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Tirade Tuesday: Tim Wise and the Problem with Allies

This interview was posted on Racialicious yesterday where Tim Wise explains his involvement in anti-racist activism.

Tim Wise is the epitome of what is wrong with "allies." Allies often forget what is probably the most important part of their activism - they are supposed to support, not lead. Here are some of the troubling statements that Wise made in his interview (also, this post is not just limited to anti-racist allies, I think that the arrogance and privilege that Wise shows is something that many allies display).

Wise's Statement: So as I was trying to figure out what I might be able to do to support the cause of social justice, I pretty quickly came to realize that my only two skills were writing and speaking.

This statement not only reeks of white privilege, but it contains so much male privilege as well. "Writing and speaking" puts Wise at the forefront of anti-racist activism, not in a supporting role. He is currently the face of the movement. Also, if he really were interested in confronting and not repeating history, he would realize that white men are often given credit for the work of people of color and that the statement he made is extremely privileged. White men have a long history of using "writing and speaking" to stifle PoC's voices. White men are also seen as being smarter and more rational than people of color, so by contributing his "writing and speaking," to the movement, he is confirming this racist belief that many people have.

People of color have been "writing and speaking" and doing so much anti-racism work for centuries, and although Wise claims that he understands why it's problematic that a white man is being given credit for this activism, he still continues to write hundreds of books, essays, and lectures about anti-racism and profit off of the work of activists of color.

Wise's Statement: Now, as for the issue of how my work might be crowding out people of color, obviously, it’s possible that my voice, by way of being amplified — on campus, or in the media, etc — might crowd out people of color doing the work. But there is also another possibility, and it’s what I hear from people of color is happening on the campuses and in the communities I visit. And that is, my voice appears to be helping whites in these places open up in classes taught by these people of color. Hearing me speak, or reading something of mine in the syllabus appears to make them more willing to engage respectfully with the professor of color, and the rest of the syllabus, most all of which is material written by folks of color. Now, on the one hand, this is incredibly fucked up, that it should take a white person to validate people of color in the eyes of white folks. But to the extent that’s a reality, we have to deal with it.

So now, Wise is congratulating himself for making white people speak up in classes taught by PoC (thanks to _like_weeds for pointing this out), which is an issue because white people should be listening to people of color when it comes to racial issues, not the other way around. Yes, he does acknowledge that this is fucked up, but he continues to do it and then make excuse after excuse for why the world needs him. Also, this passage has an undertone of "people of color should be happy that I'm reaching out to white people because if I didn't, no one would listen to them!"

And this is also another problem with "allies." They do a lot of self-congratulating and patting themselves on the back for "getting it." This statement by Wise is full of that.

There was some legitimate criticism of Wise raised in the comments of the Racialicious post, and he responded by saying:

I totally get what you’re saying. In my case, I gotta say, my copping to these skills is seriously, straight up, because those are the only ones I have. Ask anyone, and they’ll confirm it. It’s not some convenient cop out I use so I can keep getting attention. I mean, I tried every other role there is: organizer, fundraiser, media liaison, you name it, and I straight sucked at it. My passion for the work didn’t translate into skill.

Basically, Wise is explaining that he "sucks" at doing the hard and mostly unpraised labor. It is more appropriate for him to do the "writing and speaking," which gives him a more visible position in the movement. The organizers, fundraisers, etc. are often ignored, and it's so convenient that Wise thinks this is the most appropriate way for him to contribute to anti-racism. After all, white men are notorious for being at the forefront of and getting credit for PoC activism, so of course his place would be in a role that allows him to be more noticeable.

The fact that he feels he is needed to contribute at all to anti-racism also has to do with his privileges. He is a white man, so he has been taught since birth that his opinions matter and are more important than a PoC's voice. He claims that this is not a cop-out, but I'm failing to see how it isn't one.

Further down in his explanation, Wise basically challenges people to prove that he is stifling the voices of PoC. He then says that It is a mere ad hominem and needs to be evaluated by the same standards of evidence and analysis that we would use for any other claim, on any other issue. It is not enough to assume that it happens.< fact is…I do highlight people of color in my work. I quote scholarship by POC, I refer people to primary source material composed by POC, I refer folks directly to grass roots organizations led by POC. I agree totally that that is a key role of white antiracists, and I do that in every speech, all my books, on my own website, etc.

He is right, the key role of white anti-racist activists should be to direct white people to the work of PoC, but at the same, like I mentioned earlier, he has written hundreds of books, essays, and performed many lectures on this subject. He is doing way more than redirecting white people to the work of people of color. When a white person is the face of the anti-racism movement, then clearly, that white person did not defer to PoC properly but instead overstepped their boundaries. Also, from what I've read and seen of him, he merely refers to PoC in passing.

Tim Wise doesn't know his place as an "ally." Once he saw that he was becoming more popular as an anti-racist activist, he could have made it a bigger point to direct white people to the literature of PoC, but he didn't. He's profiting off of work that PoC have been doing for centuries. He continues to do this, and he's still going at it today. The least he can do is incorporate more PoC voices into his work. He's leading, not supporting, and the fact that he won't sit the fuck down has a lot to do with him being a white man and thinking that he's entitled to be involved in anti-racism. A lot of "allies" have a strong sense of entitlement, as if people of a marginalized group that they're trying to "help" should welcome them with open arms and that it's their right to be involved. This comes from having privilege and being constantly told by society that "I'm white, my voice matters" "I'm a man, my voice matters," etc.

I know that there are many people who love and/or appreciate him, but I just can't get behind someone as pompous and self-congratulatory as him. I was willing to give Wise the benefit of a doubt, but that interview seriously made me dislike him more. The sense of entitlement, the flimsy excuses, the unintentional (or maybe even intentional) waving around of his privilege makes this interview insufferable. Also, the way that Andrea Plaid, the interviewer, characterized the very valid and important criticism of Wise as "hateration" is dismissive and gross.

This interview also makes me question what Wise's true intentions are. For someone who is trying to be a PoC "ally," he sure gets defensive whenever a PoC challenges and points out the problems with his "activism." For someone who claims to understand why a white man being the face of the anti-racist movement is fucked up, he sure loves the fame and fortune that he's getting, as opposed to the many PoC who did this work unnoticed and free of charge. For someone who claims that race relations in the U.S. needs to change, he sure loves repeating history and making sure that PoC know their place (which is, of course, beneath intelligent, well-meaning, Nice Guys like himself).

Please STOP validating him, and please STOP congratulating him for "getting it". It just adds fuel to his fire and makes him churn out even more appropriated material.

I wrote this (except for the parts I linked to). This is kind of a tirade, so the writing style isn't formal. It's also still Tuesday where I'm at, so I hope I made it in time!
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