Tim Wise on Racism 2.0

The author and activist chats about his new book, white denial and gay rights.

By Michelle Chen Sep 09, 2009

Tim Wise isn’t your average white guy.

The author and activist, who began his work as an organizer with the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, has spent the last three decades combating racism from within “the belly of the beast of whiteness,” as he puts it.

In his new book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama, Wise reflects on what he calls Racism 2.0—a new brand of white supremacy that operates under the guise of post-racialism.

He talked with ColorLines about his approach to racial justice activism and the challenges and possibilities advocates face under the new administration.

How do you calibrate your message to all these different groups you speak to and about? Whom do you see as your main audience?
Obviously, my initial, and primary audience is white folks who typically haven’t really been asked to think about these issues very much, especially not by another white person.

I sort of take that direction to do that from two sources: First, the old admonition that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] gave to white activists in ’67, which was, “Go work with your people.”… It’s scary to do sometimes. It’s a lot easier to sort of do the kumbaya moment thing, rather than to go and challenge your own, and I take that advice that folks of color gave very seriously.

And then secondly, my relationship with the folks at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and other mentors of color whom I’ve had, who have said, ”We really need for you to principally work on challenging other white folks to think about these things in a new way."

Is the goal better integration between communities or dialogue for dialogue’s sake? What’s the end game?
“It’s not the role of so-called experts, whether they’re white or folks of color, to really do that thinking for the people at the grassroots.

When the SNCC members would get together in church basements in the South in 1961, ’62, ’63, and sit there for eight hours hammering out plans about how they were going to break the back of apartheid in Mississippi, they didn’t go in and listen to a bunch of experts tell them what to do. They went in, and listened to one another, thought it through, framed some of objectives and came out with some amazing plans. And not one of those strategies was handed down by the so-called experts.

Dr. King, James Lawson, all those folks—as important as they were from the motivational angle and inspirational angle and the framework angle—they’re not the ones who really set forward a lot of the strategy. Those were grassroots folks….. And so the role of the writer, the essayist, the speaker, is to broaden people’s analysis and understanding of what they need to be looking at, and then trust that they have the competence and the ability, and certainly the wherewithal, and the desire, to be the instruments of their own liberation.

Do we need soul-searching in the racial justice movement about how we can make ourselves more relevant to other communities and movements?
The soul-searching has to be mutual. I think the problem with building coalitions has been far more a problem of other social justice movements not wanting to look at race and privilege…. But at the same time,we do have to first of all say, “We’re not saying we’re wanting to supplant your existing critical work on healthcare, education, militarism, the, environment, with anti-racism work.” We’re not saying, ”Hey stop all that other stuff, and do what we’re doing.”

What we’re saying is, ”We’re trying to offer an analysis, a lens that you can bring to your important work, to make your important work more successful. And I think maybe, we haven’t always communicated [that] as well as we should.”

Since the election of the nation’s first Black president, do you think your work as an activist has changed?
What I saw coming out of this election is this Racism 2.0. This ability of white folks to say, “Well, you know, I still have negative views about most people of color, but I like that guy. We can carve out an exception for these handful of people.”…. It’s sort of the new some-of-my-best-friends-are-black, get-out-of-jail-free card.

At the same time, there’s been this sort of explosion of overtly racist stuff just over-the-top, unhinged, coming-unglued-at-the-seams, coming out of talk radio hosts and things like that.
The election has brought out of the woodwork a whole lot of white anxiety and fear. And that’s causing this conversation to move forward. It’s unfortunate that it has taken that kind of reaction to get that conversation going, but I do think people are paying attention now.

What do you think of President Obama’s walk back from his initial comments about the police acting “stupidly” in the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.?
What he said [about the Gates arrest] was actually very mild…. But unfortunately, here’s the problem: Here you have a guy who, because he’s been studiously avoiding this conversation on race for so long as a politician, isn’t real good at wading into it anymore….  So the walk back, to me, is just an indication of the parameters that unfortunately people of color in particular have around them whenever they want to talk honestly about racism. They get slapped. That’s what happens.

What do you think of the perceived tension between communities of color and the LGBT community in the wake of Proposition 8’s passage?
It’s rooted in the way the LGBT struggle has been framed—and it’s been framed by both the media, but also by the LGBT activist leadership itself, and in both cases, I think it’s been framed as extraordinarily white.

[For LGBT people of color], racism is a queer issue. And queer bashing is a race issue…. Trying to talk about queerness as just a deviation from what the dominant group views as normal (and therefore healthy, and therefore proper, and therefore right) is another way to really broaden this conversation. If you broaden the conversation in that way, you really allow a huge potential coalition of people who are different than this norm, which, to be honest, has never been all that normal.

I just think the only way that this tension is going to be worked out is for the LGBT community, which is so white dominated at the leadership level, to understand it’s own racial conditioning and begin to do some of that outreach within Black and brown communities.

Is there really a “Black-brown tension,” as the media often suggest?
There is, but the bottom-line question is never posed by the dominant that media, which is: Why is it that Black and brown folks are blasting each other, fighting amongst one another, over the pieces of a pie that for the most part none of them own?… It is self-defeating. It is self-destructive. And to frame it as “Black-and-brown” tension, as opposed to the residual effect of a system of white domination, white supremacy and white privilege—from which both of those groups are excluded—is to ensure that the folks keep pointing at each other, while those who are really at the top of that power structure just sort of sit back and laugh.

So it’s not that there’s no division—there is. But this is what happens when people at the bottom of the social structure feel that they have no outlet to change that structure. They turn on those who are closest to them. And that will happen whether it’s Black and Latino folks, or whether it’s working-class white folks and working-class Black folks. You know, that’s the whole history of what happens.

Michelle Chen is a freelance writer based in New York City. She blogs at Racewire.org.