Tim Wise Takes On Critics of White Anti-Racists

Excerpted from an upcoming interview with Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Colorblind coverI personally think Tim Wise really doesn’t need an introduction. To borrow from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, if you don’t know him by now

…but let me not be presumptuous and let me present to some and introduce to others Mr. Wise.

He is one of the prominent public intellectuals and activists regarding white privilege and racism around today. Beyond his many speaking engagements and sharing in discussions with anti-racism intellectuals and activists of color such as Marc Lamont Hill about the history, mechanics, contemporary examples of, and the reasons behind white racism on media outlets like CNN and MSNBC, he’s written several books on the topic: the latest is Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.  Around the online office where we Racialicious correspondents hang, he’s just referred to as “our dude Tim,” and he’s been known to drop by from time to time. By his own admittance, he reads this blog.  For me, he’s the perfect comeback when a white person wants to roll up to me with some racist ish as in, “You really need to read some Tim Wise.”

So, as you may guess, this attention attracts critics–not just the white supremacists and conservative/Teabaggers types (par of this particular course), but other anti-racism activists.  So, I asked our dude Tim about this.

Andrea Plaid:  Some anti-racist activists have been raising some interesting critiques about you (on Twitter and Tumblr, specifically) in terms of your commitment to “organizing.”  More pointedly, they say there’s a “lone cowboy” element to your speaking out on white privilege and white racism and/or that your renown keeps anti-racists of color from making a living doing the same thing.  Personally, I think it’s a bit of hateration, but that’s me. :-) Your thoughts?

Tim Wise: Well, I’m actually glad for this kind of criticism, because whites engaged in this work need to always be thinking through what we do and how we do it. As for the issue of organizing versus “lone cowboy”-ism, there are lots of different roles to play in the struggle against injustice. Organizing is one critical role. At one point, that is the work I did. For about the first five years after college. But I just wasn’t very good at it. I was OK, but it’s too important a job to have it done by someone who’s just OK. So I chose to move away from that work, because I wasn’t being of assistance to the community in the way the community deserved.

So as I was trying to figure out what I might be able to do to support the cause of social justice, I pretty quickly came to realize that my only two skills were writing and speaking. I’m a lousy fundraiser, a lousy administrator, awful with organizational details. So the question was, and is, how can I put these two skills to use? And what is the most accountable way to use the skills? And that’s a great question, which I know I haven’t figured out yet entirely. But to say that someone who plays this role (fundamentally as an educator) is a lone cowboy strikes me as odd. I mean, if I were a professor, I would be an educator. And I would write books, and articles, and potentially get attention in media too, but would people accuse me then of being a lone cowboy? Probably not. But what I do is not that different: I am an educator, it’s just that I don’t have a fixed classroom where I work three days a week. I have several “classrooms” so to speak, each week, where I speak to people about these matters.

Tim Wise 1Now, is that “organizing?” Well no. But there are ways in which that work supports organizing efforts by others. So, for instance, I often meet with local organizers in the places where I speak to talk about longer-term strategies, and I discuss their work at my events to help plug people into that. As of last year, I began to arrange for local groups to set up tables at my events and speak from the stage before my presentations, to let folks know about what efforts are going on locally, which they might get involved in. Another way I support organizing and grass-roots efforts for change is by having my speeches arranged through a non-profit organization that works directly with student and community groups, to build activist coalitions, provide broad-based educational and organizing materials, and strategize with folks at the grass-roots level to challenge racism, sexism, economic injustice, militarism, etc. One-third of my speaker’s fee at every event goes to this organization — Speak Out — which then helps support their educational and base-building work.

Now, as for the issue of how my work might be crowding out people of color, obviously, it’s possible that my voice, by way of being amplified — on campus, or in the media, etc — might crowd out people of color doing the work. But there is also another possibility, and it’s what I hear from people of color is happening on the campuses and in the communities I visit. And that is, my voice appears to be helping whites in these places open up in classes taught by these people of color. Hearing me speak, or reading something of mine in the syllabus appears to make them more willing to engage respectfully with the professor of color, and the rest of the syllabus, most all of which is material written by folks of color. Now, on the one hand, this is incredibly fucked up, that it should take a white person to validate people of color in the eyes of white folks. But to the extent that’s a reality, we have to deal with it. So there are two ways of looking at the effect of whites in this work: as zero-sum, in which there’s a limited amount of space for antiracist writing, speaking, etc, and if whites get x, y, or z slot, there are fewer slots for black and brown folks, or as a generated demand thing, where if whites can get other whites thinking about these issues differently, we can stimulate demand for more speakers — mostly of color — and their writing as well.

In the case of my speaking, if schools are telling me the truth when they tell me why they brought me in — which is to plant some seeds with otherwise resistant white folks — then the fact is, if they didn’t bring me or some other white person, the speaking slot would not have gone to a POC. The event just wouldn’t have happened. They are literally creating a slot for a white person that year, or whatever, in addition to the slots they intend to fill with folks of color, because they see a particular need to have a white person deliver this message too. Most of the speakers the schools bring in to speak on these issues are of color. Almost all of them, in fact, which is totally appropriate of course.

Photo credits: Reginald James/The Black Hour and Fledgling