October 22, 2017

White Like Me: Chapter 3-Denial

“There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead… this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is, is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head on and try to become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish“- James Baldwin, Nobody Knows my Name, 1961


I decided to take a two week hiatus from the book and pick up with Chapter 3.  In Chapter 3, Wise talks about the concept of white denial, The Oprah Effect, the myth of reverse racism, the racism of white liberals, and if white people are truly naive of the circumstances surrounding people of color.

He compares white denial to not looking at an ATM receipt for his balance after withdrawing money. If he doesn’t see the damage then it is not there or he really isn’t that broke. He blames the way that history is taught in the United States to continuation of whites being able to keep burying their heads in the sand. Understanding the depths of white denial is important , if we are going to find our way out of the morass of racism in this country. You can’t solve a problem if you receive to admit it exists in the first place.

According to Wise, white denial is woven into the foundation of this country’s fabric. He gives more information into his family background and the relatives that owned slaves. When speaking of these family members and their acts, whites brush it off  the concept of slavery or their family members owning slaves by saying that the behavior was “normal” or that’s how it was back then.  He remembers reading a book about Andrew Jackson and what disturbed him the most as an adult was the book mentioned that when Jackson died, his slaves were wailing and crying over Jackson’s passing. There is not evidence of such thing happening.

The Oprah Effect

In this section he discusses how whites will use examples of rich, or extremely black people to point out that things aren’t so bad. When Wise  published the first edition of his book “White Like Me” he was interviewed by NPR.  An AP journalist picked up the story from NPR and decided to interview Wise for an article, the reporter informed Wise that he would need to speak to a critic to get a balanced view concerning white privilege. The reporter spoke with David Horowitz, who was a former left-wing gadfly that became a right-wing gadfly. Horowitz refuted that the “white privilege” theory is filled with holes and racism doesn’t exist anymore because… Oprah Winfrey.

Tim Wise gives the example of Oprah Winfrey not being able to get into that Hermes store in France and wondering if her race had anything to do with. No matter the amount of money, power and influence that Oprah Winfrey has, she still worries about how her blackness is perceived and that is something that whites regardless of their financial status don’t have to think about. He finds the, “these black people are rich so racism doesn’t exist” such a specious and vacuous argument.

The Myth of Reverse Racism

If I got a nickel for every time a white person said, “they hire an unqualified black over me…” I would be rich. Tim Wise discusses the ignorance behind the idea of reverse racism. He talks about several cases where someone sued a university because a handful of people of color who were “unqualified” and admitted to a academic program over a white student, privilege at its best. Why don’t these families sue the larger amounts of white kids who had lower grades and test scores and got into the program, instead of the folks of color? Grades and test scores are not the only way a student gets qualified to attend a university. He also gives an example of a man who’s wife needed a life saving operation, who went all over town talking to the doctors about his wife ailment and wanted one concession, he didn’t any blacks in the OR when his wife was operated on because he didn’t want any of them to see her naked. He had been turned down several times, and finally one doctor conceded to help the woman get this needed operation. The black doctor that usually performed the surgeries was not allow to do so. The story got picked up on the news and the white doctor had to apologize.

But if the roles had been reversed, and it was a black man wanting the same thing, it would have never happened. For one, it would have been hard to find an OR with only black medical staff, because for years blacks were not allowed to even work in the medical field and our opportunities were limited. To have a white man of lower economic status than a black surgeon, instruct the hospital that he doesn’t want anyone black to operate or see his wife naked is beyond crazy and another example of white privilege at its finest.

He also makes comparisons between Bermuda and the United States and the similarities between the countries when it comes to race relations.

White Liberal Racism

He gives an example of a time that he went to a university in Minnesota to give a lecture for a “diversity day” event that the school was having. When he picked up at the airport by white students, he asked them questions about racial tensions at their school. Of course, the students said there were none. He asked students of color their experiences with racism in Minnesota and they mentioned the behavior was passive aggressive, and that if they even raised voice above a whisper about some racial joke that was inappropriate or behavior they were told that they were not being “nice”.  Minnesota, Wisconsin and other predominantly white liberal areas can be just as racist, because, they don’t want to discuss the problem or they feel that since they are being nice and cordial that they are being racist.

Whites and Naivety

In the last section, Wise discusses whether or not whites are naive to their role in regards to race relations. He talks about a study he read about how clueless white people(white college students)  are about racism.

The question posed in the study was: How much money they would require as compensation to be changed from white to black, and have to live as a black person for the rest of their lives? To show how clueless these students were, the average answer was $10,000 per year. In other words, blackness was not seen as much as a disadvantage for most- perhaps a slight one, yes but nothing to become too concerned about.

Then the students were given a different hypothetical. This time they were asked how much compensation would be required if living in a fictional land, they were to be made into members of a subordinate group there, with average income half the level of the dominant group, with poverty rates that were three times higher, with life expectancies that were far less, with one-tenth the average net worth as the dominant group, and all sorts of other disadvantages. The average response increased to $1 million per year. These are the same conditions currently faced by blacks. By not mentioning race and by allowing the respondents to believe they were talking about something else, whites demanded a large amount of compensation, the very same compensation that they were to view as unjustified if blacks in the United States demanded that amount today. So maybe whites are indeed in denial or suffer from simple ignorance.  But there is an experiment that Tim Wise performs at his workshops to see if being naive is the case, he asks them if they knew that there was a pill they could take, that when taken would cause those they don’t already to perceive them as black, would they take it? To their friends, family and all who knew them they would still appear white, but to newly encountered people like  police officers, bank officials, potential employers or one’s teachers they would appear black. Not one student wanted to take the pill, not one. He has asked this question several hundred times and he never gets an affirmative response.


Next week, Chapter 4-Resistance.