Reflecting on Rosa Clemente at the White Privilege Conference

I recently had the opportunity to hear Rosa Clemente speak at the White Privilege Conference. I admittedly have been reluctant to attend this conference in the past, finding myself more drawn to participate in grassroots gatherings like the YWCA Madison's Racial Justice Summit. Although I resolutely support white privilege being acknowledged, understood, and dismantled, I have worried that such spaces can inadvertently recenter white people and white issues and even create new institutions for white people to profit from white supremacy. Paul Gorski does an eloquent job of explaining what can happen when only white people gather to address white privilege and how such dialogues often overlook important economic considerations asked by critical race theorists:

During these dialogues we more or less took turns pouring the contents of our [white privilege] knapsacks onto the floor before encouraging each other to “own” whatever came out, taking responsibility for racism. Rarely did we get around to talking about what it meant to be an anti-racist or for racial justice. Rarely did we use those dialogues to grow ourselves into more powerful change agents. This, I think, persists as a problem in white caucusing and other forms of race dialogues today: too much conversation about how hard it is to be a white person taking responsibility for white privilege; way too much thinking that the dialogue, itself, is the anti-racism rather than what prepares us for the anti-racism...Critical race theorists centralize the fundamental questions too often left unasked in conversations about white privilege: What, exactly, does power mean in a capitalistic society? Why, in a capitalistic society, do people and institutions exert power and privilege? What are they after?

The skepticism with which I entered the White Privilege Conference quickly dissipated when Clemente took the stage. Such straight-shooting truth-telling I rarely hear. But like she said, "When we don't name it, we internalize it."

Rosa Clemente. Credit to: (1)ne Drop

In telling her story of growing up in the South Bronx, she named her own privilege of moving to a different, more affluent neighborhood while still in the K-12 school system. This transition, she insisted, was her ticket to college. She had no doubt her co

usins should be standing alongside her at the university door. Because they were denied the opportunities she received, however, they remained on the same block wh

ere she grew up, struggling with poverty. As she said, "We are not all Trayvon because our privileges make us all not Trayvon."

Clemente likely did not endear herself to many audience members when she called President Obama the Deporter in Chief or insist that his presidency was necessary to move the U.S. Empire forward. Seeking audience approval, however, was not her aim. In her address, I heard a call for an "internal revolution of the self" that results in consistency of action. In other words, living an integrated life requires us to do what w

e say we are going to do. In the context of racial justice, being for it often means white people need to fall back and listen, with humility, to those for whom racism is a lived reality, not just a social construct.

She also distinguished doing racial justice work with love from not hurting anybody's feelings. Quoting Frederick Douglass, Clemente said,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle...If there is no struggle there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Clemente juxtaposed these powerful words alongside an appeal for relearning history--of un

derstanding that our history is not one just of oppression but also of groups of people resisting that oppression "every step of the way." To paraphrase her, knowing that part of our legacy can make us less afraid and help us to fall in love with the struggle for freedom.

This year's conference took place in Dane County, Wisconsin, where more than 74% of black children are poor compared to 5.5% of white children. I am grateful that Clemente took the audience and herself to task for transforming those abominable numbers and reminding us that our nation's children are at stake. As she said about her own daughter, "Hell no, this system is not going to destroy her."