White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press)
Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge)
The author will sign books 6 p.m. April 26 at Davis-Kidd
My niece, who is white, has a son named Avery. Avery's dad is black. When Avery was 3, he saw the movie Spiderman, and he loved it. He babbled happily about it for days, and then out of the blue he announced to his mother that he wished he could be white like Peter Parker, Spiderman's alter ego. Trying to reassure him, she told him he was whitehalf white, anyway, since she was white. With the uncorrupted certainty that only small children have, he pointed at his little rosy-brown arm and said, "Uh-uh, see?"
That moment between mother and son is pretty much a perfect illustration of the central idea behind two new books by native Nashvillian Tim Wise. In White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White, Wise makes the case that American culture bestows a mantle of power and privilege on whiteness that people of color must confront all their lives, while whites themselves are largely blind to it. When forced to acknowledge their advantage, whites tend to downplay it as a tattered remnant of the pastsomething we'll all overcome any minute now, as we welcome our brothers and sisters of color (at least the sufficiently virtuous ones) into the wonderful world of "equality." In other words, when we make them honorary white people. In the minds of most whites, all it takes to defuse the explosive issue of race is simply to say that color doesn't matter. The rest of America knows better.
So secure are whites in the normality, the universality of white privilege, says Wise, they refuse to acknowledge the multitude of ways that racism operates around them. He describes them as "born to belonging," walking through the world in a cocoon of presumptive entitlement that non-whites are never accorded. White Like Me includes a litany of funny and disturbing stories to illustrate this point, such as the time Wise and his interior designer girlfriend spent several unmonitored hours inside the first President Bush's suite in the swanky Houstonian hotel during the 1992 Republican National Convention, leaving just moments before the President and Mrs. Bush arrived. Neither the hotel staff nor the Secret Service questioned the two 20-somethings hauling furniture around the Bush quarters. Wise argues that there's no way a similar pair of young blacks would have gone unchallenged, even in pre-9/11 days, and it's hard to disagree.
Wise has literally made a career out of exposing the illusions America has constructed about race, especially the ones that whites use to absolve themselves of any role in the persistent social and economic inequalities that plague the country. As a student at Tulane in the late 1980s, he became involved with the movement for South African divestment and later turned his attention to efforts to prevent white supremacist David Duke from winning his campaigns for the U.S. Senate and for governor of Louisiana. For the past 10 years, he has been lecturing and leading workshops in a variety of settings (universities, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, etc.) on what institutional racism is, and how it can be combated. He spent several years as an advisor to Fisk's Race Relations Institute, and he writes provocative columns on race and politics for lefty outlets like Counterpunch and ZNet.
Wise is the son of a Jewish father and a mother of typical Anglo-Celtic Southern stock. His dad is a retired stand-up comic, and Wise himself was a high school drama-rama and debate team star with a taste for good dope. White Like Me is essentially a memoir that explores how someone from such a background finds himself traveling the country in the unlikely role of "everybody's favorite speaker for Black History Month," as Wise characterizes himself, fully aware of the irony. While Wise gives his parents much credit for being progressive on race and encouraging his youthful idealism, the book mostly offers up less-than-pretty personal and family history around the issue. Wise's stories are the sort that most white Southerners could tell about themselves but generally don't: slave ownership, racist relatives and the discomfiting moments when he has found himself guilty of the same reflexive racist thinking and behavior that he condemns in others.
A poignant passage in White Like Me describes how Wise's dementia-stricken grandmother, who was fiercely opposed to bigotry even as a girl, became helpless to stop herself from enacting a white cultural archetype that had surrounded her all her life. "Once she was no longer capable of resisting this demon, tucked away like a time bomb in the far corners of her mind, it would reassert itself and explode with a vengeance," he writes. "She could not remember how to feed herself. She could not go to the bathroom by herself. She could not recognize a glass of water for what it was. But she could recognize a nigger. America had seen to that, and no disease would strip her of that memory. Indeed, it would be one of the last words I would hear her say, before finally she stopped talking at all."
In a recent conversation at Fido, a coffee shop in Hillsboro Village where he wrote much of White Like Me, Wise explained why he believes such self-examination and revelation are not only important to his own evolution as an activist, but also aid the work of dismantling racism. "For the first four or five years I was doing this work, I wasn't putting a lot of myself into my talksit was very data-heavy, very academic.... In 1999 or 2000 I first told the story about my grandmother and the Alzheimer's. All of a sudden I saw the light bulb go on." Wise found that "putting my shit in the street" led whites in his audiences to open up about their own experiences with race, revealing racist feelings and assumptions that they often keep hidden even from themselves. "If I am willing to drop the veil of objectivity, if I put my stuff out there without shame or guilt people feel like they can release the guilt and shame," he says.
These days, white guilt is generally regarded as a self-indulgence of liberal do-gooders, but Wise feels that, just as white privilege is always operating sub rosa, so are the emotional conflicts it induces. It's this discomfort that often makes whites resist acknowledging or discussing racism, which in turn makes it impossible for them to see how they are injured by it. "There's no time for guilt or shame," Wise says. "[Racism] is something to be upset about. You've been hurt by it. It has taken away from who you are, who you were meant to be."
This is perhaps Wise's most useful contribution to a national dialogue about racehis recognition that in addition to their blindness about the ways racism continues to harm minorities, white people are also blind to the insidious ways in which it damages and limits them. Wise is interested in exploring the social and psychic fallout for the white boy who grows up knowing that the hero is supposed to be white. Although Wise argues that, ultimately, whites should make it their business to root out and dismantle racism simply because it is the morally right thing to do, he is eloquent on the subject of how whites are diminished as individuals in a racist culture. For him, racism is a sort of contagion that infects us allblinding us to the humanity of others, pushing us into betraying our best instincts, andas with his grandmotherassuming power over us in our most vulnerable moments.
Affirmative Action, also newly released, is the policy wonk companion to the intimate, anecdotal White Like Me, offering hard data and analysis to back up the emotional punch of Wise's stories. The usual assumption in political and public discourse is that affirmative action has always been directed exclusively to people of color. This book turns that assumption on its head, showing how whites from all social classes have systematically benefited from racial preference, especially in housing and education. For example, while most people are aware of redlining and other discriminatory practices in the housing market, it has been largely forgotten that for the first 30 years of its existence, the FHA guaranteed home loans under policies that expressly encouraged racial homogeneity of neighborhoods, while routinely rating black neighborhoods as "declining," and therefore ineligible for loans. The net effect was that millions of working-class whites were helped into home ownership and its resulting financial security, while blacks were largely excluded. The economic benefit that has accrued to subsequent generations is unquestionable.
Wise focuses on the debate around minority affirmative action in higher education, systematically refuting the common arguments against it, but also shooting down the most popular argument for it. University administrators and other advocates of affirmative action habitually invoke the vague benefits of "diversity," but Wise dismisses this notion, in education and elsewhere, as "colorizing the room, the way Ted Turner colorizes movies." Simply putting people of different skin tone in the same place, he argues, does nothing to dismantle racist thinking or rectify past injustice. Even if social barriers are crossed and the country becomes populated with children like Avery, we will still be left with the legacy of hundreds of years of systematic economic discrimination and resulting inequality. Wise insists that "waving a magic wand and turning everybody a light shade of brown" would only make it harder to see where harm has been done.
For Wise, policies that take into account broad social injustice are required to create the level playing field we all claim to want. In education, that means abandoning the reliance on standardized testing and other so-called objective admissions criteria in favor of a system that takes individual achievement into account within the context of existing inequality. Wise speaks approvingly of policy enacted in Texas, of all places, that gives preference to college applicants who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class, even if their test scores are low and their schools are performing poorly. Wise argues that, given the inequities in public schools and the bias in standardized tests (which he explores at some length), this is a much better method of giving all committed students an equal shot at a degree from a good school; and, as it turns out, these supposedly less qualified students have done surprisingly well in the Texas system.
Wise is not a former debate champ for nothing, and he marshals his arguments extremely well in both books. For middle- and upper-class whites of a liberal bent, much of what he says will resonate with the power of truths that are obvious but largely unspoken. Conservatives will be tempted to dismiss Wise unread as just another breast-beating lefty, though in fact his is a nuanced and ultimately spiritual approach to the issue, remarkably free of political cant. He is as devoted to mainstream notions of individual merit and achievement as any good Republican. It's clear in his discussion of affirmative action that he doesn't believe minorities need special breaks to succeed. He's just making the point that it's impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if your hands are tied, and one of the things that binds the hands of people of color is the pervasive culture of white privilege, which has limited their opportunities at every turn and continues to do so.
Wise's rhetorical skill doesn't serve him as well on the issue of poor and working-class whites. He argues in both books that even the poorest whites benefit in concrete ways from the privilege that comes with a white skin. At the very least, it gave them basic rights such as suffrage and ownership of property much earlier than blacks, and still gives them an ease of upward mobility that no non-white enjoys. At the same time, however, he decries their attachment to white privilege as delusional. It's clear to him that all their economic interests are in allying themselves with the rest of poor and working-class America, and he has a hard time seeing why they don't get that. The frustration he felt during his days of trying to rally what he calls the "tin roof and trailer crowd" against David Duke's promise of white rule comes across loud and clear in White Like Me, as he rants against their fear of venturing into urban areas, "so sure were they that some Mandingo would accost them, rape their wives and slow-roast their children on a spit after stuffing an apple in their mouths." The rhetorician has gotten the better of the idealist here. Although Wise is trying to describe how these whites have been damaged by racist myths (and he's kinder to them elsewhere in the book), it's hard not to sense a misplaced contempt behind those words. In any case, it makes no sense to say that disadvantaged people who enjoy a tiny portion of privilege are displaying some special stupidity when they grasp at a promise to increase it.
Whatever discomfort Wise may feel with the red-state mentality, he has no plans to abandon his home turf for a more politically liberal region. "For me, the white folks who get race best are almost always from the South. If there is any progress to be made on this issue, it's going to emanate from this soil because it is this place that has been both burdened and blessed, historically, by the recognition of what racism can do to a person." He disapproves of the "smugness" he sees among white progressives in the Northeast and on the West Coast, who seem to feel that, vis-a-vis racism, their job is done. "I'm afraid to leave," Wise says. "At least here we talk about it."
I was all like "how do you get the phone number for TMZ?!?!" you can't…
I think it's weird when speculation is wedged into an otherwise straightforward biography. I love…
I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
This was the worse review I've ever read. Maybe you should quit this career path…