Politics & Media
Sep 24, 2013, 07:20AM

Allies and Failure

Tim Wise is no Robert Shaw (and neither am I).

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Tim Wise is a white anti-racism lecturer and writer who spends most of his time trying to educate fellow whites about their privilege. White people, Wise argues, are accorded respect and opportunities simply because they're white. Then they assume that their triumphs are based on work or genius.

So what did Wise do when some critics suggested that his success as an anti-racist lecturer was based in part on privilege? He responded by betraying his life's work.

"it's not on me, sweetheart..plenty of people of color get book deals and speaking gigs each year…if u didn't its not on me…it's cuz u haven’t said anything that anyone finds valuable"

Others’ success has something to do with white privilege, but not Wise's. He is, apparently, the only truly meritocratic white man in America.

Suey Park, who writes at the blog Critical Spontaneity, eviscerated Wise and "white allies" in general in a series of pointed tweets:

My main critique of white "allies" has to do with Tim Wise's work, which many white allies find appealing. Why is it appealing? It's appealing because his work is centered around a redemptive narrative of white allyship. He's basically an evangelical preacher. And in said work, he pinpoints how racism ALSO hurts white people, and thus they should care, rather than caring b/c it hurts POC…The problem isn't just TW and HS. It's how white people need to frame racism around themselves to care about it.

As someone who's written about how sexism hurts men, that hits uncomfortably close to home. As does Park's comment to Wise that "We wouldn't need white allies if white people didn't start racism in the first place!"

"My argument is one of agency," Park adds, which I assume she means that a focus on white allies inevitably sidelines people of color and their choices. When Park objects to this Atlantic article, she's objecting to the apparent mainstream preference for stories in which people of color become props in the moral apotheosis of some white guy, so that their pain becomes his redemption.

As Park says, that kind of narrative is gross and infuriating if you happen to be the person whose suffering is being repurposed. As a thoroughly assimilated Jew, I face no discrimination to speak of in the U.S., and yet I still feel a personal and enduring repulsion for the way my people's history is used for the sanctimonious validation of an exemplary goyim in the dreadful Schindler's List (perpetrated of course by the Jewish Steven Spielberg, just to twist the knife further.)

Still, even if I hate Schindler's List, and even if Tim Wise has embarrassed himself, I do still think discussions of white anti-racism are pretty important. Nor do I think that those stories have to fit into the Schindler-savior-aggrandizing-white-people role that Park eviscerates.

As an example, I'd point to Robert Shaw, the white leader of the black 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War.

As those who have seen the 1989 film Glory know, the 54th led the attack on Fort Wagner in Charleston, and was decimated. Shaw was killed, and Confederate General Hagood ordered his body thrown in a trench with the black enlisted men. Accounts differ as to the reason for this order, but a captured Union surgeon reported hearing Hagood say that it was supposed to be a deliberate indignity. When Union officials tried to get the remains returned, Shaw's father told them that the family "would not have his body removed from where it lies surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers." Later, when a statue to Shaw was commissioned in Boston, Shaw's relatives rejected a standard single figure-on-horseback statue, because they felt it put undue emphasis on Shaw and not enough on the men he fought with. Instead, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created a bas relief showing the black infantrymen standing massed behind Shaw's mounted figure.

James Loewen, in a beautiful essay about the Shaw monument in his book Lies Across America, emphasizes that the statue succeeds not because it is about Shaw, but rather because it isn’t. The monument "symbolizes 'together,' as the words on its back proclaim—not only between blacks and white but also between officers and enlisted men." Shaw's commitment to his black soldiers was not a commitment to saving them; it was a commitment to fighting alongside them. He certainly had privilege; he led the regiment because of his class and race, not because he was a better soldier than any of the black people who served under him. But that privilege was deployed not in the name of rescuing black people, but in the name of their agency. Glory quotes from his letters to his parents, in which he wrote, "We must make it a whole country for all who live here, so that all can speak."

That speech is not just through voices, but through actions as well. As Roger Ebert says, Glory focuses too much on Shaw, but the film does do a good job of showing that his main heroism isn’t in being a hero on his own account, but in pushing against white people's bureaucratic red tape and racism in order to give the black soldiers an opportunity to fight in the battle they've chosen.

And by making that choice, they changed the country. As the monument says, "They gave to the nation and the world undying proof that Americans of African decent possess the pride, courage, and devotion of the patriot soldier." The 54th's performance led Congress to approve the enlistment of more black troops, which in turn led to profound changes in white Northern attitudes. There were white riots against black people in New York at the time of the attack on Fort Wagner; eight months later, whites cheered the states' own black infantry regiment as it marched through the streets.

It's true that if there was no white racism, Shaw couldn’t have stood against racism; he wouldn't be remembered. But if there were no white racism, Shaw wouldn't have had to die at 23, either. His life and fate show that racism in this country really has done great evil to white people as well as black. And it shows that white people can work for black liberation—or, more precisely, can work to help black people liberate themselves.

But I don't think that's exactly a feel-good story for white people. Because, if Shaw is the standard, how many of us white people live up to it? In his 1960 poem "For the Union Dead," Robert Lowell contemplates Shaw and the 54th, and in comparison sees in his contemporaries a "savage servility." The monument, he says, "sticks like a fishbone/in the city's throat." It's a standing rebuke.

I think white people like me, and Tim Wise, need that rebuke, as well as that inspiration. Shaw died so other people could fight for their own stories. White people need to know that that's possible, not to make us feel good about ourselves, but so we can understand how we're failing.


—Noah Berlatsky (@hoodedu) blogs at Hooded Utilitarian.


  • I must say Noah, I enjoyed the article until the last sentence. It seems to me that you fall into a common trap of decrying racism while in fact perpetuating racism much like Wise does. By stating "White people need to know..." you are advancing the racial divide rather than your stated goal of minimizing racism. Imagine how condescending that sentence would sound if a race other than white is used. Until people realize that racism is a personal trait rather than a stereotype that should be applied to a whole race, racism will grow rather than decline.

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  • Bravo, Texan! White liberal guilt is alive and well... even in 2013.

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  • The problem is, pretending racism doesn't exist is not a way to get rid of racism. Refusing to acknowledge that there are inequities just makes you unable to acknowledge inequities.//And I don't think the issue is guilt. The issue is that race/class/gender put you in a situation where doing good is really difficult. Shaw managed it; I doubt I would have in his situation. Would you?

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  • Nobody here is pretending racism exists. In fact, you gave us a great example of it in your last line. How about addressing the comments made rather than erecting straw people?

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  • Obviously, that should read " Nobody here is pretending that racism DOESN"T exist."

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  • I responded to your point. Acknowledging white privilege and white participation in ongoing racism isn't the same as perpetuating racism. You could answer my question now, if you'd like. Would you do what Shaw did?

  • No I would not have for many reasons. For one thing, I would have been better at raising money for the north than actually fighting in the army. Furthermore, forced segregation is just a pc version of racism. There are many other reasons I would not have done what Shaw did but that does not mean that I'm not for equality of opportunity or that I do not have the courage of my convictions.

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  • Actually you did not. You created a straw man argument which was condescending in tone and not germane to the issue at hand. Do you really not understand how offensive it is to paint a whole race as "failing"? Do you really think all white folk think alike? Don't you find it the least bit odd that an article written about fighting racism concludes with a statement that fits the very definition of racism?

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  • I don't think all white folk think alike. Nor did I say they did. I'm suggesting that all white folk could benefit from thinking about Shaw. Your refusal to do so isn't changing my mind about that. Also...reverse racism really is different from racism. The refusal to acknowledge that is one of the main ways folks justify racism these days. Again, getting all heated up by a mild suggestion that white folks could do better in thinking about race and absolutely refusing, repeatedly, to think about how Shaw's example might apply to you personally seems like a more depressing slur on at least one white person than anything I managed to come up with.

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  • Ah...okay, didn't see your second post there.//I'm...a little speechless I guess. It just goes to show that you can rationalize anything when you're determined to do so. An impressive display, and a good reminder of how intransigent folks will be when their self esteem is involved. Thanks for that.

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  • Again Noah? Straw people and ad hominem attacks seem to be your only response. 1. Why do you presume things about me that you have no way of knowing? 2. You state that all white folks are "failing". That is a racist statement! Qualifying it as reverse racism does not mean it is not racist. Just look at which word is being qualified. What about Bill Diblasio? is he failing as well? What about Asians? Do they get a free pass since they are not white? You do realize that they constitute the largest race by numbers? Why are you defending segregation? How is that not racist? Your latest comment is racist too. What if someone said blacks need to understand how they are failing? Would you defend that statement as well? I'm not "heated" by your posts, just amazed at the racist tone you take while claiming to be arguing against race. Please don't bother to respond if you are only going to hurl more racist and personal attacks towards me. On the other hand, if you what to have a mature discussion about racism, I'd be glad to further discuss. Perhaps that way you will realize where you are failing.

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  • Boys, boys. Don't make me turn this car around.

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  • Hi Mary. You've got to admit that Noah was the antagonizer on this one. Instead of thoughtful reflection on the failures of his last sentence and its similar nature to Wise's flaw, he chooses to hurl ugliness in my direction. Go figure. Just reread my first comment and you'll see.

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  • A curly one

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