Brian Awehali interviews Tim Wise
I first saw Tim Wise on late-night public access television in Seattle, around 1998, in a debate in which he was demolishing conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. I immediately got in touch and asked him to contribute to my magazine, LiP: Informed Revolt, thus kicking off a very fruitful 7-year editorial collaboration that featured a series of interviews as well as several far-reaching features by Tim. [His current site, with archives and speaking schedule, lives here, and I can't recommend his book, Between Barack and a Hard Place highly enough.]
In this interview, as relevant now as it was in pre-Obama America, we sat down to discuss, among other things, the ways in which privilege can atrophy a person’s ability to deal effectively with adversity, why the discussion around reparations can reap benefits far beyond the simple meting out of financial compensation, and why Americans, particularly white Americans, have been led to believe in a fictional version of the real world.
“…people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth—and, indeed, no church— can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words…If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring.”
Tim, when I last interviewed you, we spoke a lot about “whiteness”—both as a concept and as a “mark of automatic advantage.” Racial or ethnic battle lines have been part of the United States since its very beginning, and these lines permeate every aspect of society. Yet they remain, in large part, uninterrogated and invisible. On the one hand, you’ve got white folks’ commonplace denial of their racism, which spares them from acknowledging not just their own bigotry, but also denies the reality of people of color. They don’t have to see them.
And on the other hand you’ve got the invisibility of whiteness itself, made possible by the fact that white perspectives are taken as the norm. They’re the dominant perspectives on everything, including the economy, education and crime.
As you explained, those are two ways white supremacy— the broad, institutionalized system that exploits people of color and defends the privilege of white people— is still allowed to remain hidden and incomprehensible to a lot of Americans.
While membership in the white system of privilege has its obvious advantages, I want to get into how membership has its disadvantages. What price does a person pay for accepting the benefits of a racist system?
Well, I want to be clear. On the one hand, “disadvantage” seems to be almost inherently a relative term, so I wouldn’t say whites suffer disadvantages from being white. I mean, in a racist system, relative to persons of color whites clearly are ADvantaged, other things being equal or nearly so. But I would say that whiteness carries a cost, even for those who benefit from its privileges, and that despite the relative advantages there are certain harms, consequences, or perhaps dysfunctional aspects that are worth talking about.
On a basic level, one might consider the harms that come from racial privilege if, by virtue of that privilege, one remains isolated from others. So, to live in an almost all white neighborhood, thanks to past and present housing bias, as about 85% of whites do, means huge advantages in terms of wealth and assets, but also means that we’re cut off from the experiences, cultures and contributions of people of color—to our own detriment in terms of being functionally literate and interculturally competent for a country that is increasingly non-white, and a world that never was white to begin with. And while that isolation and ignorance might not have mattered in an earlier era, now it does.
Even more though, I think a system of privilege often has the effect of setting up those who receive certain advantages for a fall. What I mean is that dominant group members quite logically come to expect certain things, and to have a sense of entitlement as a result of their relatively privileged status. And that can leave a person unprepared to deal with setbacks: personal, professional, or whatever else. The coping skills that oppressed groups have to develop to survive, are not as “needed” for dominant groups, and the result is sometimes tragic.
I started thinking about this in the wake of the multiple white suburban school shootings, and also data I was coming across that indicated disproportionate pathological and dysfunctional behavior among whites in various categories.
I mean, general crime rates are disproportionate in communities of color and poor communities, due to socioeconomic conditions that are correlated with crime. Yet specific crimes, like serial killing, mass murder, child sexual abuse, or drug use, and other dysfunctions, like suicide, eating disorders, or alcoholism are mostly found in the white middle class. And whereas everyone, right or left, would seek to explain “why” in the case of dark and poor folks—the left saying economics and structural causes, the right saying genes or cultural flaws—when it comes to white and middle class dysfunction, the question, “why,” isn’t asked.
Or if it is, the “causes” are inevitably located externally—the video games, the music, the movies—and never viewed as possibly intrinsic to the group in question or the environment in which that group finds itself. But I wonder, “why the disconnect?” Why are some crimes or dysfunctions disproportionately dark and poor, and others disproportionately white and middle class or above?
I would suggest that part of the answer is that in this culture, whites are dominant, and tend to develop a sense of control, entitlement and expectation as a result, unlike non-dominant groups, who through experience know that obstacles and barriers are part of their everyday experience. And since dominant group members have not had to deal with major obstacles to our advance, or in terms of our being accepted and valued in society, we really haven’t had to develop those coping skills. So when the going gets tough, so to speak, we, more so than others, are more likely to react in a manner that seems so bizarre that it literally defies logic.
So if you look at the various pathologies that are disproportionately found in the white community, what are they? Almost all pathologies about “control” and rage—serial killing, mass murder, sexual sadism on the one hand; and then internally directed control pathologies on the other hand, like suicide, eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, etc. The pathologies that are disproportionately in communities of color are not about control in the same way—they are largely what could be called “survival” pathologies, and pathologies related to deprivation or perceived deprivation.
So what I am trying to ask is whether there may be dysfunctional aspects to white, middle class culture—and the advantages that come from being white, male and middle class—in terms of building up expectations, generating a sense of entitlement, and causing a sense of invincibility that leads folks to let down their guards to serious problems or pathologies?
In other words, is the system of racial privilege that benefits whites so much ultimately planting the seeds of those same white folks’ self-destruction and social entropy?
Let’s talk about the concept of intercultural competence and functional literacy. It seems like that’s especially relevant right now.
Well, it’s a perfect analogy between on the one hand the cultural incompetence that comes from domestic segregation from one another, or isolation white from black, or white from latino, for example, and what’s going on right now internationally. As I’ve traveled around the country this last month it’s obvious to me that Americans—especially white Americans, but really all Americans—are fundamentally lacking in understanding of not only other cultures, but other people’s perceptions and realities. And this is why so many people can ask the question, “Why do they hate us?” And say it with no sense of irony, no sense of wonder at all. And I think our isolation from the world—even as we engage it globally, economically—is now coming back to haunt us.
And it leaves us in a situation where we’re vulnerable to attack, essentially because we’re not prepared for that, and we’re not expecting anybody to really hate us that badly. Because, after all, why would they? More than that, it also leaves us fairly impotent in terms of how to respond. So we respond, I would say, the same old way we do with anything, which is throw some bullets their way and show our military might without really thinking about the effect that that might have in other parts of the world. It may mean, as in Vietnam, that we’ll win every single military battle, which we essentially did in Southeast Asia, and still lose, isolating ourselves in the larger world community in the process.
And I think that that’s a direct analogy to what we do domestically. Whites are, as the dominant group, isolated from people of color. We don’t understand their perceptions, we don’t understand their reality, and we end up offering policy prescriptions for various things that only make things worse and certainly don’t solve whatever problems those communities are faced with.
I know you have a piece in the forthcoming Reparations Reader. Why should the US consider reparations for African Americans?
Probably the better question for me is why wouldn’t we? I think that from any standard of international law or regular tort law in the US, persons who are injured have a right to compensation. And I think in this particular instance, that right of compensation doesn’t expire when the original victims have died, or when the original perpetrators die, because the harm is ongoing and systemic.
And in the case of racism, you look at what slavery did, not only in material terms, to restrict victims’ access to wealth and opportunity, but also what it did in terms of instilling racism as an ideology, then I think the impact on today’s racial reality becomes clear.
For example, prior to slavery, there really wasn’t a thoroughgoing racist analysis that placed whites in a racial group above everybody else and placed blacks as a racial group at the bottom. Really, it was slavery itself, by embedding the inequities between white and black, by creating a systemic structure of injustice, that then required rationalization.
So, as a way to rationalize the systemic injustice that was already taking place on the ground, the ideology of racism developed as a post hoc rationalization. And in that regard, even with slavery gone, and putting aside the material inequities that came about, which I think alone are enough to justify reparations…you still have to grapple with folks that claim black people are genetically or culturally inferior, and whose books become bestsellers. That kind of reality, that kind of ideology, there would not even have been a reason for it to develop, absent a system of institutional injustice that required some sort of justification to make it jibe with the larger American ideology of freedom and opportunity.
And I think in that regard [white folks] all now reap the benefits, and suffer the harms, that come from slavery, whether or not our families owned slaves, because as the result of this ideology of racism, white Americans have been placed both intellectually and structurally above people of color. So I think there’s a monetary rationale—a straight economic rationale—and also this larger ideological one.
Do you think South Africa and what they’ve done post-Apartheid is actually a good model for us to look at?
Partly. I think there certainly would be no harm in having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example. It’s long overdue and probably should have been done a hundred years ago or at least 35 or 40 years ago.
The only controversy might be whether we should operate in the same way. In South Africa, as long as you’re willing to come forward and admit a crime or injustice you perpetrated against African blacks, you’re more or less forgiven, with no punishment except in the most extreme cases. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the model for us to follow. I think we can demonstrate in such a commission a significant amount of systemic injustice that [justifies] substantial reparation.
But at the very least, it would begin the dialogue, and I think that would be positive. And it would get us to talk about our history in a way that—and I make this point in the piece I contributed to the Reader—would really be liberating not just for the victims, whose stories would finally be told, but would also be liberating in a different sense for white people. Because I think that one of the harms we rarely talk about that comes from racism and white supremacy is the damage that it does [to the dominant group]. I think if you look at the whites who owned slaves, or whites who benefited in relative terms, you find that it stunted a certain amount of emotional growth and healthy human development.
I think of it in my own family terms. In this piece I’ve written for the book, I read through my family history and I see the way that my own family’s humanity was distorted. My own family’s ability to relate to one another in a decent, sort of humane way was stunted by our ownership of other human beings. When you look at pictures of my family and other white folks from that period, nobody’s ever smiling. Everybody looks very severe, like life is beating them down. And here was a family, one side of it anyway, that was quite wealthy and owned a number of slaves. But there seems to be no joy, no celebration of life at all in them.
You read their wills, where they’re leaving their footstools and armoires and then 5 slaves to their descendants and you just think “What does it take for a human being to think this makes sense in their mind?” And I would suggest that in order [to rationalize saying] “Here, you can have my armoire, you can have my cattle, you can have my pots and pans, and you can have Minerva, the slave woman,” you have to cut yourself off from your own sense of who you really are, and cut yourself off from the decency that you probably had as a young child. You have to ignore what’s staring you square in the face. Which is that these are human beings. But you can’t let yourself think that, so you have to numb yourself to human pain. And that is just a horrible thing for anybody to have to do.
I think a reparations discussion would allow those persons who have been the beneficiaries, in relative terms, of this system, to repurchase that part of their soul that had to be diminished, that part of their family, that part of their humanity, that had to be diminished in order to make all of this OK.
What do you think can be done right now? How do you think, in the broadest possible terms, we can tear down the system of racial privilege? How can we use the “war” and its aftermath to help move that change along?
Well, I think most people will not come to an anti-racist position, especially if they’re white, based solely on the recognition that racial privilege is wrong. I think some will, maybe 20% can be brought over to an anti-racist position on that basis. But for the rest, I think it has to do quite a bit with recognizing the dysfunctionality of this system.
And that dysfunctionality exists on a number of levels. One aspect is the cultural incompetence that hurts our ability to make effective domestic or foreign policy. We’re seeing that right now. The other aspect is what I mentioned earlier, which is this large-scale social dysfunction that comes from receiving privilege. In the short-term, and in the relative sense, it’s nothing but good for those who receive it, but in the long run it really does set those same people up for a fall. And I think that pointing out the dysfunction, really asking white Americans to reflect on the harms and damages that come from a divided and unequal society is important. [It’s important that they] recognize what those harms are for them, and go beyond just saying how horrible it is for the other and how good it is for them. Really seeing the dysfunctions and making that part of the analysis is critical.
And I think we generally haven’t done that. Most of the really strong writers and theorists around racial privilege have focused on simply getting white people to recognize their privilege. And I think that’s part of it. But unless there is a reason for those white folks to want to give up that privilege, then the reality is that in a society like this, where self-interest is put above everything else, the more you convince someone they’re privileged, the LESS likely they’re going to be to want to try and end that.
So the question becomes “Well, why do I want to give it up?” I think the only answer to that for the vast majority is going to be because the cost that you pay to receive those privileges is just too high.
You know, [there’s] something else I want to talk about, which I sort of came to by thinking about a longstanding theory in sociology called “rising expectations theory” or “frustrated expectations theory.” This whole argument, which you may be familiar with, is that when an oppressed group begins to see an improvement in their condition, perhaps quite modest, often times their expectations of the improvement will outstrip the reality and how fast the reform is taking place.
As a result, they will become exceedingly frustrated, even more so than when they were just being oppressed. So because there’s a huge gap between the aspiration and the reality, that frustration will often assert itself in violence or destructive behavior. And I think that’s true. I think it’s a strong argument. I think it explains a lot of the urban riots in the 60s, for example. Why did they happen at the time that reform was taking place and not before?
But what’s interesting is that sociologists and those who have put this argument forth have never applied it to people who ALWAYS had expectations. Why is it that only those who didn’t have any and now begin to get some, and then get squashed—why is it that only THAT matters? Why isn’t the same true for those whose expectations have always been at a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10? When THEIR expectations are frustrated, why wouldn’t they—to perhaps even greater extent—either lash out in anger or violence, or turn that on themselves via drug abuse and other [disproportionately white dysfunctional behaviors] I talked about?
I think it’s just a matter of seeing that, in many ways, a society that puts forth a certain set of expectations [for] a particular group and provides them with these amazing privileges, is a society that, unless it never changes, can never live up to its promise over time. And so when those people who’ve been promised the world and have come to think the world is their oyster, when they finally have to compete for things against people, on an equal basis—whether it’s men having to compete with women, whether its white folks having to compete with people of color, whether it’s Americans having to compete with people around the globe—the tendency is to think “Wait a minute, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were always supposed to have the best of everything.”
That’s not a realistic model for the world, but it’s one that unfortunately, we have really been led to believe was going to work.