So, famous and notable white anti-racist thinker, pundit, commentator, author, blogger, etc. Tim Wise has been getting some heat lately, much of it from people of color, particularly African-Americans.
It seems a lot of the criticism comes down to the following:
- People of color (especially blacks) who speak out about racism in society get vilified or accused of pulling the race card or guilting whites (even liberal ones) even when they say the exact same things Wise is often praised for saying
- White anti-racists are a good thing, but why don’t black ones get anywhere near as much attention or as much of the pie in terms of book deals, media recognition, respect, etc.?
- What has Wise done for non-whites who are victims of discrimination daily in a white-privilege-based society, other than to spread information and awareness among some white people (who are more eager to listen to a white guy saying what black people have been saying all along)?
- Why won’t Wise publicly debate or discuss differing approaches with non-white anti-racists (instead of choosing to go head-to-head only with people at the other end of the spectrum from him)?
I’m not here to defend or attack Tim Wise.
I think a lot of what he does is good and well-meaning. I also think the criticisms against him have a lot of merit.
But what I will say is that this might be a good time for those of us who hold notions of equality dear (or claim to) and are white to actually check ourselves and do some self-review.
For example, when a person who isn’t white points out something they think is racist, is your first instinct to listen to them and see it from their perspective as much as possible (instead of from a position of white privilege), or do you start looking for flaws in their argument?
I’ve been guilty of the latter at times. Not very often in the past 20 years or so, I think, though my wife (who is black) might disagree. There have been times she’s been furious about a discriminatory slight and told me about it, and there have been times I’ve challenged her. In one case, she was ready to stop shopping at an entire chain of stores because of one checker’s assholery. She got mad when I told her that was irrational, but in that case, I was right, because she hadn’t asked for a manager to complain to, and she’d never been treated that way at any other location of that store.
On the other hand, she once got treated badly at the bank and I was finding the potential flaws in her perception and asking if it might have been “this” happening (something not racist) rather than “that” happening (her version of it).
On the whole, I lean to her perception, because it’s kind of stupid for me to tell her what was happening in a situation that she was involved in and I wasn’t. Also, I don’t live in brown skin every day and carry all the baggage that entails with being a potential target…in fact, I almost never have to think about my race or how people perceive my worth as a human being.
Still, I screw up at times. Some of you might screw up way more often than me and if so, stop it. Do better. In fact, do better than me.
Also, as white people, do we treat non-whites with the same level of respect as we do those with our same or similar skin tone (particularly when we are in positions of authority and have an influence on their ability to achieve what they deserve)? Are we making assumptions about them that are unwarranted? Are we talking down to them? Are we seeing them as humans first, or as color palettes? Etc.
I’ve only once been in a position where I had an influence over hiring. I was a key factor in the hiring of two writers at that magazine at different times: one black and one white.
Now, I’m not looking for a pat on the back about the black woman. But I need to make a point here about hiring.
When the position the black woman got was open, there were other candidates for the job, all of them white. During the interviewing process, however, when all was said and done and I considered all the qualifications of the people, I purposefully gave the black candidate the edge in the end, because of her race.
This is where some of you may scream “reverse racism!” or others (black and white alike) might accuse me of acting out of white guilt or simply hiring the woman because I was involved with a black woman at the time.
Not so. Here is what happened, and what I challenge more people with hiring power to consider:
In the end, no candidate stood out in terms of skills. No one had an edge. However, what I knew we had in our department was a whole lot of white folks. And in the organization as a whole, blacks were concentrated in lower-end positions (secretarial, filing, mail room, etc.). I had a chance to hire a black woman for a reporting and writing position on our magazine, and I pushed hard for her to get the job.
It was the right thing to do because to do otherwise would have been to perpetuate the idea of hiring and working with people who are most like us. That’s a terrible thing, because not everyone in the world is like us. If everyone in our department is, then someone has very likely failed in the recruitment or hiring process at some point, and perhaps multiple points. Sure, most people in the country are white, so the fact that most of our department would be white made sense. But to pass on a chance to make the department more representative of the population at large would have been a failure on my part.
Does this make me some saint? Far from it. I’ve had my moments of being quicker to lock the door when a sketchy looking black person is coming than if a sketchy looking white person is. I’ve done and thought stupid things at times. Not often, but often enough to feel some shame (as I would at any other bad behavior or faulty attitude, racial or otherwise). So, I’m not giving this hiring example as a way of showing how great I am.
But I am lifting it up as an example of the things we need to factor into our decision-making.
In the end, as with Tim Wise, the biggest issue isn’t what’s said but what is actually done.
If we get all excited about someone speaking truth simply because it’s a white person, but we routinely tune out the black people who are just as smart or smarter, then we fail. If we continue to gravitate toward or bring into our circles only people who look like us and come from the same cultural background, then we fail. If we promote equality and fight racism, but don’t often team up with the people we are defending, we fail.
As white people, we often ask non-whites to work hard, try harder and to “be patient” as society evolves.
It’s high time many of us whites stopped acting like we’re working as hard as we should be.
Because, by and large, we aren’t.