the nation is driven by these issues as much as ever and feelings about them are still raw.

The 13th annual White Privilege Conference, which drew a diverse crowd of 1,500 last month, held more than 120 presentations and discussions that seemed to resonate in light of the controversial Trayvon Martin case.

The Florida teenager’s photo was displayed in discussions of racial profiling and his name was mentioned in a rap song played during one session. Participants were asked to jot down what actions the incident was inspiring them to take, and their comments were taped on a wall.

Martin was fatally shot on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he was attacked by Martin and acted in self-defense.  Martin, who wore a hooded sweatshirt, was found to carry candy and a can of iced tea. Protesters have called for Zimmerman’s arrest for murder but authorities are holding off, saying they are still investigating the death.

Dr. Angela Davis, a keynote speaker, said throwing one person behind bars doesn’t address the deeper problems that created the situation.

“I totally understand that this is where our emotions lead us, but putting one person in prison is not going to solve the problem,” said Davis, who gained notoriety as a radical activist in the ‘60s and now teaches at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

“It’s time for us to begin to engage in public conversation about violence and racism in a way that we don’t seek easy answers,” she said.

For example, violence is often spawned within families, she said. “I wonder what was happening with George Zimmerman’s family — where seeing a young Black in a hoodie is seen as a threat,” she said.

During the conference, participants discussed ways that many White people and predominantly White institutions still look upon other races and cultures with suspicion and skepticism and give lip service to diversity.

Participants were asked in one session whether their organizations seemed committed to treating everyone fairly and giving minorities a chance to hold influential positions.

Too often, participants said, minorities are placed in jobs that have visibility but not that much power. They’re relegated to certain jobs such as minority recruitment. And it’s assumed that minorities should change their behavior, if necessary, to fit in and climb the ladder.

Leaders hold training sessions on diversity and “think that’s all they need to do,” in the words of one participant. Often there’s no accountability or transparency.

Minorities sometimes discourage other minorities to speak out, according to Vernon Wall, a session leader and a senior director at the American College Personnel Association.  “Folks of color will say, ‘Why are you messing up a good thing? I’m just trying to get out of here,’” he said.

The Social Justice Training Institute, which Wall helped found, advises that people pushing for change try to gain the support of their institutions’ leadership, form a team and spell out their vision of a socially just organization and its benefits.

A “cultural audit” should be conducted to assess the organization’s dynamics and readiness for change, the institute suggests. The organization’s leadership and the team should analyze the audit’s results, develop a strategic plan, carry it out and gauge whether it’s working, according to the institute.

In another session, two sports analysts attacked the national media, especially ESPN and Sports Illustrated magazine, for skewed coverage.

They said sports journalists, who are predominantly white, pile on when it comes to the wrongdoing of Black figures such as Michael Vick and Tiger Woods and rarely do positive stories about athletes of color.  White athletes are depicted as wholesome and family-oriented, and their misdeeds are underplayed by comparison, they said.

Charles Modiano, a blogger whose site, www.POPSspot.com, takes a critical look at sports, says women are mostly ignored, except in Sports Illustrated magazine’s swimsuit issues. A study found ESPN devoted 1.6 percent of its airtime to covering women’s sports.

Jeffrey Montez de Oca, who teaches sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said the way Pennsylvania State University handled the child-molestation accusations against assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was a study in White loyalty and protectionism.

“White men in positions of authority are culturally predisposed to circle the wagons to protect each other,” said Montez de Oca, who led a session on the scandal.

Other sessions were held on issues related to Muslims, Asians, American Indians and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Participants shared anecdotes — and sometimes tears.

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