White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

There are some things that Tim Wise would like to put on the table right now. Our success is not determined solely by our individual will and determination. When we are born, we all inherit the past. And for most people in this country, the past alone can dictate whether you rise to the top or fall to the bottom. In the introduction to the revised edition of his book White Like Me, Wise urges readers to join him on a journey. Fair warning: if you accept, it will be a long, tough road ahead. After all, the fight for justice has never been easy. But Tim Wise believes it’s worth it. This is a journey with a single but complex purpose: an attempt to answer the question, “What does it mean to be white?”

I do not think that many white people spend a considerable amount of time thinking about their whiteness. As white people, they don’t have to. Have you ever noticed that it’s mostly white people who proclaim they want to live in a colorblind society? Wise would argue that is mostly because white people are the only people who can be colorblind. Non-white people don’t have that privilege. And Tim Wise would like to have an honest conversation about the privilege of being white.

To many people, Wise may seem to be overthinking things. After all, there’s no forced segregation anymore. All people are equal now! Can’t everyone just get over it already? But it is precisely this overthinking we must all commit to if we want to change the systems of injustice that pervert and pollute our world. So put on your overthinking caps. The journey is about to begin.

But first, a note. Your leader on this journey is not a mild-mannered character. He uses forceful language when necessary and he does not pull any punches. But don’t be threatened. His rhetorical flair is more about passion than aggression. In fact, I would highly recommend watching some clips of him on the Internet before you begin. (Wise is primarily a lecturer and educator who speaks all over the country.) His tone and wit are better captured in person and act as the necessary spoonful of sugar to help the proverbial medicine go down. Okay, now we’re ready.

After opening with an enlightening background on his personal history of white belonging, the rest of Wise’s book reads somewhat like a twelve-step program that makes you want to stand up, raise your right hand, and say, “hello, my name is [insert name here] and I have a privilege problem.”

He begins with a section outlining all of the areas in which whites enjoy privilege over others, including education, the justice system, social status, safety, and even religion. Do we really think Jesus had long flowing light-brown hair and pale skin?

Next comes denial. There are many ways in which white people deny the existence of their privilege, but try these on for size. Were you like many who were tempted to proclaim racism officially over when we elected a black president? Have you ever used the term “reverse racism” when referring to social programs attempting to level the playing field for non-white citizens? Wise thinks you may be in denial. And this denial has the potential to be especially strong in Reformed Christian America, where people are raised to believe that it is hard work and determination that get you where you want to go. If you fall down, then just grab those bootstraps and pick yourself back up again. But Wise contends that many people (especially non-white people) don’t have those bootstraps. Some don’t even have boots. I told you this wouldn’t be easy.

However, if you can move past the denial stage, Wise is ready to teach you resistance. Because just being aware of white privilege does little to stop it or get rid of it. By this point in the book you will be asking, what now? How do I change this? What am I supposed to do? Be patient. Tim Wise may not have all the answers. But he has a lot of ideas.

First, this is a complex issue. And it’s not about individual racism as much as it is about institutional racism. Wise allows for the reality that most white people are generally well-meaning and not explicitly racist in their thoughts, feelings, and actions towards others. However the reality, which scholar Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists,” is that while explicit bigotry and discrimination towards individuals is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, the social systems and structures that were created to benefit white people are still very much alive and in place today. And Wise believes we must be honest about the ways in which white people collaborate with the systems that privilege us and oppress others. As white people we must be honest about the ways in which we will continue to benefit from our whiteness even after we become aware of the problem. This honesty requires humility. It also requires . . .

Loss. If we are to truly tackle this immense system of injustice, white people must be willing to lose something. You cannot destroy or end privilege; you can only give it up. This is where I find Wise’s words to be deeply Christian and appropriate for the Christian community. Even though Wise admits to no official spiritual position on this matter, it is certainly evident that this path—the one he wants so desperately for you to join him on—is the same path that Jesus would have taken. This path, while difficult, will ultimately lead to hope. And Wise has some of that to offer, too.

His last few sections propose plenty of practical solutions, many of which are particularly applicable to schoolteachers. I’m sure we’ve all overheard plenty of racial jokes or behavior on the playground, in the hallway, or even during some downtime in classrooms and staff rooms. And if you are like me, you probably are not sure exactly how to deal with them. Race is a difficult subject to talk about. But if you made it this far in the book, you most likely believe it is worth it. Wise offers advice to white people on how to challenge systems of inequality, how to raise non-racist children, how to discourage racist behavior in the workplace, and even how to stand up to it in your relationships with friends and family.

Perhaps the most provocative section of the revised edition comes at the end of the book, where Wise artfully and pointedly deconstructs racism and white privilege in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If any of us were still on the fence about whether race was still a pertinent issue in the United States, this should push us over the edge.

It should be said that once you are on board with Wise’s premise, it can feel at times that the ride is only leading you deeper and deeper into the abyss. But this is where Wise’s welcome words of hope and redemption hit home. This is not a defeatist book. You need not read and feel only despair (although you will feel some despair, to be sure). There are things we can do. There are things we must do.

And so we come to the end of the journey. But it is here when you realize, after you turn the last page, your real journey has only just begun.