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Review :: Race
Anti-Racist Medicine
04 Oct 2005
A review of Tim Wise's recent memoir 'White Like Me, Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son' (Soft Skull Press, 250pp., 2005.)

Tim Wise was born to the post-civil-rights-era US south. However, unlike most white people, he has dedicated himself to attempting to understand how his whiteness, in a white-dominated society, affects him.
Wise's mother was just too young to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 without getting permission from her 'respectable' white Tennessee parents. Her Jewish father was a professional actor whose family operated a liquor store in the "heart of Nashville's black community."

After graduating from Tulane College in Louisiana, Wise worked to oppose and thwart Neo-Nazi David Duke's various high profile bids for elected office in Louisiana. Noting that Duke secured close to a majority of the white vote in both his senatorial and gubernatorial bids, Wise dedicated himself to white anti-racist activism. Wise has gone on to make a career for himself as a powerful -- some might even say the most prominent -- white anti-racist lecturer and activist in the United States. He has now written a memoir chronicling his experience of race in America.

Broadly, this book calls attention to a failure on the part of the mainstream "white culture" to engage in a broad-based cultural dialogue to candidly examine white privilege in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. While awareness of the implications of white privilege has increased over the last 50 years, the concept has failed to permeate our culture.

Wise knows that writing a memoir at such an early age might raise eyebrows, or hackles, but he disarms such objections by explaining, "I mean, really now: whose life has been rich enough at the age of 36 to provide insight to others? Honestly, I don't know that mine has been, at least on a whole range of topics. But I think that mine, and yours for that matter, is more than rich enough when it comes to understanding the role of race in this country, and perhaps the world."

As a professional white-person-who-is-cognizant-of-how-race-works in the US, Wise does not need to worry too much about a little competition. Judging from this effort, he is good at what he does.

Reflecting on his family and his community, on his scholastic and professional experiences, among other things, Wise flushes out a number of pertinent questions about whiteness in the US and shares some work he has done on answering them. Through these stories Wise presents a compelling argument that while white privilege is pretty convenient for those of us who are white and who want to go to college or to commit crimes and get away with them, it is important to resist it.

The argument at the base of many of his stories is that white privilege is not only morally reprehensible, but white folks' embrace of these privileges necessitates a pretty dangerous departure from reality that messes us up and makes life harder for everyone.

In the second chapter, Wise uses his experience on the debate team in high school as both an example of white privilege and a damning indictment of what white privilege can do to your brain. Nationally competitive debaters, he explains, need to attend at least one summer training camp a year to maintain and build their skill base. The camps cost $1,500 and there are not many scholarships available. What is more, Wise says, "the activity is very, very white." He recognizes that the financial constraints placed on who can become a nationally competitive debater are primarily a function of class privilege (even as he recognizes that class and race privilege are closely connected in the United States), but in the culture of debate he sees something else at work.

"For those who haven't ever seen a competitive high school debate," he writes, "You might be inclined to think that such a thing is a deep, detailed discussion of some pressing issue." Instead, he describes a form of competition where "personal principles don't matter, you might be arguing for capitalism in one round, socialism in another, and world government in the next… whatever it takes to win, because winning is all that matters."

Debate team is white, according to Wise, "because, in my experience it appeals to the way white folks, especially affluent ones that can typically afford debate, view the world, and equally seems repugnant to people of color for the same reasons. White folks have the luxury of looking at life or death issues of war, peace, famine, unemployment or criminal justice as a game."

He describes this phenomenon as an example of a white way of thinking, particularly a white US way, citing opinion polls taken shortly after the most recent invasion of Iraq, in March of 2003. "When asked if whether they would support the invasion of Iraq even if it meant the deaths of as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilians, the only group that said yes was white men, with white women being pretty much evenly split. Less than one fifth of Blacks or Latinos said yes."

In the course of his description of debate culture Wise takes pains to make it clear that his participation in and skill at the sport is probably what helped him get his delinquent adolescent self into college. What makes his story powerful is that he does not flinch from detailing the role of white privilege in his own life. In passages that are at times scathing, though intermixed with compassion and gratitude, he describes the ways he has been influenced by the attitudes about race held by his parents, grandparents, friends, and acquaintances.

A lot of these stories are painful to read. He talks about listening to his alcoholic father complain about affirmative action. He talks about his paternal grandmother, the woman he credits with instilling in him "a deep abiding contempt for bigotry," in the midst of late stage Alzheimer's, racializing her fear and anger and taking it out on the black nurses who were assisting her. He discusses the implications of his white Jewish grandfather's proprietorship of a liquor store in a black neighborhood.

He even admits, in the course of his professional career, to flubbing a question or two out on the lecture circuit. One day he was apparently stumped when approached by a student with a question about how to confront overt racism in his own family. Later, when Wise relayed the story to a non-white colleague, she said that she had fielded a similar question and had responded thusly:

"If you knew that your father or your mother had cancer, or some other health condition that was harming them, maybe killing them, or at least making them very sick, what would you do for them?…What if you tried to help them, maybe by telling them to go to the doctor, and they refused, they said they didn't have a problem, or that it wasn't that serious?…By the same token, if you see that racism is hurting your family, the people you love, killing at least part of them -- the good part, the decent part, the kind and gentle part -- then why wouldn't you do the same thing, give them the medicine they need, even if they don't want it, don't think they need it, and are likely to resist it?"

Tim Wise's book provides a dose of the medicine we need.

(This review originally appeared in the August issue of PeaceWork Magazine, which is published by the American Friends Service Committee)

This work licensed under a
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Audio Talks by Tim Wise on White Privilege
05 Oct 2005
This post in intended for all us white folks here on Indymedia, as I wouldn't dare tell someone of color that they should work to better understand racism. I'm positive they already know far better than I will ever know in a million years.

I don’t believe that white people (like me) can ever experience true racism. Discrimination maybe, on a very rare occasion, but not racism. The reason I say this is because racism is about power, pure and simple. Racism can only be experienced by people oppressed, disenfranchised and without power politically. economically etc. White people hold all of that power in our society (and around the world) for the time being. I know that many white people will not like that assertion. A white american traveling in Kenya or in Indonesia (as I did) will be a minority, but they will still hold all the real power there in a given situation because they are white.

It is also not up to people oppressed by racism to sit down and make us white folks understand our own racism. (I thank a few friends of mine for pointing this out to me clearly not all that long ago).

It is up to white folks, that care about really ending racism, to learn about it and make our fellow white people see their own, sometimes unintentional, racist tendencies and our own white privilege. (Remembering of course to always be checking with people of color about our approach and being accountable to them.)

All white people have socialized racism inside us even if it's not overt or out in the open. We all also benefit from white privilege even if we don’t see it.

I therefore challenge all of us (including myself) to take an hour or two out of your week and go over a few of the links below, than pass them on to family and friends, even if it will may be unpleasent and make us rather unpopular.

--Audio talks--

Understanding Our White Privilege
by Tim Wise

Part 1
Part 2

Understanding Our Institutional Racism
by Tim Wise

Part 1
Part 2

--Website with many articles discussing these issues--
Re: Anti-Racist Medicine
05 Oct 2005
i gotta say. i come from a multi-racial family and i don't really see myself as *any* color. i think we live in a society that perpetuates this *idea* of racism.... while folks who consider themselves to be "black" or "white", including those people who think they suffer from "white privelidge", are just perpetuating the idea. it's a great idea to approach the idea of RACE by considering where you and your ethnicity or skin color fit into the picture, but everyone should live their lives and be THEMSELVES, as open-minded and non-color biased as possible.

maybe i'm reading a bit of sarcasm into your response and advice, but i definitely think that self-describing as "white" is just as bad as saying that someone is else is "black" or "red" or a "homo" or whatever other derogative word you can think of. basically, we're all people and we should all sit down and figure out how to relate to each other on a human basis, not a racial basis.
Re: Anti-Racist Medicine
19 Oct 2005
'unlike most white people'
So you know most white people? or are you a racist?

It seems to me that the cancer here is the idea that you can know what 'most white people' think and feel. You can't know.

It is sad that an article that is suppose to be about racism shows the bigotry of the writer.
Re: Anti-Racist Medicine
24 Oct 2005
Some people seem to find a perverse pleasure in wallowing in guilt and self-flagellation which must only have some sort of neurotic psychological underpinnings. It also apparantley provides a comfortable career path as a "professional guilt-ridden white" on the politically correct lecture circuit and a gratifying public pose as "holier than thou". If that's your thing then perhaps you should confine yourself to your own gnashing indulgences and not try to extrapolate from them to make broad generalizations about entire peoples. Life and society are a little more complicated than that. This book is obviously more about its self-righteous, egotistical author who in no way lives up to his name as any kind of wiseman than it is about complex social relations. It's also another dreary reminder of the way in which spurious "identity politics" has falsely substituted race for class in superficially describing American society. "Physician, heal thyself"!
Re: Anti-Racist Medicine
13 Nov 2005
In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.

Theodore Roosevelt 1907