We white folks are feeling pretty good about ourselves these days. And why not? A couple months ago, almost half of us voted to put a black guy into what is now ironically called the White House – more than enough to win him the election, when combined with his avalanche of African-American support. And polls show that even a majority of those who didn’t vote to put him there think that, all in all, America has done the right thing by breaking the color barrier at the very top of our meritocracy.
Since the election, we’ve imagined how the world will look to us with renewed respect and affection and hope, and envy even, because we’ve had the audacity (particularly after the colossal disgrace of the past eight years) to hand the keys to a member of the race whose oppression and struggle defines our history. And we’ve rejoiced in the anticipation, not to mention the first anecdotal reports (breathlessly passed along by the news media), of young African-Americans using Barack Obama’s election as inspiration to improve themselves and set their ambitions higher. You go, girls! (and boys!), we root silently. If a black man can get himself elected president, what’s stopping you from achieving the American Dream? No more excuses!
But wait just a minute, there, bub. Our cheerleading assumes a universal, colorblind buy-in to an “American Dream” that was dreamed up, after all, by white people. And who’s to say that the young African-Americans we’re rooting for might not already be achieving at the same level as young whites – if only the society we’ve inherited didn’t still keep a rather stiff boot on their necks?
Sure, we voted in enough numbers to elect a black guy president – but aren’t we still complicit in the maintenance of inherently racist educational, economic, political and legal institutions that keep the vast majority of African-Americans from succeeding on anything like Obama’s level? Well? Say something, cracker! Defend yourself, peckerwood!
Those no doubt bear some resemblance to the arguments that will soon be offered (though perhaps without that last bit of derision) by Tim Wise, the “anti-racist” activist and author whose latest treatise, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, is coming out in paperback this month. Full disclosure: I have not read this slim (120 pages) volume of buzzkill musings, but that’s OK – I just got around to finishing Wise’s last book, the less-slim yet provocative White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.
With its brevity, its already-clichÃ©d title, its lack of hardback-itude, and its Inauguration-friendly release date, Between Barack and a Hard Place bears all the earmarks of a cash-in. But Wise should be forgiven the indiscretion, because in recent years his authorial career has suffered from exquisitely poor timing. White Like Me first hit bookstores in early 2005, and (after not exactly flying off the shelves) was already headed for the remaindered racks when Hurricane Katrina suddenly shone a brilliant light on the struggles of poor blacks in our major cities – and white America’s inattention to those struggles. Sensing that the book had just barely missed its historical moment, Wise’s publisher offered him, in effect, a mulligan: a second edition that would incorporate an “open letter” to his fellow whites about Katrina. The new version, as fate would have it, was published in late December 2007 – just a week before a gaggle of honkies caucusing in Iowa launched the Obama campaign toward the presidency.
Now, there’s nothing like the sight of an African-American skyrocketing to the White House to stomp on a message like Wise’s – but then, that message was already bound to be a tough sell. White Like Me is an entreaty to whites not only to banish racism from their hearts, but to own up to the often-unfair advantages they have been granted simply by virtue of the color of their skin – and to work pro-actively to eliminate those advantages, for our own sakes as much as for the sakes of those who are disadvantaged.
The latter concept, known in racial-awareness circles as “white privilege,” is at the heart of Wise’s argument – which makes sense, because how can whites be expected to play a role in ending institutional racism if they don’t see themselves as part of the problem? It can be quite an off-putting notion, however — even to the most racially attuned of white progressives – and Wise has great difficulty toeing the line between good old mainstream bleeding-heart liberalism and the encouragement of outright self-loathing.
Here’s some footage of Wise discussing the origins of white privilege:
Part of Wise’s problem in White Like Me is that while he’s a terrific polemicist (as exemplified by the video), he’s not a great memoirist, and his tales of the personal experiences that made him realize his own “privileged” status aren’t presented with enough rhetorical gravitas to make them seem universal, rather than merely anecdotal. (It doesn’t help when one of his arguments boils down to “It’s a good thing I was white when I mouthed off to that redneck cop who had profiled my beat-up car as belonging to a black dude – otherwise he might have worked me over good.”) The bigger problem is that the “privileges” he identifies are mostly not of contemporary whites’ own, personal making, but are so deeply ingrained within our culture and institutions that one person’s efforts to fight them seem like a tiny drop in a bottomless bucket.
Wise isn’t particularly forthcoming with the racism-fighting prescriptions, either – at least, not beyond a goofy idea like (I kid you not) “Freedom Shopping,” in which teams of whites and blacks might descend upon a store in order to root out racial profiling by shoplifting-obsessed salespeople. (Alternatively, I suppose, one could start up a nonprofit, call it something catchy like the Association for White Anti-Racist Education – AWARE, get it? – and head out on a never-ending speaking tour of university sociology departments.) In the end, even he seems to recognize that while he’s agitating for public action to reverse the tide of institutional racism, few whites – even liberal ones – are likely to hit the streets demanding more affirmative action, or the profiling of shifty-looking Caucasian frat boys. The most he’s going to get from most readers is a renewed commitment to beating back any personal racist sentiments … and a healthy sense of guilt.
Wise does pick up steam as he describes the lessons he has learned in his work – for example, that white activists too often feel entitled to management roles (more evidence of privilege, see?) even when they’re organizing around racial issues that should be confronted with blacks leading the way. And he closes White Like Me with a compelling discussion of the manner in which America’s “melting pot” process of assimilation has turned generations of white Americans, regardless of their ethnicity or onetime swarthiness, from members of “resistance cultures” in their homelands into part of the power structure here. By doing so, he argues, white Americans have sublimated all of the quirky cultural elements that make a people distinctive – touchstones that African-Americans still possess in (no disrespect, but much irony intended) spades.
For Wise, that means today’s white Americans are poorer for their privileges, and because they can’t point with pride to any particular adversity they (or their families) have been forced to overcome. Of course, many millions of whites – conservative or liberal – might beg to differ on the latter point, taking pride in sending a kid to college for the first time, in a relative’s wartime heroism … or in a family member who marched with Dr. King, or in many hours spent last year volunteering for Barack Obama.
So, OK, perhaps we white liberals need to tone down our sense of personal accomplishment at electing a guy who “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills” (to borrow a phrase), and maybe we need to place our contributions (if any) to the President-Elect’s rise in the context of our positions in society. After all, on Nov. 4 there were many thousands of African-American grandparents who had persevered through the Jim Crow South and felt blessed merely to have the opportunity to pull a lever, at long last, for a black man. Still, black or white, old or young, it’s worth celebrating what America as a society has achieved in this election. It certainly won’t solve all of our problems with race, but hopefully even Wise will be generous enough to admit it sure as hell doesn’t hurt.
While you ponder all this (or try to forget about it, thus feeding Wise’s arguments about “White Denial”), go here to see what I always think about when I hear the words “White Like Me.”