On Tuesday, April 19, Tim Wise came to Boston College to give a speech titled “The Trouble With Colorblindness: Racism and Inequality in the Age of Obama.” The event was presented by FACES, the anti-racist student group on campus.
FACES educates students about issues of race and social privilege. This event was part of their effort to focus on the issue of white privilege. Wise is one of the most prominent white anti-racists in the country. He was recently named one of the “25 visionaries who are changing your world.” He has written several books, including, White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son and Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity.
Wise started by saying that although it’s difficult for many people to talk about race, it is an important topic to discuss, as uncomfortable as it may be. He first used an example to explain this. He described a time when he was younger when his roommates left a pot of boiling gumbo on their oven for days. It gradually got worse and worse because everyone left it because they didn’t think it was their fault or their problem. He said that this is similar to race in our country: the problems of inequality were created years ago, but no one wants to address it now and they want to just move on because everyone thinks it isn’t their problem.
“It didn’t really matter anymore whether I was the one who made the mess,” Wise said. “The only thing that mattered was that I was tired of living in that funk. I was tired of living in the residue of someone else’s actions, actions in which I played no part. We have inherited a legacy of hundreds of years of racial inequity, gender inequity, class inequity, discrimination and injustice of all types.”
He said the problem is that although we may not have had a part in creating the problems, it is still our responsibility to fix them. Even though many people want to move on and look to the future, this is not the best way to change our society, according to Wise. He pointed to many economic and sociological statistics to show that there are still huge disparities between races in our country.
He critiqued the fact that many people in our country, especially white people, believe that their standing in society is due just to the fact that they have worked hard and haven’t been helped by the government. Wise said that there is much more to it; much of it is about social structures that have been in place for many years. He discussed the rhetoric of the political right and the Tea Party.
“The background rhetoric of this small government, low taxes narrative is intrinsically linked with the subject of race,” Wise said. “The larger narrative that’s going on is historically connected to a narrative of racial resentment.”
Wise said that there are four things happening in society currently that are challenging white people to think about traditional views of race in the country: there is a black president, the economic meltdown has caused double-digit unemployment for whites, our popular culture is becoming multi-cultural, and the demographic shift is changing the definition of America.
When discussing white privilege, Wise said that many white people in this country go through most of their lives and never have to think about race. He said that he honestly believes people are decent, but some people get it so wrong because they didn’t have to know any better. He said that white people don’t have to know the realities of colored people.
“When your stuff is the norm, the stuff that can be considered normative, and against which everyone else’s stuff is compared, you don’t have to racially designate its origin,” Wise said. This is why we don’t have to call literature white literature, or poetry white poetry.
“The normative condition says I don’t see my own racialization,” Wise said. He said that in order to combat these systems, white people must be in solidarity with the marginalized populations and understand their realities.
Wise concluded his speech by sharing a personal story about his family. When his daughter said that she thought that God couldn’t be black, he was confronted with the fact that something was “poisoning his children.” If it happened in his anti-racist household, how can it be stopped in our society?
“People can be turned into something counter to themselves by a system that encourages that,” Wise said. “If we don’t figure out in a very short time frame how we are going to live together, work together, and build a true multi-racial democracy, we aren’t going to survive very long, not just as a nation, but as human beings.”