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Conference keynoters focus on inclusion and truth-telling

White Privilege Conference concludes its three-day run Saturday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Ivory Toldson

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Dr. Ivory Toldson knows BS when he sees it.

To Toldson, one of three Friday keynoters during last week’s White Privilege Conference, BS stands for “bad statistics.” One such statistic that received widespread circulation was the claim there are more black men in prison than in college. That statistic, said Toldson, a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and president and CEO of the QEM (Quality Education for Minorities) Network, was wrong, even if those who made the claim were “making a legitimate point.”

Another that turned out to be wrong came from criminologist John DiIulio, who looked at birth demographics in the mid-1990s and determined that “superpredators,” whom Toldson called “a new type of criminal who could rip the nation into shreds,” would soon emerge. In fact, youth crime began falling soon after DiIulio made his prediction — but not before laws allowing children to be tried as adults and three-strikes legislation had been enacted.

In a third example Toldson cited, a 2011 University of South Carolina study said that half of black men would be arrested by age 22. Many media outlets reported the study, some using tape of handcuffed black men wearing orange jumpsuits.

But the study also said that 40 percent of white men would be arrested by 22. Reporting on that aspect of the study was hard to find, Toldson said.

“A lot of narratives about black people come from researchers who don’t look like us,” Toldson said. “Soul food didn’t come from emulating black cooks, and good black research won’t come from emulating white researchers.”

Ritu Bhasin

Keynoter Ritu Bhasin, a speaker, author and advocate who lives in Toronto, had the goal “interrupt white supremacy by living authentically” in the title of her talk.

“When we do the heavy, deep, intensive work of healing the woundedness and pain we carry by being on the receiving end of oppression — when we feel more empowered to speak and are committed to healing — our physical and mental health and our relations will improve.”

“As you climb,” she said, “you’re lifting.”

She said hers is the “quintessential India story.” Her father arrived in Canada with $100 in his pocket. At age 11, her family moved “to the whitest place they could find” in Toronto. While she’s grateful for the education the move allowed her — “I wouldn’t be standing here today without (her parents’) decision-making,” she said — Bhasin “was the only brown girl in my class for years.” The result, she said, was “relentless racial bullying.”

As an adult, she entered “the most conforming culture” she could think of: She became a lawyer. “By my early 30s, I had a fancy job with fancy pay, but I was profoundly unhappy,” she said. “I felt soulless. I thought, ‘I’m too young to go down like this.’”

She then began her current work, where she’s learned “we will never have deep relationships until white supremacy is eliminated.”

“We know you want to be our friends — why wouldn’t you?” she told the white people in the crowd of about 1,300. “We’re amazing. Our food is better, our art is better, our clothes are better, our music is better — and our dancing is definitely better. We have more fun than you, and we know you know this, because you are constantly trying to appropriate our stuff.”

She offered self-love and authenticity as “the tools to dismantle the master’s house.” She advised those in attendance “to reveal more of your personal side. What’s the one thing you’re not sharing because you fear judgment?”

Then she shared one of hers: her frugal family trained her to re-use plastic zip bags to store leftovers. Now that she can afford all the bags she wants — she still washes the used bags and reuses them.

“Living authentically takes guts, resilience and hard work,” she said, “but we know how great it feels, because we are thriving.”

Howard Ross

The final Friday keynoter, Howard Ross, is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founder of Cook Ross, consultants who help companies and organizations create inclusive leadership and cultures. He labeled his talk, delivered minutes after the announcement of a not guilty verdict in the trial of a Pittsburgh police officer in the shooting death of Antwon Rose II, “Creating Belonging in a World of Power, Privilege and Separation.”

Abraham Maslow got it wrong with his famous hierarchy of needs, Ross said: Belonging is the most basic human need.

“Belonging is a sense of shared identity, a shared destiny. It’s interdependence and shared values — and the ability to be oneself,” Ross said. “I exist because you exist.”

He recommended consuming news accounts from sources you might not regularly use and having lunch with someone who sees the world differently.

He offered a few questions those lunch partners can ask one another: What led you to think the way you do? What issues about the other side deeply concern you? What have you always wanted to ask someone from the other side? Is there anything you’d like to say to clean up the past?

“What will our legacy be?” he asked after tracing the connections among a number of 20th century leaders who worked to promote greater inclusion. “Some days it’s hard. But we have to keep trying. It’s the only thing we’ve got.”

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