Book Review: Tim Wise’s ‘White like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son’

by on October 25th, 2010
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In White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Tim Wise recounts a myriad of experiences as he develops his argument that racial inequality is institutionalized throughout American society; that whites are born into a position of advantage which is maintained at the expense of people of color, and that we can and must fight against white supremacy because it is destructive to all, including the privileged. Wise has valuable insight into the white racial experience, and I found portions of the book enlightening, but I also found his approach so distasteful that I struggled a bit to appreciate the substance behind it. Wise’s intended audience is the privileged class about which he writes, and I gather from his tone that he expects his readership to be defensive, quarrelsome, averse to self-reflection, and generally in need of a good shaking up. Though he often has an intriguing point to make, Wise has a tendency to lose the momentum of his story in rambling, then return to its original purpose with a conclusion that is unnecessarily dripping with contempt.

I recognize that Wise is attempting to challenge his readers into thinking from a different perspective, but I do not understand the tone with which he chooses to do this. In his opening chapter, he poses a question he has encountered at workshops: “What was your first experience with race?” In case the question prompts readers to ponder the first time they remember experiencing race, he immediately shares how “bothered” he is by the “self-assured response of those whites who actually think they know the answer,” who relate “the first time they encountered a person of color and noticed the difference… or saw some overt form of mistreatment” against a person of color. Apparently the correct interpretation of this question is: when did you first exist in a racialized environment, because the correct answer is: “at least as far back as the moment of our births,” if not earlier. (p.9).

He has valid points to make in this section: that white people tend to relate the concept of race to people of color, and to themselves only as far as they directly interact with people of color; that white people tend to be, have been conditioned to be, blind to the systemic racial inequality that characterizes every aspect of our society. About these things, I agree with Wise; I think he articulates them very well in some passages. But as soon as he begins to win me over with his insight, he either loses my interest in irrelevant details of a new story, or insists on arguing with me again: “please, spare me the ‘I wasn’t around back then’ routine,” or, “please, don’t come back at me with some crap about how things would be just the opposite if I had been lost in some inner-city, mostly black community…”( pp. 13, 46-47) I understand Wise’s attitude that white folks need no more mollycoddling; that our feelings and our image of ourselves as “good people” have been protected far too long, at too great a cost. Yet still, I want to say: Calm down, Tim. I am not your enemy. We can have a conversation here, but you have to give me a chance.

In this first section of the book, Wise focuses on arguing simply that white privilege does exist. He discusses his family background, wealth passed down through generations, the fact that he was assumed to have potential because of his white skin, despite the fact that he was a mediocre student, and that he escaped a criminal record for the same reason. I am familiar with, indeed, can identify with, many of these descriptions. What struck me as a truly new idea, and made me wonder how I could possibly have not considered it before was his story about disrupting milk time in grade school with a black classmate. Wise’s parents had filed with the school a form that prohibited corporal punishment; his black friend’s parents had not. The reason: black parents live with “the fear that persons in positions of authority – most immediately police – may well end the life of their man-child if they misinterpret a move, a look, a glance,” and that “unless you or someone else has broken them first of whatever exuberance is otherwise second-nature for youth, they may be coming back to you only in a box.” ( p. 22). I realize, that, because the idea of “whooping” a child is so foreign to me, I have judged black parents – particularly mothers – as being unnecessarily harsh with their children, while overlooking the history (which, as a history major, I should know the basics of, at least), that underlies it all.

In the next section Wise addresses the idea of resistance: if we accept the premise that we are members of a privileged class, then what? I had to put the book down for days after reading Wise’s analysis of the following comment, by a woman who, after hearing him speak, told him she wanted to “get busy on this racism thing, so I can still have time to save the rainforests before I have to sell out and get a real job.” ( p. 63).

Is it really possible that a writer as snarky as Tim Wise missed the sarcasm in that comment? He fears that “it reflects the way that many decent white folks view racism: as a problem to be addressed, but not one that is any more difficult than any other problem.” (Emphasis added). Moreover, he believes, it shows how we devalue the history of people of color and dismiss their struggle, because, “certainly we as white folks can figure it out in a couple of years if we just put our minds to it.” I was not there; I did not hear what Wise heard; but this is a comment I can easily imagine making myself, or hearing from my friends, and I assure you, from any of us, it would mean precisely the opposite. I would argue that we see racism as a problem to be addressed, but one that is no more likely to be resolved by our efforts than any other problem. Far from believing that we can fix it all if we just put in a couple years of effort, we are overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. The fact is, racism is just “another of many problems on the cafeteria line we call life.” (p. 63). Is it more or less important than climate change? Nuclear proliferation? What about paying our rent, getting our kid to school, and keeping our dad out of the nursing home? I’m not sure I’ve ever met these self-assured, superhero white folks Wise writes about.

Wise points out that even when we try to resist racism, the fact that we are white people in this fully racialized society will mean that our privilege will cloud our understanding, and that we will inevitably end up collaborating with the racist system. However, in his final chapters, Loss, and Redemption, Wise ends on a hopeful note. First he explores the way that white supremacy is destructive to whites as well as people of color. He writes about the way that race has been used as a wedge to separate the working classes, to prevent a unified force from demanding more economic equality. One of the sections I thought he articulated best was his discussion of the cultural loss associated with “becoming white” in America. He tells about a workshop where groups of white and black participants were asked to create lists of what they liked about being their race. The black group’s list included their strong families, their music and cultural traditions. The white group’s list read something like Peggy McIntosh’s list from her article White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. They liked that they were not followed in stores, that they did not feel out of place in most places, that they were not judged by the color of their skin. Wise writes: “none of what we liked about being white had a thing to do with us.” Their list was of things they liked about not being a racial minority. “We were defining ourselves by a negative, providing ourselves with an identity that was rooted in the external – rooted in the relative oppression of others.” (p.145) That story really resonated with me, as an expression of what we have truly lost. Wise sums up by arguing that, even though we will likely never “solve” this problem, fighting against racial inequality, as a part of the broader struggle for social justice, is part of what gives life meaning, and what makes us human.

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