This past Thursday, UVM welcomed Tim Wise, one of the nation’s most captivating and brilliant active anti-racism figures to its campus. Tim Wise, author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White, has spoken at over 400 college campuses, and has trained a variety of professionals in ways to effectively rid their institutions of racist practices.
Mr. Wise delivered a gripping presentation to approximately 60 attentive audience members, focusing on the many, and often times subtle, manifestations of racism in our country today.
According to Mr. Wise, the typical manner in which anti-racism discussions progress, in a setting which aims at increasing each participant’s awareness, is by launching straight into a watered-down talk of “diversity.”
The reason this term is so void of meaning, so approximate with respect to the real issue, as Mr. Wise explains, is four-fold.
What emerges in many discussions and focus groups brought together to evaluate “diversity” is an emphasis on the “other.” The discussion implicitly focuses it’s attention on the minority group, and never is the “norm group,” or dominant group interrogated or examined.
Secondly, a focus on diversity has a way of concentrating merely on the numbers or representations of each minority in a given medium (i.e. town, college campus, private company), while ignoring the overall climate of this medium, thereby marginalizing the individuals.
Mr. Wise described Dubuque, Iowa as a town in which citizens once sought to integrate their population by literally advertising in newspapers to neighboring cities, Chicago and Milwaukee, expressing their desire for persons of color in their town.
However, without properly training their officials in law enforcement, schools, and employers in ways to accommodate these minorities, those few persons of color that did come to Dubuque entered into a climate which was far from receptive.
By neglecting to examine the climate as a whole, and instead focusing merely on the numbers, those minorities were effectively excluded from the town to which they migrated.
Mr. Wise commented that a diversity-oriented mindset can be reduced to what he terms, “Food, Fabrics, and Festival.” “In this situation,” as he stated, “people ask questions like, `what do these people eat?’ or `how do these people celebrate their holidays?'”
What is problematic about this is the way in which it estranges these cultures, yet does not examine the culture in power, the norm.
Mr. Wise pointed out that a discussion on diversity begs of a prior question, “How did we become so non-diverse in the first place?”
The issue these talks ought to seek to examine, according to Mr. Wise, is racism. Racist practices today are ones usually not blatantly obvious and bigoted, but rather consist of subtle institutional practices of the dominant white society, such as job application processing on the basis of color, racial profiling practiced by law enforcement agencies in conjunction with the war on drugs, and discriminatory housing application processes.
“The flip-side of those who suffer the effects of racism is people of privilege,” Mr. Wise stated. The term “privilege” is an interesting choice, as he put it, “it is both relative and passive. It does not address how these people came to be underprivileged. All it says is `there is privilege, and there you are under it.’ And what is relative to under? Over.”
In this way the term implies that there exists an over-privileged people, but it is not a term used by many, including the creators of the Microsoft word dictionary. Mr. Wise commented on the inherent absurdity of Microsoft’s unfamiliarity with the term “over-privileged.”
Later in the day, Mr. Wise conducted a workshop with students to provide a framework for future discussions on race in which they might engage. Students of different ethnic backgrounds shared personal experiences, emotions, and insights with each other and with Mr. Wise, providing for an enlightening and productive engagement for all.
To learn more about Tim Wise and to gain access to a variety of his articles, go to (www.TimWise.org).