White Like Me
©2005 Tim Wise
Cover and book design by Gary Fogelson
Published by Soft Skull Press
71 Bond Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217
Distributed by Publishers Group West
Printed in Canada
Third printing
White like me : reflections on race from a privileged son / by Tim Wise,
ISBN 1-932360-68-9
1. Racism-United States, 2, United States-Race relations, 3, WISe, Tim J,
4, Whites-United States-Social conditions, I. Title,
It's a question you never really like to hear, seeing as how it typically
portends an assumption on the part of the questioner that something is ter-
ribly, terribly wrong, something that defies logic and calls for explanation,
It's the kind of query one gets from former classmates on the occa-
sion of one's twenty-year high school reunion: "Dear God, what the hell
happened to you?" Generally, people don't ask this question of those
whom they consider to have dramatically improved themselves in some
way, be it physical, emotional, or professional. Instead, it is more often
asked of those considered to be seriously damaged, as if the only possible
answer would be: "Well, I was dropped on my head as a baby," to which
the questioner would then reply, "Aha, I see,"
So whenever I'm asked this, I naturally recoil for a moment, assum-
ing that the person inquiring "what happened" likely wants an answer only
so they can avoid, at whatever cost, having "it" (whatever "it" may be)
happen to them.
And yet, it is not usually for such judgmental reasons that persons I
meet sometimes ask me about my life. Rather, it is because they view me as
a curiosity-not a bad one mind you, just a curiosity-and want to under-
stand how I turned out the way I did, especially when it comes to that which
I do for a living: namely, speaking against, writing about, and agitating in
opposition to racism in my country, the United States of America.
Being a white man, born and reared in a society that has always
bestowed upon me privileges and advantages that it has just as deliberate-
ly withheld from people of color, I am not expected to think the way I do,
I suppose, let alone to act on those beliefs. Mter all, to be privileged, to
be advantaged, is a coveted position in society, so why, many ask, would
I seek to change a set of social conditions that work to my benefit?
You hold in your hands at least a partial answer to that question: an
answer that in many ways I was reluctant to write. Not because I lack
valuable things to say on the matter, but rather because it is a bit unseem-
ly to pen what amounts to a memoir of sorts at the age of thirty-six. I
mean, really now: whose life at thirty-six has been rich enough to provide
insight to others?
Honestly, I don't know that mine has been, at least on a whole range
of topics. But I think that mine, and yours for that matter, is more than
rich enough when it comes to understanding the role of race in this coun-
try, and perhaps the world.
Although white Americans often think we've had few first-hand expe-
riences with race-because most of us are so isolated from people of color
in our day-to-day lives-the reality is that this isolation is our experience
with race. We are all experiencing race, because from the beginning of our
lives we have been living in a racialized society, where the color of our skin
means something, even while it remains a matter of biological and genet-
ic irrelevance. Race may be a scientific fiction, but it is a social fact: one
that none of us can escape no matter how much or how little we talk
about it.
The only difference, really, between me and any other white person
reading this book is that I'm just egotistical or stupid enough to "put my
stuff in the street," as some might say, while most white folks are taught
to remain quiet about race, to share nothing, to never think about it, let
alone discuss it openly.
So whether the result of ego or foolishness, or just a desire to answer
the question so that the next time it's asked I can say "read this," without
having to recite it all over again, here it is: an examination of race in
America-or at least that part of the Americas known as the United
States-and what race means in that nation, as witnessed and understood
from the eyes of a white man. What does my life say about my country?
Is the story only mine, or are parts of it, perhaps even large parts, to be
found in the lives of others? And once we know the answers to those ques-
tions, what might they tell us about the work that remains to be done in
the centuries-long struggle for racial equity and justice in this land?
Proving the existence of white privilege and racial oppression, or even
discussing the subjects at all, is too often left to scholars, statisticians, and
those whose words are seen only by other scholars and statisticians, and
which remain off the radar screens of most people. This is plainly unhelpful
for the movement that seeks to undo both-privilege and oppression that
is, not scholars and statisticians, though they too might need a good kick in
the ass-mostly because it renders discussion of these life and death mat-
ters the special purview of "experts," which notion takes as its fundamental
premise the idea that the rest of us don't know much. In fact, we know a lot
about race-more than we choose to admit to ourselves. I hope that this
book will make that clear by speaking not only of my experiences, but also
about experiences that are similar to, that resonate with, others.
I should say a few words up front about the terminology used in this
book, since certain words are often misunderstood when race is the sub-
ject. When I speak of "whites," or "white folks," I am referring to those
persons, typically of European descent, who are able, by virtue of skin
color or perhaps national origin and cultures, to be perceived as "white,"
as members of the dominant group. I do not consider the white race to
be a real thing, in biological terms, as modem genetics pretty well estab-
lishes that there are no distinct races, in the scientific sense, within the
human species. But the white race certainly has meaning in social terms,
and it is in that sense that I use the concept here.
As for the term "privilege," which appears in the title, when I refer to
myself as a "privileged son," and which reappears throughout the book,
here too, clarification is in order. I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that
all whites are well-off, or even particularly powerful. We live not only in a
racialized society, but also a class system, a patriarchal system, and one in
which other forms of advantage and disadvantage exist. These other
forms of privilege mediate, but never fully eradicate, something like white
privilege. So, I realize that rich whites are more powerful than poor ones;
white men are more powerful than white women, able-bodied whites are
more powerful than those with disabilities, and straight whites are more
powerful than gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered whites.
But despite the fact that white privilege plays out differently for dif-
ferent folks, depending on these other identities, the fact remains that
when all other factors are equal, whiteness matters and carries with it
great advantage. So, for example, although whites are often poor, their
poverty does not alter the fact that relative to poor and working class per-
sons of color, they typically have a leg up. No one privilege system trumps
all others every time, but no matter the ways in which individual whites
may face obstacles on the basis of nonracial factors, our race continues to
elevate us over similarly situated persons of color.
The notion of privilege is a relative concept, as well as an absolute one:
a point that is often misunderstood. This is why I can refer to myself as a
"privileged son" despite coming from a family that was not wealthy or
even close to it. In relative terms, that is to say compared to persons of
color, whites receive certain head starts, and certain advantages, none of
which are canceled out because of factors like class or gender or sexual
orientation. Likewise, heterosexuals receive privileges relative to GLBT
folks, none of which are canceled out by the poverty that many straight
people experience; so too, rich folks have certain privileges on the basis of
wealth, relative to everyone else, none of which are canceled out just
because some wealthy persons happen to be disabled.
While few of us are located only in privileged groups, and even fewer
are located only in nondominant or oppressed groups-so, in other words,
in some ways we are all privileged and in other ways most of us have been .
targets at some point-the fact remains that our status as occasional tar-
gets does not obviate the need for us to address the ways in which we
receive unjust advantages at the expense of others.
There would be nothing wrong-and indeed, everything right-about
someone writing a book like this that dealt with male privilege, or straight
privilege, or class privilege, or Christian privilege, or whatever. Those
would all be illuminating to be sure. But this book is about white privi-
lege, because white privilege is real and must be confronted. It is not nec-
essarily more important than the others, but it is important enough to
merit its own examination. In fact, discussing white privilege, in myexpe-
rience, often allows us to begin the dialogue on other forms of domina-
tion and subordination. If such a thing happens as a result of this volume,
all the better.
In dredging up some family history so as to compose this book, I am
admittedly stepping over difficult terrain, terrain that brings to mind the
words of Polish poet Czelslaw Milosz, who said: "When a writer is born
into a family, the family is doomed."
I hope Milosz exaggerated, but in any event, I should now warn my
family members, to whom I did not provide any of this material as I was
writing it, before you go any further: what follows will not always be easy
to digest. Some of it, in fact, will be painful, and not because I am trying
to hurt you, but because I am trying to tell the truth, and the truth is
sometimes unpleasant. If it is any consolation, the parts that will make
you uncomfortable were as difficult for me to write as they will be for you
to read. But they were necessary to this story, my story, and the larger
story of what whiteness means.
Finally, I write in a language and syntax that for me is honest, and
therefore not screened or filtered for the sensibilities of those reading it.
If certain words offend you as a reader, I'm sorry, I guess, but to censor
myself would compromise the integrity of what I'm trying to tell you. Not
to mention, there's a lot more in this book to be bothered by than a hand-
ful of four-letter words-stories of racism and white privilege. So if what
you end up getting bent out of shape over is the bad language, then you're
probably gonna miss the point anyway.
But above all else, and this is mostly for my family, but perhaps in a
strange way for anyone reading it, please know that everything I say I say
from a place of love: true love, which is neither unreflective nor uncritical
nor blind, but which is above all else, honest. Just as you must now deal
with my honesty, I am prepared to deal with yours in reaction to it, what-
ever that might mean.
I have divided the book into six sections reflecting the key lessons
about whiteness that I am in the process of learning. The first of these is
that to be white is to be "born to belonging." This is a term I first heard
used by my friend and ally, Mab Segrest; although she used it in a differ-
ent context, I always thought it captured the essence of whiteness. To be
white is to be born into an environment where one's legitimacy is far less
likely to be questioned than would be the legitimacy of a person of color,
be it in terms of where one lives, where one works, where one goes to
school, or pretty much anything else. To be white is, even more, to be
born into a system that has been set up for the benefit of people like you,
and as such provides a head start to those who can claim membership in
this, the dominant club.
Second, to be white not only means that one will typically inherit cer-
tain advantages from the past but also means that one will continue to
reap the benefits of ongoing racial privilege, which itself is the flipside of
discrimination against persons of color.
Third, whites can choose to resist a system of racism and unjust priv-
ilege, but doing so is never easy. In fact, the fear of alienating friends and
family, and the relative lack of role models from whom we can take direc-
tion renders resistance rare, and even when practiced, often ineffective,
however important it may be.
Fourth, oftentimes even in our resistance, we inadvertently collabo-
rate with racism and reinforce racial domination and subordination-in
other words, we must always be on guard against our own screw-ups.
Fifth, whites pay enormous costs in order to access the privileges that
come from a system of racism: costs that are intensely personal and col-
lective, and which should inspire us to fight racism for our own sake.
And finally, in struggle against injustice, against racism, there is the
possibility of redemption.
Belonging, privilege, resistance, collaboration, loss and redemption: the
themes that define and delineate various aspects of the white experience.
The trick is getting from privilege, collaboration, and loss to resistance and
redemption, so that we may begin to belong to a society more just and sus-
tainable than what we have now.
I wish to thank my loving and supportive wife, Kristy, and our two
wonderful daughters, Ashton and Rachel. I hope that in my desire for a
better world for all, I haven't neglected the world that is closest to home
and to my heart. In that regard, I will try to do better.
I also need to thank a number of other people, including my parents
and grandparents, living and deceased; my supportive in-laws, Rose
Cason, Buzz Cason, and Peggy Cason; my friends, notably Albert Jones,
my best friend for over three decades, for all of your support and for serv-
ing as a sounding board for my politics all these years; and everyone who
has inspired, supported and influenced my work as a writer, activist and
aspiring antiracist ally. These include, in no particular order: Bob Zellner,
Dorothy Zellner, Anne Braden, Lance Hill, Larry Powell, Ron King, Ron
Chisom, Barbara Major, David Billings, Diana Dunn, Marjorie Freeman,
Sharon Martinas, Chris Crass, James Bernard, Francie Kendall, Michael
Eric Dyson, Derrick Bell, Jimmy Jackson, Angela Davis, Ray Winbush,
Molly Secours, Betita Martinez, Felicia Gustin, Jean Caiani, Katya Min,
Lauren Parker-Kucera, Catherine Wong, Eddie Moore Jr., Victor Lewis,
Hugh Vasquez, Joe Feagin, Ted Quandt, Richard McCarthy, Kimberle
Crenshaw, Peggy McIntosh, Jesse Villalobos, Judy Watts, Donna
Johnigan, Olayeela Daste, Haunani Kay-Trask, Justin Podur, Brian·
Awehali, Richard Davis, Carolyn Barber-Pierre, Cyril Neville, Mab
Segrest, Horace Seldon, Paul Marcus, Robert Jensen, Randall Robinson,
Paul Kivel, Paul Rockwell, Bernestine Singley, Becky Thompson, Rev.
Johnny Youngblood, and the entire St. Paul Community Baptist Church
family in Brooklyn.
"People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they
wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become inca-
pable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. This is the place in which
it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly,
or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but
they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously
from the resulting personal incoherence."
IT IS NOTHING if not difficult to know where to begin when at first you sit
down to trace the story of your life. Does your life begin on the day you
came into this world, or does it begin before that, with the lives of your
family members-your parents and grandparents and such-without
whom you would never have existed?
For me, there is only one possible and honest way in which to answer
the question: namely, that my story has to begin before that day, October
4, 1968, on which I entered the world. This is so because I was not born
onto a blank slate of neutral circumstance. My life was already a canvas
upon which older paint had begun to dry long before I arrived.
parents were already who they were, with their particular life
and now I was to inherit those, for good or ill, whether I liked
1t or not.
What I'm trying to say is that when we first draw breath outside the
,:omb,. we inhale tiny particles of all that came before, both literally and
f1guratively. We are never merely individuals; we are never alone; we are
always in the company, as uncomfortable as it sometimes can be, of oth-
ers, the past, of history. We become part of that history just as surely as it
part of us. There is no escaping it, merely different levels of cop-
mg. It 1S how we bear the past that matters, and it is all that differentiates
us in many ways.
was born great turmoil, none of which had been of my own
makmg, but whiCh I could hardly escape in any event. My mother had
carried me throughout all of the great upheavals of that tumultuous year,
1.968: perhaps one of the most explosive and monumental years in twen-
America. She had carried me through the Tet Offensive in
V1etnam, through the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert
Kennedy, through the decision by President Johnson not to seek re-elec-
tion in the midst of the unfolding murderous quagmire in Southeast Asia,
and throu?h the upheaval in the streets of Chicago during that year's
Democratic Party convention. I think that any child born in that particu-
lar year must, aln:ost by definition, be especially affected by the history
that surrounded h1m at the moment of his arrival-too much energy float-
ing around, good and bad, not to have left a mark.
As I was saying, when I was born I inherited my family and all that
came with it. I also inherited my nation and all that came with that. And
I inherited my "race" and all that came with that too; and in all three
cases, the inheritance was far from inconsequential.
More than that, all three were intimately connected, intertwined in
ways I could not possibly have understood at the time, but which are all
too clear today. To be the child of Michael Julius Wise and Lucinda Anne
(McLean) Wise meant something; and to be born in the richest and most
powerful nation on Earth meant something; and to be white, especially in
the U.S., most assuredly meant something-a lot of things, truth be told.
. . What those things meant, and still mean, is the subject of this inquiry;
1t 1S theme that will be revisited again and again in these pages, with
spec1al emphasis on the last of these: What does it mean to be white?
Especially in a nation created by people like you, for people like you? .
. We don't often ask this question, mostly because we don't have to.
Bemg a member of the majority, the dominant group, allows one to ignore
how race shapes one's life. For us, whiteness simply is; it becomes the
unspoken, uninterrogated norm, taken for granted, the way a fish takes
water for granted.
In high school, whites are sometimes asked to think about race, but
rarely about whiteness. In my case, we read John Howard Griffin's classic
book Black Like Me, in which the author recounts his experiences in the
Jim Crow South in 1959 after taking a drug that turned his skin brown
and for a few months allowed him to experience apartheid from the other
side of the color line.
It was a good book, and it continues to be one of the most assigned
books on summer reading lists dealing with race, which both signifies the
extent to which race is considered a problem of the past-the book, after
all, is more than four decades old, and surely there are some more con-
temporary racial events students could discuss-but also the degree to
which race is still viewed as something that can only be understood from
the perspective of "the other."
So whites are encouraged to think about race from the perspective of
blacks, which is nice-and indeed whites should learn to listen to the sto-
ries and histories of black and brown peoples: real black and brown peo-
ples, not white men pretending to be black until the drugs wear off-and
which leaves another aspect of the discussion untouched: namely, the
examination of the white experience.
Whether we realize it or not, white folks already know a lot about
race, because we live it every day. Griffin was black for a matter of
months, and he experienced enough in that short time frame to know, at
least at a basic level, what it meant to really be black in this country. But
by the time most whites are asked to read his version of it, we have spent
at least seventeen years, if not longer, living in whiteface day in and day
out, and thus have experienced more than enough to know exactly what
it means to be white in the same.
Although whiteness may mean different things in different places and
at different times, one thing I feel confident saying up front, without fear
of contradiction, is that to be white in the U.S., whether one is from the
South, as I am, or from the North, West, or Midwest; whether one is rich
or poor; whether one is male or female; whether one is Jew or Gentile,
straight or gay, is to have certain common experiences based solely upon
race: experiences that are about advantage, privilege (in the relative
sense, vis-a-vis people of color), and belonging. We are, unlike people of
color, born to belonging, and have rarely had to prove ourselves deserving
of our presence here. At the very least we can say that our right to be here
hasn't been questioned, for the most part, for a long time.
While some might dismiss this notion, and insist, "Whites are very
with a wide range of experiences, so it's unfair to make generaliza-
tions about 'white folks' as a group," this is a dodge, and not a particular-
ly artful one at that. Of course we're all different, sort of like snowflakes
which come to think of it are also white. None of us has led the exact
life. But irrespective of one's particular history, all whites were placed
above all persons of color when it came to the economic, social, and polit-
ical hierarchies that were to form in the United States, without exception;
and this formal system of racial preference was codified in law from the
1600s until at least 1964, at which time the Civil Rights Act was passed, if
not 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, or 1968 (that year
again), when our nation finally passed a law making racial housing discrim-
ination illegal.
Prior to that time we didn't even pretend to be a nation based on
equality. Or rather we did pretend, but not very well; at least not to the
point where the rest of the world believed it, or to the point where peo-
ple of color in this country ever did. Most white folks believed it, but that's
simply more proof of our privileged status. Our ancestors had the luxury
of believing those things that black and brown folks could never take as
givens: all that stuff about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Several decades later, whites can, indeed must, still believe it, while peo-
ple of color have little reason to join the celebration, knowing as they do
that there is still a vast gulf between who we say we are as a nation and
people, and who we really are.
In other words, there is enough commonality about the white experi-
ence so as to allow us to make some general statements about whiteness
and never be too far from the mark. Returning to the snowflake analogy,
although as with snowflakes, no two white people are exactly alike, it is
also true that few snowflakes have radically different experiences from the
average snowflake. Likewise, we know a snowflake when we see one, and
in that recognition we intuit, almost always correctly, something about its
life experience.
So I was born to belonging, and this was true despite the fact that my
family was far from well off. Don't misunderstand, we weren't poor either,
and I say this not because there's anything wrong with being poor, but
simply because we weren't, and I would hate to give the wrong impres-
sion. To be specific about my family's economic station: My father was an
on-again, off-again stand-up comedian and actor, and my mother worked
for most of my life (still does) in marketing research. Growing up, our
income would have fallen somewhere in the range of what is considered
working class, even though the jobs my folks had were not, to be sure, tra-
ditional working class jobs. There were times where, had it not been for
the financial help of my grandparents, we would possibly have been
to rely on food stamps, and we surely could have qualified for them
10 several of my years as a child.
My family was an interesting mix, especially the two branches of the
main four about which I know a little something. On on,e side there ,was
my mother's father's family, the McLeans, who had been 10 t.he U.S. smce
1750 when patriarch Ephraim McLean had made the Journey from
They had become large within a short years of
their arrival, and indeed would have been qUlte well off 10 the early days,
In later years they remained comfortable, though many descendants
of those earlier immigrants entered careers that less than
I crative. My mother's father, and his brothers, all Jomed the m1htary dur-
World War II. In the case of my grandfather, he the
military and then civil service, with the Corps of Engmeers, unttl he fmal-
ly retired.
On the other side were the Wises, my father's father's folks, whose
time in this country had been far shorter, and whose journey had been alto-
gether different. Theirs was similar to the stories of many
other American Jews from Eastern Europe. You ve heard the dnll: came
here with nothing but eight dollars and a ball of lint in their pockets; saved
and saved, and worked and worked, and eventually climbed the ladder of
success, achieving the American dream within a generation or two.
The two families couldn't have been more different as European.'
descended peoples go. First, the stoic Protestants from the Isle of Mull,
who belonged to one of the most prosperous clans in an,d had
owned five islands off the coast of the Motherland unttl, accordmg to
family legend, they "lost their all" with the military defeat of some guy
named Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1741.
A few years after the Bonnie Prince was vanquished, and with him our
fortune, the McLeans regrouped and came to the U.S. Within a years,
Ephraim was given, literally, twelve thousand acres of land ,in N and
in what would become North Carolina. Although the fam1ly verS10n of the
story is that Padre McLean had worked as a ':surveyor" and "relieved
diers during the Revolutionary War," thus earnmg all that property, there 1S
something more than a little unsatisfying about this narrative. ,
What might it have meant, after all, to "survey" land for the county 10
1755? Honestly, does anyone believe that Mr. McLean had some back-
ground that would qualify him for this important work-perhaps some
specialized training in property surveyance? In case you're wondering, the
answer would be no, he did not; and what kind of survey could one take
in the mid-1700s anyway? To my knowledge, there were no high-tech
gadgets, or even low-tech ones, that one might have used for the purpose.
To survey property pretty much meant to walk out on the land or get on
a horse, or in a wagon, and ride around looking at stuff; then, I
letting the county know where the streams were, where the mountams
and hills were, where the creeks and valleys and great big sinkholes were.
That all of this could have been done by the indigenous persons who
had lived on that land since time immemorial, or by the Mricans who had
been working the land for more than 125 years at that point, must have
simply escaped the colonial fathers. Mter all, surely they would have
opted to hire most qualified persons for the job had they merely
thought about It. At least, they would have, had their purpose been the
surveying of property and not its redistribution from its previous inhabi-
tants to people like my great-great-nine-times-removed grandfather. But
the latter of these was their aim, and not the former, and my family has
much appreciated the distinction, I assure you.
As for "relieving soldiers during the Revolutionary War," that pretty
much meant that he folks a place to sleep and maybe some whiskey
to help them nurse thelr wounds: very generous of him, but hardly twelve
thousand acres generous. Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but
a ?ell of a lot. less generous than the generosity-terribly and tragically
mlsplaced as It turns out-extended to Europeans by the indigenous of
this land upon our arrival: teaching us to farm and harvest crops we'd
never seen so that the mass starvation that had claimed so many of us in
the earliest years of colonization could be held at bay in the decades to
come. Shit, that was generous, and we repaid that generosity with geno-
cide and land theft.
. And .so property passed from the generous Indians, who had long
on It, nurtured it and respected it, into the hands of the generous
whlte man, who would now deign to control it. Down through the gener-
ations the McLeans would pass on that land, and the many slaves they
would accumulate as well, taking full advantage of their whiteness and the
blackness of others, and what both of those things meant.
In stark contrast to this tale, in which European immigrants come to
the new country and are almost immediately welcomed into the emerging
club, has taken as its name the White Race, we have the Wises (not
our ongmal name), whose patriarchal figure, Jacob, came to the U.S from
Russia in 1910, escaping Czarist oppression of Jews, who had been
restricted to living in what was called the "Pale of Settlement."
As a point of clarification, Jacob's arrival in 1910 was actually not his
first time to make it to the United States. He had entered New York once
before, nine years earlier in fact, but had the misfortune of cruising into
the harbor on the same day that an American of Eastern European
descent-Leon Czolgosz-had made the fatal decision to assassinate
President William McKinley. Whoever said timing is everything knew of
what they spoke: a lesson Jacob would learn, sitting patiently, or perhaps
not .so patiently in the steerage of his cruise ship to freedom, coming to
reahze that he had been literally just a few hours too late.
So back he went, along with the rest of his boat, turned away in the
h dow of Lady Liberty by a wave of jingoistic panic, of anti-immigrant
of hysteria born of bigotry and well-nurtured, carefully culti-
t d skill at scapegoating those who dlffered from the Anglo-Saxon
va That Czolgosz claimed to be an anarchist, and thus his shooting of
:cKinley came to be seen as a political act, and not merely the. l.ashing
t of a madman, sealed Jacob's fate for sure. To the authontles, all
Europeans and their progeny were to be viewed as anarchists, as
riminals and later as communists. Czolgosz was to be executed, and
of thousands of Eastern and other "undesirable" ethnics
would be viciously oppressed m the commg years.
The mind of a well-fed twenty-first century American is scarcely
equipped to contemplate just how long the trip back to Russia must have
been, not merely in terms of hours and days and weeks, but as
in the beating of one's heart, the slow and subtle escape of all
from one's tightened lungs. How painful it must have been, how ommcl-
dal for Jacob, meaning here the evisceration. of he was, of
everything that mattered to him-the extermmatlon of deslre, of hope.
Though not of the same depth, nor coupled with the same fear as
which characterized the journey of Mricans in the hulls of slave shlPs
(after all, he was still a free man, and his journey, however had
been voluntary), there must have been points where the magmtude of
desolation, cynicism, and despair had been intense enough to make the
distinction feel as though it were one without much meaning.
So he returned to the Pale for nearly another decade, it taking that
long for him to save up enough money to make the journey a.gain.
he finally came back, family in tow, it would be for keeps. Hls deslre. for
America was that strong: borne 'Of the belief that in the new world thmgs
would be different; that he would be able to make something of himself
and give his family a better life. The Wise family continued to grow after
his arrival, including, in 1919 the birth of Leo Wise, my grandfather.
Jacob, like the children he would bear, was the very definition of a
hard worker. The stereotype of immigrants putting in eighteen hours a
day is one that, although it did not begin with him in mind, surely was to
be kept alive by him and others like him. There is little doubt that he
toiled, and sacrificed, and in the end there was a great payoff indeed. His
children all became moderately successful, at least comfortable-my
grandfather would graduate from a prestigious university, Vanderbilt, in
1942-and the family liquor business (more about which later) would
grow into something of a fixture in the Nashville, Tennessee, community
that the Wise family would ultimately come to call home.
But lest we get carried away, perhaps it would do us all some good to
remember a few things about Jacob Wise and his family. None of these
things, it must be stressed, take away from the unshakable work ethic that
was a defining feature of his character. But they do suggest that a work
ethic is rarely, if ever, enough on its own to make the difference.
For after all, there had been millions of black folks with at least as
good a work ethic as he; millions of peoples of color-black, brown, red,
.yellow, and all shades between-who had lived and toiled in this land, typo
ically for far longer than he; and yet they, with few exceptions, could not
say that within a mere decade they had become successful shop owners
or that one of their sons had gone on to graduate from one of the nation's
finest colleges.
Jacob was able to move south, and even as a religious minority in the
buckle of the Bible Belt, find opportunity that was off limits to anyone of
color. He may have been a Jew, but his skin was the right shade, and he
was from Europe, and so all suspicions and religious and cultural biases
aside, he had only to wait and keep his nose clean a while, and then even.
tually he and his family would become white. Assimilation was not mere-
ly a national project; for Jacob Wise, and for millions of other Jews,
Italians, and Irish, it was an implicitly racial one as well.
Even before assimilation, in fact, he had been able to access jobs and
opportunities that were off limits to African Americans; and of course his
very arrival in the U.S.-as tortuous and circuitous a route as he had been
forced to take in order to achieve it-was nonetheless made possible by
immigration policies that at that moment (and for most of our nation's
history) have favored those from Europe over those from anywhere else.
During the period of both of Jacob's journeys-the one that was aborted
and the one that finally delivered him to his new home-there had been
quite draconian limits on, for example, Asian immigration. These restric-
tions would remain in place until 1965: the year his grandson, my father,
would graduate from high school.
If that's not white privilege-if that's not affirmative action of a most
profound and lasting kind-then I dare say neither concept has much
any longer. And if that isn't relevant to my own racialization, see- .
mg as how it is the history into which I was born, then the notion of inher-
itance has lost all meaning as well.
I WILL find myself in workshops, sometimes leading them, other
just participating, in which the issue of race is being discussed. This
is to be expected since facilitating such discussions is a part of what I do
for a living.
. One of the things that has always fascinated me in these workshops,
or m several other "racial dialogues" as they're often called, is how white
folks answer one of the first questions that is typically asked in such set-
tings. Namely, "What was your first experience with race?"
Most whites haven't given it much thought, which is not surprising.
Truthfully, why would we? Race, after all, is a subject that, for the most
part, we rarely have to engage directly in our lives .
But what has always bothered me more; more than the blank stares
that often manifest on the faces of whites asked the question, is the self-
assured response of those whites who actually think they know the
answer, who have given it some thought, and then proceed to talk about
the first time they encountered a person of color and noticed the differ-
ence or had it pointed out to them, or saw some overt form of mistreat-
ment meted out against a black person, Latino, Asian, or whomever.
Because indeed those were not our first experiences with race, but
merely our experiences with racial others, and we should not confuse the
latter with the former. By the logic of such answers, for example, whites
who have never been around people of color, or never met a person of
color (and yes there are still lots of folks like this, believe it or not) would
be able to say they had never experienced race at all. Such a belief would
be, of course, patently absurd, as surely their relative isolation from people
of color itself is about race, but few understand race this way.
Whites too often believe we are not experiencing race 'until someone
who isn't white is in the room, ignoring the inconvenient truth that the
whiteness of whatever room we're in didn't just happen. If people of color
aren't around, there's a reason, one having something to do with history,
exclusion, access, and who could and could not take it for granted that
they could move where they wanted, live where they wanted, or put down
stakes in whatever location their heart desired.
Fact is, in a nation as thoroughly racialized as this one, white folks'
first experience with race is at least as far back as the moment of our
births, at which time we enter the world as members of the dominant
group; the group that has always made the rules, and for whose benefit
the rules were made; the group that still has the lion's share of the nation's
wealth and whose privileges relative to people of color continue to oper-
ate, albeit in less blatant ways than in the past. One might even say our
experiences with race begin earlier than that, generations earlier in fact,
when our families became part of the white club-some almost immedi-
ately, others over a period oftime.
In my case, I was born into a society that had only recently thrown off
the formal trappings of legal apartheid. I was born in a city that had, just
eight years earlier, been the scene of some of the most pitched desegre-
gation battles in the South, replete with sit-ins and boycotts and march-
es, and white backlash to all of the above; a city that eleven years earlier
had witnessed opponents of integration place a bomb in the basement of
one of the black schools in town, so as to let everyone know that the New
South wasn't so new after all. I was born in Nashville, just a few hours and
half-a-state away from Memphis, where six months earlier, to the day, Dr ..
King had been murdered.
My first experience with race was being conceived to a white family,
which automatically meant certain things about the experiences I was
likely to have once born: where I would live, what jobs and educations my
family was likely to have had, and where I would go to school. Long
before I ever met a person of color, I was experiencing race because I was
experiencing whiteness.
On my third day of life I most certainly experienced race, however
oblivious I would have been to it at the time, when my mother and father
moved our family into an apartment complex in Green Hills, a relatively
upscale part of Nashville. It was a complex that had, to that point, never
had any tenant of color; and this was not by accident. This was by design,
and for the first four years of the complex's existence it had been perfect-
ly legal too, as there was nothing unlawful about discriminating, even bla-
tantly, against persons of color looking to purchase or rent a place to live.
And so in we went, because it was affordable and it was a step up from
the smaller apartment my folks had been living in prior to that time. More
than that though, in we went because we could. Just as we could have gone
into any other apartment complex anywhere in Nashville, subject only to
our ability to put down a security deposit, which as it turns out was paid by
my father's father anyway. At least as early as Monday, October 7, 1968,
then, I was officially receiving white privilege.
The only reason you are reading this book right now-the only reason
this book exists, the only reason this story is being told-is because of
white privilege. You are not reading this book because I am a great writer
or because I am particularly smart. There are lots of folks, especially per-
sons of color, who know a lot more about racism than I do-people who
have forgotten more about the subject since breakfast than I will likely
ever know. But you're not reading their book right now; you're reading
mine, and that has everything to do with privilege.
Mter all, how does one come to be taken seriously as an antiracist
activist, writer, and lecturer at the age of thirty-six; before that even,
since I have been doing this work professionally, on a national level, since
I was twenty-one?
Well it helps to know the right people.
When I graduated from college, my first job catapulted me into this
work at a highly visible level. I was hired as a Youth Coordinator for the
Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism: the largest and most
prominent of the various groups formed to oppose the candidacy of neo-
Nazi political candidate David Duke, who was running for the United
States Senate. Over time, and during his bid for governor of Louisiana, I
would move up the ranks of the organization, finally becoming associate
director and one of a handful of the public faces associated with the anti-
Duke effort. I was, by the time Duke had fizzled and the coalition fold-
ed, all of twenty-three.
As an aside, and as unfortunate as it is to say, I should issue a cau-
tionary warning to those who are reading this book and who are present-
ly in college: do not expect to land a job this sweet right out of school-
one that brings you a lot of attention, or gets your face and words and
voice out there, to be broadcast worldwide. I mean, I wish you well, but
just don't count on it, that's all. It doesn't happen very often, though it did
happen to me. And why?
Well, easy. I knew the two guys who started the organization. One was
a professor of mine at Tulane, Larry Powell, and the other was an activist
ally and Tulane grad student at the time, Lance Hill. Even before I grad-
uated, Larry had asked if I might want the job, and for ~ e v e r a l months I
had said no. I honestly didn't think Duke was going to do all that well, and
so I repeatedly turned him down, planning as I was to return home for the
summer, spend whatever small amount of graduation money I would
have, and then cast about for some kind of job, or possibly just float for a
year, maybe going to grad school myself, or law school, in a year or so.
But then as the summer dragged on and it became apparent that
Duke was indeed a threat in the Senate race, I committed to returning to
New Orleans and doing whatever I needed to do to insinuate myself into
the anti-Duke campaign. I figured, and I was right in this, that since I
knew the principals and they had offered me work before, surely I should
have no problem landing a quite coveted position even several months
after the campaign had swung into high gear.
Had I not known Larry and Lance, there is no way I could have got-
ten that job, in which case I could never have built up a reputation for
doing antiracism work, in which case I would never have been able to land
on the lecture circuit, as I would a few years later, in which case no one
would know who I am, and I surely wouldn't have been asked to do this
book. But it goes deeper than that, because there is then the question of
how I managed to know these two men, who were in a position to offer
me such a job in the first place.
Well, I knew them, of course, because I had gone to school at Tulane;
but how had I gotten there? Mterall, my family was far from wealthy, and
even then Tulane was extremely expensive. Although by today's standards
it would be considered unbelievably affordable as private institutions go, in
1986, when tuition was only $12,950, and all costs combined were still
under $20,000, it was far pricier than anything my folks could afford.
Complicating things further, I am notorious for procrastination-some-
thing that can be confirmed by anyone who knows me: my wife, my par-
ents, my teachers, former bosses, the editor of this book, everyone-and
so I screwed around and didn't get my financial aid forms in on time. Since
being late with financial aid forms means that one won't get as much assis-
tance as might otherwise have been offered, how does one get to go to a
place like Tulane?
It helps-and this is surely an understatement of some significance-
when one's mother is able to go down to the bank and take out a loan for
$10,000, with which to fill the gap between what the school was offering
in assistance, and what the overall costs for my freshman year would be.
But how does one's mother get such a loan? Especially when, as was
true for mine, she has never owned a piece of property? When you've
grown up living in an apartment, living more or less paycheck to paycheck,
driving cars until they literally stop running, taking few if any vacations?
Well it helps (again with the understatement) if one's mother's moth-
er can co-sign for the loan. After all, banks don't typically lend money to
folks with no collateral, which would have been my mother; but they are
very willing to lend the same money to someone with collateral, and that
would have been my grandmother, who was able to use her house as col-
lateral against the loan.
But how did my grandmother get that house, having never worked
outside the home during her adult life? Well, to her great fortune, she had
been married to a man who did: my grandfather, who had been career
military and then a Corps of Engineers employee. Although he surely
never got rich in either job, he had been able to attend Officer's
Candidacy School at a time when people of color couldn't, and was able
to move up in the Civil Service, receiving jobs that were all but off-limits
to people of color as well. By the time I graduated from high school and
was ready to go off to Tulane, he had been dead for six years.
Funny thing about people who die: they have this habit of leaving
stuff to those who remain, and this is what happened in the instant case,
when my grandfather passed, leaving the house to my grandmother. It
was the fourth house they had owned together since the birth of my
mother in 1947, and like every one of the houses before it, it was not
palatial-my grandparents had a soft spot for brick ranch houses-but it
was nonetheless nice, and like all the previous properties, was to be
found in a neighborhood where there were no people of color around.
And again, this was not by accident. Although the Supreme Court had
outlawed restrictive covenants barring blacks from living in these neigh-
borhoods in 1948, it remained legal to discriminate in other ways until
the late sixties, and there was little if any enforcement of the Fair
Housing Act until teeth were added to the law in 1988.
So in a very real sense, my grandmother'S house-without which I
uld not have gone to Tulane, met Larry and Lance, gotten the job
Duke, built up a reputation as an antiracist, and gotten out on
lecture circuit-was there to be used as because.we were white.
Not only did we have a house to use for thiS purpose, it would also be
house in a "desirable" neighborhood, seen as a good mvestment by the
which would continue to appreciate year after year. In other words,
't was a good bet that we'd be able to make good on this loan, and hey, if
defaulted, so what? The bank would have a nice piece of property
worth more than the ten bills they were giving my mom, so in a real sense
they couldn't lose; neither could I. .
The story of course could go back quite a ways before that, but by
now I figure you probably get the point. I am where I am today, doing
what I am doing today, in large part (if not entirely) because of being born
white. I say this not to detract from whatever genuine abilities I may
indeed have, nor for that matter to diminish the hard work that helped my
family in previous generations afford certain homes, but simply to say that
ability and hard work alone could not have paved the way for me, just as
they have not paved the way for anyone in the world in isolation. Just as
they did not pave the way, in isolation, for the millions of white families
that got FHA and VA loans for homes from the 1930s to the 1960s, at a
time when such loans were essentially off-limits to blacks. We always have
help along the way, some of us a lot more than others. My help came
color-coded, and that has made all the difference.
Although not every white person's story is the same as mine, the sim-
ple truth is that any white person born before 1964, at least, was legally
elevated above any person of color, and as such received directly the priv-
ileges, the head start, the advantages of whiteness as a matter of course.
This goes for all whites, not merely some, but all. Even the white poor
received the benefit of at least being considered superior to black people,
for example. Even the white poor received the benefit of sympathy, as
with the mostly positive, heart-rendering portrayals of the Appalachian
poor in the early sixties, as opposed to the equally hostile images of the
black and brown poor presented in that same decade and since.
Even whites born after the passage of the various civil rights acts of
the 1960s have reaped the benefits of our skin color, since, last time I
checked, our parents and grandparents don't tend to bury their accumu-
lated assets, or "cultural capital" (itself the residue of material advantage)
in a great big hole in the backyard. So please, spare me the "I wasn't
around back then" routine. I wasn't either, for the most part, but I'm here
now, and so are you, and so are the black and brown descendants of those
persons of color who were restricted in their ability to accumulate assets,
professional credentials, educations, homes, or whatever else.
'What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the
rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The
obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society
and try to change it and to fight it-at no matter what risk. This is the only hope
society has. This is the only way societies change. "
ONCE WE BEGIN to acknowledge our privilege as whites, we are immediate-
ly confronted with a challenge: namely, what do we do with both the priv-
ilege and the knowledge of it? On the one hand, it would be easy to feel
guilty, to beat ourselves up over the system that benefits us, but that hard-
ly seems helpful. After all, if your privileges, like mine, stem from a sys-
tem of unequal power and unjust social arrangements, over which most
had little control, there isn't much point in feeling guilty over them.
Yet one can decide to do something about those arrangements, since
whether or not we are responsible for their creation, we clearly live with
their consequences and the privileges that result-privileges that are
unjust and harmful to those who don't have them (and even to those who
do, as I will discuss later). We can choose resistance.
Make no mistake: this choice is never easy. Sometimes we don't have
the faintest idea where to begin, or how to fight injustice, especially when
the source of that injustice is so systemic, so ingrained in the society that
its gears, its engine, seem far from Our immediate reach. Because resist.
ance is difficult, and because we have so many other day-to-day concerns
many whites who care deeply about issues of racism and inequality will
find ourselves paralyzed either by uncertainty, fear, or both; as such, OUr
resistance will be rare, short-lived, and often ineffective.
One of the biggest problems in sustaining white resistance is the appar.
ent lack of role models to whom we can look for inspiration, advice, and
even lessons on what not to do. Growing up, we don't see many whites tak.
ing up the banner of racial equity, fighting for an end to unjust privileges
and institutional racism. Although there have always been whites who
fought for these things, we typically don't learn of them in school or from
our parents. Most people reading this book would have a hard time nam.
ing more than a handful of white antiracists, for example. Not knowing of
white antiracist history, and not seeing many examples of the same in OUr
own families, we sometimes can feel alone, even crazy, for thinking the way
we do about racism and privilege, if these things enrage us.
And even when we know the history we can still find ourselves afraid:
afraid of alienating family, friends, or colleagues who may not understand
how we feel about racism and why we feel the way we do. This too makes
resistance difficult and less likely than it otherwise might be. Added to
that fear is the very real possibility that our acts of resistance or rebellion
might not payoff: Our activism, our educational efforts, or whatever else
may not change things, and certainly won't do so quickly, given the time
frame needed for most social transformations.
Fighting injustice only to see injustice win, again and again, can be
frustrating, especially to members of dominant and privileged groups. We,
unlike oppressed group members, can usually take for granted that our
efforts will payoff, because that's how things tend to work when one is a
member of a powerful group. So when we put our minds to resisting
something like racism, sometimes we have the idea that the job will be no
more difficult than anything else we put our minds to, not recognizing
how hard it can be to alter a fundamental social relationship that has
existed for hundreds of years.
I will never forget the young woman I met a few years ago who came
up to me after a speech I had given and said how much she appreciated
it, and how much she agreed with everything I had said, and then added
that she really wanted to "get busy on this racism thing, so I can still have
time to save the rainforests before I have to sell out and get a real job."
the height of absurdity, and it certainly
The statement mayhse;.m e but I fear it reflects the way that many
ruck me that way. at t e. , roblem to be addressed, but not one
white folks raC1sm. as a tther roblem, and one that is merely
that is any more than line we call life. Such a view is
another of many ems of eo les of color, since it implies that
also profoundly racism despite centuries .of eff?rt,
they \ can figure it out in a couple of years 1f we Just
rtamly we as w 1 e 0
our minds to it. I r . tance in my life and these allowed
k'l I h demode s lor res1s , .
Luc 1 y, a s?m ld look like. Although there were I?any p1t-
me to see what res1stance (which I will address in commg
falls along the road of portunities and had certain expen-
ters) , that I was provide ce am °i nd my understanding of race.
ences was to my be white in this country doesn't
Those expenences taug t me. . 1 terns There is not only one
f t' unjust SOC1a sys .
ave to be a story 0 accep mg h' can make paths we can trav-
way to be m t 1S S m. e '11 not be alone. There are others rna _
. h' k' Th re are c Olces we, k
e1; and when .we travel them, wev::Uade that journey in the past and p.res-
ing the same Journey and ha t' Seeing that resistance prov1des
ent-even in our own somf allows us to see the difficul-
us with the strength to res1st as .we I d thereby to recommit ourselves
. h t nd snares of res1stance an k
hes, t e raps a
'11' f m time to time, inevitably rna e.
after the m1sta es we Wl , ro
. Ives around an act of resistance to
ONE OF MY very earliest memones revo 1 ould even recognize as an
. thing that most peop e w . t
raClsm. It was no. . this incident cemented m place a s an-
antiracist act, but m own way, t d m entire life.
dard for my own thinkmg that la:
: ye:rs old when it happened; "it"
I couldn't have been more an n I mean really saw a black
being the first time I a color of his skin and my
person, and noticed the of course, but until that
own. I had probably seen t d it with my own wh1teness, and
day had I processed blackness, contras.tye one morning as I looked
h tw The OppOrtUOl came '""
commented on t e .0. f £ '1' apartment and saw Tommy,
out the living room :vmdow 0 crew at our complex.
as I came to know one of e m h d racism was at that time, 1970,
It is testimony to :n who was at least in his late for-
and in that place, Nashvtlle, t at t 1S m t me or my parents by anything
ties by that time would never be °t would enjoy the privilege of
other than his first name. I, a mere. 'ly and full life history, only
addressing this grown black man, W1t a am1
as Tommy, as if we were equals, or perhaps Mr. Tommy, as my mother
would instruct me, since at least that sounded more respectful.
As I gaze.d the window my attention was riveted to him and the
dar.kness of hiS skm. He was quite dark, though not really black of course
which led me to ask naturally of my mother: "Who is that brown man?" ,
Without hesitation she said it was Mr. Tommy, and that he wasn't
brown, but rather black. Now even at two I had developed a penchant £
. II or
so Just as natura yas I had previously asked the question, I now
rephed to her answer with a matter-of-fact, "No he's not, he's brown." Mter
all, I had the names of all the crayons in my Crayola box, and
thiS man, Mr. Tommy, certainly didn't look like the crayon called
black. Burnt Un:ber brown most definitely, but black? No way.
It wa.s at thiS pomt that my mother explained something that,
although It was hardly profound, was stated so clearly and directly that I
would to guess it had much to do with how I came to view race
and racism over the years. "Tim," she explained, "Tommy may look brown,
but people who look the way Tommy does prefer to be called black."
. And that was it-end of argument. Even at two, it seemed only fair that
If someone wanted to call themselves black they had every right to do so
whether or not the label fit the actual color of the person's skin, and it
none of my business.
It would be several years before I would come to realize how radical
an act was: accepting another person's self-definition. Though it may
seem obVIOUS that one has the right to define themselves or name them-
selves, too often white Americans don't accept that this right is real, at
least for persons of color. How many times, after all, have we heard some-
?ne complain about the use of the term "Mrican American," which many
m the black community now prefer?
. I even keep track of how many times I've heard this kind of grip-
mg; kmd that says, "Black, Mrican American, heck I just can't keep
up With all these"nan:es y'all have for yourselves. What am I supposed to
you It.IS almost always asked with a sense of exasperation,
as If to say that flgunng out the term people prefer for themselves is some-
really putting us out, really complicating our lives. Often it's asked
With more than exasperation, but rather obvious hostility and resentment.
So, for example, in late 1995, I was sitting in a downtown bar in New
Orleans ?iscussing race with a total stranger (not always a good idea),
felt It perfectly appropriate to vent his rage with me, after a few cock-
tatls of b'y "What's with this Mrican American thing?
I mean, you re either on thiS team or you ain't."
I asked him about which team he was speaking, and when he replied,
as I .assume.d he would by saying, "America, the good old USA," I gently
remmded him that the tryouts for this team have always been rigged, with
not all positions being truly open to everyone, and with many on the
"team" having had to sit the bench for the better part of the game. In
other words, everyone may not feel like a part of this team, and even to
the extent they do, what difference does it make if they take special note
of their particular background? After all, even if we really are on the same
team, we certainly didn't travel the same path to get here.
"Aw," he interjected, "all that stuff is in the past. It's time to move on
and get with the program."
And there you had it. The program; the one that he of course assumed
was fair and just, and that he had a right to define, and that others had
merely to agree to join. It never occurred to him, nor has it occurred to
most whites, that black folks, among other people of color in this land,
have every bit as much right as whites to not only join or not join a given
"program," but what's more to set the terms of the national program itself.
I mean, in the case of African Americans and certainly indigenous folks,
they have been here either longer than whites or at least as long as whites,
so why should they have to "join" our program, as if they were mere visi-
tors to this land? Latinos, or at least those descended from Northern
Mexican ancestry, lived on land that the U.S. took by conquest, so when
they seek to return to it, why should they have to get with our program
either, instead of being able to help shape and define that program for
everyone? Asian Pacific Islanders too have been in this land for more than
enough time to lay claim to it, so why shouldn't they be able to help set
the boundaries of the program, instead of merely being given a member-
ship card and told to sign up with the pre-existing standards?
In other words, only by first accepting a definition of America that pre-
supposed it to be a white nation, to which others could, at best, only lay
claim as honorary (and maybe even conditional) members, could my bar
mate that night have ever thought to make such a comment. He was start-
ing from a place of white nationalism, of seeing this country as mostly his
and belonging to people like him, and everyone else had to either get with
that interpretation or else perhaps "go back where they came from," put-
ting aside that an awful lot of folks never asked to come in the first place.
His anger at the use of the term African American was of course
entirely selective. When I asked him if, as a New Orleanian, he had ever
attended the popular Irish-Italian parade, which is a celebration of the
Irish-American and Italian-American heritage of lots of whites in the city
(never mind the somewhat bizarre mixing of the two groups into
parade, which says something about the whitening of European ethmcs
and an unhealthy pan-whiteness that has infected the white working class),
he responded that of course he had; he went every year, and what of it?
Well I asked him if he had such a problem with blacks calling them-
selves African why did he not have the same problem with
11"', "
Irish and Italian Americans celebrating their ethnic and national her-
itages, and referring to themselves proudly as what they were? After aU,
the connection of most Irish Americans to Ireland is at least as weak as
most blacks' connection to Africa; so too with Italians, and hell, in both
of their cases they had voluntarily left the lands of their births, so if he was
going to get upset at any group for refusing to let go and get with the pro-
gram, shouldn't his ire be focused on these folks? I mean, at least with
blacks their separation from their homes had been involuntary, had been
a matter of theft, so perhaps one could understand a group's desire to
reconnect to that which was taken from them by force?
And that's when he got to the point, articulating what I would be will-
ing to bet is behind a lot of white resentment at black self-naming and the
use of the term "African American." As he explained it, blacks calling
themselves African Americans was just a way to get back at whitey, just a
way to constantly remind us of slavery; it was, to him a kind of rhetorical
and linguistic payback, and this is what had him so worked up. It was an
attempt to assert some kind of power over us, he said, which of course
was flatly unacceptable.
I found his answer as saddening as it was infuriating. The mere nam-
ing of oneself, the simple refusal to allow others to determine what you
should be called-which had been the impetus behind blacks using the
term black even, instead of Negro, for example-was too much for him.
He demanded the right to call people by the name he preferred; he need-
ed that power for himself, as a way to keep others in their place.
He was so threatened by the desire on the part of many blacks to refer
to themselves as African Americans, that it made me wonder just how
deep was his own guilt, his own shame over racism: his and his country's?
Even more, what did it say about his own disconnection from his ethnic
and national heritage? Did he perhaps resent the fact that his European
family had more or less given up its pre-existing cultural heritage in order
to be accepted in the U.S., to become white so to speak? And was this
perhaps how he could project his own pain over that loss, by lashing out
at those persons of color who consciously demand the right to reconnect
to the roots that were ripped from them? Not being a psychologist I
couldn't say for sure, but I couldn't help but be reminded of James
Baldwin's classic line: "If I'm not who you say I am, then that means
you're not who you think you are either." Maybe my sparring partner did-
n't know who he was. Maybe this had nothing to do with black people,
and everything to do with the pathology of whiteness, about which I'll
have more to say in a coming chapter.
As for me, the whole episode made me glad that I had had that expe-
rience so many years before. The one where my mother told me, in so
many words, that people have the right to define their own reality, to

name themselves, and that it was none of my damned business. Little
things like that, as it turns out, mean a lot. Most of all, they free you to
also name yourself, and to define your reality too. And being told that
doing that is okay-better than okay, indeed demanded of you-makes all
the difference. It is the only way that one would ever choose to rebel.
THE fiRST THING a white person must do in order to effectively fight racism
is to learn to listen, and more than that, to believe what people of color
say about their lives. This may seem obvious, even but I assure y?u
it is more important than it may appear. One of the blggest problems wlth
white America is its collective unwillingness to believe that racism is still
a real problem for nonwhite peoples, despite their repeated protestations
that it is. Survey after survey for decades has demonstrated the same pat-
tern: whites saying that racial discrimination is pretty much a thing of the
past, and people of color saying that it continues regularly and that they
have personally experienced it, often several times a month. ..
That whites refuse to believe what people of color say about raClsm 10
their own lives-and have refused to believe it in every generation, by the
way-is itself a form of racism: it amounts to saying, "I know your reality
better than you know your reality." In other words, you are not, as a per-
son of color, smart enough, or rational enough, or objective enough to
intuit your own experiences, so let me tell you what your life is like, rather
than having you trust your own lying eyes.
But why do whites regularly refuse to give credit to the lived experi-
ence of black and brown peoples? Why do we refuse to believe what peo-
ple of color say they regularly experience, in employment, housing, schools
and the justice system?
Is it because we are inherently racist and unfeeling about black and
brown suffering? Is it because we're just too hardheaded to accept reali-
ty? I would venture to guess it's neither of these. Rather, to be white in
America is to be so removed from the experiences of people of color, that
it should come as no surprise to find whites unwilling to accept the ver-
sions of reality offered by those who are black and brown.
Even well meaning whites rarely see racism up close and personal,
because so few of us live around, recreate with, or socialize with people
of color; as such, we don't have the opportunity to witness what people of
color go through. And in keeping with the old "out of sight, out of min?"
maxim even whites who harbor little if any racist ideology could easlly
claims of persistent discrimination, never or rarely having seen it
with our own eyes.
This isolation from people of color is itself the result of years of
ing segregation and other racist forces that have kept us apart, so that sttll

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