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Thursday, April 27, 2006 02:01 pm

Head start

If there’s no racism and no discrimination, why are things so lopsided?

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Today’s column is dedicated to my copy editor and my mom. My mom, see, skims everything I write, trolling for clues that might explain why the heck I turned out this way. The copy editor has no choice; it’s her job to peruse every syllable published in the newspaper. As for the rest of you, I predict you’ll roll your eyes and flip the page as soon as you realize that I’m writing — again? yes, again! — about my all-time-favorite four-letter word: race. Will you keep reading if I promise that this time, it’s not about discrimination? After all, everybody knows that racism is pretty much extinct, right? All the laws and drinking fountains got fixed back in Martin’s day. Rednecks aren’t considered cool anymore. In fact, one popular theory claims, society has performed so much penance for its racist past that we’ve gone overboard and invented reverse discrimination. Still, you can’t deny that there’s a problem. Right here in Springfield, our municipal government, our police and fire departments, and our public school district are uniformly unable to hire enough African-American employees to reflect the general population. Some people insist that these disparities prove that there’s racial discrimination. Yet no one can pinpoint a particular policy as racist. So if there’s no racism and no discrimination, why is everything so lopsided? Eddie Moore Jr., Ph.D., believes that he knows the answer. It’s not the kind of grand “gotcha” that needs a drum-roll intro; it’s simple and logical and sounds pretty bland: Minorities aren’t oppressed; whites are just overprivileged. Moore, who has made a career of directing and facilitating intercultural activities in various academic and business settings, is in St. Louis this week hosting the seventh annual White Privilege Conference, or WPC7, on the University of Missouri campus. More than 600 people have registered to attend the event, which features about 100 speakers and concludes with a performance by Tommy the Clown and the Hip Hop Clowns from the documentary Rize. But make no mistake — the fun ending doesn’t necessarily mean that all participants will leave with a case of the warm fuzzies. “This is not a ‘Kumbayah’ conference where we’re going to hold hands and skip out of here,” Moore says. “This is a tough conference dealing with tough topics.” Moore was first introduced to the concept of white privilege through a now-famous essay by Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. Titled “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the essay frames a list of advantages automatically granted to wearers of the chosen hue. I first read McIntosh’s essay in the early 1990s, and it opened my eyes and broadened my mind. Moore had the same reaction. “When I read it, I’m like, ‘What is this?’ I thought there was racism; I never thought about white privilege,” he says. Some items on the list seem trivial. Take No. 12: “I can go into . . . a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.” Or No. 26: “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.” Some are a bit heavier: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” is No. 5. No. 13 is related: “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial stability.” Every item on the list is a bonus most of us white folk never really realized we had. No. 35, for instance: “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers . . . suspect that I got it because of my race.” Or No. 39: “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.” Or how about No. 30? That’s “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.” Now, if you’re white, you may be thinking: Hey, I never asked for these advantages! Moore knows that. On the WPC7 Web site (www.whiteprivilegeconference.com), he states right up front: “This conference is not about beating up on white folks.” He just wants us to recognize these differences. He wants us to realize that if life is one long footrace, the reason we’re winning is that our skin color has given us a huge head start. “I want people to begin to have conversations,” he says. “Wherever your circle is, start to ask questions. Start to wonder why these things are the way they are.” That’s what I’m doing with my little column. So to Mom and Kerry, thanks for reading!
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