For some time now, Tim Wise has gained a following as “that white guy who talks about white privilege.” So much so, that a few years ago, UCI’s Cross Cultural Center brought him in to keynote the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. His following was equally split between people of color and self-proclaimed white anti-racists. This isn’t to say that white people shouldn’t be outspoken about racism and white supremacy; in fact, there’s not enough. But Wise has gained such a prominence that he’s often invited to speak to people of color about how they experience racism. And while a few folks, myself included, have criticized and confronted Wise about his role as mouthpiece for people of color, Wise has taken a barrage of criticism over twitter over the last few days from people of color, particularly writer and activist Yasmin Nair, over comments Wise made regarding people of color and Edward Snowden.
What Wise has failed to account for each time he’s confronted, is that by him speaking, he’s both speaking for people of color, and taking the microphone from them. In those cases where he actually uses his fame to promote non-white voices, the spotlight is still kept on him, he validates their comments with his own, or, even, interrupts a table of black men to explain their experience to the television audience:
In the case of the UCI talk, not only did he monopolize the microphone and discussion of race, but he surely accepted a speaker’s fee that could have gone to a person of color, to speak about their experience with racism. So, instead of just white-splaining racism, he’s also profitting from anti-racism and white privilege. What’s more white-privileged than using your white privilege to make money talking about your white privilege?
The additional problem with speaking at the Cross Cultural Center at UCI is that the Center itself, or at least the administration there, isn’t exactly the vanguard of anti-racism or progressive politics. For example, when Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez made a joke about being a “wetback” (because it was raining), the Cross staff defended him. When Jesse Cheng, a UCI student and UC Student Regent at the time, was accused of sexually assaulting a female student, the Cross staff were among the first administrators to circle wagons around him and attack the survivor and her supporters. The Cross staff have been more interested historically in pacifying militant students of color and preventing them from criticizing the UC and UCI administrations than addressing actual racism on campus, such as the Pilgrims and Indians party, the Compton Cookout at UCSD, or rapidly declining enrollment and graduation of Black and Latina/o students. Even just a few months ago, a UCI fraternity got in “trouble” for making a video with a student in blackface. (For a much more in-depth look at UC’s racism crisis, see my previous post on the subject) When the student body erupted in outrage, the Cross staff has tried to bureaucratize that anger, by funneling energy back into student organizations that depend on the good graces of the administration for funding. So, for such a center to welcome Wise as “a phenomenal speaker and writer with the extraordinary gift of empowering others”, whose “message will undoubtedly remind us why it’s so important to recognize and celebrate Dr. King’s work,” we really have to question whether he is the Great White Hope that some anti-racists make him out to be. Or, similarly, at an event subtitled “Reigniting the Dream Through Activism,” whose dream is being ignited, and what does activism really mean in this context. Because, as those of us who are committed to ending white supremacy know, the activism encouraged by the Cross is not really activism, and the “Dream as interpreted by a white guy” is axiomatically not the Dream of Martin Luther King.
If this weren’t enough, Wise is also speaking at a Teach for America training. There’s a lot to say about TFA–that it’s essentially a temp agency for liberal college students, that having teachers with so little training in the poorest classrooms in the country does little for those students, that poor students and students of color are used to pad the resumes of future grad students and non-profit staffers, it provides the shock troops to privatize public schools and bust teachers’ unions–but it should suffice to say that TFA is not helping poor black students, or shaking up the racial hierarchy in this country. As Mark Naison, a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University describes the organization:
“the most objectionable aspect of Teach For America — other than its contempt for lifetime educators — is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected. An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.”
Naison also points out that only 4 out of 100 Fordham students, many of whom come from the very communities TFA deigns to serve, were accepted into the program, while 44 out of 100 Yale students were accepted. The reputation of the universities and the qualifications of the students are beside the point: TFA only wants a certain kind of teacher–white and middle/upper-class. Similarly, Julian Vasquez Heilig, an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin, points out: “Recruits with five weeks of training are good enough for poor whites and students of color, but they are glaringly absent from affluent schools in places like Scarsdale, N.Y., or Westlake, Texas, districts seeking well-qualified career teachers for advantaged children.”
So what is Wise doing there? Maybe he genuinely believes that he can shape these temporary teachers to challenge racism in the classroom. It is clear, though, that in a way, he is killing two birds with one stone, for the people who will listen to him speak in Charlotte are by and large the same people he panders his white supremacist anti-racism to–those people who take action or take a stance or read one of Wise’s books to feel better about their privilege, while leaving unexamined the consequences of their own actions.
When community educator Ivan Illich was invited to speak before a similar group of do-gooders, he concluded his remarks by saying, “come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.” Wise would do well to similarly frame his own remarks before the new cohort of TFA teachers.