There’s a discussion at livejournal community debunkingwhite that raises some questions about the practice of white anti-racists like Tim Wise. I had an email conversation with Mr. Wise a few years ago (late 2004). The conversation didn’t start with the issues raised over there, but got into some of them anyway. I feel an inner push to put out into the intertubes what he wrote. So I made this blog. I’m pasting his comments below, with the context of the comments in italics. *Please note that all the dots/ellipses (…) are from his original comments, and do not represent any editing by me.*
Context: I only knew of Mr. Wise through reading some of his writings. I had written to him to thank him for a piece he wrote criticizing the claimed need for “safe space” for white people. We got into a discussion in which I told him I was struggling to figure out how to fight white supremacy. I was working with a people of color led organization but was feeling like I should maybe also be working in a more white context with other white people also. But, I said, I didn’t feel like I should do that from an facilitator/educator-type role.
“well i think it is vital that whites who do this work, be involved with other whites. it is not enough to work with people of color…we have to also work with out own people, as difficult as that is, and as much more rewarding as it can be to work with people of color…white supremacy is such that only whites, at this point, can often reach other whites with an antiracist message, so i do think that has to be part of the work, as does the part about working with POC, which you are already doing. It’s both…Only you can decide how to challenge other whites though, and certainly the role you choose doesn’t have to be the classic facilitator/educator role, though if done correctly and with accountability to people of color, that isn’t necessarily a bad role to play…”
Context: I had also mentioned, in parentheses and without asking a question or seeking Tim’s commentary on this, that when I said “work” in this discussion I meant unpaid work, as I did not believe I should benefit materially or status-wise from fighting this system. I was only referring to myself in this parenthetical statement.
“Well, I understand what you;’re saying here, though I think we have to be careful about the notion that by not getting paid for doing movement work that we’re somehow really doing something that is self sacrificing or noble. First, let me be honest. This is the work I do for a living and have done for 15 years. It is what I get paid to do. One can find that distasteful I suppose, but the alternative is that I do some other “straight” job to survive, receive white privilege in the doing of that job too (whatever it would be), and only get to do antiracism on the side, in my spare time, etc. Now, would that be better for the movement? I dunno…I doubt it. I would be getting paid in that case not to fight white supremacy but for doing a job that no doubt would likely further it (any regular job would do that of course), and the 20,000-30,000 people per year who currently hear me speak around the country wouldn’t, and the millions who read my articles wouldn’t. Now, if I really thought that by stepping back, al that work, money and attention would go to the deserving people of color out there, I would do it, but it wouldn’t. The places I am brought in to speak are mostly places where it is very clear, I am being used as the one who will come in and plant some seeds, hit white folks for the first time with a white antiracist message, and thereby make it possible for the institution in question to then bring in POC for follow up work, where the mesage can be furthered, deepened, etc. If I don’t come in, which I certainly couldn’t do if I wasn’t getting paid, then those institutions likely don’t do any events, speeches, trainings, etc., at all, which means not just less work for me, but less work for the amazing antiracist experts of color, who my work supports and whose work supports me.
Likewise, if other whites, yourself included, resolve not to get paid for fighting WS, does that mean you will live in voluntary poverty, or will you get some kind of job in the regular labor market? I’m guessing the latter of these, in which case, you’ll be doing some kind of job that either directly or indirectly furthers white supremacy, as any occupation I can think of does in some way, or you’ll perhaps work in some activist capacity but not on race issues (for fear that you’d be profiting off of the struggle), but in that case, by not addressing racism in whatever activist formation did pay you, you’d be perpetuating it there too…in other words, in this culture one can either get paid to perpetuate and collaborate with White supremacy or one can get paid to fight it, and of course, doiing the latter does–as with everything–perpetuate it as well to an extent, but at least we can then work full time on the monster. I don’t think this is for everyone, but I don’t think we can afford to take a complete hands off position on it either. I would think it best for folks to fight WS within whatever job they have, but at the same time, for some whites to also work full time on this issue, thereby reaching those whites in “regular” jobs with the analysis, information , etc which they just wouldn’t receive otherwise.
This of course could all be self interested on my part, but I know that with few exceptions, the people of color with whom I interact regularly on these matters are glad that there are some white folks whose full time work is fighting racism–as long as we;re quick to give credit to the POC to whom it’s due, and to make sure the people we reach are being exposed to POC ideas on racism, either thru writings, speeches, the arts, etc., and that the “wealth” so to speak (and there isn’t much of that) is being shared by turning folks on to the grassroots groups and activists who do this work every day on the ground and in communities…”
Note 1: I’m going to put some of my musings on all this in comments below this post.
Note 2 – update: my third comment led me to send Mr. Wise an email (to the address listed on his website). My email said:
You and I had a discussion in late 2004 that I recently revisited. In response to a livejournal discussion last week (I am not on livejournal but it was a public discussion), I made a wordpress blog and posted parts of what you wrote, along with my comments/perspective on it. There is a link on that post to the LJ discussion as well.
I have been using the comments field as a space to keep thinking out loud, and my third comment-reflection led me back to contacting you. Hence this email.
The wordpress link is: https://heatedfeets.wordpress.com/2008/03/25/because-i-have-this-information/
The debunkingwhite discussion is linked there, as mentioned, and my comments are below the initial post.
If you or anyone else is willing to answer the questions I pose in my third comment down, use the comment function and I will post those on that site (comments are moderated).
Note 3 – update: Tim Wise responded via email and I posted about it in this comment here
Note 4 -update: My wrap-up reflections are in this comment here
Note 5 – update: Okay, if you would like to get a copy of the email Mr. Wise sent to me and don’t want to have to deal with emailing him directly, contact me at heatedfeets at gmail dot com and I will forward it. see Note 6.
Note 6 – update: I decided to post the full text of his email reply to me — it’s here.