Tim Wise, an anti-racists activist and author, took the stage of the Memorial Chapel at the University of Redlands on Nov. 2. Wise appeared for the third time at Redlands to speak about white privilege. This time his talk was titled “Challenging the Culture of Cruelty: Understanding and Defeating Race and Class Inequity in America.”
Wise has written seven books, and this talk was specifically based on the book “Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future.” He has created documentaries, one inspired by his book “White Like Me” and another was produced with activist, scholar, and author Angela Davis, “Vocabulary of Change”.
Wise was named one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World” by Utne Reader and The Root named him one of the “8 Wokest White People We Know.” Wise commented on this, jokingly questioning why there was only eight woke white people.
“Far too many things have stayed… the same,” Wise claimed, reflecting on the work he has been doing for twenty-two years.
He shared that this point in history is some of the best and most exciting for anti-racist work, but possibly the most dangerous. He mentioned the movements and organizations youth of color have constructed, such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (D.R.E.A.M.) Act.
Despite the alluded progress, he proposed a heavy question to his audience: how is society going to uproot racism?
Wise said most of white America does not see problems with white privilege in society. He gave an example: in 1963 during the Civil Rights struggle, a Gallup poll asked white people if black people were treated equally. Today, mostly everyone would say no, black people were not treated equally. However, in 1963 two-thirds of white people said yes and in a different survey, eighty-five out of one hundred white people claimed education was equal for everyone.
“It’s easy to look back in the rear view mirror,” Wise said. “It doesn’t take any courage to do that.”
This is not because white people are bad or heartless, Wise explained. Rather, white people have never seen white privilege as a problem, which comes from the luxury of being oblivious. There is a privilege in not knowing, Wise explained.
He expanded, using the an anecdote about him never taking calculus. If he were to talk about calculus, he would not make any sense because he was never taught the material. He connected this to race and identity, saying that some white people assume they know more about people of color even though they have never experienced that life or truth.
“They never took the class,” Wise said.
Once white people are aware of their privilege, the trick is to figure out reasons why they would want to give up their advantage.
“We live in a culture that teaches us to take advantage of your advantage,” Wise said.
He gave a widely known example of dinner leftovers. When children do not finish their food, their parents tell them to eat it because there are starving children in China, not to box up their extra food and send it to the starving children.
He gave concrete examples to exemplify the advantage that white people hold within society. White families have fifteen times the net worth of black families, thirteen more than Latino families, and two-thirds more than Asian and Pacific Islander families. Even when the heads of the white households are college dropouts, their net worth was higher than those of color who had attended college. He explained a flaw in American logic: if one works hard enough they will succeed. He was skeptical of this logic and said something was going on that had nothing to do with hard work.
Wise questioned if there is a way to make white people want to give up their advantage. He explained that power may be decentralized if it is realized that not just black and brown people that are hurting from racism, but white people are hurting too.
He delved into history by stating that there was not always the concept of white people.The European nations used to fight and hate each other. During the colonizing of America, there were rich white people and poor Europeans and people of color. The rich believed that the poor would unite together and over take them, such as what happened in Bacon’s Rebellion.
In order to overcome this, the rich gave other Europeans certain privileges. In 1708, indentured servitude for poor Europeans was outlawed and the rich started to give them authority over black people through positions such as slave patrol.
“Now they feel they are a part of a team called white,” Wise explained.
The rich divided and conquered the poor, working class in order to keep their positions of power, and thus the division of the races was enforced.
The effects of this are seen today when the phrase that people of color will “take our jobs.” The power is tilted in favor of the capitalists, not towards the labor, Wise shared.
To drive his point home, Wise brought up an example he read in The New York Times where two Princeton economists studied the correlation of mortality and race from 1999-2014. While the mortality rate was higher for people of color, every group’s mortality trend lines were positive except for one group: non-college educated working class white people.
It was found they were suffering from self-inflicted deaths: opioid addictions, alcoholism, and suicide. While Wise said that some might say this is proof white privilege does not exists, he claimed that it is proof it does.
People of color with the same demographics did not have the same mortality rate as the white people. This occurred because people of color were told all their lives even if they worked hard, things still might not turn out okay. However, white people truly believe that hard work always pays off. When the stock market crashed in 2008, white people were not prepared because they were taught all their lives that if they put in the work they would always be rewarded.
“Privilege sets you up,” Wise said. “That’s the irony of privilege.”
Anti-racist work for white people is not just about leveling the playing field for people of color, but about radical self-help, Wise claimed.
Wise ended his talk playing off the 2016 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.
“It’s not about how to make America great again, but how to make America great for the first and only time,” Wise said.