Participants gathered over two days at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the Confronting Whiteness conference.

The gathering featured Angela Parker, Ijeoma Ononuju and keynote speaker Danté Stewart. Participants listened to African American thought leaders and sought to discern what it means to confront whiteness in their lives, their churches and the world.

The second annual conference was held on January 27-28, beginning intentionally on Holocaust Remembrance Day and including a pop-up market featuring locally owned African American businesses, food trucks and artisans.

The smell of delicious food and the sounds and experiences of African American people were literally in the air. The gathering came with its own soundtrack, which featured songs like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” and Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

The conference is the product of the intentional work of Benjamin Boswell, the senior minister at Myers Park Baptist Church and author of Confronting Whiteness: A Spiritual Journey of Reflection, Conversation and Transformation.

Making it clear that he is inspired by the witness of African American writers, activists and artists, Boswell regularly teaches and trains individuals on antiracism, and he has gained a following.

A man standing behind a podium speaking, while holding a microphone in one hand and gesturing with his other hand.

Benjamin Boswell speaking at the 2023 Confronting Whiteness conference. (Credit: Starlette Thomas)

With more than 100 people in attendance, Boswell invited the audience to hold space for 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, who had been brutally beaten to death after a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee. The bodycam footage would be released later that evening.

Boswell called for silent reflection after reading “What the dead know by heart.” It is a poem by Donte Collins and reads in part:

lately, when asked how are you, i
respond with a name no longer living

Rekia, Jamar, Sandra

i am alive by luck at this point. i wonder
often: if the gun that will unmake me
is yet made, what white birth

will bury me, how many bullets, like a
flock of blue jays, will come carry my black
to its final bed, which photo will be used

to water down my blood. today i did
not die and there is no god or law to
thank. the bullet missed my head

and landed in another.

Sobering and truthful words marked the plenary and breakout sessions led by Benjamin Boswell, Tara Gibbs, Gerardo Marti, Kass Ottley, Kimberly Yolanda Williams and me.

Participants were invited to discuss topics like “Womanism and White Christian Nationalism,” The Effects of Oppression in the Black Community,” “Affirming or Anti- racist? A Conversation” and “Baptism as Reflection Pool: Seeing Race with New Eyes.”

“White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it,” James Baldwin said.

Boswell employs the voices of African Americans across disciplines and generations to help participants understand what it means to be racialized as white. He claims these words from Baldwin as the mantra for this work.

It began as a book and then a seven-week spiritual formation and anti-racist training course titled, “What does it mean to be white?”

“It is not an easy journey. It is hard, important work that will change your life forever,” Boswell said. “You will be better human beings for having participated in this and you will be better informed at least about whiteness.”

Facilitators agreed with Boswell during a panel discussion. “I thought I knew I was white, but I didn’t know how white I was,” Jeff Eddings said. “I had the privilege of not paying attention to [race]. Let’s not take that privilege anymore.”

“This is never done. You are never finished,” Carrie Veal, executive minister at Myers Park Baptist Church, told attendees.

Four people standing next to each other posing for a photo.

From left to right: Angela Parker, Ben Boswell, Dante Stewart and Ijeoma Ononuju. (Credit: Starlette Thomas)

To date, there are over 30 trained facilitators, and the conference supports this ongoing work. “This work creates a confrontation that some people cannot handle,” Boswell said. He warned participants to prepare for the reaction and resistance that comes.

But attendees would leave the conference well-trained due to the Greek-speaking theologian Angela Parker, who is also the author of If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority.

Her plenary session kicked off the event with a retelling of the letter to the Galatians, empowering attendees to read the Bible with “other” eyes.

The next day, quick-witted and humorous Ijeoma Ononuju offered an ecology of whiteness that explored Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory and a phenomenology of whiteness as orientation (of bodies), neutrality, currency and supremacy. Ononuju painted a vivid picture of our shared reality that participants could not unsee.

After dinner, Dante Stewart, the conference’s keynote speaker and author of Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle, enraptured the audience with an impassionate reading and a personal testimony.

Some members were moved to tears and others later claimed that they couldn’t move at all. In the end, Stewart had everyone on their feet, his presentation ending with several rounds of applause.

The conference concluded with a book signing. Stewart passed signed copies like homework assignments as persons were reminded that the work of confronting whiteness continues.

Editor’s note: Good Faith Media was one of the event sponsors.

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