I have been very critical of Tim Wise for quite sometime now. To be honest, I must admit that much of my judgment of his work was based solely on interviews that I had seen, as well as reading various posts on his website. I recently decided that perhaps my judgment of him was a bit strong, and so I set about to challenge this understanding by reading, White Like Me: Reflections On Race From A Privileged Son.
As a Black woman, I am very aware that I am not Wise’s target audience, in fact, he seeks to exploit my experience for his own financial gain, rather than to deeply educate those that read his books. My number one criticism of Wise, is his continual essentialism regarding a Black identity. Even though I understand his book was meant to be a 101 primer to those not aware of how Whiteness and indeed race operates in the U.S., his inability, or perhaps outright failure would be more accurate, to include an intersectional approach reduces what it means to be of color in a North American context. Black people belong in various categories: we are disabled, TLBG, poor, wealthy, educated, TAB, religious, non religious, male and female, gender queer etc,. To make a definitive description of how Black people experience race, without explaining that such marginalization quite often multiplies oppression is not only irresponsible, it erases members of the Black community to present a single mendacious narrative. One really glaring example is the complete erasure of trans women of colour that die each year. Race absolutely effects who lives and who dies, and yet Wise, to my knowledge has yet to raise this issue.
Wise also has a tendency to reduce race relations to a Black/White binary. To be of colour in the U.S. is to be not White of non European descent. With the exception of a small passage on the fallacies in Disney’s Pocahontas, Wise mainly framed racism as something Whites do to Blacks, rather than Whiteness as an institution that is harmful to every single person of colour. This is erasure and it ignores the hierarchies of power that support Whiteness, as well as ensures that people of colour are constantly fixated on each other, rather than united to bring an end to White supremacy.
Social justice is hard work and it demands a full-time commitment and therefore, I completely understand when someone attempts to earn a living, even as they raise awareness to the multiple issues that plague our planet. It is highly problematic that a White man is earning a substantial living talking about the way that race effects people of colour. Wise of course covers this by discussing Whiteness, but the truth of the matter is, that you cannot talk about Whiteness without examining people of colour. He is essentially profiting from hundred of years of our history and taking on an expert status that is denied people of colour when we discuss our lived experiences. His very existence as White, educated male of class, TAB, cisgender, heterosexual privilege, means that he is affirming much of the very narrative that he seeks deconstruct.
Wise makes White people feel safe. He gives them the appropriate liberal spin that never expects them to seek truth via the people most impacted by race. Each chapter of his book began with a James Baldwin quote, proving that people of colour exist for the purposes of appropriation, but never really to interact with, unless one is in a leadership role. One of the main problems with Wise’s work is that it does not encourage those researching anti-racism to seek out the opinions of people of colour, thus once again turning Whiteness into the arbitrator. This normalizes oppression and further supports White supremacy. Wise does encourage readers to take on a subordinate role, but how believable is that when he continually fails to do so himself. Wise claims that it is his right to be forthright about race because he is fighting to end White supremacy,which he sees as harmful, not only to himself but to all people, but using the operating status of Whiteness to fight the battle cannot possibly disarm, much less eradicate this sickness. In the end, I think that Wise is very well aware that what he has to say has already been said and in fact argued infinitely better by people of colour. To really challenge privilege, one must first learn from the people that it impacts the most. Depending on Tim Wise to teach you about race means that you are not ready to move out of your comfort zone and really see racism for the pure evil that it is.