I had the amazing privilege (no pun intended) of attending the White Privilege Conference Global in May, held for the first time in Canada. (It has been held in the U.S. for the past 19 years). It was an amazing event, and I was delighted that other than school boards, The United Church of Canada seemed to have the largest delegation! We were all able to attend workshops in the morning, and two keynote speakers per day, as well as the entertainment that augmented the experience.

The idea of intersectionality was presented in a myriad of ways, including the intersections of race and sexuality, race and disability, race and colonialism. All of these topics held the opportunity for listening, discussion, and included calls to action. A keynote address investigated the relationship between White privilege and White supremacy. Understanding that White supremacy is behind White privilege was eye opening, and centred the conversation where it belongs.

A scene of the presenter's stage from the audience's perspective at the White Privilege Conference Global - Toronto in May 2018.
White Privilege Conference Global - Toronto, May 2018.
Credit: 
Adele Halliday, The United Church of Canada

Critical analysis of the media was front and centre, with an informative workshop highlighting the Canadian media and how stories involving issues of race are handled. Whereas we are usually asking who is left out of the story, we were prodded into asking questions like, “Whose name is published, and whose isn’t?”; “Whose picture is pixellated, and whose is not?”; “What are the descriptors being used in articles and how do they reflect race?”

In one example, a White woman has a racist rant in public and is caught on film, and not once, over multiple stories and multiple media, is her face shown or her name mentioned. Despite this not being a first offense, no charges were ever laid.

And two stories about robberies illustrate how race is considered. In one story, a group of young Black men charged with multiple bank robberies are labelled “pathetic parasites,” by the staff inspector Mike Earl. Their pictures are portrayed as mug shots.

The same staff inspector referred to the “lunchtime bandit”, a White man, as a “preppy punk.” Indeed, he thought he might even be employed, since he only robbed banks during his lunch break.

As Desmond Cole told us, “our media operates under a false pretense of objectivity!”

I attended several workshops geared towards “a pedagogy of discomfort,” looking for tools and activities which could show us how to lead our congregations, whether inside or outside of churches, into a place of discomfort. I was looking for a way to hold them in the uncomfortable spaces, safely, and long enough to allow learning to begin. Nathalie Sirois shared her mantra, “If you’re not making people uncomfortable, you’re not doing it right!”

I was certainly uncomfortable. Who was I, a White woman, who didn’t think of herself as particularly privileged, newly awakened to the extent of my privilege? It was good to hear the women of colour in the crowd who were angry, who weren’t afraid to tell their stories from their vantage points. But there was an excitement, a timid, fearful excitement within me that pushed me into the uncomfortable space and held me there. I want to be part of the solution, and I don’t know how to do that with integrity, with grace, and without any assumptions. I don’t know how to do that on the terms of people of colour, but that’s exactly how it must be.

The event was exceptional, and those of us who went as members of the church, not necessarily attached to General Council, are expected to continue to work together, and initiate activities in our own communities to speak to these issues. In reviewing my notes, and lists of books to read on critical race theory, well, our work has just begun.

Karen Orlandi is finishing up her second year at the Centre for Christian Studies, and works in congregational and outreach ministry in the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario. Her passion is working with people in poverty and suffering from addictions and mental illness. She sees congregational ministry as a way of taking the gifts of the church to the streets, and the needs of the streets to the church. This article was originally published on the Centre for Christian Studies website.

The White Privilege Conference Global-Toronto was held at Ryerson University in Toronto, May 9–12, 2018. See the blog post from another member of the United Church delegation, Jade Eckert.