Politics & Media
Aug 22, 2013, 10:25AM

Activist Tim Wise On the Defensive

It's not a pretty sight.

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I'm a qualified fan of Tim Wise, the white anti-racism activist. I don't always agree with him, his website design couldn't be more pompous and, especially on Twitter, he can be kind of an asshole. But he's a clear, often sharp writer, and his points about the prevalence and power of white privilege are worth making. For instance, I liked this piece from a few years back, in which he points out that if the Tea Party were black instead of white, its members would be seen as dangerously violent terrorists, not patriots. It even inspired this, which is pretty great.

But last Saturday Wise posted a column in which he defended his right to make money from writing about, and lecturing about, anti-racism. Critics on Twitter had, apparently, suggested that, if a white anti-racist wanted to help black people, a way to accomplish would be to give his plum speaking gigs to one of the many black anti-racism activists out there. To which suggestion Wise responded:

First, to suggest that white people should not be paid for antiracism work—in whatever realm and field of endeavor, be it writing, speaking, organizing, educating, etc.—implies that entire fields of work should be essentially off limits to a group of people based solely on their racial identity. To the extent few people can afford to work for free, such a prohibition, even if only theoretical (since such a thing can’t be enforced, but is being proposed more as a matter of moral suasion), would all but bar white folks from any kind of antiracism work. And if I really have to explain to people who claim to oppose racism that it is inherently wrong, and by definition racist, to say that certain work should be off limits to certain people solely because of their race, we’re in serious trouble.

Wise's whole career, pretty much, is built on the (in my view, correct) insight that racism is a huge, historical, living, crushing weight. White privilege is everywhere; it infects everything about how people are treated, how they live, how much money they make and what sort of respect they get. America isn't equal—which means that, for example, affirmative action is an effort to redress ongoing inequities, not a perpetuation of racism. What's good for the goose is not good for the gander, because the goose and the gander are not now, and have never been, treated the same way. And yet, as brownfemipower acidly comments, Tim Wise, self-proclaimed black ally, is no sooner called on the floor for white privilege than he reflexively reaches for the reverse racism argument, effectively betraying everything he's ever stood for in the name of what sure looks like a rock-bottom commitment to his own income stream.

Maybe that's slightly unfair. It isn't really (just) his income stream that Wise is rather desperately defending here. It's the sense of his own goodness. Wise protests that, according to his critics, "there is no substantive moral difference between the white person who writes blatantly racist books and the white person who writes books against racism," since both are profiting from racism. To which Robert Reece replies, "The supposed morality of individual white people is often meaningless for people of color, especially in this case as whites who write blatantly racist books and those who write anti-racist books both benefit from white privilege that bolsters their book sales at the expense of people of color."

Racism, in other words, is a system, and you don't slough off the advantages you get from that system just by using those advantages to lecture about the evils of racism. The distinction between the white people patting you on the head and the white people are spitting on you is going to be fairly academic when all those white people, together, are joined as one in sitting on your neck.

So what should Wise do? Should he quit lecturing on anti-racism, in the hopes that those gigs would go to a more perspicacious commenter like (say) Reece? Well, maybe, but, again, it's not like doing that is going to stop him from being white, or stop that from mattering. Nor will it release him from a society in which racism and injustice compromise virtually every ethical act. I have a dear friend who worked as an art teacher on the south side of Chicago for close to a decade; students defecated in his classroom; students stole his materials; kids he cared about were shot; administrators fired him and rehired him at a whim; he had something very like PTSD. His principal called him a saint, and I think she meant it literally. And yet, he'd be the first to tell you that he was also part of an imperialist occupying force, and that the abuse he took from students was because, whatever else they didn't know, they knew that quite, quite clearly.

The point is that it's really hard to be a moral person when you're part of an oppressive ruling caste. People who are trying, as Tim Wise is trying, deserve some credit—though you run through that credit awfully quickly if you spend it all patting yourself on the back. As I said, I think Wise's efforts are worthwhile, and I think he should be paid for them, because people should be paid for their work. But if he's going to start using his "anti-racism" platform to tell people of color they're stupid for criticizing him, to claim that he's being discriminated against, and to generally whine about his right to believe in his own righteousness… then maybe it's time he thought about retiring.

  • It seems pretty clear from this article that Wise was the subject of discriminatory views. Any suggestion that his thoughts, reason, or logic are less valuable than another's because he is white is a blatant example of the definition of racism. Like his example you cite at the beginning of the article, if he were black and told he should not speak about or be paid for his anti-racism work and it should be done by a person who is white, it would obviously be a racist situation but it would also be perceived differently. Noah, my question to you is why can't something be both racist AND attempting to "redress ongoing inequalities" at the same time. After all, isn't the road to hell paved with good intentions? Affirmative action, I'd suggest fits both definitions. On the pro-side it is an attempt to move minorities into areas of greater/ "more equal" opportunity. Many would argue this is necessary since blacks were starting from a much lower rung socially/economically etc. in the aftermath of hundreds of years of slavery. It is also racist. When someone becomes ineligible for a job/school placement/ etc. solely because they are of a particular race; it is by definition racism. I think this is where most of our differences in opinion occur. I tend to see things as much more gray than your black and white world. Agree/disagree?

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  • Texan, in order to defend Wise, you have to be against affirmative action. In other words, you have to violate the basic tenets of Tim Wise's belief system. You're just further demonstrating how thoroughly his position is untenable.

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  • Noah, I'm neither for nor against affirmative action. You assume way too much. I'm merely suggesting that the issue is gray. The only thing I'm demonstrating is the ability to view an idea from all angles not just one point of view plus the ability to identify racism as it is defined in the English language and American culture. If you disagree, please tell me how excluding an individual from a position or job based solely on the color of their skin is not racist. In other words, Noah, I'm not giving you a job because you are white/black/asian/latino/etc. or I'm giving you a job because you are white and not a minority. How is this not racist??? Please don't hurl assumptions and insults, it is a clarifying question, not an attack.

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  • I was talking about your argument, not your personal stance.

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  • Noah, I was talking about your argument, "...which means that, for example, affirmative action is an effort to redress ongoing inequities, not a perpetuation of racism." 1. Did I misread and you are quoting Wise? 2. If I read correctly, and this is your interpretation, my question still stands, why can't it be both. Why in this argument, do you not concede the duality of AA's nature. e.g. An explosive represents a destructive force. It can be used to destroy oxygen supply and therefore become a force used against destruction caused by fire. Therefore, it can be both destructive and constructive at the same time. It destroys oxygen supply so further damage from fire does not occur. I'm merely asking why, in your opinion, the duality can't exist in this paradigm. Regardless of "white privilege" (a racist term in itself)' why can't affirmative action be both? I respectfully request a response to this question rather than meaningless distinctions between my argument and my personal views. You stated that in order to defend Wise, I must be against affirmative action. I have defended Wise and have the same number (a.k.a. balanced)of positive and negative feelings about affirmative action. So my question stands.

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  • Aw, you two are arguing again! Just like old times.

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  • Well, trying not to, too much. I don't really want to get into AA at the moment....

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  • Hi marymac. Is it really an argument if I'm merely asking a question of the author about a significant statement made in their work? Clearly something in my comments suggest an argument but I don't know what. I legitimately would like to know how better to phrase my questions so the author will respond to the question without taking offense. Since you and I have been able to discuss your work amicably, any insight you could provide would be much appreciated.

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  • I didn't mean to use the term "argue" negatively; I guess I was just observing that the two of you had undertaken discussions again. Healthy discourse and debate are a key tenet of any journalistic endeavor. I always remain optimistic that the debaters simply remember to be respectful of one another's opinions. Which is not to accuse either one of you of being disrespectful, merely to say I'm hopeful you each continue to communicate openly if not agreeably. (I really should have just stayed out of it.)

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