In his essay “Suburban Bitch Cruise” [July 2009] Akhim Yuseff Cabey eloquently illustrates the ways that race influences the perspectives of white people. His relationship with his white female companions is an example of the painful costs, on both sides, of racism and white privilege. I hope the essay causes white readers to explore the ways their race influences the way they see the world.
I also find it interesting that, while the July issue highlights the disparities between whites and people of color, your interview subject for the issue, Tim Wise, is still a white man [“By the Color of Their Skin,” interview by David Cook]. I appreciate Wise’s work immensely, and I’m sure the interview will challenge and stimulate readers. But I also hope to see race and privilege discussed in future issues with more people of color.
I am a white Baptist male living in Georgia, and I was fascinated by David Cook’s interview with Tim Wise. I’ve found that the best way for white people to fight racism is to put other whites on the defensive when they make racist comments. For years I felt uncomfortable whenever someone made a remark like “You’re not sending your kids to public school with those children, are you?” Now I just ask, “What do you mean?”
Here’s an example: Last year I was watching a college basketball game when a man said to me, “I used to love basketball before they stole it from us.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“No, what are you talking about?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, explain it to me.”
“Forget about it.”
Suddenly he felt uncomfortable instead of me.
In the 1970s my father, a white Baptist pastor, ministered to migrant workers in south Florida. He often brought us kids along, and we played with the migrant children as he baptized believers in the river. Dad was not an activist, but he was passionate about civil rights, and he made sure we understood that skin color has nothing to do with the character of a person.
Our dad finally took a more permanent position at a church with a predominantly white congregation. As he invited more people of color to join, the church became predominantly black. In many of the places we lived, too, we were part of the racial minority, but I can’t remember caring much. I was more concerned with whether I had a pimple or if a certain boy liked me.
And yet, reading the interview with Tim Wise, I felt irritated (Come on. This is a bit conspiratorial, isn’t it?), sad (How can people still treat each other this way?), hopeless (Will things never change?), and challenged (What do you mean, “Tolerance and diversity smooth over problems without fixing them”?). Most of all, after finishing the interview and also reading Akhim Yuseff Cabey’s memoir “Suburban Bitch Cruise,” I felt naive. Wise made me think: despite my growing up poor and struggling and worshipping in the same neighborhoods as people of color and having boyfriends of various races, I will never truly understand what it is like to be black. Wise and Cabey both brought up subtleties of race that shocked and shamed me. I didn’t like seeing the cracks in my rose-colored glasses.
The interview with Tim Wise, subtitled “The Myth of a Postracial America,” brought to mind a similar prevalent myth about “postsexism.” Being female and having a female-sounding first name are equally as limiting as being black and having a black-sounding name when it comes to social, economic, and political advancement. Scan a list of names of U.S. Senators or CEOs, or even the credits of the last film you saw. You’ll see a lot of white-sounding male names and few female names of any race.
For every woman worldwide forced to wear a literal burqa, there are ten more forced to wear an invisible one. I hope Tim Wise, as the father of two young daughters, won’t forget the women who are left out in the cold.
Tim Wise really hits the target on our racial awarenesses, but he has fallen prey to the belief that to be black you have to be from the lower or middle class and espouse values and use speech that are typical of those classes. The Cosby Show, he says, didn’t represent blacks because the characters were upper-class. But in the 1980s, when the show aired, the U.S. needed to see some upper-class blacks. The only other blacks on television at the time were inmates, drug dealers, rappers, and athletes.
There has been a professional class of blacks for most of U.S. history. My daughters are the fifth generation of my family to go to college. My ancestors attended college when the first universities were founded in this country. My grandfather was an MD and a pharmacist. He never thought of himself as anything other than a black man.
With his sitcom about black doctor Cliff Huxtable, Bill Cosby was showing us that families have the same concerns regardless of race. Bill Cosby is black enough. Barack Obama is black enough.
Tim Wise says correctly that the election of Barack Obama did not end racism in the U.S. But it did surprise me that, in this country where segregation was the law of the land until just a few years before I was born, voters were able to recognize statesmanship in spite of a candidate’s color. Yes, dissatisfaction with the previous administration played into it. Yes, Obama is possessed of an eloquence and straight-talking pragmatism that made him stand out. But I can’t help seeing his presidency as a milestone in America’s racial history. I have never before had the kind of experience I did taking my children to the local university auditorium for a live broadcast of the inauguration. The crowd of all colors was cheering and singing, the triumph and joy visible in all of us.
In no way does that moment erase privilege or discrimination or fully educate me about the experiences of someone of another race. But it did change something. I see it in the way people meet one another’s eyes and the responses I get when I wear my Obama T-shirt around town.
I didn’t vote for Obama because he is black. I didn’t go to rallies and make phone calls and donate to his campaign because he’s black. But I was thrilled to my toes that the best candidate was a black man. I rejoice at the healing that simple fact has brought to our nation and to our relations with the rest of the world. Is it all the healing that we need? Absolutely not. But I believe it can do more to shed light than it does to disguise the problem.
Hats off to Tim Wise for reminding us that we’re a long way from being across the river. A good deal of what he said in the interview was in response to those who, feeling a stepping stone beneath us, immediately shouted, “Hurrah, we’re there!” That is nonsense. But it doesn’t change my gratitude and relief that, in the long, messy history of race relations, we have another foothold.
I applaud Tim Wise’s efforts to help the victimized segments of society, but he doesn’t appear to understand the complex circumstances surrounding racism. As a white man who grew up in poverty in the coal region of Pennsylvania and a former white supremacist, I feel I can enlighten him on the real fight we face, which is one of economic disparity.
I’ve never seen a rich man, black or white, living in the ghetto, or in a trailer park — the white man’s ghetto — but I’ve seen poor blacks and whites living in both places. The common denominator is poverty. It’s poor people who suffer the most from prejudice, and many of them respond with misdirected hatred.
Poverty creates feelings of helplessness in people of all races, and some of them use racism as a coping mechanism. As a poor white I once blamed “the black man” or “the Jew” for my problems, because it brought those problems down to a solvable level. I had no way to get out of poverty, but I could get “those blacks” or “those Jews.”
Wise says the system is geared for whites to succeed. There were only a handful of blacks where I grew up, but all of them had jobs, houses, and cars, while my brothers and I had to steal food so we didn’t starve. I don’t have a college education either — and not for lack of trying. If whites are favored and given an extra hand up, why not me? As I sit on death row, it’s obvious that the justice system was as unfair to me as it was to all the nonwhites here. There isn’t a single rich man on death row.
I’m for equality for everyone. All racism should be confronted, all hatred extinguished. The best way to do this is to raise people out of poverty, giving them the power to deter racists and protect their human dignity. The only color that matters in this country is green: money. Let’s give the poor their dignity back as members of the human race, because that’s the only “race” there is.
Tim Wise responds:
I would love to reply to all the letter writers, but unfortunately I don’t have the time. The issues brought up are ones that I have addressed in my books, on my website (timwise.org), or on my blog at redroom.com. I refer interested readers to those sources if they want to learn more.