Tim Wise is among the most prominent white anti-racist writers and activists in the United States, and as a group of predominantly white folks, we chose his seminal White Like Me as the first book for our monthly reading discussion.
White Like Me is a personal account examining white privilege and Wise’s conception of racism in American society through his experiences with family and his community. The book was adapted into a documentary film of the same name in 2013.
Below are my biggest takeaways from the book for white folks like myself, and things that we should all keep in mind as members of the Orange County Racial Justice Collaborative.
1. We are not here to be a white savior
After one of his first lectures as an anti-racist activist, Wise had a young white woman ask him how he was being perceived, as a white man fighting racism, by people of color. She expressed her desire to join in anti-racist work, but was worried that people of color wouldn’t trust her.
After Wise responded to the woman, a young Black woman raised her hand and said to him, “Make NO mistake, we do hate you and we don’t trust you, not for one minute!”
This is how he responded,
“That’s fine, because I’m sure you haven’t got much reason to trust me, and ultimately, I’m not doing this for you. I mean no disrespect by saying that, but I don’t view it as my job to save you from racism. That would be paternalistic and would imply that you aren’t capable of liberating yourself from white supremacy. I fight racism because racism is evil, and I don’t want to contribute to, or collaborate with, evil. I fight it because it’s a sickness in my community, and I’m trying to save myself from it.”
As white anti-racist activists, Wise stresses that people of color owe us nothing, and that we shouldn’t expect gratitude or even a pat on the back. Challenging racism and white supremacy is what we need to be doing for ourselves.
To quote an aboriginal activists group from Queensland, Australia, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
2. We will make mistakes
In 1988, while studying as an undergraduate at Tulane University, Wise helped form the Tulane Alliance Against Apartheid, which aimed to have Tulane:
Divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa
Restore an African-American studies department
Intensify the university’s affirmative action efforts
The group started as a multi-racial collaborative, with half its members white students and half its members Black students. As time went on, however, the alliance began to neglect the latter two objectives to solely focus on the first; its white members resorted to cavalier methods of protest, openly inviting arrest; and a handful of white members were elevated to spokespersons by the media. After nine months, the group had become almost entirely white.
Because of his white privilege, Wise couldn’t see how the alliance’s actions were alienating the group’s Black members. He was blinded to the importance and connectivity of all three objectives, the heightened risk of inciting arrest, and the need for leadership of color in any anti-racist struggle.
Wise explains that even in our resistance as white activists, it is inevitable that we will screw up and reinforce the capitalist patriarchal white supremacist society we oppose. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and it doesn’t mean we don’t have a role to play in the destruction of white supremacy. It just means that we must acknowledge our mistakes when they happen, learn from them, and remember that sometimes we must step back, keep quiet, and listen.
3. We must fight, even if we don’t see success
After sharing some of his stories from the book, Wise’s wife Kristy became genuinely upset about how ingrained racism had become and wondered if it was possible to ever completely eradicate it.
Wise thought of the book Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell, which suggests that racism may indeed be a permanent feature of American life, never to be fully undone. As white people, we are used to getting our way. We are used to seeing things work out, and our efforts pay off. But when it comes to ending racism, we may never see success.
What Wise emphasizes is that there is redemption in struggle. He concludes his book by sharing a letter he received from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa while he was part of the Tulane Alliance Against Apartheid. Archbishop Tutu wrote,
“You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right.”
Wise advises that if we obsess over an outcome or payoff, we will burn out. Instead, what we need to recognize is that there is value in commitment, because while the outcome of our actions may not be certain, the outcome of our silence is.