Tim Wise and activists focus on racism, white privilege at Stanford event

“If you don’t see yourself as bound up with the lives of other people, I’m not sure what kind of help you can be,” author and anti-racism activist Tim Wise recently told a Stanford audience.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans a dozen years ago, natural forces weren’t the biggest cause of flooding: a misallocation of government resources left the levees unprepared for the rising floodwaters.

People rushed into New Orleans from all over the country, armed with their good intentions. Tim Wise, a prominent voice on racism, inequality and white privilege, remembered seeing them at the airports, arriving in T-shirts that advertised their volunteer activities.

“Why do you need to have a T-shirt?” he mused, noting that the slogans and motivation didn’t match the racial and economic realities they would meet. The media had delivered them to the catastrophe, he recently told a Stanford audience. “All of them were well-intended because they had seen people in desperate pain.”

The mismatch spotlights what Wise calls “the charitable mindset rather than the solidarity mindset.”

“If you don’t see yourself as bound up with the lives of other people, I’m not sure what kind of help you can be,” he explained.

Sally Dickson honored

Wise was the keynote speaker on Monday, May 8, for the second annual Sally Dickson Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection. The title of the event, which included a panel discussion with several local and national activists, was “Bridges Over Troubled Waters: Engaging Allies in Times of Crisis.”

The Sally Dickson Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection was created in 2015 by Greg Boardman, Stanford’s vice provost for student affairs, to honor Dickson’s contributions. As the former associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of educational resources, Dickson was dedicated to community-building and engagement among students, faculty and staff.
In his introduction of Wise, Boardman noted that his relationship with Wise dates back 30 years, since the activist was a student at Tulane University, where Boardman was an administrator. He recalled Wise’s participation in the South African divestment movement at Tulane, which eventually led Archbishop Desmond Tutu to decline an honorary degree from the New Orleans university when Wise’s group told him of the university’s investments in companies that did business with the apartheid regime.

Described as one of America’s great public moralists, a prophet and a storyteller, Wise grew up in Nashville, where he now lives after a decade in New Orleans. The South’s legendary preaching style informs his cadences and rapid-fire delivery, both on display in a galvanizing and largely extemporaneous talk.  His newest book, White Lies Matter: Race, Crime and the Politics of Fear in America, is forthcoming this year.
Wise says we often focus on what to do, rather than why we’re doing it. The motivation for helping often goes unexamined: “If we don’t understand why we want to be allies, or why we aspire to that label, we can be very dangerous. Our motivation will inform our tactics. Our motivation will affect our willingness to persist in the face of pushback.” Pushback occurs, for example, when we face intractable obstacles or others who question our motives.

Wise talked about the opioid epidemic, which has resulted in 300,000 deaths in the last 15 years, accompanied by rising mortality rates among middle-aged whites, the only group in which rates are rising. These are “deaths of despair,” Wise said.

“Think of what an opioid is, pharmacologically. It has one function; to stop pain.” Hence, the election of our current president, whom Wise described as “a walking, talking, breathing opiate. Like a real opiate, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

He suggested that the pain it attempts to assuage is the death of the American ethos, which emphasizes that individual effort is rewarded, and that if you work hard, all will be well. “White folks bought it,” Wise said, and so were unprepared with the “irony of inequality,” when the system stopped rewarding them. The consequence was despair and self-blame. However, “people of color never had the luxury of believing in meritocracy.”

He said, “Black folks weren’t shocked by Katrina.” For people of color, “it wasn’t the first time they’d been displaced. Displacement has always occurred – usually not on live television.”  However, the people of the mostly white St. Bernard Parish, which was across the road from the Lower Ninth Ward and also suffered major devastation from the broken levees, couldn’t believe it would happen to them, Wise recalled.

Panel discussion

After his keynote, Wise joined a panel discussion with Shakti Butler, a filmmaker and founder and president of World Trust; Jeff Chang, executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts; and Marisa Franco, director of Mijente and of Not1More Deportation. The panel was moderated by Aimee Allison, senior vice president of PowerPAC+ and a Stanford alumna.

Allison noted that the discussion was timely, since you can’t go on Facebook or Twitter “without race bubbling up as a frame and driver in our nation and world.” She noted that California has a majority of people of color and that in 30 years, the rest of the nation will have followed suit.

Butler said that schools encourage and reward those with the quickest answers, but now Americans need better questions to “move from where we are into the unknown.”

One member of the audience asked the panel whether fighting privilege is a zero-sum game.

“Privilege is zero in a microcosmic moment,” Wise answered. “It’s zero sum on Wednesday, at a particular moment. By definition, white dudes are going to get less.” However, he said, “the overall net sum of opportunities is larger, in an economy that is more capacious.”

He noted that many white men felt threatened by the expansion of opportunities that resulted from the civil rights movement.

“If you’re used to having everything, equality feels like oppression,” he said. The privileged have to relinquish the “extra equal opportunity” – something they were never entitled to in the first place. He noted that America is a better nation than it was 50 years ago.

Privilege is not only the purview of whites. Chang acknowledged that Asian Americans benefit from privilege in some spheres. But he appealed to “minority” communities to work together to form what he called “a new majority.”

Asked by an audience member how one can overcome the fear of doing something wrong in the effort to be an ally, Franco urged everyone to take risks and “get into the game – that’s where you’re going to learn.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs and the Diversity and First-Generation Office.