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“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 2

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Of course, I could talk to author/activist Tim Wise about 5,000 things all day long; he’s a fascinating conversationalist.  I even asked him a question on my mom’s behalf about the Tea Party.  (I relayed his response to her.)  We flowed from the problems of  “colorblind” rhetoric as social/political policy to what we do at the R, pop culture…including the politics of porn.

Cosby Show castAndrea Plaid: Let’s talk about addressing race and racism on TV, with the discussion about Mad Men and how it does or doesn’t do that.  What do you notice about how race and racism is addressed on TV, especially on shows that take place in contemporary times, like The Cosby Show, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy?

Tim Wise: Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time. The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present? That’s interesting to me sociologically.  But my question is not about Mad Men so much, as it is about other shows like Friends, which is in the contemporary period in New York, and yet there are no people of color around, or Grey’s Anatomy or the Cosby Show, where we can have representations of folks of color, and “race,” but rarely if ever deal with racism per se. So, they can have the occasional, or even central characters of color in the case of Grey’s or Cosby, but it’s as if these people never deal with racism in their lives. It’s not that every episode needs to be about race, but when virtually NO episodes are, that’s unrealistic. I mean, even a show my kids watch, in re-runs, That’s So Raven (with former Cosby star Raven Symone) had an episode about racism: a really good one in fact. If they could do it, why can’t these shows for adults do it?

AP: The flip of that is how working-class and poor whites are portrayed as a group of people others can feel free to turn their noses at due to their outspoken bigotry and/or their impoverished lives.  Latest case in point: Arlene and Sam Merlotte’s family, the Mickens, on True Blood.  Your thoughts?

TW: Well, there’s a long history of portraying bigots as backwoods “trash” or whatever, because it allows the hip, urbane TV viewer to assume an outsider stance, where we can say “oh, thank God I don’t know people like that!” Or, “I’m not like that.” It’s why whenever one of the talk shows, like Jerry Springer or whatever would have on a racist family, it would always be some family from rural Georgia or whatever, missing teeth, mispronouncing words, or whatever. But of course, people can be elites and incredibly racist, without slurs, without bad dentition, without any overt signs of bigotry, because they have the power to do their stuff in private: old boy’s networks for hiring and contracts, zoning laws that restrict where people can live and where they can’t, etc.

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“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 1

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

One of the perks of my particular role as Sexual Correspondent is getting to talk to some of the sexiest-to-me anti-racist thinkers.  So, you can guess my response to Racialicious’ owner/publisher Latoya’s question: “Do you want to interview Tim Wise?” (Precise answer: “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Of course, Wise is happily married with children; thus, my lurve for the man stays at “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”)

Tim Wise 3If someone asked me what is it about Wise that makes me so swoony, I’d say—besides his sleepy, brooks-no-bullshit blue eyes, his Southern-gentleman smile, his Baptist-preacher rumbly voice, and his precise facial hair—that he does quite a bit of the heavy lifting on handling whiteness, especially white privilege and racism, so I don’t have to.  To have someone like him on my side in this nastily trippy Mobius strip called Race in America is, frankly, quite endearing to me.

His latest book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, is full of win because he succinctly takes apart the Obama Age meme of “post-racial” as well as its progenitor, the ableist term “colorblind(ness),” as the fallback retorts when race—and particularly racism—is discussed and/or called out.

In fact, as I will argue, colorblindness not only fails to remedy discrimination and racial inequity, it can actually make both prob­lems worse. To begin, if the rhetoric of racial transcendence gives the impression—as it does, almost by definition—that the racial injustices of the past are no longer instrumental in determining life chances and outcomes, it will become increasingly likely that per­sons seeing significant racial stratification in society will rational­ize those disparities as owing to some cultural or biological flaw on the part of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. In other words, ra­cial bias would become almost rational once observers of inequity were deprived of the critical social context needed to understand the conditions they observe. Whereas a color-conscious approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of racial inequities and how they’ve been generated, colorblindness encourages placing blame for the conditions of inequity on those who have been the targets of systemic injustice. Ironically, this means that colorblind­ness, often encouraged as the ultimate non-racist mentality, might have the consequence of giving new life to racist thinking.

–From Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity

Andrea Plaid: In your book, Colorblind, you explain what it is.  What is the difference between that and “race neutrality” (if there is a difference) and why doesn’t either work, specifically in the POTUS Obama’s case?

Tim Wise: I use them pretty interchangeably here. Basically, my argument is that post-racial colorblindness  fails on two levels: 1) it fails to solve problems that are race-specific and caused by racism and discrimination, and 2) it fails to help build support for broader progressive social policy (contrary to the claim made by its proponents), because even when you put forth “colorblind” policy (like universal health care, more money for schools, a jobs bill, etc), it is perceived by whites as a racial transfer, because of the way social policy has been racialized for 40 years. So whites hear “black people” when you talk about any policy to help the have-nots or have-lessers. Which means that the right is going to use race as a weapon anyway, to push those buttons with whites, and when the president refuses to punch back, even against the most blatant and absurd examples of that racism and race baiting, it emboldens the bullies and makes him appear weak. Obviously, he has to be careful how he engages race, but the evidence I present in the book (which is based mostly on research from the field of social psychology) has found that allowing race to remain sublimated and below the surface actually makes it easier for people to act on subtle biases, because they can do so without ever having to confront the contradictions between who they claim to be (open-minded, non-racist, etc) and who they really are.

AP: If “colorblindness” doesn’t work, then why use it?

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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.

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