“Everything I’m about to say has been stolen from people of color who have been saying the same things for at least the last 300 years,” began Tim Wise, a nationally-known anti-racist writer and speaker, as he addressed a packed Diego Rivera Theater on the campus of City College of San Francisco (CCSF) on Thursday, February 1. His talk, entitled “What Kind of Card is Race?: Racism, White Privilege and Denial,” was sponsored by the Multicultural Infusion Project, Campus Change Network, and African American Studies at CCSF.
Students, faculty, staff, and administrators filled every seat, stood along every available wall space and even sat in the aisles. Among them were those that were simply curious about what a white man would say about race. Others had read Wise’s books (White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White). By the end, no one was in any doubt about Wise’s message: racism is alive and well in the U.S. and every one of us has a stake in making it disappear.
On his way to this conclusion, Wise proposed two challenges: “How prepared are you to hear the things I’m about to say if they were said by people of color?”; and, “Are we prepared to talk about racism, instead of diversity?” The point of his second question is that in America we’ve had diversity at least since the pilgrims stepped off the boats and added whiteness to a land full of indigenous peoples. Diversity is easy, he pointed out. It’s all around us. But racism is just as prevalent and much harder to talk about.
More than that, Wise stated, we can’t even talk about racism unless White America acknowledges its existence. Wise cited Gallup polls from the 1960s and 1980s in which whites denied serious problems with race, while people of color saw it very differently. But this is not surprising to Wise, since dominant groups in any society have the privilege of not knowing the reality of non-dominant peoples. Whites in the U.S. are no different; the very denial of racism is a form of racism. But whites can choose to ignore the realities of people of color with little consequence; ignoring white reality can get people of color killed.
“And let’s talk about this ‘race card.’ When was the last time a person of color actually got anything by ‘playing’ this card?” Instead, Wise claimed, it’s the “denial card,” played by whites, which wins every time.
Wise proclaimed, “If you’re not taxed by racism, then you’re receiving the subsidy of privilege.” For example, DEA statistics tell us that African-Americans and Latinos are much more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, even though the chance that a white person has drugs in the car is much higher. So whites are receiving a subsidy (assumed innocence), while people of color are being taxed (suspicion of guilt), despite the fact that whites are guilty more often.
Along with frequent statistics, Wise peppered his speech with stories from our own media that illustrated his points. For example, it has been noted that many people think it’s cute or funny that President Bush sometimes mispronounces his words; some feel it makes him a “regular” guy. But if Bush were a person of color, many of those same people would think he was ignorant; and, if we actually had a black president who spoke that way, he or she would be perceived as casting a poor light on every black person in the country. Few, if any, are suggesting that the president’s malapropisms reflect badly on the rest of white America.
Drawing on history, Wise made the point that “whiteness” as a concept began only in the 1670s, when wealthy landowners of European ancestry (what we call “white,” today) realized that their white indentured servants were beginning to join with black slaves to protest the injustice of their plights and to seek redress. By creating the category of “whiteness” and offering the white indentured servants “entry” into the privilege of whiteness, the elites succeeded in dividing the budding alliance, thereby preventing the loss of their wealth. “White privilege is the way that working class people have been suckered by the wealthy,” concluded Wise.
Thus, Wise made the case that whites are also paying a price for racism—especially if you happen to be poor or working class—because white privilege keeps the working class divided instead of fighting the economic elites. And since privilege allows ignorance of the rest of the world, the privileged few can be surprised by everyone else’s anger—as well as the results of that anger.
Wise’s final challenge to whites was, “What is the cost of racism in your life?” Once you know the answer to this question you can decide if your privilege is worth the cost—and only then can you fully engage in the fight against racism.
Wise offered the following ideas about what can whites do:
1. Listen to people of color about the problem and about what whites can do;
2. Work with other whites and people of color to try something that might help;
3. Listen to people of color some more.
Visit www.timwise.org for more information on Tim Wise.