Does Tim Wise's success marginalize antiracist activists of color?

By Rosemary McClure ‘13Editor-in-Chief

On Mar. 12, antiracist author and activist Tim Wise delivered a lecture titled, “I’m white. Where’s my resource center?” at Pomona College. Wise’s lecture focused on debunking common myths white people hold about race, such as the idea that affirmative action is reverse racism, or that it is unfair that white people “aren’t allowed” to say the N word.

Wise, a Nashville native and Tulane graduate, is the author of seven books and has spoken at over 600 colleges. He also facilitates workshops and training for teachers, nonprofits, law enforcement, and the like, often using humor to flip the status quo on its head. This is a pretty effective strategy, as evidenced by accusations that he is a “hard Left fanatic” who “roams the countryside in search of monsters to destroy,” delivered by the types of people who put the phrase white privilege in quotation marks.

Wise’s irreverence toward religious conservatives and Republicans sometimes gets him in hot water, which was the case recently over statements he made at Providence College, a Catholic institution, drawing attention to the Church’s role in Native American genocide.

Wise, like all antiracist activists, is asked idiotic questions frequently during Q&A sessions. Spoiler alert: these questions are usually asked by white college students hoping to thwart Wise’s premise. Such denial of oppression by the dominant group is common, “because to be white in 2013, you don’t have to know anything about people of color to succeed. People of color have to learn about our stuff”—white literature, white theory, white art, though of course we don’t call it that (we call it “literature, theory, and art”). As Wise noted at the start of his lecture at Pomona College, the ability to live oblivious to one’s political identities—if one is a nondisabled, cisgendered, white male with class privilege, for instance—is itself a privilege.

But if, as Wise says, “the white lens, in a white supremacist society, is the most inaccurate,” what does it mean for a white person to be a renowned antiracist speaker? Do we believe that Tim Wise is invited to hundreds of colleges every year because he is just the best antiracist speaker around? Or is the white antiracist lens prone to the same inaccuracies as the white supremacist lens?

Author Ewuare Osayande explored this idea in a post titled “Word to the Wise: Unpacking the White Privilege of Tim Wise” on the website People of Color Organize! Osayande wrote about the frustration expressed by student groups at several colleges and universities who wanted him to speak at their school but could not muster the administrative support (i.e. funds) necessary to host him. Meanwhile, at the very same institutions, Tim Wise “received the red carpet of administrative respect and welcome.” Asked one student in an email to Osayande: “Isn’t this what Tim Wise is supposed to be against?”

Wise admits, as he did during the Q&A session following his lecture at Pomona, that his specific repudiations of racist ideas are not new: they are the same arguments antiracist activists of color have been making since day one. Although Wise is undeniably a talented speaker and writer, he also concedes that his whiteness plainly plays a role in his success: that people living in a white supremacist society see white “experts” as more credible than people of color, even regarding the issue of race is one of the great contradictions of white supremacy.

This criticism of Wise and other white antiracists has been ongoing in the blogosphere. In a March 2011 post titled“The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron (An Open Letter to ‘White Anti-Racists’),” blogger Kil Ja Kim wrote that white anti-racism “still makes white people the most valued people,” forcing people of color “to feel dependent and grateful to white people who will actually interact with us.”

Kim takes a slightly harder stance on white antiracists than Osayande (and I encourage you to read both authors’ blogs). Kim writes, “don’t call us, we’ll call you. … don’t show up, flaunt your power in our faces and then get angry when we resent the fact that you have so many resources we don’t and that we are not grateful for this arrangement.” Osayande writes: “I do not have a problem with white people speaking out against racism … But when that acknowledgment precludes or is prioritized over and beyond our acknowledgment of ourselves, then we have a problem.”

If white people are more likely to listen to a white antiracist lecturer than a person of color, is that progress—because at least they’re hearing it—or is it reinforcing the racist idea that white people’s ideas are more legitimate?

Being a white person and self-professed Tim Wise groupie, my lens on this issue is foggy to say the least. I am, however, clear that if white people are going to engage in antiracist activism it needs to extend beyond Edmunds Ballroom.

During Q & A, one student asked Wise whether colleges should provide a resource dedicated to white consciousness-raising and challenging white supremacy. A “White Student Union” is out of the question, “Because power matters and inequality exists and the dominant group doesn’t need special resources to perpetuate its dominance. That’s called redundancy,” said Wise. In light of Towson Unversity’s scary KKK-esque student “patrols,” having any form of “white-designated” space (particularly a physical one, which starts getting really Jim Crowish) should be avoided. However, Wise said he has seen spaces designated for ally-building and raising critical race consciousness prove useful.

Do you think Scripps needs an antiracist club or more antiracist programming that is separate from existing resources for students of color?

If you are interested in exploring this issue, or are strongly opposed, I encourage you to reach out to the Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment (SCORE) office, which is currently in the process of planning next year’s Ally Week.