Whiteness, White Privilege, + Racism in the age of Obama. Tim Wise lays it down

BY , February 27, 2009


“To be White in America, is to never at any point, to have to have known what People of Color experience…. When your stuff is the stuff that’s considered the norm against which everybody else’s stuff is compared (and usually found to be lacking) you don’t have to give it a racial designation, you don’t have to call it “White Literature,” you can just call it Literature, you don’t have to call it “White Poetry,” its just Poetry… this is why we don’t have White History Month….” – Tim Wise

For the end of Black History Month, I am going to draw attention to whiteness. Yes, I am going to write about white folks for Black History Month.

(Audio and video after the jump…)

The social construction, yet harsh reality and deeply routed history, of Race and Racism have never been an easy conversation. But, and this question is especially aimed at white Americans who seem to avoid race talks at all costs, why should it be a simple thing to digest?  Ironically, it is these white Americans who miss the point entirely.  The concept of privilege escapes them, the way society works doesn’t quite register. This has more to due with how deeply racism is embedded in our society, then the ill will of any individuals.

Scholars, journalists, politicos and the rest of us are scrambling to try to change the discourse on race in America post Barack Obama’s election. Unfortunately some have gotten confused and there is a lingering belief that since a Black man has become president, now discrimination and White Privilege disappear. That economic inequality will cease to exist. That with the election of Barack Obama, our flawed educational system will no longer be so, and a substantial curriculum on racism, white privilege, and its history in our country, that has been all but absent, will suddenly appear. This could not be further from the truth.

Yesterday Ebenezer and I caught a lecture from author Tim Wise on WBAI’s show Talk Back. Tim Wise is a prominent Jewish-American author and activist on racism in America. His latest book is titled Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama. Author Michael Eric Dyson says, “[Tim Wise's] writing and thinking constitute a bulwark of common sense, and uncommon wisdom, on the subject of race, politics and culture. He is a national treasure.”

We were grateful for the clarity with which Wise laid it down. His explanation of how deeply embedded both white privilege and racism are, in US history and nearly all institutions therein, is straightforward and makes the facts undeniable.  He states some shocking facts, including my “favorite,” that more white Americans believe that Elvis is still alive than believe that people of color face discrimination (He cites Gallup polls). Tim Wise keeps the listener engaged and their heads nodding (or shaking in disbelief).  He reaffirms the need to push for conversation and action on these issues, and all but gives us flashcards on what to say. While we are happy that President Obama is in office, and recognize what that represents, there is still an incredible amount of work that needs to be done. The dialogue needs to continue, if not START.

Please check out an excerpt from that lecture here:

Also check out some video of Tim Wise here:

Please, please, please also share your thoughts.



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  1. very informative

    Comment by gigi f. — February 28, 2009 @ 6:32 am

  2. This is just .. . . incredible. I wish everyone could see this and we could start talking about these issues. I’m white middle class, and always thought I was pretty open-minded and fair. As I learn about white privilege and about the real experiences of people of color, I’m amazed at the impact on our society that is mostly invisible to most of us. Confronting this is painful, but necessary. This video gave me a lot of great background and context. Thank you.

    Comment by MaryLynne — April 14, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  3. Thank you for your comments. We couldn’t agree with you more. This is important to discuss and the only way we can all understand how racism (conscious or unconscious) permeates a wide variety of areas in our society. Your comment reminded me of a scene in the show WEEDS where two african american women are walking in a white California suburb and talk about how comfortable they feel on account that everyone is being overly friendly as a result of “white guilt”. As a white man, I have felt that at times it is important that I be extra friendly with my nonwhite coworkers or friends less i get labeled a racist. This is neither right nor wrong and honestly a story that I have constructed in my own head. I am a very friendly person by nature and love all people. No one, to my knowledge, has ever called me a racist for being unfriendly. It is a product of guilt. I automatically feel guilty sometimes for my “white privilege” and while i haven’t taken a poll I bet that is a common feeling amongst white people. So I wonder, if this is a feeling whites have and is not talked about? Is it something that non-whites tend to pick up on, our guilt? does it matter? do other races feel better when they can sense this? does it then, by default, change the relationship from equal to one with a power structure…. the guilty party and the non-guilty? and how exactly does this leave our being able to relate to each other as equals. i’m not saying its good or bad I’m just wondering.

    Comment by Ebenezer — April 14, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  4. Admin,
    You asked – ” Is it something that non-whites tend to pick up on, our guilt? does it matter? do other races feel better when they can sense this? ”
    Actually, most minorities are unaware of white guilt. White guilt is often felt by whitese who are wealthy enough to live and work far from the minorities which they feel such guilt about. Frankly, the whites that work with minorities often view minorities as affirmative action opportunists that should not be there. Those whites often act out those feelings in their decision making; promotions and bonuses.
    Moreover, most whites wish to believe that life is fair and we all have to work to get what we want in life. They don’t have a clue of the additional obsticles nor do they really care…..until it’s their adopted mixed kid that discriminated against because he/she looks to ethnic.

    Comment by Sarah — May 20, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  5. Thank you for your comments. I agree with all of your comments. so where does this leave us? in the same place we started? how do we change this? in this day and age, within the US, does having a mixed race president even matter? what about the rest of the world? I lived in Brazil for years and know first hand that the impression that Brazil is a racially mixed and equal culture is false… and moreover Brazil is a culture of such great economic disparity where race and class are intertwined seamlessly….much like the direction America is headed.

    Comment by Ebenezer — May 20, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

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