I am about to give my thoughts on “White Like Me” a book written by the US-American Tim Wise (visit his website here), who is, like me, white, and does, like me, reflect upon issues of racism and raciality. I’ll say it upfront: I thought it was a very good book. And here is why:
The thing about racism is that it is not a one-way street. Racism does not only affect non-white people – it also affects white people. It isn’t something that only upsets non-white people – it also upsets a lot of white people.
However, there are dividing lines that racism creates: It is a system that oppresses non-white people and privileges white people. While non-white people are usually very aware of this system, a lot of white people pretend not to be. All of this is part of the system – it only works so well, because it so skillfully masks its own existence and allows all those profiting from it – white people all over the world – to deny its existence, or at the least ignore it. That makes a lot of the discussion concerning racism difficult: How do you discuss something that deeply affects you with someone who denies the very existence of that said something?
In a twofold way that lies at the very core of this book: On the one hand it is wonderful to see other white people “seeing” it and “naming” it, because on the other very horrible hand, people who deny or ignore racism and its effects usually discard any critical discussion of the subject if initiated by black people or people of color (which are the terms I will use henceforth, since non-white is really a horrible label). That leaves us with the paradox that Gayatri Spivak pointed out consequentially in discussing the “subaltern’s voice” and the appropriation of it: It is a good thing, that those whose voices are discarded and are not heard are pointed at, emphasized and might finally get a listen, on the other hand, it is terrible that a white person does so and thereby perpetuates racist structures.
Tim Wise’s book falls into that paradoxical situation, but also, in part, it does not. Because what ultimately makes the book so rewarding and important, is stressing how racism is not a only a power hierarchy that serves white people and oppresses basically everyone else, but that also is in place to ensure sexist and classist oppression of white people, because it creates crude white identities that are perpetually told to join and identify with the “white side of things” because this very identification helps an elite to defend its privileges without sharing them – neither with black people, people of color or white people that they don’t associate with. But by creating that dividing line and making it seem relevant they obscure and hide the oppression they exert and divert attention to causes that actually don’t lie at the heart of matters.
The central points one can learn from this book are
A- Racism does exist and is prevalent. We cannot escape it, no matter what color we identify with. By being white we are oppressors by default.
B- We do not have to accept and perpetuate racist structures. It is crucial to become aware of them, it is crucial to listen to those who suffer from them.
C- Racism will not just be done away with. It needs the effort of everyone involved – and that is basically everyone on this planet – to be aware of the racist pitfalls that exist in our diverse cultures and to resist them. Call them out, speak up against them.
D- As a white person it should be your interest to resist racism and racist structures, because: how horrible to perpetuate something so brutal and dehumanizing without even being aware of it and furthermore because: it most likely serves to oppress you in many ways as well. Issues of “race” are never disconnected from everything else, there are strong and dangerous intersections between racism and issues of gender, sexuality, class, ability and political participation.
I have three issues with this book though.
Tim Wise’s repeated use of the term “brown folks” and my unfamiliarity with it actually made this thing a non-issue or rather an educational issue, because now, thanks to some online research, I learned about the usage of “brown” for empowerment of those identifying thus. You can learn about that here.
It is a book about the United States and primarily for people in the United States. The whole dynamic of black and white is very different in the US than it is in Germany, because historically societies took different paths. A lot of the racist structures in place in Germany are very similar to those in the US, but some are very distinct due to the concentration of racist efforts in Germany on people who “look Arabic” as opposed to primarily focusing on black people. That makes for constructions that you won’t find in the book, but it does in no way mean that the issues mentioned therein do not affect German society – on the contrary.
There is a chapter about speaking up against racism when one encounters it and enter into arguments. While I thought it was very valuable and interesting I would have wished for a little more anecdotal stuff on how to behave when friends and family utter racist notions. Because that – for me personally – is the hardest part. Do I want to enter an hour-long fight on the issue or will I just ignore the remark. To my own shame, and make no mistake, shame it is, I often chicken out and do the latter. Because I can, because I still don’t really know better – intellectually maybe, emotionally not. And of course that is the dangerous part.
The book is always relevant, but curiously there is a funny “current relevance” to it, in that the version I read had an epilogue, an open letter to the US-society, concerning the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 by US officials. Tim Wise claims that how things went down had a lot to do with racism and white privilege (and I believe him), while George Bush Jr. just recently said the worst moment of his presidency was when rapper Kanye West named him a racist, because he thought that racism informed a lot of the actions (or rather non-action) taken in the days and weeks after the Hurricane had hit New Orleans. Interestingly, and sadly, Kany West backtracked and says he regrets the comment – that I consider to be very valid – because of the way people accused him of being “reversely racist” after the VMA incident with Taylor Swift. And yes: WTF, really? We’ll get to the issue – or rather the myth – of “reverse racism” somewhen in the future though.
As I mentioned above: The book is awesome. Get your hands on it, especially if you are white and especially if you think that racism is really not that much of an issue and does not affect you. It does.