Saturday, 8 February 2014

Tim Wise

I was clearing out my old, dormant Facebook account before deleting it, and I came across a few notes that I had written years ago, including this one about Tim Wise's Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. Unfortunately I didn't notice what date this was written before I deleted it, and honestly my first instinct was to roll my eyes and delete it permanently. But then I changed my mind. It's good to have a record of one's own feelings and thoughts, no matter how misguided!

It's not like Tim Wise doesn't make good, relevant points in his book (from what I've written here, anyway), so I'm not embarrassed about the understanding I took from it. I am embarrassed that I didn't even think about the implications of the positioning of a white man as a pioneer of anti-racism, and about the fact that it sounds like I hadn't come across these ideas before elsewhere. 

The worst thing to realise is that Wise's whiteness was so unremarkable to me that I didn't even bother mentioning it. I write about my own relation to racism and my privilege in not having to think about it, but I don't extend that thinking to Wise, in either a positive or negative way. 

I just looked up its publication date and these words are at most 4 years old. I thought better of 4-year-old me. Anyway, here it is, in all its insightful glory.

I read a review of this on one of the blogs that I keep an eye on, and while my tastes in non-fiction tend toward things that I feel more personally about, I felt I couldn't pass this one up. It took ages to arrive (I got it from The Book Depository for about £5 less than it's going for on Amazon) but it was definitely worth the wait. 
I find myself trying to justify my what I said about feeling 'personally' about an issue. There's no justification - racism, racial politics, white privilege and social injustice should be personal to all of us. If I am more interested in reading books about gender and sexuality, that's because I have the privilege of not having to be affected by racism every day. That's selfish, sure, but it's still personal. All of us, of any race, should feel strongly and personally about racism - it is a strong and dangerous issue that isn't going anywhere soon. 
So back to the book. Color-Blind is very US-focused - Wise is specifically interested in what is referred to as the 'age of Obama' and the prevalent American narrative that having elected a black president, the USA is now post-racial. Wise interrogates the drive behind the rhetoric of post-racial politics and so-called 'color-blindness', exposing the danger of such narratives and their likely result of making America more, not less, racist. 
It's a really interesting argument. Wise uses relevant and damning facts and figures to argue that racism is ingrained in American life, and that calling America post-racial is a cowardly and disingenuous move designed to force open and honest discussion about racism into the dark corners of society. Some fascinating research has been done into conscious and unconscious bias. Wise illustrates how bias is often exposed when discussion of the issue isn't present - so, for example, a person is more likely to reveal racial bias if racism as a topic isn't introduced into the discussion. It follows that racist practices in employment, housing, education and health are more likely to occur if there isn't honest acknowledgment of racism, not just between individuals but in policy-making and policy itself. Colour-blindness treats poverty, for example, as a race-free problem which should therefore be dealt with in a race-free way - the argument being that blanket poverty-relief laws will lift all boats equally, regardless of race. But if racism is written into America in the way that Wise argues that it is, colour-blind poverty relief will not be enough to narrow the statistical gaps (in wealth, health, education, housing and employment) between whites and non-whites in America. 
As I've already said, it's easy to dismiss this issue as something that isn't relevant to me, particularly since this book is so US-centric. And it's even easier to read it and say, phew, at least England isn't like that! There goes my white privilege again. It would be really interesting to see a similar study of UK laws and practices. I suspect we wouldn't be as comfortable as we think we are. Regardless of my location and my race, this book resonated with me and made me much more aware of the problems inherent in colour-blindness. 
Anyway. I just wanted to get my thoughts about this book down somewhere, and who knows, maybe someone else would like to read it as well. You can get it pretty cheaply online or, if I like you enough, I'll lend you my copy :-)

Whatever my knowledge of racism is now - and it will be no less irrelevant than it was then - at least nowadays I take my cue from people of colour, and privilege their voices over the voices of people like me. 

I recommend all the voices at the links below as great starting points.
Trudy at Gradient Lair
Red Light Politics (Flavia Dzodan)
Black Girl Dangerous (Mia McKenzie and others)

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