The Irony Behind Tim Wise and White Privilege

SOUL LATTE

A strong dose of soulful thought.

 

The Irony Behind Tim Wise and White Privilege

Tim_WiseLast week, renowned anti-racist advocate, Tim Wise, came to UMass for a screening of his new documentary, “White Like Me,” followed by a question and answer period with the audience. I won’t go into details about the actual documentary, y’all can check that on your own time, but during the post-screening  period, Wise was confronted about some online beef that occurred after a post on his blog in remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham 16th Street Church bombing that killed 4 African-American girls on September 16th, 1963. His post not only acknowledges the tragedy, but also pays tribute to a man named Charles Morgan, Jr, a white southerner who lived in Birmingham at the time, but who opposed the bombings and was ultimately chased out of the South because of his willingness to speak out against racism.

Following the post, a stream of opposition came. In general, they criticized Wise’s emphasis on the need for white allies. After all, they said, if it wasn’t for white people making the lives so hard for Black-Americans to begin with, they wouldn’t need white partnership in the first place. Wise retaliated to the responses through his Facebook page, the status update wasn’t so friendly.

Wise admitted to the audience at UMass that he was wrong for how he reacted, saying that he is “only human,” and he can’t be perfect all the time. Once the applause ended after the apology, a man of color rose and told his own story of dealing with anger. He was a professor at Hampshire College, from the Bronx, and he explained how living in western Massachusetts is never easy for men of color. He told Wise of the discrimination he deals with on a regular basis. Despite being a college professor, it was the color of his skin that was seen first, and it would always put him in a disadvantage. Any man of color knows, he said, that we don’t get the luxury of “being only human,” because being of color, any outburst could be your last–you don’t need to read a James Baldwin novel to come to that realization.

Tim Wise, a renowned expert on white privilege, could recognize he was a product of white privilege, but he could never fully understand how it manifested itself in his own life. If I he could, then he would never have been so openly accepting of the fact that he can have angry outbursts over issues as sensitive as the Birmingham bombing, and so easily get applause over it.

It was a year ago on my college campus when I had first met Tim Wise. I had no idea how famous Tim was, I had never heard of him before. As I sat down to hear him speak to a packed auditorium, I was impressed and unimpressed all in one. I remember being amused by his delivery, you cannot deny he wouldn’t fair too badly as a stand up comedian. He has a way of fusing irony and raw facts through stating just the obvious reality. That is always refreshing to hear from someone who isn’t of color. But then that becomes the real issue: Tim Wise isn’t a person of color. What he was saying wasn’t anything new or profound, but it was the fact that he was white which was why people gave him so much praise. So to put it ironically: In the same way Tim Wise goes around raising awareness on white privilege, he also benefits from it–he is white privilege.

At the end of the lecture, a friend who helped organized the event asked if I would go with him to take Tim to the airport. I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to get some one one one with Tim Wise after hearing everything he just said. We covered a lot of ground in that 40-minute car ride. He told me about where he grew up, what he studied in college, why he does the work he does, he even told me how he met his wife. We talked about my own studies, intellectual curiosities, and some of the research I was currently working on. It was an inspirational car ride, one that influenced the direction of a lot of the research I did that semester, along with many of the things I write on this blog.

And then he did admit what I had been thinking all along: that his whiteness was the reason for his success. He knew why he was getting called to speak all over the country. He knew why he was able to get through to white people. He was aware of his whiteness, and how that created so many privileges that automatically put him ahead of blacks who were saying much of the very same things he was, and who were also working in the field of anti-racism. And for me, my criticism of Wise doesn’t come from the fact that he is a white guy discussing racism. It’s how he utilizes his whiteness. He continually makes mention of how he is a “white ally” for Black America, and then goes on to expect us to give him a gold star. As stated in the blogGroupThink:

It’s great that that guy stood up for what was right, but to try to piggy back on a very significant and painful part of AA history to sing the praises of a white guy who did the right things is… missing the point. It’s great he did that. It’s awesome, but he doesn’t get a cookie. Why is it so hard for people to understand that you don’t get applause for being a decent person?

I don’t have issues with Tim Wise wanting to stand up against racism, it’s quite commendable when anyone–white or black–stands up for racial justice. My issues are with the fact of how righteously he goes about parading his whiteness when speaking about these issues, and then expects us to view him as some kind of “white knight.”

I don’t care if he goes around speaking to large audiences, it’s the fact that he has become more than just a spokesperson on white privilege and that he feels he can also become a spokesperson for Black America, as well. I don’t have any inner-conflicts being upset when people ask Tim Wise to speak on national television over issues of race when there is a sea of well qualified black scholars who can say the same things Tim says, if not better.

My words to Tim Wise: Black-America could use a few white allies, but we don’t need white leaders attempting to claim some sort of moral medal for doing what every human being should be expected to do: the right thing.

Follow Soul Latte

Bullying Pulpit: Racism, Barack Obama and the Selective Call for Personal Responsibility

Tim Wise

May 19, 2013

Sometimes, white privilege isn’t about stuff. It’s not always about better opportunities, or more money, or even greater access to those things than people of color.

Sometimes, white privilege is as simple as knowing that, generally speaking, if you’re white, you’ll be perceived as competent and hard-working until proven otherwise, while people of color — even those who have proven themselves competent and hard-working — will still be subjected to presumptions that they just might not be, and that somehow, they (but not you) need to be reminded of the importance of hard-work and personal responsibility, lest they (but never you) revert to some less impressive group mean.

To wit, President Obama’s commencement address today at Morehouse College — one of the nation’s preeminent institutions of higher learning, and perhaps its most famous historically black college or university — during which, among plenty of rather standard commencement speech boilerplate, the president lectured this year’s graduates about the importance of taking personal responsibility for their lives, and not blaming racism for whatever obstacles they may face in the future.

It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing.

Either that President Obama thinks black grads at one of the nation’s best colleges really need to be lectured about such matters; or, alternately, that White America is so desirous of exculpation for the history of racial discrimination that we need him to say such things, and he knows it, thereby leading him to feed us the moral scolding of black men we so desperately desire, and which he must know will be transmitted to us by way of media coverage of his talk.

Either way, the result is tragic.

If the former, then Barack Obama has for once and all revealed himself to be not nearly the deep and analytical thinker so many have long believed. After all, Morehouse men like the ones to whom the president delivered his commencement address today, are not the type to slack off, or make excuses for their shortcomings, or wait for others to do things for them. They earned admission to an amazing school, and have now graduated from said school, on the basis of their own merit and hard work. To hector them like they were potential supplicants looking for a handout is crass and beneath the dignity of a President of the United States, and especially one who shares the coloring of most, if not all of those graduates.

Barack Obama knows how demanding a school Morehouse is. So to preach hard work to these men, as if they had never heard of it — as if they now intended to kick back and wait for things to be handed to them — is to not only insult their intelligence, but also to feed every vicious stereotype already held by too many white Americans about black males, no matter how educated. It is to give us fuel for our already too-well-stoked racist fires, made ever hotter now by the ability to say, “See, even Obama knows the truth about black men! Even he knows they’re always making excuses for their failures.”

(And yes, I realize that admonitions to hard work, personal responsibility and “no excuses” have always been common in the black community — in large measure because of the history and contemporary reality of racism, both of which the president rightly acknowledged in the address — but those typically are offered behind closed doors, not in public and by the most prominent person in the country, within listening range of white ears, more than a little prepared to hear only the parts that reinforce pre-existing biases).

Meanwhile, if the President thought it necessary to upbraid this year’s Morehouse graduates about not being lazy or using racism as an excuse for their shortcomings, precisely because he thinks (or perhaps knows) that white folks love that shit — the second possibility — then that too is pitiable.

First, that Barack Obama sometimes seems to think he still needs to go out of his way to please white people is maddening. The white folks open to liking him don’t need him to serve as black folks’ moral scold, and the ones who need that will never be satisfied until he does the full Herman Cain: which is to say, until he is prepared to basically lay all the problems of the nation at the feet of folks of color and sing Negro spirituals in white churches while little old white ladies, either literally or figuratively, rub his head.

To the extent the president no longer needs white folks to like him for the sake of re-election, that he regularly panders to our biases about the black community — as with his repeated lectures to black men, but only black men, on multiple father’s days to be better dads (cuz God knows white men need no similar instruction!) — suggests that perhaps it is he whose views of the black community are to blame here. Perhaps it is he who has internalized the idea that black people, even highly educated ones, are would-be malingerers, just waiting for a reason to go soft and “blame the world for trying to keep a black man down” (yes, he actually used that phrase in his speech).

Needless to say, Barack Obama will never tell white people at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming affirmative action for every job we didn’t get, or every law school we didn’t get into, though we’ve been known to use both of these excuses on more than a few occasions.

He won’t tell white graduates at a traditionally white college or university to stop blaming Latino/a immigrants, for “taking our jobs,” which excuse we’ve also been known to float from time to time.

He would never tell graduates at a mostly white college to stop blaming immigrants, or so-called welfare for our supposedly high tax burdens, even though these remain popular, albeit incorrect, scapegoats for whatever taxes we pay.

He won’t tell white grads at white colleges to reject the entreaties of their right-wing radio hosts and talking heads, who keep blaming the Community Reinvestment Act and other fair housing laws for the mortgage and larger economic meltdown, even though such things were not to blame.

In short, to Barack Obama, it is only black people who need lectures about personal responsibility. Onlythey who make excuses when things don’t go their way. Only they who need to be reminded to do their best, because white graduates — like the majority of the grads at Ohio State to whom he also spoke recently — have got all that on lock. Their work ethics are unassailable. They would never make excuses for their failings. They would never blame a 35 percent tax rate, or capital gains taxes, for instance, for causing them to not invest their money, or create jobs. They would never blame gay marriage for threatening their own heterosexual marriage.

Because white people never make excuses for anything.

And so we get to remain un-lectured, un-stigmatized, un-bothered, and un-burdened with a reminder of our own need to be responsible. We get to remain, in short, privileged and presumed competent, presumed hard-working, presumed responsible, until proven otherwise, while even some of the best and brightest black men in America will start their careers having been weighted down with the realization that even the president, at some level, doesn’t really trust them to do the right thing, unless reminded to do so first, and by him.

Quite a mixed blessing, such a graduation gift as that.

ABOUT Tim Wise

Tim Wise, whom philosopher Cornel West calls, “A vanilla brother in the tradition of (antiracism and antislavery fighter) John Brown,” is among the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He has been called “One of the most brilliant, articulate and courageous critics of white privilege in the nation,” by best-selling author and professor Michael Eric Dyson, of Georgetown University. Wise, who was named one of “25 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World,” by Utne Reader in 2010, has spoken in all 50 states of the U.S., on over 800 college and high school campuses, and to community groups across the nation. He has also lectured internationally in Canada and Bermuda on issues of comparative racism, race and education, racism and religion, and racism in the labor market.

Wise is the author of six books, including the highly acclaimed memoir, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son; an academic volume on affirmative action, entitled, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White; an essay collection, entitled,Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male; two books on race and racism in the Obama era, entitled respectively, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, and Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity; and his latest, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority, which examines rising white anxiety in an increasingly multicultural nation. His next book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future will be released in Fall, 2013. He has contributed essays to twenty-five books, and is one of several persons featured in White Men Challenging Racism: Thirty-Five Personal Stories, from Duke University Press. He received the 2001 British Diversity Award for best feature essay on race issues, and his writings have appeared in dozens of popular, professional and scholarly journals.

OTHER POSTS ON THIS ISSUE