Attending a White Conference – Follow Up

“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.

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  • It was such a gift to meet you last week. Thank you for coming. And thank you for writing this. You’re so right — we don’t know or remember or acknowledge that our experience as white people is only one of many.

    I will never forget the day I realized that my experience as a mom of a child with special needs was unique, not universal. I was on rounds at our children’s hospital and encountered children without parents. Their families weren’t handling the situation the way mine had. They faced different challenges and responded in different ways. It was one of those surprises that I knew even as I acknowledged it shouldn’t have surprised me. Of course people are different. Of course not everyone acts the same way under that kind of stress. But seeing the reality was what it took for me to internalize it. I don’t understand it — I doubt I could — but the act of recognizing and acknowledging has been critical in my work advocating for families within the healthcare system.

    So thank you. We need to see our experiences in a proper context.

    • I love that our diversity continually pushes us into discomfort and helps us grow. Thanks for telling that story. I was so happy to meet you!

  • First of all, I’m so glad we got to spend a little time together!

    Second, I plan on giving FFW the same feedback I gave them last time, which mirrors much of what you said here. While they do a better job than many other Christian conferences in terms of the diversity of speakers, they still have work to do, especially in terms of the diversity of attendees. The lack of representation on certain panels was more than an oversight.

    I’m so glad you wrote this follow up, Cindy. I’m looking forward to a day when it will no longer be necessary.

  • I’ll admit–after your last post I wished I could make sure, somehow, that your experience at the festival would defy your expectations. For a moment. And then I was like, “really?” Because the problem is not solved with wishful thinking or all of us pretending things are better than they are. The problem is solved by us white people entering into spaces where our norm is not “the” norm.
    I appreciate you speaking out about this, Cindy. I think there’s an actually not-white-majority conference near me, and your post makes me want to attend, because if I’m only seeing writing or faith through my lenses, I’m further from God, not closer.
    Also, it was a delight to meet you.

  • This: “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.”

    While I am white, I am not American and I would go so far as to say that the American experience is often held up as the universal human experience. This is the biggest mind-warp for me when I enter into an American conference space … It’s like it’s the world and part of me wants to jump up and down and say, There’s a whole big world out there with very different experiences and lenses.

    Your voice is so important on this, Cindy.

  • Wow, thank you for sharing this, Cindy. Thank you for being gracious and patient with those of us who have a lot to learn. It was great meeting you.

  • Cindy, thank you for your clear and courageous and truth-seeking words. I so appreciated meeting you and your vulnerability. There are so many variables at play here — like you mention: white culture, POC, and also: different educational levels, differing socio-economic levels, the 3rd culture phenomenon. So many ways to divide, to not create conversations but to hold up our own experience as “the only way.” I think that’s got to be part of the problem– is the sense that the dominant cultural force thinks it’s “normal” without reference to its own constructed quality.

    What do you think can be done? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • carameredith.com

    Yup. I agree, 1000%, and am so grateful you’ve chosen to speak truth to a community (writers, conference-attendees, the Christian church at large) who desperately need to understand the implications of an all-white majority. Your voice is so important.

  • Suzanna Turner

    I really appreciate you bringing awareness to us about being under represented. I wonder why more white people were drawn to this conference in the first place. I live in a predominately white community which I assume is due to bigotry and socio-economic reasons primarily. We had only 1 African American student in my HS of 800 students and we only had a handful of Asian and Hispanic kids in the early 80’s. In the surrounding cities you will see more of a variety of ethnic groups. I do believe that like people groups surround themselves with like people such as in Los Angles ChinaTown and Koreatown for a sense of comfort, support and understanding especially for immigrants. My family immigrated from Germany in the 40-50’s and a group of them began a German church in Los Angeles which was built by their own hands which included my father and my grandfather. The members were able to help one another get on their feet but they still had to learn English by immersion. Because I am caucasian I could easily assimilate into the local community but I still come from a strong culture so I do identify with other immigrant families. When I was young I didn’t talk about my background because I was embarrassed to be different although I looked the same. It must be so much more difficult Cindy, not looking like others and seeing the world around you from an Asian culture perspective.

  • Amber

    “a recognition that things are where it always has been, the power lies where it has always been held”–except this is not true. The Midwest was once firmly in the hands of the Aboriginals, wasn’t it? Where is the talk/the repentance and the acknowledgement of this uncomfortable fact? Also, the US is not predominantly white, so why are our Churches still so uncomfortably segregated like this in North America?

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