Attending a White Conference – Follow Up

April 22, 2016

“This conference isn’t made for me,” my new friend Drew says to me by the fireplace in Calvin College’s Prince Conference Room at the Festival of Faith & Writing.

“It isn’t made with my needs in mind.” I nod in understanding, because of course it wasn’t. It was presented for the majority white people who were in attendance. We took a moment, the two of us, part of only a small handful of people of color at the conference, to survey the crowds of white people engaged in conversations around the room, reminding ourselves yet again of the space we occupy at the margins of dominant culture.

Our short exchange was not angry nor bitter—it was simply an acknowledgement of our social location, a recognition that things are where it always has been, the power lies where it has always been held.

After I wrote my last piece on Attending a White Conference, verbalizing the anxieties I had stepping into a predominantly white space as a minority, many people responded with kindness. You told me you were glad I spoke up and named what is uncomfortable. You said you were eager to meet me, and you hoped things would go better than I expected. You wanted me to feel loved, accepted, and affirmed—fully for who I am.

I am so incredibly grateful for your warm words and your genuine desire to welcome me into your space. I hope it was clear to each of you whom I interacted with personally at the conference my sincere joy in meeting you and forging our new friendships. I was delightfully surprised at the diversity of your personalities, dynamically brought to life from the avatars I normally interact with online.

But when it came to stepping into a white space, there was very little surprise to what the conference was. It was a white conference, engaged with white ideas, geared towards white needs, presented by white people to a majority of those who crossover their own cultural experience. Even in the panels where people of color sat on the platform, the time was used to explain to white people the language that had to be used to express the ideas being conveyed.

I appreciate the fact that there were several people of color who were given the microphone, and that they spoke to packed out rooms. There was a palpable sense of a posture to listen and to learn. However, I fear that these visible signs of representation are a false indication of real progress and change. Just because black people were on the panels does not mean it wasn’t still a white conference. A long history of systemic racial inequality will take far more time and labor to reverse course. And so, for now, for this year of 2016, there were no surprises to me. The conference was indeed, a white conference.

Our view of the sky is a mere patch, an incomplete view obstructed by the tall walls within which we dwell.

The Festival of Faith and Writing explored literature and spirituality. Speakers spoke beautifully toward our human condition—how we use our language to bring meaning to our existence, how we use our words to worship, to be prophetic, and to cast vision. But the privileges and power of white culture affords them a seamless ability to universalize their human experience. Again and again I heard white speakers tell stories, deliver messages, and preach to experiences foreign to my culture. And yet, so often it wasn’t expressed as particular to their own culture, it was presented as the human experiences lived by everyone across the board. 

The opening keynote of the Festival was delivered by Tobias Wolff, a renowned American author. He spoke a true word that said, “writing about faith is often like a frog singing the praises of heavens from the bottom of a well.” Our view of the sky is a mere patch, an incomplete view obstructed by the tall walls within which we dwell. Our sense of reality and the human experience is always embedded in our social and cultural fabric—beautifully, spectacularly, and particularly woven together. 

I can appreciate white literature, the analysis and poetry of humanity from a white perspective, but because I am not white, it is always apparent to me that this version of humanity is particular to white culture. The only thing universal about us is our worth, or in Christian language, our Imago Dei—everything else is particular to our history, community, language and other shaping influences. Until there is a mutual, shared recognition of the particularities of our humanity, the conference will be a white conference. Until the voices and conversations include a diverse representation of lived experiences, the conference will be a white conference. Until white people are as aware as I and other POC are, that we speak only a partial truth of our humanity and our connection to the divine, the festival is one of white faith and white writing. 

I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Festival, and that I set forth these challenges not to be critical of good intentions by the organizers of the conference. But this conversation I have chosen to participate in through the internet, the act of speaking and naming truths about faith through writing, demands that I insist upon the right for myself and every people of color to bring our particular vision of God to the table. Not just for my own sake but for our collective striving for faithfulness.

May we piece together our patches of the heavens so that together we reflect God more fully. Only in dismantling a white expression of faith as universal can other perspectives rise to equal engagement with white culture. 

And only then, can there be true celebration of faith at the festival.