Friday, February 5, 2010

Tim Wise

Yesterday I went to a sold-out and packed Tim Wise talk in Oakland. The author of White Like Me, Wise has been a huge influence in my transformation as a white person striving to understand my "whiteness." I took copious notes while laughing, crying, and nodding my head in agreement with Wise, who is a powerful and entertaining speaker. He started the talk by paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-ins, which started when four African-American college students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and ordered coffee at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., on February 1, 1960. This individual and courageous act by average, everyday people helped ignite the Civil Right Movement. The next day, a total of 25 students showed up and sat at the counter. While they were cheered on by some white customers and heckled by others, one thing remained constant: They were still refused service. So the day after that, they returned again with over 60 students. On the fourth day, over 300 students were present—and it continued to increase. Their actions started a groundswell of sit-ins.

Wise's talk focused on the negative effects of colorblindness and how it deepens the divide between the races. Following President Obama's election in 2008, liberal pundit Chris Matthews thought he was being enlightened when he blurted out mid-telecast, "I forgot he was black for an hour." Matthews implied that forgetting was a good thing, that our goal is for all people of color to transcend their race and become "white," which implies that being white is essentially a non-race, the absence of race. Wise goes on to make the point that Matthews, as a white person, has the privilege of forgetting about race, whereas people of color never have the luxury of forgetting such an essential, dangerous distinction. In a country where race has gotten and can get you killed, people of color do not have this privilege of "colorblindness."

Some of Wise's other points on this subject were:

Education: It has been proven that students of color, because of institutional racism, have distinct needs from those of their white classmates. When teachers speak of their classrooms and state that they hadn't noticed who was of what race, they doing a disservice to all of their students. "It is an erasure of someone's identity," Wise states. It's also just a big lie—who doesn't see race, seriously?

Politics: When Obama says, "We are not a black America, a white America ... we are the United States of America," he is implying to the white viewer that we are in a post-racial society. He is using rhetoric to gain the votes of white America by telling them what they want to hear. But this is not at all the truth—our country has been built on inequalities between the races, built on making constructed distinctions that have no truth to them. Wise understands Obama's need to use this rheotrical device, finds it inspirational and aspirational, but he also sees it as destructive.

Health Care: Studies have shown that affluent black women have lower health outcomes than poor white women. At the same time, African women coming to the US directly from Africa have the same health outcomes as wealthy white women. After one full generation of living in the US their health decreases drastically. Wise stated that over 100 studies have proved the cumulative effect racial discrimination has on health.

: Colorblindness implies living in a post-racial society, which ignores the need to talk about race. This de-racialized conversation, in our homes, schools, and workplaces, will make racism even worse. Wise says, "How will people process the disparity if the language for racism has been removed?" Essentially, this is a war between disparity and meritocracy. If disparity is not discussed and pointed out, then people will use the default position of meritocracy, the notion that the harder you work, the better you do. Instead of understanding institution racism and bias, a lack of success will be blamed on the individual.

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