This public conversation, Colorblindness and the Myth of Post-Racialism, took place in the Carl A. Fields Center at Princeton University on February 10th, 2014. Photos are courtesy of Sameer Kahn, the audio is courtesy of Tim Wise. Tim Wise was invited to campus by a student group to give a lecture. Following the lecture, Professor Imani Perry joined Wise on stage to lead a brief conversation, and then open the floor up for questions.
More about Imani Perry.
Perry: We’re just gonna talk, right? So… What happened to you in terms of becoming who you are? That’s a question that I have an investment in – hoping that there are more white folks who begin to see what you’ve seen.
WISE: Well, the reason I chuckled and reacted is actually the very first line of White Like Me is that – “What happened to you?” because it has been presumed that, I think, for a very long time that there was some horrible accident and maybe there was, I don’t know.
But I think to be honest about it, I think what happened to me is something that happens to a lot of people. More than perhaps we know, but not always nurtured as well as it was for me.
I grew up in the South. I lived all my life in the South. I know that the South means a lot of different things. Malcolm X said the South was anything below Canada. But I grew up in Nashville, went to college in New Orleans, and lived in that city for ten years, and then moved back to Nashville.
I think for those of us who grew up in the South who are white and certainly for persons of color, but certainly as well for those of us who are white, it’s hard to deny the centrality of race to just about everything.
Now that doesn’t mean that white southerners have it all together on race — we clearly do not. But we at least know it’s a real issue and that it’s in the room and we know that far more viscerally than white Northerners or white West Coast folks who, whenever I go there, wonder why I’m not back home where the problem is… You know, the problem isn’t in Seattle– good Lord no. The problem isn’t in Portland, the problem isn’t in the Bay Area.
So for those of us who grew up in the South, we have this insight to the centrality of race. Now what might be different for me than a lot of other white Southerners is that there was a process of nurturing that acknowledgment and that awareness that maybe doesn’t happen for most.
When I got into doing community organizing in New Orleans public housing, being told by black women, “this is what’s real, this is what’s happening in our community,” I wasn’t as likely to be that white dude who’s like “Are you sure that you’re not seeing things ‘cause I think you might be seeing things I’m pretty sure you’re hallucinating?” No, I was going to go back to that early imprinting which was to say you’re just as much of an authority as anyone else and I should probably listen to your wisdom.
The only thing that maybe differentiated me was other than that early formation was that in my years I had incredible mentors, mostly people of color, in places like New Orleans folks with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and others. They took what was that initial sort of formation and molded it in a productive way which was really fortunate for me.
PERRY: One of the things in what you’re saying resonates with me, particularly in respect to regions. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama and when my grandmother was alive she used to be astonished at the stories I would tell her of racism where I grew up in Massachusetts. And she’d say ‘White folks don’t do that anymore’ and I’d say, ‘oh yes they do,’ but there was an absolute absence of acknowledgment of the depth of racism in a city like Boston despite the fact that it had a national reputation of being an exceptionally racist city. Of course that becomes part of why we do the work that we do, and devote our lives to this. And yet, we are losing.
You have this wonderful way of displaying how self evident so much of this is, if you think in a clear fashion, and yet we’re losing. What is this investment in maintaining the depth of American racism, for lack of a better term, that appears to be what is happening as you travel around the country? And you talked to young people constantly, as a group of people, and yet this idea has been incredibly resilient.
WISE: Well, I’d love to hear your take on why you think we’re losing.
For me, I think there are a couple things. One is that when you are given a material state and the maintenance of a certain system, we ought not to be surprised that a lot of folks will stick with that, when they are at least in the short term benefiting from it.
Now the conundrum is that in the long run for those of us who have done critical race theory, and those who have looked at the intersections of race and class, we know that in the long run, the vast majority of white folks are actually harmed indirectly by white supremacy because whatever privileges we receive actually come at the expense of economic solidarity, that working class people obviously, vitally need.
There is a lot of research that racism bids down the wages of working class people. Racism undermines the well-being of working class people and yet they stick with it.
The longstanding left and progressive conundrum is how do we get people to see that self-interest.
The idea that if all people knew their self-interest and they’ll all of a sudden just flip –it’s a mistake that both socialists and libertarians make. People who believe the market can solve everything make the argument: ‘Well, people act on the basis of their rational self-interest so they would never discriminate if it actually meant they lose market share. And workers will never operate on the basis of racism if they realized it hurts their wages.’
But the reality is both of those things happen. So libertarians and Marxists for totally different reasons miss the nature of what white supremacy does to the consciousness of people. Tell me your take?
PERRY: I think a piece of it is in this moment, and related to what you’re saying, every aspect of our beings exist on some form of marketplace. People talk about neoliberalism like it’s a catchword but really, everything is so deeply marketized.
The social safety net, and also the welfare state, and not just the welfare state in terms of what we think about when we talk about welfare — but the kind of programs that enables large numbers of Americans to enter the middle class — all of that is disappearing.
So, there’s a growing number of people who are in precarious circumstances. Not just those who have been multi-generationally impoverished but also people who are college educated. There’s the absence, the loss of work, the loss of security and various sorts of privatization, in all of these areas. So I think that part of the clinging to whatever kind of advantage one can gain is part of a kind of vulnerability.
And I do think there is an element that is a kind of false consciousness. I don’t mean that people, in the sense that you’re talking about — the ‘i don’t understand my class interests’ — but in a sense that we think that by competing on this market, for the bulk of us, there’s the possibility of making some significant gains… without recognizing the depth of the growing, huge gulf of inequality.
The vast majority of us are in relatively vulnerable circumstances, I think it is because we’re so marketized, the idea of collective action, the idea of a politics around community, is elusive now.
We moved away from it and you can see that in every aspect of our lives in terms of the sense of connection. The kind of transiency we live with, the lack of connection to people around us, the way that we are so increasingly individual and not connected in any kind of regular civic organizations, whether church or community organizations. All sorts of things make it difficult to even find the foundation from where you can build coalitions around, across identity barriers.
That moment when Occupy Wall Street was occurring, and everybody was so optimistic, that might be something though. I think people were too optimistic, but this sense of, “can we shift” the idea of “who is our we” is what we need to be concerned with.