Carmen Van Kerckhove: One of the choices you seem to have made is to really work with other white people. When it comes to anti-racism work, it seems like white folks sometimes end up in kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, where I think if they seem too actively involved, there’s this sense that maybe they’re trying to, you know, take things over from people of color. But then, it just seems like it’s a little bit tough to negotiate a space in which you can really do work and not create any sort of negative reactions to that. So what have you found to have worked for you personally and among other white racism activists that you know? What advice do you have to white people who are listening to this who want to get involved in this work?
Tim Wise: First it’s to accept that you will screw up. I mean, I screw up on a pretty regular basis, and I think that’s part of doing this work, particularly if you’re a member of the dominant group fighting a system of oppression from which you, at least in relative terms, benefit, there’s always gonna be questions. And I think they’re good questions. I think it’s perfectly valid for folks of color to wonder just what the hell am I up to, and what the hell are other white folks up to, doing this work.
I get that. I wouldn’t trust me either if I was in that situation. But ultimately—and I think women who wonder why men are doing anti-sexism work have every reason in the world to ask that question—I’d be worried if folks weren’t asking it. What I do hope, however, is that those of us who are white, when we do the work, and we get challenged, that we don’t, just sort of, give up.
I mean, what I see a lot of times is white folks, when they get challenged on this, when they get some of that push-back from people of color, who frankly have no reason to trust what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, it’s like we almost think, “Well how ungrateful!” You know?
And I think that’s because a lot of white folks come to this work with the mentality that we’re doing it for other people. And, one of the things I learned doing community organizing, working in public housing in New Orleans for about fifteen months with a great organization down there called Agenda for Children, that was connected to the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which does anti-racism training, was that they really taught me—and I haven’t figured it all out—but they taught me the importance of accountability, and trying to be responsive, and responsible to, people of color, understanding that ultimately we want to follow the lead of people of color, but that we’re not doing it for them. . . .
For those of us who are white, I think the way we can remain responsible and accountable is to have an accountability network. Now, it’s easier to have that, perhaps, if you’re doing grassroots activist work. Nowadays, that’s not the work I do. As a writer and someone who speaks around the country, it’s been a lot harder for me, in all honesty, to have a strong accountability network. So what I try to do is make sure that when I write something, I send it out before I ever post it or publish it anywhere, I send it out to several hundred people, both people of color in grassroots situations and organizations, as well as white allies. I ask for feedback, I ask for criticism, and I’m always open to that even after it’s published. I’ll go back and change something in an article if it’s problematic, if some way that I said something is messed up in someone’s mind, or if they didn’t think I said it quite as well as I could’ve, I’ll go back and rework it.
In fact, I did that with the entire book, White Like Me. There were some, I think, very valid criticisms of the initial volume, and some of the things that I left out, some of the ways that I said certain things. I actually went back and fundamentally changed the book, because I wanted to make the book, of course, as strong as it could be, but I also wanted to reflect the notion of accountability, that if I’ve done something that is not helpful, or done something which wasn’t as helpful as it could’ve been, I want to go back and try to rework that, and try to get better at it.
And accountability’s never going to be perfect, but I think part of being accountable is being open, making yourself open, exposing yourself to that kind of critique, and then taking it really seriously when it comes in. It doesn’t mean that every criticism’s valid, and there’s some people who are just not going to want to see white folks do this kind of work at all, and that’s fine. For me, I always come back to the fact that in the end that I’m not doing this for people of color. I’m fighting racism and white supremacy because I think it fundamentally diminishes my humanity. I think it diminishes me, I think it diminishes my family, I think it ultimately puts me, and the entire country and the entire world at risk.
So I don’t really need permission to fight a system that I think diminishes me and I think may destroy all of us. But I think, permission or no permission, I do want to try to be accountable, and I want to be listening to what people of color are saying, following their lead, not dictating the agenda. Not going in and saying, “Well, the issue here is obviously A, B,or C,” when in fact people of color might say, “No, the issue is D, E, or F.” And I have to be open to learning and listening as much as teaching and speaking, and I think that is what white folks can keep in mind as they go forward.
[Transcribed from a preview of Addicted to Race Premium, which you can subscribe to here. Hat-tip to Why Am I Not Surprised? for the "quotation of the week" idea.]