by Ewuare X. Osayande
“My friends, I have come to tell you something about slavery – what I know of it, as I have felt it. When I came North, I was astonished to find that the abolitionists knew so much about it, that they were acquainted with its effects as well as if they had lived in its midst. But though they can give you its history – though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience …”
Frederick Douglass, 1841
In the past decade or so, we have witnessed the rise of critical race studies, even something called Whiteness Studies. With the rise of Whiteness Studies on college campuses across the country has come the resurgence of whites as so-called experts on all matters pertaining to race. Among the most popular of them is the anti-racist speaker Tim Wise, who has become a regular presence on the college lecture circuit as well as in the media in the past few years. He has even been deemed the leader of the anti-racist movement by some of these very media outlets.
As Black liberationist, abolitionist, anti-racist and social justice activists, we would be wise to use this moment to ask some critical questions of ourselves and the state of the movement for racial justice in the U.S. We are thus compelled to critically engage Tim Wise and what his apparent popularity represents both in symbol and substance. In so doing, we confront the two fundamental issues in this work of eradicating racism: internalized oppression and white privilege.
Wise’s popularity among liberal whites is not that surprising to me. What is surprising is the level of popularity he’s gained within segments of the Black community. Some have even gone as far as to view him as some kind of Great White Hope. What is most curious about this apparent Black fascination with Wise is that when I hear certain Black people and other people of color refer to him, they talk about him in the same way they would talk about the first time they saw a white guy dance, rap or dunk a basketball. By internalizing the stereotypes of Blackness as defined by the white racist imagination, we have, in turn, embraced a codified image of Blackness. Thus, when we see white people cross the race-tracks and engage in behavior that has been deemed “Black,” we react with a kind of cultural “shock and awe.” In the case of Wise it is a little more complicated than that. Wise isn’t being acknowledged for his ability to sing or dance “like a Black person” but for his willingness to cross the tracks of race discourse and out whiteness – the ultimate racial taboo.
There is this sense among some of us that because he speaks against racism, he must be all right. And as such, he has garnered the coveted “ghetto pass,” a symbolic gesture given to those whites considered “down” with Black people. But we have seen what happens when whites feel they are “in like Flynn” with our people; they get right racist and condescending (remember Bill Clinton during the 2008 Presidential campaign?). In effect, they become even whiter. Therefore, let us insure that Wise’s “pass” doesn’t enable him to bypass critical inquiry that could benefit the movement and, maybe, even Wise himself.
What this fascination fails to take into consideration is the fact that white people have been speaking out against racial oppression since the first slave ships docked in the colony of Virginia. We should be past such elementary appreciation. When we fail to hold whites who proclaim an anti-racist stance to a higher standard, all we end up with are whites talking about how bad racism is. Mouthing off against racism is not going to end racism, no matter how loud and boisterous the bombast becomes. We have to get beyond this almost worship-like praise for what, in the end, are but baby steps in the long march against white supremacy.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not have a problem with white people speaking out against racism or Black people acknowledging white people working against racism. But when that acknowledgment precludes or is prioritized over and beyond our acknowledgment of ourselves, then we have a problem. That problem is called internalized oppression, a symptom of the very system we are working to defeat. Therefore, Black people giving uncritical praise or consideration to our white allies actually works toward our continued oppression. Remember how some of our people who were blinded by whiteness used to say: “The white man’s ice is colder”? Well, it seems these days that that same internalized oppression is at play in some who believe that the white man’s anti-racist analysis is more accurate than our own.
When I ask such persons what makes Wise’s commentaries so unique or revolutionary, they become quiet. For in truth, there is nothing new in Wise’s analysis. If anything, it is an analysis born of the blood struggle for Black liberation and racial justice throughout American history. Our ancestors may not have used terms like “white privilege.” Instead, they just called it what it was and is: white supremacy. (Imagine a white anti-racist saying, “I’m going to use my white supremacy to help people of color.”) Nonetheless, white privilege has become the watch-word of the movement. Yet, for the most part, it has been used as a means for white anti-racists to point the finger at “those” whites or navel gaze and wallow in a guilt that doesn’t produce results. Overall, it has the tendency to takes us away from addressing the real issue head on – whiteness itself and the ideology of white supremacy that gives whiteness whatever power and meaning it currently holds.
In the case of Tim Wise and other leading white anti-racists, we can accurately pin-point the state of the anti-racist movement by unpacking the white privileges they, themselves, hold and benefit from.
The first of these white privileges is one I have already addressed: The ability to paraphrase and/or otherwise exploit the analysis of Black liberation struggle and have it received by others as though it were their own. In the past decade or so, there has grown a cottage industry of books written by white people talking about their whiteness and their awareness of racism. When these white authors fail to acknowledge the debt they owe to the blood struggle of people of color in this country as they often do, they practice a form of racism that keeps that history erased from the consciousness of this country. This enables the white establishment to bypass Black people and hold up their own as authorities on the race question.
Another white privilege Tim Wise and other white anti-racists carry is the ability to emotionally express their views about racism without having that expression dismissed as “angry” or “too emotional”. When Wise speaks passionately and fervently about racism, his expression is understood as a sign of a person standing up for what he believes. As such, it is championed even when he is derisive or sardonic in his remarks. When we, people of color activists, speak passionately about racism, we are maligned and ridiculed as being angry, militant, even hateful and dangerous. If we wish to be heard (let alone understood), we are expected to speak calmly and politely about our experience and analysis regarding racism. Otherwise we are demonized. White moral indignation is justified. Black moral indignation is vilified. This has long been the case.
The third white privilege that Tim Wise and other so-called white anti-racists enjoy is the privilege of being honored for their anti-racist work as their Black activist counterparts and other activists of color are denounced and derided. Case in point: Several years back I spoke at a school in Massachusetts for their annual Dr. King Day commemoration. As I spoke about King’s legacy and the ongoing struggle for racial justice, I was met with outright hostility from the students gathered in the auditorium. The following year I would be contacted by an Arab faculty member at the school. She would inform me that for that year’s King Day event, the school decided to invite Tim Wise to address the student body. She went on to inform me that Wise was received with profound admiration by the very same students that heckled me the year before. Isolated incident? Chance circumstance? To my knowledge, similar events like this have at occurred on two more occasions since.
On one of the other occasions, I was contacted by a Black student organization that had to petition a reluctant administration to gain the necessary approval to invite me to speak. Just one semester following my presentation they would inform me that Tim Wise had just spoken at their school, where he received the red carpet of administrative respect and welcome. When this occurred at a third school, a Vietnamese student emailed me and rhetorically but sincerely asked, “Isn’t this what Tim Wise is supposed to be against?”. In all three cases, persons and groups that reached out to me expressed a level of frustration at witnessing the hypocrisy of the institutions they were working at or attending.
Let me make it clear here that I am not airing this to complain about my personal experiences. I do it because I know that I am not the only one who is experiencing this kind of racism. I am also addressing it here because in one of the cases I’ve mentioned, it actually worked to undermine the efforts of students who had organized to hold their university accountable. Over a four-year period, I worked diligently with these students and their allies. During this time of dedicated training, they all became adept anti-racist activists. They were a small but formidable band of students ready and prepared to take the university to task on its stated and unstated policies toward students, faculty and staff of color. The very year they planned to confront the university administration with their agenda, word got back to some key university officials. And in true duck and cover fashion, the administration brought in Wise with much publicity to avoid addressing the students and their demands. The entire campus turned out and the university was able to present itself as champions of diversity. Thus, when the students brought forward their demands, the university was able to side-step them by claiming that they were on top of it given their experience with Wise. Of course they were lying, but the students no longer had leverage as the campus community felt that they had done enough by bringing Tim Wise to speak.
This is just one example of the ways that white anti-racists who are not in accountable relationships with activists of color can be used to work against the best interests of people of color, whether knowingly or not.
One of the student leaders of this effort would later ask me if I’d be willing to debate Wise. I informed her that I would welcome the opportunity to engage in a constructive conversation with Wise on the state, purpose and direction of anti-racist struggle. The problem with that is that Wise only debates individuals with views more conservative than his own. This way he can continue to promote himself as the most radical anti-racist voice on the scene when he is not – not even among whites. [Noel Ignatiev has called for the outright abolition of whiteness in the face of other whites’ calls for what essentially amount to a kinder, gentler whiteness. By so doing, Ignatiev is taking up the challenge to expose whiteness as a form of status within the capitalist system rather than as a biological or cultural reality, which is how it continues to get passed off as – even within certain so-called anti-racist circles. Such an assertion takes it cue from an observation James Baldwin made many moons ago: “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” If such an end were the aim of the movement, so-called white anti-racists could no longer go around claiming to want to use their white privilege for the good of the movement. Such a claim would be recognized as the nonsense it is.] Like Eminem in “8 Mile” taking on the Black rapper from the suburbs in his effort to establish his street cred and carry the “Blacker than thou” mantle, it seems that Wise takes on conservative intellectuals of color like Dinesh D’Sousa and Ward Connerly to prove he’s “Blacker” (more radical) than they are. That might impress some of Wise’s liberal Black bourgeois friends, but such side-show debates do nothing to bring us any closer to eradicating institutional racism.
It seems that Wise and other anti-racist whites have become higher education’s answer to people of color activists like me. As long as the dissidents are white, these schools are willing to practice the “tolerance” they claim to uphold as beacons of the liberal arts. It has even gotten to the point that nowadays it is not at all strange to see a white person giving the keynote speech for Black History Month. I honestly don’t think that is what Dr. Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he instituted the week-long celebration that would become Black History Month back in 1926. It is bad enough that February, the shortest calendar month of the year, is what Amiri Baraka calls “Black artist employment month.” Now we can’t even count on that. Like our people who are removed from the neighborhoods they grew up in as affluent whites gentrify urban communities, we find ourselves being removed from the one space our ancestors fought for on the calendar. And why is it so difficult for some of us to not see this racial switch as an attack on Black self-determination in much the same way as the current effort to dismiss Black History Month all together?
What can be deduced from these experiences is that there is clear benefit for those with white skin even in the context of anti-racist discourse. There is a distinct inequality in how we are perceived and treated by the white establishment. Despite Wise’s opposition to white supremacy and white privilege, he is a clear beneficiary of both. This is largely due to the fact that, evidently, he is not perceived as a threat to the establishment.
What does this say about Wise? What does this say about the state of the movement? What does this say about the state of racism in our society? White institutions can tolerate anti-racist discourse as long as it is spoken by somebody who looks like them. In fact, such staged discourse becomes a prime opportunity for such schools to present themselves as champions of multiculturalism and diversity even as they continue to enact policies and initiate professional and educational practices that discriminate against students, faculty and staff of color.
By definition, white privilege is not earned. Wise doesn’t have to do anything to gain access to the benefits assigned to the social construct of racialized whiteness. Even his apparent efforts to expose it have not caused the white establishment to banish him or treat him like a person of color. Given that Wise isn’t saying anything new or revolutionary in regards to how to eradicate racism, what accounts for his popularity and celebrity status and the fact that his calendar is filled with engagements for the next few years? His whiteness! The very thing he speaks against. Might this be the ultimate white privilege?
Now I am sure that there are some people reading this who might be saying, “Of course he can’t escape his privilege, we live in a racist society!” No argument here. All the more reason for him and those like him to be held accountable.
When grassroots Black activists speak honestly about racism at colleges across this country, we are not met with open arms by administrators and faculty. And most certainly our calendars are not full for the rest of the year let alone for the next three to five. When we speak, we are often met by the deaf ear of white denial. When Tim Wise speaks, he gets applause, standing ovations, awards and proclamations. The fact that schools can’t “hear” us when I and other people of color speak but will search out and roll out the red carpet for Wise is a statement to a kind of racism that doesn’t get discussed much – if at all – in our work. Despite all of the white anti-racist presentations given over the years at colleges and universities across the country, institutional racism at these schools remains intact. All the while, activists of color continue to be muffled and marginalized. Even in the ghetto of race discourse we remain tenants and never owners of an analysis that is ours to begin with.
One way that whites can be accountable is to stop being enablers to white supremacy by supplanting the voice of people of color with their own. We do not need white people speaking for people of color. Such talk is crass paternalism. My words do not need to be placed through a white filter in order for them to be understandable. Besides, there are some things that get lost in “translation.” If there is work for whites to do on this issue, then let it be work that addresses this deaf ear of white denial. This is a question of power. Whites that do not listen to people of color do not have a “hearing problem.” They fail to hear and to listen because they can. Those that promote the claim that white people speaking for people of color is a positive only coddle such whites in the comfort of their conformity to a way of life that denies, not just the voices of people of color, but our lives as well.
All of the aforementioned privileges taken together provide Wise a pretty formidable platform from which to attract the support of those of us who seek an end to racism. By supporting him, such persons are made to feel as if they are fighting racism. In this vein, he is able to make use of such support from those who will rally to his rescue when he calls on them to defend him with a bevy of “like” button clicks or a hail of 5-star reviews when he has occasioned a derisive remark made by the usual suspect – an avowed white supremacist. Really? Has this become the epitome of anti-racist activism? This would be laughable if we weren’t discussing something as deadly serious as racism. Such “cyber activism” is just another form of white diversion from engaging in actual activist work.
Must I remind us that people of color live our lives under daily assault? Clicking a “like” button is not going to stop the hail of gun-fire that snuffs out the lives of the Oscar Grants and Aiyana Joneses of our communities. Oscar Grant and Aiyana Jones were not militant activists. Jones was just seven years old for God’s sake! They were Black and, according to this system, that was sufficient. Until the movement confronts that reality head on rather than cry about some nasty review of their book, I have little regard for their “anti-racist” activism. Such attacks from white supremacists should be expected in this work. If I had a dollar for every piece of hate mail I’ve received …. My point is that it comes with the territory. To make noise about it is just self-serving. And that is putting it mildly.
This imbalanced relationship between people of color activists and white anti-racists reinforces the power dynamic of white supremacy even within the movement. White anti-racists have been able to evade accountability on this front due to the fact that they wield power and influence over and beyond people of color activists by virtue of their white-skinned privilege. This is a fact that has dogged our movement since the days of Abolition. And to those who question my right to question Tim Wise or suggest that Wise is beyond critique, I say as Henry Highland Garnet said to the white abolitionists of his day, “If it has come to this, that I must think and act as you do, because you are an abolitionist, or be exterminated by your thunder, then I do not hesitate to say that your abolitionism is abject slavery.”
The fact is that someone like a William Lloyd Garrison, who did far more than Wise with far less than Wise, was critiqued way more harshly than anything I have penned here by his Black contemporaries. Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass and others within the Black Abolitionist Movement always maintained an analysis that was independent of white abolitionists. Theirs was an analysis based on the life-and-death reality they faced on the daily. And they were quick to check the blurry vision of those who sat upon the lofty heights of their privileged status as whites no matter how well-meaning they may have been. To relinquish that right and responsibility now would be a disservice to my forebears and the example they have left for all of us.
This is a problem that our movement must address. This movement cannot challenge the institutional racism as it is currently positioned or personified. Our people’s movement for liberation and self-determination has resulted in the development of a community of whites who have amassed a working knowledge of the system of white supremacy. Many of them claim to possess a conscious commitment to eradicate racism. Yet there is a lack of critical direction or an expressed unwillingness on their part to take the direction from the lived reality of people of color movements for racial justice.
In order to resolve this, we must first question ourselves and address our failure to anticipate this trend and prepare ourselves for it. Instead of providing an agenda for white anti-racists to engage with us in authentic solidarity, many of us now just get giddy and tickled by the spectacle of whites talking about racism. Our lack of awareness of the lessons learned from past alliances with whites and our apparent unwillingness and/or inability to hold those whites who claim a commitment to anti-racist struggle accountable has resulted in a movement that is largely led by whites.
Black liberation theologian James Cone’s twenty-five year old observation remains true: “Wherever Black people have entered into a mutual relation with white people, with rare exceptions, the relationship has always worked to the detriment of our struggle. From the abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century to the recent civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, whites demonstrated that they cannot follow but must always lead.”
I do not expect or anticipate Wise of his own volition to critically assess himself in the context of Black self-determination and people of color solidarity. Further, I don’t expect Wise to move beyond his lucrative lecture tours to organize a movement of whites that actually confronts systemic racism. After all these years that he has been on the scene, if he were to start such an effort, he would have done so by now. Even so, the fact remains that in the realm of anti-racist struggle, thousands-of-dollars engagements do not constitute activism. They might be materially enriching for him on a personal level, but for the cause he claims to represent, such talk is cheap. And please, lest I find myself inundated with emails from those who idolize Wise, let me state for the record that nothing I have written herein will have any detrimental impact on his ability to make a living. His bank account will not take a dive on the account of my critique. One thing is for certain, he will never have to contend with the daily concerns of activists of color who are attacked and marginalized for speaking our truths and challenging convention in society and within our own ranks.
I’d say it is high time to up the anti-racist ante. In the end, what actually is a white anti-racist? Who defines such? And if that definition comes from a white person, how is that anti-racist? These questions may not be convenient, but us closing our eyes to them doesn’t make the issues they speak to go away. And I am clear that I am not the only one asking such questions. There is an ever-widening circle of committed people of color and white activists that see the hypocrisies and inconsistencies that exist within this work. They, too, are trying, in their own responsible way, to address them. It is time that we bring these questions to the surface, not to denigrate each other, but to strengthen our will and resolve in the spirit of fulfilling our purpose as a movement: the eradication of systemic racism.
Until the movement as a whole is able to adequately address these critical concerns, and people of color are no longer being dismissed and having our truths overlooked or otherwise dissed by those that claim to be our allies, here is a word to the wise: Rather than talk about the white privilege of others, Wise would be wise to simply discuss his own. Not in some general, “I’m a white guy” way either, but in a way that addresses his particular privileges as a white guy talking about racism such as the ones outlined in this essay. There would be no more compelling argument.
Ewuare Xola Osayande is a political activist, poet and author of several books including Misogyny and the Emcee: Sex, Race and Hip Hop. He is co-founder and director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism), a liberatory learning initiative that educates and empowers persons and organizations interested in and involved in anti-racist social justice movements. He is also host and producer of “The Resistance with Ewuare Osayande,” an online radio show that features news, music and commentary that champions the causes and concerns of people of color across the globe.